'American Idol' Top 12 Girls: Divas Abound, Teens Rule
Fan favorite Lauren Alaina and 15-year-old Thia Megia drew the most enthusiastic cheers inside the 'Idol'-dome, but Pia Toscano got the first judges' standing ovation of the season.
Wow, what a difference a TV mix can make. Watching last night’s broadcast of American Idol’s Top 12 guys was a good reminder of the stark contrast between how the performances feel in the studio and how they actually sound to the viewer at home.
It may be something Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler will have to address on Thursday’s show, once they’ve had the chance to watch the episodes back. They, in turn, might want to take a few of their comments back. Randy Jackson is, of course, well aware of the disparity, but also wasn’t nearly as fawning over the Top 12 guys as his fellow judges.
And with that disclaimer, the Top 12 girls had their work cut out for them on Monday afternoon (when the show taped Wednesday’s episode), while the guys looked decidedly more relaxed in T-shirts and jeans. They all started in one big circle, with Ryan Seacrest making his way around for the dramatic show opener, after which all 24 galloped to sidestage, only to have to come right back for a redo. Apparently, something was amiss with the rotating American Idol logo over stage left, a mishap which brought Nigel Lythgoe out from the wings. Said Ryan: “Uh oh, Nigel only goes up to the stage when he’s pissed.”
Hardly. Everyone was in a chipper mood for round two of the Top 24. Ryan, especially, who was going in and out of his KIIS-FM persona, offering to pay random audience members’ bills and some such. Clearly, he had already taken his happy pills. “This will be a fun couple hours,” he promised.
The judges agreed, with Steven making a point of mentioning that there was “a full moon coming on.” His advice to the nervous contestants? “Take it to the moon today, that’s where we’re going.”
The first to try would be Ta-Tynisa Wilson, who chose Rihanna’s “Only Girl in the World” as her song for the week (the finalists had their pick of any song already cleared for use on Idol) with weak results. It’s a recurring problem with shows like Idol which strive to be current, but when you try to translate today’s pop hits in a singing competition, they often fall short. This effort certainly did. Rihanna has performed on the show before but that doesn’t make this song particularly Idol-friendly and the judges took notice. Randy said her performance was “just OK” and there there was “nothing special or different about it.” Jennifer was more PC, but advising Ta-Tynisa that part of “being a good performer is moving the crowd.”
This audience was moving on -- to Naima Adedapo who wore a yellow dress that she designed herself for the classic “Summertime.” Giving the song a sultry sway, she slowly strutted up to the judges’ table, which, as most Idol enthusiasts know, has a tendency to backfire -- there’s something about that sort of presumptuousness that doesn’t always sit well with the voter at home. We’ll see how this one plays out, but on first impression, it’s safe to classify Naima as a solid performer with good pitch, but it’s going to take more than that to impress Randy who called her performance “a little lounge act,” and, in no uncertain terms, declared that it didn’t hold up to Fantasia’s version. Steven disagreed on the first part, comparing Naima to Ella Fitzgerald, while Jennifer said, “you bring color and something different… you’re like an exotic flower.”
Kendra Chantelle came next and delivered the sort of stage-ready goodness that Idol can get behind. A stunner in black leather pants and a frilly rock-n-roll top, she had all the makings of a future Carrie Underwood. But where the season 4 winner had to find her stage confidence (vocal coach Debra Byrd once commented that it took her all season just to get Carrie to lift her arms), Kendra had it from the get-go. Her version of Christina Aguilera’s “Impossible” had strength and charisma, and while the embellishments at the end weren’t necessary, you can’t blame a girl for trying a big finish. Said Jennifer: “You have heart. You fought your way into this Top 12.”
Rachel Zevita, like Brett Loewenstern, is the kind of contestant the folks over at Vote For the Worst die for. Not that either is a terrible singer. To the contrary, both possess a unique style that some might call kooky and even laughable, but there is talent behind the shtick. Rachel’s eyebrow raising moments were in her song choice, a barely recognizable version of Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” and the cape she so dramatically dropped to the floor at the start (her microphone stand followed suit not long after). Turns out over-emoting and accessorizing didn’t sit well with the judges who deemed her performance too “Broadway.” Said Jennifer: “You obviously belong on stage, you have amazing range, wish we’d seen more of that.” Randy was more blunt: “It wasn’t good,” he said.
The memory of Rachel faded soon enough once Karen Rodriguez took her turn. Wearing an elegant, flowing teal gown, the New York native sang Mariah Carey’s “Hero” half in English and half in Spanish and, with a squint of the eye, looked like the Statue of Liberty herself standing gracefully at center stage. In the studio, Karen sounded absolutely brilliant. She can belt, emote, jump into her falsetto, and back down to earth. The performance impressed so much that she got the first mid-song standing ovation of the night. At least one of the judges (Jennifer) had no words: “Wow. That says it all.” Steven’s take: he called Karen a “one of a kind singer” and encouraged her to get together with Jacob Lusk, who very enthusiastically agreed from the peanut gallery (a shot they’d have to recreate on the spot). “Don’t speak too soon,” Nigel taunted.
Seeing as we’re still getting to know these contestants, the Bette Midler-esque Lauren Turner was another who had shown promise in the early episodes but was really an unproven entity. So it makes sense that she pulled out all the stops, delivering a pitch-perfect rendition of “Seven Day Fool” by one of her favorite artists, Etta James. Her gritty delivery prompted another standing ovation, with Randy declaring, “That’s how you do it, man!” He compared Karen to Amy Winehouse meets Florence Welch meets Etta James. Said Steven: “Spectacular.”
Ashthon Jones didn’t fare as well with her take on Monica’s “Love All Over Me,” even though Jennifer told her she had all the makings of a true diva: “big hair, the body, the moves.” Ashthon’s response: “I get it from you!” Well played. But sucking up to the judges didn’t do all that much when it came to her critique. Randy said he didn’t love the song, but more than that, she had to work on her stage presence. “You’re Diana Ross, baby,” he insisted.
Julie Zorrilla must not have watched much Idol in her past because if she did, she would know better than to try a Kelly Clarkson song. But alas, that’s exactly what she did, taking on Kelly's 2004 hit “Breakaway” and not really delivering. The definition of pitchy, she was all over the place for much of the song and never really got it together. In the end, Julie felt like a pale comparison, which is, of course, the kiss of Idol death.
Now, if this were the Simon Cowell-era Idol, Haley Reinhart’s choice of Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’” might have done her in right then and there. Cowell, after all, loathed the song and pretty much had it banned. As it was, many of the journalists sitting in section G let out a collective groan, but it’s a new time and, in the end, Haley pulled it off. Jennifer’s advice: “get out of your head just a little bit.” Steven, on the other hand, insisted the formula was spot-on. “It was just the right amount of sexy.” Have to hand it Haley for giving props to bandleader Ray Chew who worked with Keys in her formative years. Someone did her homework!
The anticipation had been building for Thia Megia, one of the youngest contestants to take the Idol stage this year, and like Scotty McCready before her and Lauren Alaina after, she did not disappoint. Thia’s choice of “Out Here On My Own” from the original Fame couldn’t have been more perfect. It was also brave. Thia started off a capella, adding a piano accompaniment after the first few verses, and sounded great all the way to the end. James Durbin was so wowed by Thia’s turn that he literally stomped his feet in applause, causing even the judges to look around wondering, “where’s that pounding noise coming from?” Her performance prompted perhaps the most coherent critique Randy has ever given. “The mark of a great singer is the quality of tone,” he said, before comparing Thia to “the late, great Michael Jackson.”
With only two slots left, it was time for Lauren Alaina to take the stage. The sixteen-year-old had been the buzz of season 10 for much of the past two months, would she impress on the big stage? Yep. Her take on Reba McIntyre’s “Turn on the Radio” had the crowd on its feet and clapping along while she line danced her way up and down the circular platform. Her last note lingered long after as this room was genuinely tickled. Perhaps Jennifer put it best when she told Lauren, “You don’t even have to try. The voice is just so effortless.” Randy took it a step further, comparing Lauren to previous Idols Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. Said Steven: “You kill me. I love you. You’re the best.” And there you have it. Presumptive winner, anyone?
Last on the girls’ line-up was the lesser-known Pia Toscano, who took on the Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand By You” and got the first judges’ standing ovation of the season. Was it good? Yes. Great? Up for debate. In the studio, Pia’s last note sounded more piercing than pitch-perfect, but between the energy of the crowd and the loudness of the band, it’s easy to get carried away. Certainly plenty of contestants are all too familiar with the sensation. Still, Steven, who by this point had his knee up on the arm of his chair, fully embracing the laid-back rocker vibe, thought it was “gorgeous,” while Jennifer commented, “I knew you were a standout, you were saving that for when it counts. It was out of this world.”
And there you have it. Five of these girls will go through based on highest vote totals, and at least a couple will have a chance to compete again in a wild card round. Who do you think earned a guaranteed slot on the Top 10? And who deserves a second shot?