Wednesday (Feb. 20) night's "American Idol" represents an all-new format the long-running series. And, as a result, I don't actually have a clue what's coming tonight. Depending on which press release you read, this is either the "Semifinals" or the "Sudden Death Round." It appears that 10 people -- Girls if you trust FOX's press site, but Boys if you trust my Time-Warner cable listings -- will be singing and five will be going home. How were the groups split? What happens if one group or one gender ends up much better than the other?
I have no idea.
So click through and follow along...
8:01 p.m. ET. They're live at the Mirage in Las Vegas. No, this episode isn't live. But everybody there is, even though Ryan Seacrest keeps talking about "sudden death" and "surviving" and whatnot.
8:03 p.m. "For me, it was so difficult," Mariah Carey says when Ryan asks if she's happy about the Top 40. "They're just got to now take it to the next level," Keith Urban explains. "We really have no idea what it's going to look like at the end of the night," Nicki says.
8:04 p.m. Jimmy Iovine is the tiebreaker in the case of... well... ties.
8:04 p.m. Of the people performing tonight, I'm pretty sure that there are two or three we've either never seen or we've seen only fleetingly. But tonight does include Angela Miller, who installed herself as an out-of-nowhere favorite last week. But first...
Singer: JENNY BETH WILLIS
Song: "Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love"
My Take: Who? Jenny Beth needs this exposure without America taking responsibility for her fate, because I don't have a clue who she is. Part of why we've never seen her before is that although she's got a servicable voice, she's got almost no personality at all. It's not unpleasant to listen to her, though, and after some sharp stretches in the middle, she nails a big last note. If we were voting tonight, the combination of no TV exposure, a 90% boring performance and opening a loooooong show would guarantee Jenny Beth's elimination. In this next context, the judges will still have to remember her, but if a few other contenders struggle, that last note could carry her through all by itself.
Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj, Randy Jackson and Mariah Carey Say: Keith didn't think that was the best song for her, but he loves her "effortless confidence." "I liked your voice, but to me I didn't feel like you came alive until the very end," Nicki says correctly. "I think you could have had so much more fun with the song," Nicki adds, as the audience boos. "It felt all a little jerky, like you never got in synch rhythmically with the band," Randy says, speculating she may have trouble. Mariah starts by asking if Jenny Beth had fun. That's never a good sign. "I think you could be more dynamic during the verses, vocally," Mariah suggests, but she praises her for taking the word "love" low.
Singer: TENNA TORRES
My Take: Fortunately, we've seen Tenna Torres before. She went to Camp Mariah, remember? She's 28. Dang. That's old. I bet she remembers Eisenhower. Tenna has a bigger voice than Natasha Bedingfield, which immediately eliminates any direct comparisons. The arrangement spends much to much time building up and the build-up finds Tenna is very nasally form, but as the song builds there's no doubt that behind the head-voice and behind the too-slow arrangement, there's a girl who can sing here. Unlike Jenny Beth, Tenna feels like somebody with solid Top 12 potential. The performance itself is kinda one-note, but that's also a product of the emotional intensity of this arrangement of this song. There's no chance for Tenna to show colors, but she does well with what she has.
Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj, Randy Jackson and Mariah Carey Say: Keith thinks it's a deceptively big song and he praises her control, especially at the end. Nicki isn't sure why Tenna looks sad. Tenna explains that it's a sad song. Nicki also praises Tenna's control, comparing her tone to the 1980s R&B singers, but Nicki tells Tenna to lose the hair, because she's currently being aged. "This is the start of the night... This is how you do it," Randy says, basically spitting in Jenny Beth's eye. "This was all you. You gave every bit of your emotion," Mariah raves.
Song: "Ain't No Way"
My Take: Adriana's a little girl and she's tackling a big Aretha song, but some breathiness aside, she does the song a solid service. Adriana, who comes from Alaska and hasn't been memorably showcased before, is really young, but she doesn't come across as affectless and robotic in the way teens with big voices can seem. There's some soul and texture here. Adrian also nails a huge last note, effectively eliminating Jenny Beth, because if you wanna have a "last note" competition, Adrianna wins. She takes a big last note, starts off just a bit off and wrestles it into perfection. I don't think you need to worry about Adriana. She's the first lock of the night to advance. I think Tenna is in the "strongly likely" category, while Jenny Beth is already done after 30 minutes.
Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj, Randy Jackson and Mariah Carey Say: "NOW the night has started," Keith cheers, after giving her a standing ovation, saying he had to struggle not to over-emote. Nicki calls Adrianna a "little ladybug" and asks how tall she is. Adrianna is 5'0" and Nicki praises her Filipino roots and raves that she didn't show "one ounce of fear." "This girl is born to do it," Randy says. "I was really proud of you and really happy for you," Mariah says, giving Adriana an "A+."
Singer: BRANDY HOTARD
My Take: Brandy's a singer we've spotted a couple times and she's another singer who is getting to the end of her "Idol" shelf-life at 26. Yeah, I hate to keep picking on poor Jenny Beth, because somebody had to open the show. But this is a much better country vocal and Brandy's fairly connected with the audience, or at least the judges. She's polished and looks like a pro, but she sounds like a work-in-progress. Her enunciation and phrasing are pretty weak. Everything becomes a mumbled blur and I'm not sure where verses begin and end or what the chorus is about. But it's nicely in-tune and on-point. Decent performance, but far from enough to make her a sure-thing to advance.
Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj, Randy Jackson and Mariah Carey Say: Keith has never heard a girl sing this song, but he felt "emotional connection inconsistency." Interesting. And not unapt. I didn't have a clue what the song was about, because she killed the lyrics. But if Keith says so... Nicki also isn't sure why Brandy was smiling, calling it "a pageant delivery of a song." I love Nicki Minaj. "It didn't tell me enough of who you are, what kind of artist you want to be," Randy says. [I just want and looked up the lyrics to this song and I kinda have to take back a lot of what I said. Yeah. That performance had no connection to the song being sung.] Mariah wonders if the new stage setting or audience prevented Brandy from emotionally connecting, but she praises the notes and her look.
Song: "Born This Way"
My Take: It's almost impossible not to enjoy saying "Shubha Vedula." It's just a musical name. It's such a fun name to say that it's basically sheer ignorance that Randy and Keith struggled with her name before. Kudos to Shubha for being the night's first performer to play an instrument. She doesn't do much on the piano, but it makes a point. As for Shubha, I've had the same problem every time we've heard her: I think she has a great voice, but she has absolutely no sense of restraint or proportion. There's growling, vibrato, upper register runs and all manner of other flourishes. There's almost no note that she just settles on and sings simply. She's an entertainer, though, from the piano-playing to up-tempo connection with the audience. The crowd loves her, even if I don't. This performance was exhausting to me, but in terms of upside, Shubha is still impressive.
Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj, Randy Jackson and Mariah Carey Say: Keith says that on one hand it was confusing because so many things were going on, but he loves her voice. "There's so much going on," Nicki says, saying that there's almost a comical thing. "It almost feels like a mash-up of Christina Aguilera and the Gangnam Style guy," Nicki says as the audience boos. "There were way too many runs. You don't have to over-do the runs," Randy says, raving at her potential. Mariah joins Randy in suggesting Shubha should have stayed at the piano.
Song: "Mr. Know It All"
My Take: Nope. This isn't a good song choice at all. Kamaria's tendency towards R&B oversinging is completely at odds with the importance of phrasing to Kelly Clarkson's pop sensibility. OK. This starts bad and it only gets worse. There are missed notes and pacing problems throughout. I just don't get how Kamaria could have blown the song choice so badly and this is the unpleasant result. She's strutting around connecting to none of it. Worst performance of the night by a wide margin. Bye, Kamaria. We never knew you.
Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj, Randy Jackson and Mariah Carey Say: "I don't know that that was a great song for you tonight," Keith says correctly, questioning her emotional connection, calling it "unnecessarily theatrical." "You look very nicely styled today," Nicki says, telling her to "be proud of that." Nicki hated the "throaty-twangy-thing." "From the start of the song, it just never caught on," Randy says, calling it her worst performance to date. "There's nothing redeemable I can say about it," Randy adds. Mariah doesn't think Kamaria could hear herself, but she calls her "adorable" and "vivacious." Mariah raves about her shoes.
Singer: KREE HARRISON
Song: "Up To The Mountain"
My Take: While this is Patty Griffin song, it's a second straight song that many "Idol" viewers are initially going to associate with Kelly Clarkson. The difference? Kree can sing. And Kree can sing this song. I suspect that Kree can sing most songs. And that's what Kree wants you to know about her. I almost applaud her hostility to the idea of gussying herself up to cater to popular perceptions of pop stardom. She's wearing an untucked shirt and dark pants and muted makeup. She's absolutely, totally letting her voice be the star of this performance. And it works. Add Kree to the "lock" category. She's advancing.
Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj, Randy Jackson and Mariah Carey Say: Keith gives Kree a standing ovation, calling her a natural and saying that she embodies the blues/gospel side of country. "I would be very afraid if I were any of these other kids here tonight," Nicki says, as the director cuts to the other girls backstage. "You make love to the song," Nicki says, raving that she's also sexy when she sings. "Here is another natural-born singer. She doesn't have to wear the outfit. She doesn't have to do anything," Randy says. "It's like you're lost in the song and that is a beautiful thing to watch, because it's unaffected," Mariah says.
9:06 p.m. I know it's early, but the judges have been eerily coherent and substantive tonight.
Singer: ANGELA MILLER
Song: "Nobody's Perfect"
My Take: Angela Miller has that Andrew Garcia problem, where she raised the bar MUCH too high for herself before it was actually relevant. Andrew's problem was that he was completely a one-trick pony. Angela has the advantage of... not being that. Can this measure up to her original composition, played on a piano and bringing down the house in Hollywood? No. But this girl absolutely has what Simon Cowell would call "The X Factor," but which I'll just call "talent," because "The X Factor" was so bad last season that it completely killed a pre-existing idiom. She's got a huge voice and when she opens up on stage, she goes from pretty to gorgeous. It's that "opening up" thing that's so striking to watch. Her voice really does soar. I'm really not sure when "Idol" last had a female singer as clearly and instantly shapeable and marketable as this girl. That she's apparently a songwriter as well -- and surely somebody would have let us know if there was anything fishy about the authorship of that original -- almost goes overboard. She's our third lock of the night.
Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj, Randy Jackson and Mariah Carey Say: "You just have a big, big gift that doesn't require any compensating," Keith says. "I love you, Angie," Nicki says. But she warns Angela that nothing will compare to that original performance, which she calls the most beautiful thing she's experienced since she started doing "Idol," calling her "a top contender." "You are definitely one of my favorites in the whole entire competition," Randy says. Mariah says Angela's potential is limitless and she wants the world to hear Angela's original song.
Song: "God Bless the Child"
My Take: It's a great song and Isabelle doesn't lack in the voice to sing it, but the entire performance is just a bit off, from the ultra-short, ultra-tight white miniskirt to the overdone musical arrangement. It's like Isabelle is the anti-Kree. I think both of them have the voice that nobody's gonna question their chops. I mean... that last note? Girl can SANG. Dynamite. But while Kree is out there saying, "Seriously, judge me 100 percent on my voice," Isabelle's saying, "Yo! I was overweight and now I'm stunning and I can also sing," which I fear may be undervaluing her skills. It's like she figures it'd be too easy to merely win "American Idol" and she wants to win Miss America simultaneously. This arrangement could have been so much less and the performance would have been so much more. But I think Isabelle is probably our fourth lock and that doesn't bother me at all.
Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj, Randy Jackson and Mariah Carey Say: Keith and Nicki both make this about Isabelle getting back at the guys who wouldn't go out with her when she was overweight. "Congrats and props on getting your health together and all that," Randy says, but he calls the performance "a bit old-fashioned" and says it was pageant-y. Good on Randy. Mariah agrees that Isabelle could have done it more simply, but that her vocal and her heart are what's selling her.
Singer: AMBER HOLCOMB
Song: "My Funny Valentine"
My Take: If Amber is 18, how is she an assistant teacher? Anyway... I don't remember her from last season and I don't remember her from this season. But I think we're going to remember her now. She's taking on a really difficult song and she handles it really well. She's got a smokey, pure and R&B-friendly voice and she handles the extremely challenging cadences of the song like a pro. I'm not sure if Amber gave the BEST performance of the night, but she definitely gave the most surprising, out-of-left-field, revelatory performance of the night. I think that's a fifth lock and this is over. A couple of the early-evening performances that I thought were decent don't stand a chance.
Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj, Randy Jackson and Mariah Carey Say: Keith says it was "so great to watch." Nicki compliments her dimples and "legs for days." "That vocal was A+++," Nicki says, but she hopes Amber's personality will shine through the TV. "You have to believe it before anybody else is going to believe it," Randy tells her. "You made the most important run the greatest and it stood out like a shining diamond," Randy adds. "I think you know how brilliant that performance was... I wanted to smack you," Mariah says.
9:35 p.m. By my count, it's Amber Holcomb, Angela Miller, Kree Harrison, Adriana Latonio and Isabelle. Easy-peasy. If the judges make any other choice, they've made a mistake. But I think there was a big gap between those five and the second five.
9:40 p.m. The judges were unanimous, as they darned well should have been.
9:40 p.m. Jenny Beth Willis didn't seem so bad when she started the show, but in retrospect... Meh. Keith tells her that the level of talent that came after her was too high. She's very composed and she thanks the judges gracious, before leaving the stage in tears.
9:41 p.m. Nicki gets to break the news to Brandy Hotard. "We were delighted to have met you, my darling," Nicki says, telling her that she's been eliminated. "Keep on being a psychiatric nurse," Nicki tells Brandy.
9:42 p.m. I'm a bit surprised that Tenna Torres ended up being such an obvious "No," but that's just the way the night went. Under other circumstances, she could have advanced and we'll have to see how the other 10 women play out. But then... Shocker. TENNA TORRES is the first person in the Top 20. Uh-oh. That means a mistake was made. We'll stick around to see who gets sent home who should have advanced.
9:44 p.m. "You know I've never liked you as a singer," Mariah jokes with KREE HARRISON, the second person in the Top 20.
9:44 p.m. I figure that either Isabelle or Adriana is gonna get hosed...
9:45 p.m. Keith tells Isabelle that the judges were very mixed in their voting and... Wow. Isabelle was the singer who got squeezed out for Tenna. I wonder if we'll see a Wild Card round to get her back.
9:46 p.m. "Do you think that you're going through?" Nicki asks Angela. "I really hope so," she replies. It's not a surprise, but ANGELA MILLER is in the Top 20.
9:51 p.m. They didn't apportion these results out correctly. I can't see any drama from these last two picks.
9:51 p.m. "I felt it was difficult. I really did," Mariah says of tonight's choices. "We're sending people home tonight who are insanely talented," Keith adds.
9:52 p.m. He's not referring to Kamaria. They could probably just laugh at her and move on. "I know that tonight was not my best performance," Kamaria says, blaming her difficulties hear and then saying she isn't making excuses. Randy says that the judges have had some tense words over some contestants and she tells Kamaria she didn't make it. She's a big girl and she smiles and hugs the judges. Definite points for grace.
9:54 p.m. Time for the night's Surprising Mystery Woman. Mariah talks in circles for a while. "Why is it me who has to do this?" Mariah says, pretending to be critical. Second fake-out in a row from Mariah. AMBER HOLCOMB is in the Top 20.
9:55 p.m. Adriana and Shoubha are freaking out backstage. They're best friends on the show and Adriana just bawling away. "Everything happens for a reason," Adriana says.
9:55 p.m. I just can't see a circumstance in which the judges keep Shoubha over Adriana, but let's see...
9:57 p.m. Keith reassures both of the teens that millions of people now know who they are and tells them that they both have amazing talent. He tells Shoubha that she was fought for for her "raw, real talent." ADRIANA LATONIO is the correct final person in the Top 20.
9:58 p.m. So the judges got it 4/5ths correct. That's not so bad.
9:59 p.m. As the show ends, nobody on-stage has a clue what to do. It's like this is "The X Factor."
What'd you think of tonight's results? And tonight's performances? And the judges and their judging?
Everything: American Idol
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