If you’ve paid attention to my urgent, poetic recaps of American Idol, you know we’ve arrived at my favorite time of year: the live(-ish) semifinal where a couple dozen singers with edgy haircuts and/or edgy midriff-baring tops (or both, if you’re edgy-edgy Marrialle Sellars) beg you to dial things on their behalf. It’s the esteemed Top 30 round — or as I’ve long called it, The “How Can This Be The Best Of The Best When Everybody Was Forgettable, Nervous, and Named Something Stupid?” Round. My favorite.
But I didn’t count such a stupid gimmick creeping its way into the festivities. Though 15 women qualified to perform on Tuesday’s show, only 10 would be allowed on air thanks to a mysterious prescreening round where Harry Connick Jr, Jennifer Lopez, and Paul McCartney Disguised As Sheryl Crow In The “Soak Up the Sun” Video (a.k.a. Keith Urban) vetoed five candidates without warning. We dropped from 15 lady singers to 10 without so much as a live onstage execution. Seems a waste. And yet I’m too underwhelmed to remember the deserted five singers’ names. Hooray! Our boy Adam Lambert also appeared alongside Chris Daughtry as a mentor figure for the 30 contestants, and he’s still working that George Michael-meets-Leather Tuscadero look we all appreciate. Wouldn’t kick him out of bed for singing “Father Figure” to the Fonz.
Here are the 10 performances and my all-too-specific feelings about them.
Majesty Rose: It weirds me out that this turned out to be one of the most commanding performances of the night since Majesty’s wide-eyed, unassumingly cute rendition of “Happy” isn’t anybody’s idea of a triumph. It was fun. She is fun. Just ask the flower in her hair and the happenin’ rhinestone glint in her eye. And she chose an Oscar-nominated song, which means she might be vying for my attention. (Do “Nobody Does It Better” next time, darling!) Naturally the dame was on pitch because she always is, but Majesty didn’t quite come alive with this song. She wasn’t a Trajesty, but she was honestly kind of a Mehjesty. Ugh.
Kristen O’Connor: I used to hate Simon Cowell for cryptically dismissing certain performances as “karaoke” since I’d almost rather Idol be called Karaoke Deathmatch and just own the amateur night stigma, but this performance? This was merely a competent performance you could’ve heard in Duets. Slightly better than Gwyneth’s “Bette Davis Eyes” but not as touching as Maria Bello’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Right in that tricky middle ground. It’s easy to feel like a cynic when criticizing Kristen since Jennifer has really hammered us with transparent propaganda about her potential and star power, but Kristen’s rendition of “Turning Tables” just lacked gravitas. Meaning. Skyfall grandeur. “Not as good as Adele!” doesn’t sound like a valid complaint, but you have to conjure some connection to the lyrics, and I couldn’t hear that. And by the way? I must boo Harry Connick for his boring diplomacy when grading this performance. “I’m looking forward to seeing how this turns out, for sure!” he said. I’m yawning, for sure.
Briana Oakley: Briana rules (ruled?), but she’s got all the charisma of a nervous student council president. “I definitely think my need for perfection gets in the way!” she chirped like Tracy Flick during her consultation with odious guffawing ghoul Randy Jackson. A little annoying, Briana. And worse, her performance was one of the most forgettable of the evening. “Warrior” is what she sang, I guess, but all I remember of of it is Keith afterwards comparing her voice to Irene Cara’s. What a feeling! Of apathy.
Jena Asciutto: This is officially the second performance of “Paint It Black” on American Idol that left me baffled and a little stink-eyed. Yeah, I dig Jena’s quavery wail (some Jo Anne Worley “Woah-oh-OH-oh-OH!”s in there!), but a couple of great notes couldn’t overcome the fact that “Paint It Black” is too gritty and carnal for Jena. Which is pronounced GEENA of course, because Jena is here to be painful. Remember when Siobhan Magnus from season 9 sang this and unleashed a final screech that murdered cats? Jena could’ve used a bit of that unpredictable exhibitionism, even if her voice is the most distinct and potentially most listenable in season 13.
Bria Anai: I recall enjoying Bria’s wild, hokey gesticulations. She’s the one who was acting like Bugs Bunny-as-Groucho Marx during her final meeting with the judges. All frantic and big eyes and Tex Avery-approved. Loved that. But then I collected the following soundbites from her pre-performance package last night, and now she’s my least favorite living noun. “I think this workshop is going to confirm the artist that I am,” she began. “My mom tells me I dress like an appropriate Rihanna,” she added. “Everyone else is like, ‘Oh my Gosh, I’m so tired.’ I’m just like, ‘I want more!’” she concluded. So that’s arrogance, slut-shaming, and condescension in a span of 40 seconds. Hire her, Fox News! Her weirdly bad performance of “Wrong Side of a Love Song” ached me yesterday, and that’s probably because it only got worse as it powered up to a disappointing conclusion. “Shouting” is what she was doing, and Harry called that out in his first burst of serious candor. Good for him and mankind, because Bria was on her way to believing she was the “classy” Rihanna.
Marrialle Sellars: It feels like I missed the episode where we fell in love with Marrialle Sellars. Has she ever been cool? She once looked into a camera and said, “I’m going to be the next American Idol” without flinching, and that was treated as cool. (Read: It wasn’t that cool!) And now she’s singing “Roar,” one of my last favorite pom-pom jams of 2013, and baring her midriff and spiking her hair like a heroic Troll doll. I don’t know why her vocal was so bad, but she forfeited pitch control in favor of “charisma” (read: thrust-y stage antics!) and I agreed with J-Lo when she said Marrialle should’ve played guitar to ground her performance. Too bad.
Jessica Meuse: Jessica “Shall I Remind You In A Surly Tone Of Voice That I’m A Singer-Songwriter Again?” Meuse is a fine singer, but — and I know I have complained my way through seven straight paragraphs so far — she should’ve seized the opportunity to do something raw or harsh here. Instead she went the opposite way, performing the tame-bordering-on-static “Drink a Beer” and shrinking away from the bigness of the moment. Not a poor performance, but not a distinct one either. This round demands that. She did bawl onstage when thinking about how wonderful this opportunity was, and that shocked me. Not enough of a shock for me to excuse her dated-ass pink highlights, but close.
Emily Piriz: Hear this: I found this one of the most listenable, pleasing renditions of the night. I do not know who/what a Grace Potter is, but Emily handled her vocal with the precision of a graceful potter. Graceful pottery is what this night all about. Too bad Harry Connick Jr. was absolutely right to point out that Emily didn’t adequately own the content of this song (called “Paris (Ooh La La)”; you can’t perform a song with lyrics like “If I was a man I’d make my move / If I was a blade I’d shave you smooth” without exuding some iota of sexuality, but Emily settled for anodyne listenability over fully embodied showmanship. I want her in the top 10, but I also want her to care about what she’s singing.
MK Nobilette: The thrill of the night? Knowing without a question that M.K. Nobilette turned in the tenderest performance. Exhibit A: Her family wept three basins of pure salt on television. Exhibit B: the gentle, even hushed delivery on John Legend’s “All of Me.” Note that a lyric like “All of me loves all of you” could sound regrettably maudlin, but Nobilette’s sweet, straightforward articulation made the performance a pure joy. And a very, very refined one at that. Yes to lesbian domination in season 13.
Malaya Watson: I thought Malaya was poised to be the next Zoanette, the hustling showman who didn’t give a damn about finding the right key/pitch/lyrics, but it turns out she’s got it a little more together than that: Sure, she brought the dramatic heft of Zoanette’s “Circle of Life” performance from last year, but she also justified her theatricality with a fabulous song choice (Ray Charles’ “Hard Times”) and compellingly bold singing. The grit is on her face. The gleam of stardom is in her braces. She is bringing the orthodontia melodrama, and I love her for it — for now.