Idol has moved from Hollywood to Las Vegas, and things are getting serious. Tonight is the first night of the four-episode Sudden Death round—where the judges select five singers to move on to the Top 20 from a round of ten—and it's happening in front of a live audience! (Those people in attendance were actually at a taping on Tuesday night, but, you know, technicalities.) Ryan Seacrest promises that we will see the most brutal cuts of the year!
We are introduced to the judges not only with their stage names, but with their Twitter handles. Keith Urban is Nicki Minaj has blonde hair. Randy Jackson has a red and white suit that could very well be some bonus product placement for Coke. Are you happy with your choices so far, Mariah Carey? "I was very attached to certain people, and we all had to agree. And now it's going to be even tougher, so get ready." She laughs. Jimmy Iovine gets to be the tiebreaker! "Jimmy is much tougher than he looks," says Ryan Seacrest, perhaps because of the Interscope honcho's hat.
The singers performing tonight are introduced, and Ryan Seacrest is quick to notice that "there is a huge amount of buzz about these ladies of season 12." Perhaps that it true if only by the sheer will of the producers and the people they've hired to feed Idol-related news to the media, but judging by the audience reaction, Angela Miller has the most ringers in the crowd.
JENNI BETH WILLIS. Clad in a prom dress that looked inspired by a Betsey Johnson fever dream about housework and a pair of cowboy boots, this gothy-looking 17-year-old sang Trisha Yearwood's “Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love”—a bit rushed and young in a Lauren Alaina "I know what it feels like to sing about heartache" way. Keith liked it (country represent), but Randy and Nicki were a bit unimpressed by her slow-burn performance; Mariah had some super spot-on critiques about how she could better interpret the song, and if she's going to be that technical and helpful all this season, I am pretty psyched.
TENNA TORRES. The Camp Mariah refugee from Jamaica, Queens, decides to sing a 2007 Natasha Bedingfield song that peaked at No. 96 on the Hot 100, because why not, she's not subject to the whims of the callers and texters. She delivers a diva-worthy performance as far as her pulled-noodles hand gestures quotient goes; her voice struggles a little bit on the higher notes and strenuous runs, but the emotion is clearly there. "I don't know that Natasha Bedingfield song," Keith says as soon as she's done, letting us know that the judges have been prepped with song titles and artists and that he, at least, is taking his job pretty seriously. "Why do you look so sad?" asks Nicki, before telling Tenna that she sounds like an '80s R&B singer but that her hair makes her look old. Randy, of course, is totally into it, because this performance represents the Idol he knows, the one that existed before Chris Daughtry and his bald head ruined everything.
ADRIANA LATONIO. She's from Alaska! It's not as cold as you think! She sings an Aretha Franklin song, which is a big risk for a a 17-year-old, but closing my eyes and listening to her on the verses flashed me back to the era when 101.9 FM in New York City played just love songs and wasn't given over to sports, but her final note was a bust. Not enough to ruin it completely, but enough to make me wonder how she'll do in the weekly grind. Keith liked it, while warning her to not worry too much about the crowd's emotion; Nicki was impressed by Adriana's composure inside a Seacrest-sized package. Randy used the "born to do it" trope that he's trotted out in the past, and Mariah gave her an A-plus.
BRANDY HOTARD. This the the Louisiana native's third attempt trying out for Idol, and her attempt to sing Travis Tritt's "Anymore"... well, if Simon Cowell were still around, she would have been greeted with the dreaded k-word. Keith took her veracity to task; Nicki concurred, asking her why she was smiling while singing of heartbreak and borrowing Simon's p-word—pageant! "We don't want you to smile at us if it doesn't really feel truthful to the song... but you look beautiful." A burn worthy of a mixtape, that one. Mariah wasn't bothered by Brandi's smiling, although she did question why Brandi seemed less connected than in previous years;
SHUBHA VEDULA. The cameraman in the chill-out room didn't know who this 17-year-old was before commercial. Well, there are a lot of singers right now, and hey, live TV! Or sorta-live. Anyway, she turns "Born This Way" into a slowed-down gospel song, gets up from the piano and then makes a lot of weird gestures, muffs the word "chola," plops a slew of runs on top of every note, and adds a coda that has a traditional-Indian-music run and some diva posturing. Her voice is powerful, but this is the sort of arrangement that could be killed by, say, Adam Lambert, but not someone with this little seasoning. "That was, like... you guys loved this, right?" Keith asked the crowd. "PREPARE TO BOO AGAIN," Nicki says, before telling her that there was too much going on, and if Nicki Minaj is calling your aesthetic too maximalist... oh this poor girl. Randy and Mariah go the "well, you're 17, good job for your age" route, which makes me think this girl is toast. (It's too bad, too, because the "Will Ryan please stop treating the pronunciation of this girl's name as a joke" betting pool would have been something to watch over the course of the season.)
KAMARIA OUSLEY. Are Idol's stylists this year operating in tribute to Working Girl? The houndstooth stretch pants Kamaria is wearing here are making me wonder. Kamaria has been a backup singer for a while—shades of Melinda Doolittle! But Kelly Clarkson's "Mr. Know It All" is just not well-suited to her voice—it's indulging her breathiness in a very off-putting way and making her transitions to her full voice even more awkward. This performance is rough, right down to the half-step-low last note. Ugh, girl, why did you not pick "Stronger." The first definite elimination of the night, if only because she's sixth of the six who have gone so far.
KREE HARRISON. Speaking of The One True American Idol, I'm getting a very strong Kelly vibe from this Texan singer, right down to her casual-Friday outfit. She sings "Up To The Mountain," which Kelly sang on "Idol Gives Back" a couple of years ago, and she does it simply and well. Keith is thrilled by the way she brings in blues and gospel influences, and even drops "authentic." Ooh! Nicki loves the way she makes love to a song—"something about you is just so sexy when you sing," she exclaims, which makes Kree bite her lower lip shyly. Flirtation! Mariah loves how she gets lost in a song. "It's unaffected. You're not trying to be any way... it's just incredibly organic, and you sing the song, and you sang the hell out of that song." Kree seems to be disbelieving of this praise, although not in a Surprised Taylor Swift Way. Is she my new front-runner? Perhaps!
ANGELA MILLER. This Massachussetts native sings Jessie J's "Nobody's Perfect," and this gloopy arrangement makes it sound extremely inspired musically by Idol coronation songs of yore, although its lyrics are about a breakup in which both parties acted badly. She is very out-of-the-box ready top to bottom (remember, she sang her own song in Hollywood!) and having her around will, I think, be a boon for the producers, since they want a female winner so badly. "I love you, Angie," Nicki says, and Angela responds in kind. But Nicki also cautions her against being too eager in the competition, which is pretty wise.
ISABELLE. This one-named singer from Georgia (her last name's Pasqualone, in case you were wondering) wants to be an inspiration for young girls after being rejected in high school for being overweight. Singing "God Bless The Child" in the style of a '90s adult-contemporary radio staple and subsequently getting complimented by major stars for being hot is, I suppose, a way to do that. She has good phrasing and sounds great on the big notes, although her lower register can be a bit rocky. Randy and Nicki disagree on just how of-the-now she is, and she says that she will prove herself further once she advances in the competition. Confidence! Or hubris? We'll see at the end...
AMBER HOLCOMB. This 18-year-old who got cut in Vegas last year turns in a "My Funny Valentine" that wouldn't sound out of place on a classic R&B station; she's got a brassy voice and when she jumps up into her higher register at the song's end it sounds great. The cut to Mariah Carey smiling knowingly only underscored that. The judges go bonkers over it, with Mariah saying that she wanted to smack Amber. But in a good way! "It was that good. What is that girl doing to this song right now? It's incredible."
And then it's time for the results, which are drawn out over a half hour, bringing back memories of filler-filled elimination episodes of years gone by. The winners get sent to the stools, and the losers get sent packing. Batch one: Jenny is out because she didn't live up to the people who followed her; Brandy is gone and Nicki tells her to keep on being a psychiatric nurse, "because you're doing something great"; Tenna is going forward even though the producers picked a part of her song where she was obviously straining to introduce her; Kree is, unsurprisingly, still in the game; Isabelle is out, a decision that's accompanied by boos; and Angela is in. Three of the five stools are full at the commercial break.
We return with the least surprising elimination, of Kamaria Ousley, who says that she had a hard time but who isn't going to make excuses. And then we have the equally not-shocking pass-through of Amber. This leads us into the final cut: Shubha or Adriana, two teenagers who apparently forged a BFFship during the auditions. But this is not Top BFF, or Best Friend Idol, and one of them has to go home, and it's obviously Shubha. Why this particular face-off was scheduled for the Big Dramatic Ending is beyond me, but that's been one of the producers' most nonsensical decisions so far this season, which I think portends well for Season 12.
WHO MADE IT THROUGH: Tenna Torres; Kree Harrison (yeah!); Angela Miller; Amber Holcomb; Adriana Latonio.
WHO GOT KINDA ROBBED: Isabelle, sort of, although really the flaws in her performance and in Tenna's were evenly matched. (Apparently the judging was mixed on whether or not Isabelle should stay. Too bad there are, as Ryan solemnly noted, no second chances.)
TONIGHT: Ten male singers perform, and we get to see how willing the judges will be to throw every White Guy With Guitar under the bus in hopes of breaking the show's recent cycle!