At the risk of sounding like Lionel Richie, the reigning emperor of empty compliments, it is daunting to recognize how much talent is in this competition. Really. Tru-lyyyyyy. I say that because as someone who ranks everything in my life — favorite movies, songs, colors, cast members from I Know What You Did Last Summer (with Anne Heche firmly at No. 1), it’s hard to pick absolute bests and absolute worsts when the talent level is so uniform. But don’t worry. I did it anyway. And the results are wilder than Ada Vox’s foundation technique.
Amelia Hammer Harris is the interesting case of an Idol contestant who may be too damn smart. She seems less like a superstar and more like a graduate student in musicology at Carnegie Mellon. Though her appreciation of “Believer” was lovely (“It’s like a love song to pain, which I think is really cool. Instead of being beat down by hard things in life, you see more beauty in life because of the pain”), her choice to perform “Believer” could not have served her rock-tinged soulfulness less: It sounded like the radio cut with an additional lady vocal thrown in. Add to that her ensemble, a colonial-themed top with leather pants that can only be described as Hamilton on Ice, and you have a definitively middle-tier performance. As the daughter of “Great Balls of Fire” co-writer Jack Harris, Amelia has a clear affection for pop with libidinous clamor to it, but after 750 million plays of “Believer” in previews for every new episode of Grey’s Anatomy (or wherever else we’ve heard it), it’s lost most of its anthemic edge. And now, so has one of my favorite Idol front-runners of the season.
I’m recovering from Bobby Bones teaching Garrett to “dance.” It was like a Queer Eye reboot where the gay guys were replaced with a single straight Guitar Center cashier named Len. Fortunately, Garrett’s performance required little in the way of two-stepping since he strummed along to this Shawn Mendes banger. You can picture it. He flashed those Doublemint Twin chompers, knelt down to touch the hands of teenage girls all gaping like the mask from Scream, and basically replicated Shawn Mendes’s vocal without the crucial bit of effeminate angst that keeps everyone guessing. In short: He is a winsome young man with a fine voice and that should keep him all-too-relevant in the competition.
Nothing annoys me more than watching an American Idol contestant get coached on stage presence. Is it that hard to make people enjoy watching you? Stardom is a visual medium! Do the work! After Bobby Bones used his legendary Barbizon Modeling cred to guide Alyssa Raghu’s stage saunter, she turned out what I’d call a pretty version of Rihanna’s “Stay.” I’d also call it a version of Rihanna’s “Stay” without a quarter of Rihanna’s character or emotiveness. We all love Rihanna, but she doesn’t get enough credit for the distinctiveness of her vulnerability — that blend of salaciousness and hurt. It’s almost bluesy, but it’s not old-fashioned. It’s a lot of things! Alyssa Raghu’s performance was one thing, and it was pretty.
Shannon O’Hara is 17 and mature. She’s ready for an internship at a museum. Put a lanyard on this young adult already. We’ve been watching her endearing sense of refinement power her performances and today is the first time she came up with less than gold: “All I Ask” is one of Adele’s stronger lyrical songs, but as a stand-alone tune it’s not as instantly re-playable as her others. (Am I the only person who thinks “Send My Love (to Your New Lover)” is her raddest? Discuss.) Shannon served it up, but she already sounds enough like Adele that I spent the whole performance comparing the two. Most people, including Shannon, don’t win that head-to-head. She should return to her “Unconditionally” tactic and sing ballads better than the original artist. I’m a Madonna stan, but I do believe Shannon could nail my sixth-favorite Madonna song, “I’ll Remember.”
I think of country music as an institution as dated as the He-Man Woman Haters Club, but some voices are built to sing about porch swings, sunrises, and Grandpappy’s grave. Caleb Lee Hutchinson’s voice is a countrified scalp massage and he’ll always have that Folger’s commercial-ready, McCreery-deep quality. It doesn’t make for an interesting arc on Idol, but his consistency is also a welcome addition to the season. Are there enough midtempo songs about growin’ up poor and ringin’ them church bells for Caleb to get through an entire season of Idol? I’ve got news for you: There are.
We know this was coming. We should be thankful it wasn’t “Alone” or “What About Love,” I guess. Even though Effie is one of my favorite performers this season and a solid choice for the final four, I was let down by the inevitably of “Barracuda.” It’s a song that requires a bone-chilling vocal — and we sure got one — but there’s nothing for the bone-chilling vocal to do besides hit a couple of roller coaster highs and coo “Barracuda” every so often. We all knew she was capable of this performance, and unlike Maddie or Ava, she didn’t add to our perceptions of her abilities last night. Frankly, “Magic Man” would’ve given her more of a moment. And she could’ve robot-danced through the weird Nintendo-sounding electronic interlude.
Mara Justine is the Jessica Sanchez of 2018: She’s got all the bombast, aggression, flawless vocals, quivering upper lip, and spunky interview energy you could ask for. But she has the same hitch as Jessica: She always seems like she’s imitating what she thinks a great singer sounds and looks like, down to the closed eyes at the end of “Run to You.” Make no mistake, the vocal was fire. And hell, that song is (Oscar-nominated) fire. But while her kooky urgency is memorable, I’m wondering if she can trust herself enough to seem less like a talented mimic and more like an authentic breakthrough performer.
After a weekend where Taylor Swift reimagined Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” as a Sixpence None the Richer elegy, I’m sensitive to the idea of “stripping down” disco songs. Ron Bultongez came close to an ingenious performance with his pained cover of Robyn’s modern classic, that searing ode to heartbreak that somehow hasn’t aged a day in the near-decade since its release. Ron’s chilled-out vibe is almost too casual for Idol but his grinding, aching balladeer voice is growing on me. This Robyn cover was stately and a bit haunting, but not essential. More like … clever and well done. Three stars.
I think Jurnee has the most distinct pure sound of the season. Caleb Lee Hutchinson has the radio-ready quality, Catie Turner has the aw-shucksiness, Effie Passero has the range, and Ada has the space opera grandeur, but in terms of you-opened-your-mouth-and-out-fell-artistry, Jurnee is the winner. She’s like Super Ashanti. Plus, let’s look at this rad person: Here she is, an out lesbian with quality side-eye trying to translate soul and honesty to a billion preteens, and she just might actually do it. Props to Katy Perry for following up Jurnee’s lovely, intricately delivered performance with a reminder: Confidence is not narcissism, and more contestants should embrace their natural self-assurance if they want to be, um, heard at all.
Every second of this performance was brilliant. The song choice, with its whimsy and clap-along energy: brilliant. The Mary Lou Lord–type vocal, teeming with girlish wisdom: brilliant. The connection between the singer, who would normally seem like the polar opposite of an Idol candidate, and the 1972 Melanie song: smashing. No American Idol blogger would’ve guessed, “‘Brand New Key’ is the perfect fit for Maddie Poppe,” yet she had that insight herself. I’m happy to cede my responsibilities to Maddie if she finds any extra time in the next few weeks.
As someone who listens to Natalie Cole’s cover of “Pink Cadillac” every day of my blessed-ass life — and occasionally switches to “Sophisticated Lady” and “Mr. Melody” for variety’s sake — I was instantly suspicious of Marcio Donaldson’s song choice. How can he add soul to “Inseparable” when Natalie Cole body-slammed it with soul back in ’75? But every note was an inspired (and never cloying) choice that drew you closer and closer to the screen. I’d written off Marcio, to some degree, as an overactor. And he definitely face-acted the hell out of this, like Rachel Weisz in that mud bath in Youth, but the tenderness of the song warranted those intense expressions. I was with Lionel here: Natalie would’ve loved it. Like those cruuuuushed velvet seats.
We’ve come a long way on Idol. Just five years ago, Keith Urban told effete contestant Paul Jolley that he didn’t need to gesticulate so much. (It felt like my Little League coach telling me my stance in the batter’s box was a little jaunty, if you know what I mean.) Ada Vox, meanwhile, is a literal drag queen who rips into “Feelin’ Good” like some sort of raging Medea, and these judges perform various death drops in respect to her throne (practically). It’s impressive to sing “Feelin’ Good” well; it’s more impressive to perform it and make me think, “I’ve never heard it done like that before.” Ada is reading this competition well, showing advanced self-awareness and a keenness for strong song choices. She seems worried that her drag act comes off as shticky, and to that I say: Hey, Ada? Everyone in this competition has a shtick. It’s just that most of them are crushingly dull. Pairing thundering vocals with a beat face is a shtick more people should try on, and showmanship is a gimmick more contestants need. Can I get an amen?
Tonight: Another round of 12 duets and five eliminations. And your great-aunt Lorraine will finally learn who Bebe Rexha is.