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American Idol Recap: All the Real Girls

Kree Harrison performs on AMERICAN IDOL

You know, it’s a shame that American Idol bloats itself with too many songs, unseemly promotional segments, and lousy singers with overproduced sob stories, because every now and then it’s still capable of delivering a solid episode. And so it is tonight. At last we are down to the top five, the first all-female and possibly strongest one in the show’s history. But I feel like the young women of America — lacking the non-threatening, guitar-strumming potential boyfriend the show’s been churning out for the last few years — have defected to Elementary, Duck Dynasty, and Rachel Zoe’s Assistant Doesn’t Like What You’re Wearing or whatever.

There are two themes tonight, the first of which is Songs From the Year I Was Born, or as I call it: Oh Dear God, Two of These Songs Were Released in a Year When I Was Legally Permitted to Purchase Alcohol. Oy, get me a bicarb.

Candice Glover is up first. Turns out she was a bossy child, which is a story that fully checks out. Her father’s testimony about her bossiness revolves around the fact that she would march right into the TV room, grab the remote, and change the channel, even if he was watching something! I start to get sad that all the Glover family memories took place in front of the television, but then I remember that most of mine do too. Let’s not dwell on it. Candice chooses “Straight Up,” which I vividly remember hearing at my senior prom, and she gives it a kind of an India Arie arrangement. It’s not bad; it forces you to hear the song with fresh ears, but it doesn’t really build to anything. She sounds great, though, and she has a newfound confidence, probably owing to having killed the shit out of it last week. The judges love it. I will transcribe Mariah’s full critique here: “Yes. Unpredictable? Smart. As always. Song choice. Genius. GENIUS! Nobody can. DO. What you do? With a massive hit? That’s feel good. Putting that [waves hand in front of face] Candice on it? Ay-may-zing.” This happens in near-total crowd silence, by the way. Also, Candice is dressed like someone who should be hanging out in Jane Krakowski’s house discussing Tropicana orange juice.

Jimmy Iovine’s critiques happen in the actual moment tonight, where they might actually make some kind of impact on the voting! He says “Straight Up” was written for a much narrower range (take that, Paula Abdul) but that she did well. He’ll probably repeat all of this tomorrow night. Gotta fill an hour somehow.

Janelle gits out there n’ sings a li’l ditty about drinkin’ sweet tea and havin’ a crush on a boy with a truck or whatever. She is really doublin’ down on the country tonight, which is a smart move, because she kind of has that voting bloc all to herself (Kree gets nudged in that direction, but I think she’s less easily characterized than that; more on this later). The judges mostly damn her performance with faint praise, except Keith, who just damns it.

But here’s the deal: I forget all about it almost immediately because YOU GUYS THEY SPOKE TO EACH OTHER. YOU GUYS. NICKI AND MARIAH SPOKE TO EACH OTHER FOR A MOMENT AND IT WAS THE BEST.

Okay. So here’s what happens: Kree chooses “She Talks to Angels,” and kicks it off with a “where y’all at” that makes it sound much breezier than a song about heroin addiction ought to. But it’s Kree, and Kree is great, therefore by transitive property it is great.

BUT OKAY: Mariah says she wishes Kree would have gotten lost in the song more, Keith thinks her performance was a little awkward, Nicki says she disagrees with both of them, then only rebuts Keith’s critique, saying, “you were awkward because of the heels and he doesn’t get it because he’s a boy.” And then HERE WE GO: Mariah says “Interesting! Because I didn’t say she was awkward,” because even mild, general dissent is more than she can take. From there it goes like this:

Nicki: “No. He did, but...”
Mariah: “Oh, okay, then you don’t disagree with me then,”
Nicki: “No, I do, because...”,
Mariah: “Well, I disagree with your disagreement.”
Nicki: “Okay. Simmer down, sir.”

And then Mariah gives a variety of looks that she’s practiced in front of a mirror and does a million things with her hands (including polite applause, for some reason), and tries to figure out what she’s going to say next, and holy shit, you guys, it is delicious. So obviously the producers cut to a wide shot and cue the music. JESUS, people. Do you have any idea why anyone still watching this is still watching this? Let the cameras roll. We’ll get to the singing another time. Or not! Who cares? Give all five of these women a recording contract and let’s spend the next four weeks with Nicki and Mariah. (Andy Cohen can host.)

Jimmy agrees that the song wasn’t emotional enough. Also that “it’s nice to see Mariah and Nicki communicating” which sends the audience into whoops and applause and Ryan tries to stoke the embers by saying “I think we should send Nicki and Mariah back to talk to Jimmy,” and they both start to talk but they are drowned out by the loudest voice, which of course belongs to Randy Jackson, who bellows “I THINK HE’S WRONG BECAUSE HE’S WEARIN’ A HAT AND THAT’S WRONG HA HAAAA. WHAT?” Honestly, for a person to sit right in the middle of a conflagration millions of people have spent four months waiting to see and to do anything other than shut up and let it happen requires some next-level oblivious self-absorption. I almost respect it. (But I don’t. Shut up, Randy.)

Angie starts her performance: “This is for my home, Boston.” She could belch the alphabet after that intro and sail through to next week, but instead she sings the Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand By You.” It is right up her alley, and given the events of this week, she must be thanking God to have been born in 1994. All of the judges love her performance, with each one pointing out that mentioning Boston was “a smart move.” Not echoing her sentiment, just acknowledging that it was a savvy gesture. Apparently, the judges’ theme this week is Things You Shouldn’t Say Out Loud.  

Jimmy says she turned a subtle song into a power ballad. Has Jimmy heard the original? That thing was always a power ballad. (Also, have you listened to “Mystery Achievement” recently? That shit holds up.)

Amber brings out her superfan Johnelle, who has been following her since Las Vegas week. And not online-following, either! Following-following! In person! Ryan asks Johnelle a question about her superfandom, and she grabs the mike and goes in. He plays it off like it’s all just delightful, but I am getting some serious Yolanda Saldivar vibes. ANYWAY: Amber does Mariah’s version of “Without You,” and it’s risky, because you can’t really out-Mariah Mariah, especially on a song that requires every bit of Mariah’s spooky range. Nicki agrees with me on this, saying that she couldn’t convey any emotion in her lower notes, because she was just trying to hit them. She adds: “Mariah was always gonna give you something in that lower part, even before you get to the big finish.” It feels like an olive branch, but it just kind of sits there. Baby steps.

Round two is divas! Which is pretty broad, when you think about it! Candice chooses “When You Believe,” that Whitney and Mariah song from The Prince of Egypt. Initially she was afraid to do a Mariah song right in front of her, but I figure this one is safe, because not even Mariah remembers it. And of course, even with a cold bowl of oatmeal like this song, she crushes. It’s like, here’s what a singer with the Hunger can do: I remember when this song came out, thinking what a cynical cash-in it was for the two original divas, but Candice means it (and as Nicki points out, this was a sadly opportune week to deploy a song like this). Nicki also goes on about how much the song meant to her as a little girl, and it’s almost like she and Mariah are going to thaw this thing out, but they don’t quite get there.

(Does anyone else think they’re going to make up just in time for the finale, when they unveil their big summer 2013 collaboration?)  

Janelle continues her streak of perfect left-field song choices with Dolly Parton’s “Dumb Blonde.” I like that she’s not playing the Faith Hill diva game another girl with her skill set might. We need some variety at this stage, and Janelle is the only one who seems to really know that. The song is perfect for her: It’s young and sassy just like her, and it all comes off like a commercial for a really kicky feminine hygiene product. Randy seems to put her down by saying her performance was more of a performance than a vocal exercise, but isn’t performing kind of a big part of the job of a performer? Nicki puts it perfectly: Janelle might be going home tomorrow, because “there are more dynamic girls ahead of you, but that doesn’t restrict how far you can go in the world.” Translation: You already have 25 country-music record deals, so don’t even trip.

(You know how those 5-Hour Energy commercials go on about “that 2:30 feeling”? They need to get to work on something to get me over the Wednesday night 9:30 feeling. Even in a good episode, it’s hard to stay focused.)

Kree does play the Celine Dion diva game another girl with her skill set might. But she chooses “Have You Ever Been in Love,” which is not a song that’s been played out. Better still, she answers the question “what if one of these big splashy Celine Dion ballads were sung by a native English speaker?” She interprets it in a way that Celine, bless her, has never truly been able, and it’s actually enough to shake me out of my late-show doldrums. Nicki speaks truth “You’re not country, you’re worldly.” And it’s true; just because she has a slight twang in her voice, this mostly-unimaginative judges panel has typecast her, but she could go in any number of directions.  

Angie’s diva song is Beyoncé’s “Halo,” a song that, more than anything, cements Beyoncé as the hardest-working woman in showbiz history. I mean, listen to “No, No, No” and then listen to “Halo.” Beyoncé went from that to that. Right in front of us, through constant, public hard work. Bey is a goddess, but let’s not forget that she’s also a Tracy Flick. Alas, Angie is still mostly Flick; we all know she has taught herself to belt, but she has trouble with the quieter, more emotional parts of the song. The judges love it. Randy deems her “in it to win it,” and the #inittowinit hashtag is chyronned on the screen before he even gets it out of his mouth. Do you think he radios the control room and warns them he’s about to pull his catchphrase out? (Or has he just spent twelve seasons saying one of three things, and the chyron guy in the control room has the easiest job in America? Either way: Shut up, Randy.)

But I think all 50 of the votes I will probably forget to cast will go to Amber, who takes a risk on Barbra Streisand’s “What Are You Doing With the Rest of Your Life.” It is such a smart choice; it’s a perfectly written song whose timeless quality will make it sound brand-new to the 100 percent of young Idol viewers who haven’t heard it. It comes off like a deep cut on on an Alicia Keys album. I admire her brass; that she nails it is just gravy. And she’s dressed like she’s at the Grammys. It’s my favorite performance of the night. I can see Amber succeeding as a pop star, and I hope her biggest fan doesn’t murder her.

I think Janelle is going home tomorrow, and I wouldn’t sweat it because they’ve already broken ground on her theme park in Tennessee. You?

Photo: Michael Becker/ FOX