For this farewell season, the “American Idol” Top 24 talents reflected a broader range of artistry and genre than any in the competition’s history. As quickly as the joy came of being chosen for that elite group of singers, this week of solo rounds, and Thursday’s February 11 star duets with some of the most stellar artists molded from past seasons brought the pain of goodbye, because only seven are selected to move forward. The treat of tasting stardom alongside someone who made the most of being the “American Idol” was mixed with a touch of terror. Who passed this toughest test so far?
Jennifer Lopez reflected the lovely hues of the Vibiana in downtown Los Angeles, wearing her soft pink gown in lace, but sometimes, learning to w work with others takes hard work, and that was part of the training and the lesson in the performances to come. Season 10’s country darling with the huge voice, Lauren Alaina, was a good choice to tutor Emily Brooke in her continuing trek to gain confidence and live performance skill, but their song, Carrie Underwood’s “Flat on the Floor,” didn’t suit Emily’s sweet spot in singing. They did complement each other fine in certain moments, but Lauren’s parts leapt above the beginner’s. Lauren did offer a valuable piece of advice, reminding Emily to stay herself, stay completely human and real, and keep singing. Harry Connick, Jr. commented on how clear the difference in age and experience was, and that the song was not the best for Emily. Keith Urban also noted that Emily had not yet developed a “road ready” voice that comes from all the touring done by someone like Lauren, and again stated that the song was a disappointment. Jennifer Lopez gave encouragement, saying that Emily had the talent to “grow into being Lauren Alaina.”
Nick Fradiani, last year’s title-taker took up with Thomas Stringfellow on Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” a daunting treasure, and to their credit, they did pretty well splitting duties on stage. They related to each other in taking the chance at a music career, and paying the price of a girlfriend, and got the first roar of approval from the audience. Keith Urban noted a little bit of struggle with the song, and said how hard these duets were to judge, because the song’s don’t follow the hopeful’s styles all along the competition. Jennifer Lopez said the collaboration “didn’t feel right,” and Harry said that the solo performance with “Creep” had been so good that he would “bypass this.” This became a pattern of the night, with songs “chosen” for the performance. Season 2’s teddy bear, Reuben Studdard, really showed how much he still had it with his performances, the first being with Stephany Negrete, who really seemed a bundle of nerves singing “Superstar.” Reuben fit into the song like slippers, while Stephany was balancing in stilettos. Jennifer Lopez was brought to tears just hearing the song, and loved how their voices blended. Harry called the performance strong, but said that Stephany had more pitch and note issues than ever, probably from nerves. Keith complimented that Ruben brought out the best in his partner.
There couldn’t be more different partners stylistically than rocker, Caleb Johnson, from Season 13, and sweet-voiced, Sonika Vaid– no wonder she had nerves! They went with the song that put Caleb in a different category in his competition,” Skyfall,” and each meshed skills as well as they could. Sonika never really captured the brooding mood of the song, but her voice is still beautiful. Harry said he could feel the nervousness, and that Sonika had not yet become seasoned to the stage, but that potential was there. Keith kept it simple, saying “great song, great voice.” J-Lo dubbed the performance “really good,” said she was waiting for Sonika to get even more loose. Scotty McCreery paired with Jenna Renae on his own song, “See You Tonight.” They got lots of fan love, and were certainly high-energy, but not quite in sync. Jenna’s joy is so apparent, but she tends to yell instead of sing with her excitement. Keith Urban teased that they were in each other’s houses, and said Jenna’s voice was lovely. Jennifer Lopez noted “you did the best you could” considering the song and situation. Harry Connick, Jr. declared it a “fun song.”
The showstoppers of the night came next, with Season 3’s queen, Fantasia Barrino, and La’Porsha Renae making a soul connection with their similar backgrounds, beyond their song “Summertime.” From the second they were announced, they came on as sisters, in equal stature as performers, and going toe to toe for everything they were worth. It was a spectacular, unforgettable moment– one of those making every sure glad for watching “American Idol.” Keith stood first with his ovation. Jennifer Lopez said quite rightly that “only on this show” can “mind blowing” moments like theirs be seen, saying they were “beautifully matched.” Harry Connick, Jr. labeled it “a battle of runs.” The winner of that one is so hard to say, even this early, it has to be a tie. La’Porsha Renae is a star, far past “in the making.” The cutest collaboration of the night came next, between Lauren Alaina and MacKenzie Bourg. This was no “girl crush,’ she was smitten for the boy! MacKenzie seemed so taken aback by the flirting, he seemed to forget the song, but by the time they brought “I Hope You Dance” to the stage, the same familiar smiles and swaying arms filled the audience. Keith definitely noticed Lauren’s affections, and he loved the way MacKenzie still managed to make the song his own. Jennifer Lopez was smiling ear to ear through the performance, and said that the partners were “really nice together.” Harry Connick, Jr. took a pause to say that “the amount of talent from this competition is overwhelming,” in a nod to history.
Gianna Isabella gained more confidence as a performer, singing her partner, Nick Fradiani’s song, “Beautiful Life,” and he learned how different it was to sing familiar notes with someone else. It was evident that these two worked at getting the song right, and a tight connection. Isabella made it clear that she was in this for herself to win it, beaming as she told Jennifer “look where I am now.” The duet got good marks, particularly for one so young. Harry confessed to having a dilemma between Gianna’s vocal gift and being just a kid. She’s one kid who’s going places, all on her own. Ruben Studdard showed he still had it again, and Avalon Young showed just why she’s made it so far when they joined on his song from the competition, “Flying Without Wings.” Still dressed down, but looking so classy in black, Avalon and Ruben brought a surprise richness to their verses, so much so that one would think they had sung this for years. Keith gave another standing ovation, Jennifer Lopez gave one big word, “IN-credible!” Like Keith, Harry remarked that Avalon was “incredibly likable,” deeming it a strong duet.
Caleb Johnson and James VIII rocked out on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” James in his element “vamping” on guitar, Caleb doing what he does best, booming his voice to the heights. The two really worked well together and were rewarded with uproarious applause from the crowd. Harry commended James’ courage to take on Caleb in a song that was “his wheelhouse.” Keith told James that he liked him as a performer, and Jennifer said that they complemented each other well. Jeneve Mitchell was delighted to sing with Scotty McCreery on Montgomery Gentry’s hit, “Gone,” but she got hit for being stuck in a song not right for her, too. She still gave it all she had, and sparkled from the stage, swinging her chapped legs, bouncing around like Annie Oakley. Keith Urban put it bluntly, saying she was “saddled” with the song. Harry said that the performance never showed her artistry, and Jennifer said even all things considered, Jeneve was “really special.” Fantasia and Jordan Susser sang the last duet of the night, and again, the performance showed that Jordan, despite his talent, was trying too hard. They were singing “I Believe,” Fantasia’s anthem from her season, and he stepped on notes, and across her onstage, almost unforgivable. Fantasia advised her student to “not look away” onstage, and focus on those basics instead of big note moments. The panel saw issues, too, Keith reminding not to “put each other off,” and for Jordan to “rein it in.” Jennifer called the performance a good job, while Harry warned about upstaging, and where a performer should be onstage to show respect.
After just a few minutes of deliberation, the seven were chosen to move on, and they are: La’Porsha Renae, Sonika Vaid, Avalon Young, Gianna Isabella, Thomas Stringfellow, MacKenzie Bourg, and Jeneve Mitchell.
Next week, the same process goes for the last dozen– it should be fun!