It's night two of Idol's Sudden Death rounds, and we are still in Las Vegas, and we are going to watch as five male contestants make it to the Top 20. Nicki Minaj has pink hair. But the men should be worried, because the ladies, according to Mariah Carey, are amazing.
The male contestants enter the stage through the underground. The styling from the close-ups looks very MTV 1987. Five of these people will make it through to the Top 20.
PAUL JOLLEY. He's sitting on a chair and going the breathy-twangy ballad route. He's also going the very risky route by singing a song by Idol judge Keith Urban! Is this brilliant or dumb? Well, his bigger notes need a little bit of work, but Keith's smiling when all is said and done. "It's a huge honor for someone to do one of my songs," he tells Paul. So gracious! He also notes that sometimes Paul's voice gets a little too big, which is fair. Nicki offers up a critique that would probably use the p-word ("pageant") if Paul was a female contestant.
JOHNNY KEYSER. "Are you ready for some blue-eyed soul, America?" he asks in his intro package. I am! I don't know if a Jason Mraz song counts, though, Johnny. And yet here he is, singing "I Won't Give Up" in a sort of gospel-ish arrangement. He's standing stock-still until he rips the microphone off his stand and starts to walk around a little; his singing starts off okay but starts to get a little bit rote right before the big finish. The comfortable moments and the best singing don't really come at the same time. Keith is sort of tongue-tied in the immediate aftermath; Nicki compliments him for being "well-groomed." Randy, like me, found the performance "just okay." Mariah also flirts with Johnny, giving Nick Cannon a shoutout while complimenting Johnny's "mas-cu-linnnn-i-tee," which prompts Ryan to poke fun at his own dude quotient.
JDA. This gender-bending Chicagoan performs "Rumour Has It" and oh man his voice has that pinched quality that sounds like it should be placed on a freestyle 12-inch from 1987 as soon as possible. (What is with the '80s vibe of this week—not even, like, the neon new wave bit, but the later part of the decade.) He collapses to the floor on the bridge for extra emotion. I love this performance! The falsetto, the emotion, the phrasing. The judges are cracking up. But this is legit good! "You guys came to see a show, right? So I want to give you a show," he tells the judges. Keith takes his performance to task for being overly choreographed. "Work it, girl, work it," Nicki says. "I gotta represent for the gays," JDA replies. She was also super-into the way he saluted the audience, although she called her vocal "phone-voicey... whiny." ("Phone-voicey"?) Randy trots out the "singing competition" line. Mariah likes his vocal, though, and his confidence! (Which JDA attributes to his heels.) Will this result in a Jimmy tiebreaker?
KEVIN HARRIS. Nothing says "relevant in 2013" like a run-through of "Everything I Do (I Do It For You)," right? Yet people cheer when this Alabama native kicks into his version of the Bryan Adams chestnut. (Happy Oscar week, I guess.) There are some nice moments where his tone gets velvety, and he gets in two sweet falsetto bits, but his voice is as off as it is on. I wish someone had tipped him off to the existence of Luke James's "I Want You," which would have been a much better showcase for his talents. Keith likes it; Nicki thinks that every single choice he made was "perfection." Yet Randy was bored! And Mariah's critique is bloodless—"I'm a huge admirer of you and I feel you're a professional." Welp.
CHRIS WATSON. A waiter from Delaware who's into headscarves and who believes in the "law of attraction." He is singing "Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay" while styled like a member of Cameo, sparkly vest and all. Who is picking these songs for these guys? The disconnect here is just strange, like the audience was parachuted into one of those mid-concert medleys that insecure pop musicians plop into their sets in order to prove they are Serious Artists. He's a little too charismatic for the song and he torpedoes his last note. Randy again trots out the "singing competition" live, and unfavorably compares Chris to Otis Redding ("I was bored"), which, well, bye Chris.
DEVIN VELEZ. This 18-year-old has a deep, strong voice that suits Beyoncé's "Listen" well—and when he goes into singing the lyrics in Spanish there's a pop from the crowd. His performance is pretty simple, but it's effective. Is he a stealth top-five contender? He's young, he can sing, he's cute, he has a cross-demographic appeal. Nicki likes the fact that he's young and showed himself to be linguistically versatile; Mariah cautions him against correcting himself while he's singing. (Seriously, the judging this year is so much better than it has been in so long. Please keep it up, everyone. PLEASE.) She adds that she can't wait to hear his record, and I suspect she will have a chance to do so.
ELIJAH LIU. Bruno Mars's "Talking To The Moon" is one of the pop heartthrob's stealth weapons—it's like a OneRepublic track that actually has vibrancy. It's also very tough to sing, with Mars's clear-as-a-bell voice zooming into falsetto effortlessly, and sadly. Elijah, alas, is not up to the challenge—his voice is shaky and sharp. This might be why Nicki and Keith compliment his looks, which are pretty decent, although the fluffed hair/leather jacket combo does recall Sanjaya before he went full-on trollgaze. (Also: Is "I'm obsessed with you" becoming Nicki's "pitchy"? Perhaps!) Randy, thankfully, has something to say about the underwhelming vocal. Mariah calls Elijah "marketable," which will probably give him an edge over any other singers on the verge. Especially if Jimmy Iovine has to call in any tiebreakers.
CHARLIE ASKEW. Backstage, he's toting around a golf club as a way to practice working with the standless microphone. Smart! (Nicki uses the "obsessed" line in his intro package, which, see what I mean?) He's performing "Rocket Man" and he's clearly nervous—the microphone is trembling in his hand on the verses, and at one point he gestures so strongly I think he's going to fall over. He goes into Adam Lambert octave-jump mode on the final chorus and it works, and his voice recovers enough that it isn't shaky when it comes, er, down to earth. He gets a standing ovation from the panel and is confident enough to tear off two screamed "THANK YOU"s. "No matter what people are saying at home, I bet nobody left the TV set during that performance," says Keith, who also seemed perplexed by his song choice. Nicki says that he made the most interesting song choice of the night; "as young as you are, you don't rely on cutesy... it's rock star, it's fresh, it's crazy." Charlie keeps interrupting the judges. Randy is confused, and calls his performance a bit "stage school," and then gets kind of annoyed at his fellow judges for prioritizing the performances over the singing. I like Charlie's energy although I feel like once voting comes into play he should probably not keep talking over the judges, because people hate sassiness. Even if it's borne from awkwardness.
JIMMY SMITH. Another country singer who takes on a Keith Urban track! "Raining On Sunday" was written by Radney Foster, but Keith recorded it for his 2002 album Golden Road. This version is a bit pageanty, although I looked up the lyrics and the song's about nookie, not tears, which I guess explains his slight grin throughout. Keith punts because he feels weird about critiquing a performance of a song that was his; Nicki was bored; Randy name-drops the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss album from a few years ago in an effort to match Jimmy's look to his sound; Mariah notes that he seemed a little cowed by the large audience, although she thinks that he has potential with the Idol crowd.
CURTIS FINCH, JR. Before the break Ryan calls him "the pride of St. Louis," although his enunciation is weird and it sounds like he's saying "the bride of St. Louis." Anyway. Taking on Luther Vandross is a risk, and taking on his Carpenters cover even more of one, but Curtis performs "Superstar" well, with a brassy bass that very unexpectedly veers into falsetto beautifully and recovers well (this is the hardest thing with upper-register play). Um, are we witnessing the birth of Jacob Lusk II here?? "You raise the bar, and other contestants are always waiting to see what you're going to do," Nicki tells him. "It's your time." Randy says that he's one of the best singers in the entire competition, but that he needs to keep it young. Mariah passes on the vocal critique because of Curtis's choir-director bona fides, but tells him he needs to loosen his tie a bit. He's a lock, maybe the first lock of the night.
And so we are on to the whittling process, with Randy touting the strength of the pool and Nicki noting that she had to fight for a couple of her favorites. Ryan notes that the panel will come back to Tiebreaking Vote And Music Industry Important Guy Jimmy Iovine shortly, which I guess means drama! Hooray. But the drama holds off for the first contestant up—Curtis, who's going through. Obviously. Jimmy (Smith) is cut; Kevin is out, even though he's one of Mariah's favorites; Elijah is moving on, even though Keith tries to fake him out. JDA is eliminated! Noooo! He gets cut by Nicki, of all people, which makes it even more painful. You'd think she would understand. Oh well. Paul apparently (surprisingly?) split the panel, and so we throw to Jimmy, who says that he saw Paul singing a Keith Urban song while auditioning for Phantom Of The Opera, but that his voice is good enough to go through. I am suspecting that JDA was robbed because of this decision, which, grrr.
There's a commercial break and four singers are left: Chris, Charlie, Johnny, and Devin. It's a little obvious who is going to make it through and who isn't, no? Chris is out, Charlie's in, even though "other performers" didn't make it through. And in the competition between Johnny and Devin... how is this even a cliffhanger? Devin is the final singer of tonight's guys to make it to the gleaming stools. Idol needs to structure these final eliminations better next week, that's for sure.
WHO MADE IT THROUGH: Curtis Finch, Jr.; Elijah Liu; Paul Jolley; Charlie Askew; and Devin Velez.
WHO GOT KINDA ROBBED: I weep that we will not be watching JDA kill it over the coming weeks. Meet me at Forever Freestyle 7 next Saturday night, dude!
NEXT WEEK: The final ten places are filled! There will also probably be a lot more talk about how the female contenstants this year are so great, no really.