Thursday’s February 25 “American Idol” did not waste one second on frivolity, apart from introducing the judges, with Jennifer Lopez looking the part of the Princess at the ball, lovely in her sheer pink skirt and sparkling top. It was a regal occasion for the competition, not only because America’s vote for the Top 10, was announced, but because Kelly Clarkson, the first ever to take the title of THE “American Idol,” not only showed up to share her reminiscences and gratitude, but also gave genuine and heartfelt support and advice to those now on the climb. She also had a performance for the ages in store to close the show, but hers was not the only showstopper of the night. The memories of this farewell season will live forever, and offer talents to last.
Dalton Rapattoni, Olivia Rox, La’Porsha Renae, and Trent Harmon all received the panel’s approval for “fast passes” through to the Top 10, and that left us six more from the 14 to have their fate decided by the voting public. Immediately after the judges were in place, host, Ryan Seacrest, directed that the lights be dimmed, and the names were called for those entering the toughest, most tremendous, time of their lives. Tristan McIntosh was first called, followed by Sonika Vaid, Gianna Isabella, MacKenzie Bourg, Avalon Young, and last, but no one least in this group, Lee Jean. It is definitely the youngest group of 10 finalists in the competition’s long and storied history, and the tally brought a tearful parting for Jeneve Rose Mitchell, Manny Torres, Thomas Stringfellow, and Jenn Blosil. The future is still bright with years of performing and growing for these artists.
Before taking her panel seat, Kelly Clarkson recalled living in her car at the time of her “Idol” audition, and just being grateful that “if it pays, I’m down for it.” Real and honest as ever, she professed to being “knocked up and nostalgic” with only seven weeks left until the birth of her son with husband, Brandon Blackstock. She and Harry Connick, Jr. split between playfully flirting and sparring, and she got right down to business with counseling talents. Olivia Rox was first to perform, and she opened the night with Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally.” Her big voice is bursting forth at just the right time. Keith Urban complimented on what an “artist trajectory” Olivia is taking now, Jennifer Lopez love the arrangement of the song, and Kelly remarked that she was “super good” for someone so young, just beginning, and performed the song very tastefully. Harry simply said he loved it, and gave Kelly compliments for her panel abilities.
Another of the youngest among the ten, Gianna Isabella, who’s getting lots of local New Jersey support, was up next, and she took on a tiger of a song with Beyoncé’s “Listen” and such a big song sort of let her have it. Jennifer told her it was not the best performance, shaky in spots, and that sometimes it’s better to sing more for one’s age instead of just big songs. Kelly concurred with it being a bold choice, and comforted that being pitchy comes with everyone’s beginnings. Harry noted that the song felt “very arranged,” and cautioned against the stiffness. Keith recommended to Gianna that she “believe in yourself” because she’s got the voice. Lee Jean knows his niche, and the benefit of staying in his lane better than anyone. He took his own turn with Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love,” and he showed love for Chris Medina, who inspired him his audition of “Break Even.” Kelly Clarkson told Lee that she loved him, and that he might want to look for songs with big moments as the competition gets stiffer. Harry was full of praise, too, but warned that MacKenzie could make real competition for Lee. Keith reminded that Lee has a gift of the storyteller in song, different than anyone else. Jennifer advised that he strive to give everyone the feeling that Chris Medina had given him. Lee was speechless when Ryan Seacrest introduced Chris in the audience, and said they could “get together later.” That had to be a lovefest.
Avalon Young is another very young talent who has really been taking lessons about audience connection and revealing emotion. She went with the current, hot song “Stitches” and still got lots of audience love. Harry advised that she leave out her half-time treatment of the song, while Jennifer wasn’t sure it was the right song at all. Keith said her nerves showed, but she found her way through, and got her groove back before the end. Kelly told her she was “so cool, it’s captivating,” and complimented that even though she might not like the songs, she loves the way Avalon sings them. Dalton Rapattoni always does something different to make every song his own, and it was no different with Plain White T’s “Hey There Delilah.” The minute he started singing, the audience cheers came, so much so that Keith Urban just said “You did it again. It’s like electric barnyard!” Jennifer pointed out that while Dalton is a rocker, he has a lot of heart. Kelly praised the way that he is so comfortable as a performer, and Harry said “You’re batting 1000,” noting the screaming girls.
Tristan McIntosh maybe tried to grow up a little fast with her choice of Dan and Shay’s “Nothin’ Like You.” Jennifer said that the song was “not all it could be,” and that there was much to be said for just being in the moment instead of jumping ahead. Keith said that Tristan should find the kind of song where she could be lost in the moment again. Harry said she should watch her pitch, and that she had chosen a hard song to show off her voice. Kelly suggested that she try Tricia Yearwood next time. MacKenzie Bourg chose “I See Fire,” filled with emotion, and Harry was satisfied with this personal reason for the choice, and what it meant. Oddly enough, MacKenzie selected William Hung’s 2004 audition of “She Bangs” as his cherished “American Idol” memory. Kelly Clarkson told MacKenzie that her baby boy did flips during his song. “You know where your artistry is,” she praised. “Compelling” was Harry Connick, Jr’s critique, and Keith loves that MacKenzie plays guitar, because it helps them settle to his comfort zone. Jennifer urged MacKenzie to choose more songs for impact as the competition moves on.
A moment that will be remembered throughout history on “American Idol” and talent television in general, began next with the regal entrance of La’ Porsha Renae to the stage, with all silent until she began her opening of Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” and the rest was so spectacular that no one dared to move or breathe until her smashing close. If anything, La’Porsha’s rendition was even more riveted with emotion than the original, every run, every tone spoke from the heart, even without words. The single mother can be sure that she will be “on top of my struggles” from now on. This performance was unforgettable. Kelly was so awed that she said the singer should only say “You’re welcome” when she opens her mouth, adding “You’re so blessed.” Jennifer Lopez interjected “your control” is what is spectacular beyond the voice. The audience appreciation was so overflowing, Harry said “that’s your critique,” and Keith commended that it’s never a matter of what one receives, but what one is able to give, and La’Porsha had given “pure humanity.”
Sonika Vaid had that showstopper of a performance to follow, and she wasn’t about to lie flat. She tore into Evanescence’ “Bring Me to Life” with fury, and perfect, dark passion. She has not performed like this ever before, and it was La’Porsha’s impetus that sparked it, so the two competitors should be in gratitude to one another. Keith gave a standing ovation, Jennifer Lopez called her “Dangerous!” performing at that level. Kelly was amazed that “you’re never pitchy,” and Harry complimented that the performance was “great and smart.” The gauntlet has been thrown.
Trent Harmon gave the last of the finalists’ performances, digging in with his soulful coolness on Sam Smith’s “Like I Can.” It was top notch, and Trent at his best. Jennifer Lopez proudly exclaimed that this final season was “the best competition ever,” while Kelly Clarkson admires that Trent is “so impressive and unique.” Harry commended that Trent was among the singers who could take on those hard runs and be “right on the money.” Keith said he wished that the La’Porsha had started the show, because she elevated every performance after.
Kelly Clarkson gave likely the most memorable performance of her career, saved for the “Idol” oval, with “Piece by Piece.” The autobiographical title song to her latest album is so personal and real, in that territory that only Kelly dares to go so often in song. As she came to the last chorus of “that a man can be kind, and a father can stay” tears came, and the voice cracked, but that only served to make the performance more endearing, more raw, more intensely human, as this mom is about to deliver a son. What a blessing that only “American Idol” creates this kind of real heart amidst real competition.
Next week, sadly, a double elimination comes, making Top 10 even more of a test.