American Idol Recap: Sudden Death Takes Forever

Photo: Michael Becker/FOX
American Idol
Episode Title
Semifinalist Round 1
Editor’s Rating

Tonight! It’s a sudden death round, wherein ten women will sing and five will go home. So how does that work? Do we decide? Do the judges? Does the live audience? What the hell is going on here? Ryan throws to Randy to explain the particulars, and here’s how he breaks it down: “Ten girls will sing, five will go home.” Thanks for the clarification, Randy.

(Some clunky host copy reveals that the judges will be making the call tonight. In the very likely event of a tie, Jimmy Iovine will cast the deciding vote. They could also solve the deadlock problem by dismissing Randy’s vote entirely. For years, there has been no reason for Randy Jackson to be here; now there are several very good reasons why he shouldn’t. Four judges is just too many.)

Tonight’s ten is composed of some early front-runners (Teena Torres, Kree Harrison), a clear crowd favorite (Angela Miller), and at least three I’ve never seen (Jenny Beth Willis, Adriana Latonio, Kamaria Owsley). And it’s in front of a live Vegas audience in the theater where they do the Beatles “Love.” (Alas, no cameos from any weird French-Canadian acrobats.)

Jenny Beth Willis is up first. Her name and face do not ring a bell, she is wearing a dress from the 1987 Ann & Nancy Wilson Prom Collection, and she better bring it, which she doesn’t. Her song choice, “Heaven, Heartache & the Power of Love” by Some Country Person I Don’t Feel Like Looking Up, could have been something special, but she’s just not bossy enough to pull it off. Nicki sums it up perfectly: “You could have had so much more fun.” Mariah, who up to this point in the season has behaved like a drag-queen alien doing Eva Gabor in Green Acres, has been startled into attentiveness by Nicki’s runaway popularity, and is suddenly desperate to dispense some intelligent-sounding advice: “I like that you went low on the big note,” she tells Jenny. Of course, now is the exact wrong time to go low on the big note. But Mariah is at least saying things now, so that’s a start. Good-bye, Jenny Beth probably.

Tenna Torres went to Camp Mariah, so she’s about as safe as a person can be. She sings one of those big, showy ballads that I only hear on shows like this, and goes high on all the big notes, which is what a person should be doing at this stage. She’s got a huge voice and a fancy prostitute wig, and she gets me thinking about how lucky Jennifer Hudson was to have gotten Idol exposure at the exact time the producers needed a plus-size belter. I see a similar fate looming for Teena: I predict she’ll come in sixth and then be plucked to play both leads in the Mowry Twins bio-musical. 

Adriana Latonio does Aretha’s “Ain’t No Way,” a song that’s far more soulful than she is. It’s like watching a hapless white person try to put it on for Showtime at the Apollo. For me, it never gets out of first gear, but the judges love it. Maybe you had to be there.

Brandy Hotard looks like 70 percent of the women who have ever competed on The Bachelor, and her voice just isn’t strong enough to overcome it. She sings Travis Tritt’s “Anymore” in giant heels that basically make her stand en pointe. How far are we going to go with women’s heels? At what point are we just going to fold women’s feet back? I propose aggressive heel-control legislation. Nicki tells her she gave her song a “pageant delivery,” and asks why she was smiling when the song is about crying, which is a very good question. Here’s the actual text of Mariah’s critique: “You could have been around like way back in the day as like a country singer that had a beautiful voice and was gorgeous and just did her thing, so just keep those thoughts in mind.” Oh, I think we all will. Ryan asks Brandy why she chose a lost-love song, and she seems to miss the point entirely: “When I’m done with someone, I’m done.” Okay, Hotard: So sing THAT song. There are a million of that song!

Instead of any biographical information in Shubha Vedula’s intro package, they replay Randy not being able to pronounce her name. Boy, that must get old for her. She does some interesting things with “Born This Way” at the piano, and then gets up on her feet and things go a little rhythmically sideways. Also, she excises all the lyrics about being gay or lesbian, which is like singing “Young, Gifted, and in the Racial Majority.” Nicki calls it a mix of Christina Aguilera and Psy, which doesn’t make any sense. Randy says there were too many runs, and that she should have stayed at the piano. So that’s Nicki making a pointless cultural reference, and Randy making sense. Will you hold me, please?

Kamaria Owsley sings “Mr. Know It All,” and does not hit any of the first several dozen notes. It’s a shame how shitty this performance is, because she clearly spent a million hours getting dressed. But sometimes all it takes is one big final note, and she’s clearly saving her energy for it, and ... okay, not this time. Nicki tells her she looks amazing. Remember when Paula would say that, and that’s all she’d say, and she was basically killing someone with kindness? Nicki says that and then kills them with truth. This was tonight’s first truly clunky performance.

Kree Harrison! I think I like this one! Sure, she’s dressed like a pottery teacher, but we have time to work on these things. She does Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain,” which is a little bit of a slow burn, and we’re at the stage where you need to grab these idiots’ attention right away, so I worry at first. But the judges love it and they love her and she’ll go far and I hope she can bring some attention to literally any other Patty Griffin song, because there are many. (May I suggest “Time Will Do the Talking”?) Kree is on another level. Let’s get behind this one.

Angela Miller set the bar high for herself with her original song during Hollywood Week, but she clears it with Jessie J’s “Nobody’s Perfect.” She ends with a look to camera that is very Vanessa Bayer doing Miley Cyrus. The judges love it: I worry that there’s too much leg and too much makeup and I wish they wouldn’t hotard her out.

Isabelle is the one we met during the initial auditions who lost a bunch of weight, and now she’s also lost a surname, which is maybe not the best idea at this stage, when identifiability is key. She is also way too made-up; there is a level of facial contouring after which you become beloved eighties puppet Madame, and Isabelle is way past it. Her version of “God Bless the Child” is charming, but I fear it’ll be the kind of thing the judges sleep on. Randy calls it old-fashioned. Randy is a dick.

Amber Holcomb tried out last year and has spent the last twelve months trying to gain confidence. And it’s worked! She commands the stage in her performance of “My Funny Valentine.” Her tone is amazing, but I wish someone would tell her what the lyric is about; there’s an ache in this song that she doesn’t bring out. But who cares about interpretation on American Idol?

(Also, a larger question, based on Nicki and Mariah’s behavior tonight and a brief, recent exposure to the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills: When did women start petting the ends of their hair?)

And then the judges have to pick five out of this ten and it’s going to be like they usually do it at this stage, with the long walk to the spotlight and the windy, self-indulgent speeches by the judges, except this year it will be in front of an audience, which is just cruel.

Jenny Beth Miller is out. She takes it well but ugly-cries her way off the stage. Rough stuff. Brandy Hotard is also sent packing. Her dismissal gives us the best line of the night, via Nicki: “God bless you, Brandy — keep on being a psychiatric nurse.”

Randy gives Tenna the bad-news fake-out, which in twelve years he has not learned to do properly, so we can all see the smirk immediately. Tenna is through! As is Kree, obviously. Keith says he thinks Isabelle is a powerhouse, but that the judges’ reactions were mixed, which must mean that only he voted to send her through, because she’s out. Don’t stop, Isabelle! I mean, wash your face, but after that, don’t stop!

Angela, of course, is through. So far, there are no surprises. But God knows they’re dragging it out. Kamaria gives an excuse that she couldn’t hear herself during her performance, and then says that she isn’t making excuses. Hey, no offense, Kamaria, but you sounded terrible. Good-bye to you. Mariah treats Amber to a Glitter-level acting performance, and even Amber is like, Just send me through already. (She does.)

That means Adriana and Shubha will have to go out together, and only one will go forward. And it turns out they’re best friends! It’s all very convenient. Adriana assures Shubha that “everything happens for a reason,” which, as a middle-aged person, I can tell you with authority is not even a little bit true. Keith is tasked with relating the choice, and by apologizing to Shubha right away, he telegraphs the result. Still, at least he gets Shubha’s name right.

Tonight was satisfying, though frustratingly Zoanette-free. Two more hours of this tomorrow!