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American Idol Recap: Zo My Freaking God

AMERICAN IDOL: Zoanette Johnson in the Sudden Death Round of AMERICAN IDOL airing Wednesday, Feb. 27 (8:00-10:00PM ET/PT) on FOX.

Long ago, I read an account of an American political prisoner in Iran, who was held in solitary confinement in a cell with one small window. Over time, the patch of sunlight this window cast against his wall became his link to sanity. He writes: “When my knees buckled and I fell to the ground utterly broken, sobbing and rocking to the beat of my heart, it was the patch of sunlight that brought me back. Its slow creeping against the wall reminded me that the world did in fact turn and that time was something other than the stagnant pool my life was draining into.” If Idol is my solitary confinement — and you guys, it totally is — then the snap predictions I get to make at this stage, as ten mostly unfamiliar women rise up from the floor, is my tiny window. It is, at long last, something to do. So here we go: Based on almost nothing, I predict that Melinda Ademi, Candice Glover, Cristabel Clack, Janelle Arthur, and Zoanette are going through.

Kosovo refugee Melinda Ademi is the wee bundle of fun we saw a couple of weeks ago whipping her hair back and forth to Jessie J’s “Price Tag.” Alas, tonight she decides to dispense with the joy, singing Jessie J’s grim “Nobody’s Perfect,” which Angela Miller did to death just last week. Most troubling, she does all her inhales on microphone, so at the end of every line, she sounds like a girl who’s about to be murdered. (Cross-promotion for The Following?) The judges are not impressed, and as usual they express it by vaguely wishing her luck. Alas, it seems this Kosovar will only go so far. If you ever meet me in person, you may give me one (1) eyeroll for that last sentence.

And then there’s Candice Glover, who was let go in Vegas last year, which serves as a potent reminder of how far we’ve come, judging-wise. This season, we have at least one person with a good ear and a sense for character and story, which is a dramatic improvement over season eleven, which was presided over by three kindergarteners who’d been spun around a bunch of times. For season twelve, Candace knows she has to prove herself, and my God she does. Here’s how good her performance is: It’s “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman,” and I do not immediately check out. Candace truly makes me feel as though it’s among the first hundred times I’ve heard this song. Sure, she does some vocal runs, but they’re innovative, they feel fresh, they enhance the song rather than make the whole thing feel like a big jackoff. She is a force of nature. The judges love her, with the only criticism coming from Randy, who urges her to “go for all kinds of notes,” because he is the worst.

The girl who comes up next is named Juliana something and her family is from wherever and she’s only blahblahteen years old and she dreams about something for some special reason. It’s hard to focus, because her plodding, airy take on Demi Lovato’s “Skyscraper” sets the mind wandering. She singlehandedly turns the stage of The Beatles LOVE into a coffeehouse that’s become an open-mike venue right when you’re in the middle of a nice conversation. And why that song, you may ask? Well, see, it’s a funny story: Juliana’s music teacher gave her an assignment to rearrange a song she doesn’t like, and this is the one she chose. So, hey, just in case you happened to like the original version of “Skyscraper,” please allow Juliana to alienate you. Somehow, a teenager with a guitar has not mastered diplomacy. Also, she is sure to start hating this song even more because she’s absolutely going home.

(I really hate making fun of a child, and I honestly do applaud her gumption for getting up there and doing her thing. I think that she is legitimately inspiring, because anybody who can stand up and bare their soul before people who will mostly be cruel is a hero. It’s especially brave for her to bare her soul before a person like Randy Jackson, who will just interrupt shit and start yelling about himself. To wit: Mariah, who already suffers from having three people state the obvious before her, tries to give Juliana some advice, and Randy just cuts her off in the middle to holler: “I know Ryan Seacrest couldn’t do that at that age!” No, Randy. I’m sure he couldn’t. I’m also sure that nobody was wondering whether he could. This ain’t aboutchu.)

Jett Hermano is a 25-year-old legal assistant, and I don’t know why that makes me love her a million times more, but it does. I think I’m drawn toward people who’ve been beaten down by fluorescent lighting for a couple of years. Anyway, she sits at the piano for a slowed-down version of Rihanna’s “Only Girl in the World,” and the best part of it is that she remains there. She has learned the crucial Shubha Vedula Lesson: pick a lane and stay in it. Nicki says she didn’t get a climactic moment, Randy wanted more melisma, Mariah tells her that “it didn’t matter to me that you didn’t have a fit,” which is actually pretty sensible coming from her. Keith either liked it or didn’t like it, or was ambivalent about it. I don’t know.

Cristabel Clack has the best name I’ve ever heard, and the hair of a Mexican Morrissey superfan, and I’m going to have to set a keyboard shortcut for “slowed-down version of” because everyone is doing slowed-down versions of pop songs tonight. Hers is Alicia Keys’s “No One,” and she does have a fit, so of course Randy gives it his first standing ovation of the night. “You did your thing,” he bellows. “You’re not supposed to be wondering whether we want more of this or less of that, you’re just supposed to do your thing.” (A quick word to anyone who is considering auditioning for American Idol: As long as Randy Jackson is involved with this show, the judges will never want less of anything.)

The night’s next slowed-down version of a pop song is Beyoncé’s “Sweet Dreams,” from as-yet-unseen Aubrey Cleland. There’s probably a video-game version of American Idol, right? Where you can design your own avatar, like you do in Tiger Woods? If I had that game, my avatar would look exactly like Aubrey Cleland. She looks like this show gave birth to her. Gorgeous, multicultural, wears the shit out of a tight dress. Oh, also, her voice is good, though she loses control in the louder moments, of which there are many. Nicki gushes: “I am obsessed with you.” It’s a good catch phrase. Look for the talk show Nicki Minaj Is Obsessed With You, coming to daytime syndication in 2015. (Randy counters with “I am obsessed with me, and everybody here! HA HA! WHAT.” Sometimes I feel like he is doing this to me on purpose.) I think Aubrey is a shoo-in for the now-vacant Melinda spot.

So now we get into the part of the show where you really have to bring it. Slots 7 and 8 are deadly; it’s impossible to give the later contestants the same attention you give the first couple, we’re not yet at the grand finale, and nobody but Nicki is even trying to keep the viewer engaged for the full two hours. So Rachel Hale has her work cut out for her, and she mostly doesn’t do it. Oh sure, she’s got a great voice and a cute little attitude, but she’s singing a forgettable Grace Potter song about being an outlaw, all the while with a peaches-and-cream smile on her face. There’s a disconnect, and her vocals aren’t strong enough to overcome it. The judges praise her confidence, which she says she got from praying. “Gotta pray! Gotta PRAY,” shouts Randy, and the rest of the judges pretend it isn’t happening, like you do when someone’s shouting at you to pray. Rachel takes it as she takes it all: with a smile that makes you afraid of ever being on the receiving end of it. She has a Kristin Chenoweth smile. Someday she (and Kristin) will crack, and may God have mercy on our souls.

Breanna Steer also doesn’t do much for me with Jazmin Sullivan’s “Bust Your Windows,” but all the judges love her. Nicki suggests that she and Aubrey start a group with some other cute, multiethnic young gals, and it’s actually a pretty good idea, since we all know Fifth Harmony is about to bring the Girl Power roaring back.

I came into the show thinking Janelle Arthur was a lock, but she doesn’t do much with her take on Lady Antebellum’s “Just a Kiss.” It’s fine, she doesn’t do anything wrong, she just doesn’t soar. Keith points out that the song is for a group; the melody doesn’t give a single singer anywhere interesting to go. Everyone else follows suit, criticizing only the song, which means they’ll probably give her a mulligan. And they should; she is in every way a country superstar in the making. Pretty but relatable, sweet voice, you can see her goin’ to the general store to buy up a whole mess o’ gingham to make dresses for the county fair. 

Okay, now everybody shut up because it’s time for Zoanette. Zoanette does “Circle of Life,” from The Lion King, replete with the Swahili intro, and it’s a fitting choice because her hair is giving me a Mufasa effect. The whole thing is bananas. Now, listen: Zoanette has been a captivating character from the very beginning, but the question has always been whether she can actually sing. And she can. Like, she really can. She is out of control in every way, but when she’s on point — and she is on point for nearly all of this performance — she has incredible power. Holy shit, you guys. It is the Zoanette era. This is happening. She goes directly from the song into a full-body ugly-cry, because of course she does. Keith calls her “the Queen of the Jungle,” because maybe you just go ahead and say racially uncomfortable things in Australia, and Nicki asks “Who gon check you, boo?” Zoanette makes legitimately riveting television, and I’m glad the Character Slot went to her instead of Kaz Bah. (Key Fob? Kash Kab? I’ve already forgotten.)

And then it’s time for the judges to emerge from the floor and give their judgments, which are mostly predictable: Zoanette, Aubrey, and Candace are on to the next round. (Mariah tells Candace: “true talent seeps through,” because who at this stage wouldn’t want to think of herself as something that seeps?) The one big surprise is that Cristabel gets clacked, and her spot goes not to Jett but to Breanna. And of course, they bring the two country gals out at the same time, and they can only pick one, and of course it’s Janelle, and Rachel even takes this news like a plucky country gal. God bless.

Tomorrow: ten more guys, unless they just bag the whole thing and turn it into a Zoanette concert, which I would watch the shit out of.

Photo: Michael Becker/FOX