We're about to trim the American Idol
season 16 field down to the Top 14, who will then head to the live shows to compete for your votes (in some as-of-yet undetermined capacity). But before new judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan can make the painful cuts, 12 singers have one last chance to impress and potentially alter the outcome.
This group was solid but unspectacular in the solo round, with most offering technically sound performances that failed to elicit goosebumps and weren't dynamic enough to be considered a "moment." Still, the celebrity duets played a larger role than I expected for the first batch of semifinalists, and several singers managed to change their fates.
Michelle Sussett and Michael J. Woodward were able to elevate their respective games after subpar solos, while Dominique took a big step back and doomed himself. If I were making the call right now, the quintet of performers packing bags would include Amelia Hammer Harris, Garrett Jacobs, Effie Passero and Alyssa Raghu, with the fifth pick a toss-up. But we know the judges love Garrett, so I'm sure he's going to be safe.
It all goes back to the fact that judging the judges is all we can do at this point, but I appreciate that the all-star pairings reveal a lot about a contestant's readiness for the spotlight. The collaborations serve as a true test of star power and also if the singers can stand out amid seasoned veterans. The potential for a moment is elevated, but it's also easy to get blown off the stage by someone with already-developed chops.
The established artists joining the fray are Lea Michele, Banners, Bebe Rexha, Cam, Colbie Caillat, Rachel Platten and Allen Stone, with only one performance each from the latter two (for all you math whizzes out there). I've only heard of four of them, including Michele, who I didn't know had, like, non-Glee albums and stuff. Let's find out who can hang.
Caleb Lee Hutchinson's Predetermined Success
Rock meets country as Bebe Rexha pairs with Caleb to reenact her "Meant to Be" team-up with Florida Georgia Line. He asks for help learning how to "swag out" because he's aware that his stage presence leaves something to be desired. He's a tailor-made country artist, but he needs to rise above "dependable" to make any sort of run here.
It's a fine duet, but the discrepancy in confidence and above-mentioned swag is apparent. He smiles a bit more than normal, like he's actually having fun, but he's got a tall ladder to climb before he can go toe-to-toe with a chart-topper. He scores a little kiss at the end and shows as much personality as he has all season.
Katy Perry notices that he loosened up enough to move his hand in a wheel motion while singing, and Luke calls him a true "all shook country boy" who is endearing to watch. Lionel is amazed by everything because this was fantastic.
Ada Vox Refuses to Plummet to Earth
Lea Michele believes "Defying Gravity," originally sung by Lea doppelganger Idina Menzel with Kristin Chenoweth on Broadway, is the perfect choice for Ada Vox. It's about realizing the truth and vowing to fight for what you believe, and Adam Sanders has returned to Idol wearing his real skin. She coaches him on tone because she's not at all worried about his voice.
It's musical theatre perfection as they harmonize the hit from Wicked, and it's "welcome to Wheelhouseville" for both of them. Adam/Ada easily has the best range in the bunch, but it's always going to be about finding her place in the format or getting good enough to not need one.
Lionel believes a star has been born because there's no denying the voice or presence. Katy would buy a ticket to this show because Ada's sound transcends words. Luke commends her on bringing the house down yet again and this time in a different genre.
Maddie Poppe Will Be Counted In
Maddie tried out for Idol once before, when she wasn't ready, and her audition song was Colbie Caillat's "Bubbly." Now she gets to perform it with the original artist, and all that matters is doing the best they can. It's a good mantra because Maddie feels (and is) awkward on stage without an instrument.
The nerves fade away in front of the live audience, though, and they're basically the same person. I even close my eyes as they alternate lines in the first verse to see if I can determine when one stops and the other starts, and they sound identical. It's a no-frills version without much charisma, but Maddie has one of the highest ceilings once she starts believing in herself.
Luke believes Maddie is the most well-rounded artist, Katy likes how she and Colbie complemented each other without stepping on toes, and Lionel is certain that she'll gain confidence with each performance.
Ron Bultongez Wants to Be Someone
The man who earned the surprising solo round pimp spot is teaming up with Banners to sing the song people only know because it's in all the American Idol promos. But "Someone to You" is out of Ron's wheelhouse, and his confidence is waning as he worries about ruining Banners' own song.
Ron is showing more life than usual, hopping around stage and encouraging the crowd to put their hands up and clap. He's not entirely comfortable doing so, but I applaud the effort because it's nice to see him cut loose a bit and show some personality. The vocals don't mesh perfectly, but overall it's solid and fun.
Katy is a fan of the adventure even if it wasn't "boring" perfection, Lionel loves when he gave up control and dove out of his comfort zone, and Luke believes Ron is anointed to be special.
Amelia Hammer Harris' Solo Ride
Bebe Rexha makes a quick return to perform "Me, Myself and I" with Amelia Hammer Harris, who recounts the story of her late, famous father and how grateful she is to have had some good years with him. Bebe admits that she once tried out for Idol but didn't make it, so, you know, don't give up.
Unlike Caleb, Amelia holds her own without any cool factor disparity. It's fun, even though it loses steam and cohesiveness as they go. The voices don't mesh perfectly, and I wouldn't describe it as "captivating," but she has a level of comfort on stage and seems at home in front of a crowd. I hope she sticks around.
Lionel lauds her firm, solid grip on the platform, which is every bit as important as singing well. Katy calls her the rare star who can pull off lime green leather pants, while Luke is delighted to watch Amelia hold her own.
Shannon O'Hara Calls the Fire Department
Shannon's anxiety is growing ahead of her duet with Cam on her breakout song, "Burning House," and the star urges her to block out the pressure and self-comparisons to her competition and focus on telling the story from her own point of view.
It's a repeat mixed bag for Shannon, to yet another extreme degree. The good parts are truly goosebump-worthy, but the low moments are frog-throated and pitchy. She has the range and one of the best voices, but she can't seem to put it all together. It's frustrating because she has the potential to be perfect. But she's only 17, and she might not be ready.
Luke is mesmerized and appreciates the beautiful moment that just happened, Katy loves when she see Shannon act "not shy," and Lionel feels that the body language and presence belong in a duet master class.
Alyssa Raghu is More Blue Than Yellow
Banners is also doing the quick turnaround, this time partnering with the struggling-to-stand-out Alyssa Raghu on Coldplay's "Yellow." His dad produced it, and ever since he was a little kid, Banners wanted to perform it on stage. He reminds Alyssa to open her eyes and make the audience part of the show, as being memorable has been her issue.
Alyssa sings it admirably enough, but the problem is that Banners' voice is perfectly catered to mimic Chris Martin. It's almost not fair, but she simply doesn't fit on the song. She tries to compensate with stage presence and crowd work, but her overuse of the vibrato is more noticeable than pretty, the harmonies don't mesh and there's no crescendo.
Katy points out that there were two different voices at play, and though Alyssa's tone is spectacular, there was no rise and too few notes for her to stand out. Lionel craves instant identity, but he feels like he needed to search for it because this wasn't what allows her to shine. Luke knows she has the tools no matter what happens, but he urges her to dig in more.
Marcio Donaldson Knows What's Up
Allen Stone performed with Dennis Lorenzo last time, so he might as well come back to team up with Dennis' alter-ego Marcio Donaldson (we need to pay attention if they ever perform on the same night). Marcio was supposed to duet with the legendary Toni Braxton, but she's under the weather and had to pull out two days before the show. Allen graciously volunteered to fill in, but they only have a day to work out the kinks on Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On."
It's head-bopping teamwork on display, the textbook definition of a duet, like they're riding a tandem bicycle. And it gets the judges up on their feet, dancing to the music. The time factor doesn't work against them, and I'm on board. Allen seems to be good at letting these youngsters be themselves without overshadowing.
Lionel offers a hearty "My brother!" because he loves it when you feel yourself, and this was a spiritual moment. Luke doesn't believe anyone has grown as much as Marcio, who is starting to realize everything of which he is capable. Katy declares that Marcio has arrived, and this was a total different artist than who we saw in the solo round.
Jurnee Quickens the Pace
Jurnee and Lea are fast friends, and the Glee star is honored that Jurnee wants to tackle "Run to You," a song to which both relate in intense fashion. Lea urges her to be big when it's time to be big but also keep it reined in when subdued works better.
It's the closest we've gotten to a moment in these two shows, with goosebump-inducing harmonies that are simply beautiful and a believable emotional connection. It's not 100% perfect, but the pairing is, and it's a dream come true for both of them.
Luke loves everything about Jurnee's voice, particularly its effortlessness, and he's impressed that she can leave such an impression on a star like Lea. Katy praises the synchronicity and flow, and they complemented each other well. Lionel dubs Jurnee her one name forever because the journey she's taking us on is unbelievable.
Garrett Jacobs is Lucky He's a Heartthrob
Colbie Caillat muses about Garrett's height as they prep to sing the duet she wrote with Jason Mraz, and "Lucky" makes him sad that his girlfriend can't be here. He hopes to channel his emotions through the TV, and though he and Colbie will be staring at each other, she advises him to pretend that it's his lady.
He's on point vocally, but his body language screams nervous energy and intimidation. He sounds great, but he does not convince me that he: 1) is in love with his best friend Colbie, or 2) belongs on stage with her.
Katy feels like he was comfortable and his heart was in it, and she now (finally) believes he is super cool. Luke calls it a step in the right direction, and he's proud that Garrett stepped up opposite a gorgeous grizzled vet. Lionel also touts the growth, and he's banking that Garrett can keep progressing.
Then his girlfriend surprises him because she's been here the whole time and not even Ryan Seacrest knew about it. She was moved to tears, and I'm sure she's comforted by the fact that his stage presence leaves no doubt that there's no funny business transpiring.
Mara Justine Only Needs One Match
The AGT alum with the giant pipes is super stoked to sing "Fight Song" with Rachel Platten, in part because she feels lost and doesn't fit in at school. I imagine it'd be difficult when you're kinda famous but only hang out with kids your own age who probably think she thinks she's better than them.
Rachel did research and picked up on the need for Mara to evoke tenderness over power, so she recommends taking a risk and stripping the song down to piano only. She also reminds Mara that she's perfect as she is, and she's enough. With Mara's chops, this could be what we remember and what puts her on the map.
The duet part is tricky because Mara actually has the bigger voice, but the build, build, build structure and restraint are spot-on. Mara is visibly struggling to rein it in because the vibrato is bursting at the seams, but she pulls it off and delivers an inspiring moment. They also complement each other, with Mara riffing as Rachel sings the final chorus, before the teen adds the cherry-on-top exclamation point.
Lionel believes that Mara found her center by standing still, while Luke applauds her for shining at the right time and learning to "sit and sing" because it's all she needs. I only sort of agree with this because that's all she did on AGT, and she'll have to mix it up to grow as an artist. Katy comes to the rescue, agreeing with me and stressing, "Don't hear that we don't want you to own it."
It's the best of the night, and it turns out that meeting Rachel Platten might be the most significant thing that's ever happened in Mara's life.
Effie Passero Channels Her Inner Jack
It's another surprise pimp spot after Effie couldn't quite get big enough to slay Heart's "Barracuda," but this time she's closing out the show with Cam on her song "Diane." She was supposed to pair with Jessie J, but like Marcio, she needed a fill-in due to illness. She's worried about her rocker tone pulling off country, but she knows that overcoming obstacles is part of the deal.
Unfortunately, she winds up being correct, but it's more her timing than the vibe. She sounds great, but there's the tiniest hesitation with the lyrics. It makes sense once she admits that she learned the song in 15 minutes overnight. There's also way too many parts when five people (Cam, Effie and the backup singers) are all belting it out at the same time, making it difficult for her to rise above. She manages to pull it off a few times, but I'm not sure she stands out enough.
Luke chants her name and applauds the effort, Katy offers a "shoooo-EY" because she has family from Memphis, and Lionel cites her age in being amazed that anyone can learn something in 15 minutes.
Judging the Judges, Part Deux
It's time for results, and barring something crazy, it seems like there's not much the judges can screw up. Mara, Jurnee, Marcio, Maddie and Ada are locks, and if I had to guess, they'll be rewarding boring old Caleb's consistency and Garrett's
good looks growth.
Conversely, Alyssa is the only easy cut, leaving Shannon, Ron, Effie and Amelia with slim chances of knocking out one of the country boys. Personally, I'd take Amelia over Garrett because I'm enamored with her look and the confidence she has that he lacks. Still, neither of her performances were particularly noteworthy. Is it really possible, though, that both pimp spot singers get cut?
The judges got it right last time, but will it happen again? Going to the Top 14 are:
Mara Justine (an easy call, giant voice and the best of the night)
Jurnee (the second best, comfortable on stage and makes it look easy)
Maddie Poppe (like shooting fish in a barrel)
Ada Vox (America will decide this queen's fate)
Caleb Lee Hutchinson (slow and steady wins the race)
Garrett Jacobs (I should be so lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky)
Marcio Donaldson (it's an even gender split, if you count Ada with the girls)
Katy reminds the losers that there are plenty of other Idol losers who went on to be winners in real life, so don't give up hope. But for now, you're all losers. Go home, losers!
The Time for Votes is Nigh
That, ladies and gents, is your Top 14, and it's tough to get worked-up about any snubs. Most won't have what it takes, but favorites are definitely emerging. Despite being raw, Mara has worked herself into contender status. And Jurnee in particular won me over in a way she hadn't previously.
Ada remains an uber-talented question mark, and it will be interesting to see how America handles her once audiences take over the voting. The judges have done their part and done it well, though I'm curious if the overly-positive critiquing will stop once they embrace their new roles as influencers.
Do you agree with the seven singers heading to the Top 14 or did the judges get it wrong? Who do you think earned a spot and who should be leaving but isn't? And now that we know and have seen everyone, who do you see making it to the Top 5? Finally, who is your early pick to be the next American Idol? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.
(Image and videos courtesy of ABC)