Oh, Vegas…

I’ve been to Vegas exactly once in my whole life. I drove through on a whirlwind post-college road trip en route to the Grand Canyon. We spent about half a day there, and the whole time I felt a bit like Alice down the rabbit hole. It really is like an alien dimension in Vegas, it’s fucking nuts; up is down, wrong is right, people are animals, day is night. I lost $20 in 10 minutes, drank a yard of margarita, ate Thai food at a French/Mexican/Asian restaurant, and then proceeded to walk around in a daze, marveling at the utter nonsense all around me with some combination of feverish amusement and stunned bewilderment. One might wonder why this season’s Vegas round of Idol needed to take place in Vegas, when structurally it was not really all that different from the LA-based semifinals of seasons past. I can think of no reason other than to allow Ryan Seacrest to pose with dolphins and fire that I as a viewer did leave this round with somewhat the same feeling I did when I left Vegas itself – confused, overwhelmed, and a little bit wasted relieved to be leaving, but ultimately glad I went.

For serious though, the structure of this new round was way confusing, and kind of tedious in that we had to sit through a LOT of pretty sub-par performances, but at the end of the day I appreciated that we got to hear so many of the early contenders sing full songs. When you consider that they usually use this time for never-ending auditions or prolonged Hollywood drama, this was certainly a step up. And while I disagreed strongly with some of the judges’ cuts (I’m looking at you Shubha Vedula and RACHEL HALE), at least this way I got to understand the reasoning behind it. I mean, I adored Rachel from the beginning, and even more so after she took on one of my favorite Grace Potter jams, but compared to some of the others, I must conceed that she did not deliver the strongest vocal. (But she COULD have, if they’d given her a little more time to get comfortable! BLARG!!) Most importantly, this format allowed for the best to rise effectively and efficiently to the top. All of which is to say that the structure of this new Vegas round has potential – I hope they won’t throw it out the window come next year and instead will simply work with it to make it a little bit less of a clusterfuck. Oh, and moar Ryan with dolphins and fire, please.

So now we have a top 10! Before the announcement of the top 10, I made a list of the remaining guys and girls broken down into three categories: “needs to be in the top 10,” “I don’t care either way,” and “needs to go away.” I’d prefer not to name names, but at the end of it, the girls list was split 5/3/2 and the guys 2/2/6. Halfway through the announcement of this top 10 I was super stressed out because the 5 guys that went through were spread 1/1/3 on my list, and my very favorite got most-unceremoniously shafted (yes, of course I am referring to Honorary Homegirl Fo Lyfe Nick Boddington, who needs to go  make an album so I can buy it immediately). BUT THEN, America most astutely advanced all five of my favorite girls, effectively creating the most uneven top 10 I’ve ever seen in all the years I’ve been watching this show. By FAR. I know that this was the point, and that TPTB have been colluding and plotting nefariously in dark rooms for months trying as hard as they could to concoct this narrative and ensure its fulfillment, but even knowing that can’t ruin the sheer awesomeness of the situation at hand. This group of girls are impressive individually, and even more so collectively. They’re bringing high-quality, season 8-caliber talent to the table, while the guys are bringing full-on season 9-esque Weak Sauce (no offense of course to Siobhan Magnus, who flies above her dismal season, quite literally, since she’s a glorious fucking unicorn).

It’s been suggested a lot over the years that a woman can never again win Idol, and it would seem given this top 10 that if a woman does not win Idol this year, they never will. I’m going to see that assertion and raise it, because I think not only is there something grievously wrong with the system if this season doesn’t turn out a female winner for the first time since 2007, there’s something grievously wrong with the system if this season doesn’t turn out the first girl-on-girl finale since 2004 (the one and only of its kind in Idol history). And go ahead and call me naive, but I wholeheartedly believe that’s exactly what’s going to happen, because despite all evidence to the contrary, I think that Idol viewers as a whole are not complete idiots. Sure, they make grievous errors once in a while, but their decisions are very rarely entirely irrational, and they’ve ALMOST never put anyone all the way through who was not at least somewhat deserving. When offered the choice between a worthy male contender and a worthy female contender, America might go with the guy 100% of the time, but between a truly worthy female and a wildly unworthy male? They’ll make the right choice. Mark my words, y’all. They will make the right choice.

Before I get into the girls and their Vegas showings, I have to quickly give it up for these judges. I was waiting as long as I could so as not to jinx it, but they really are doing a spectacular job. I love that they’ve established this split between the left and the right sides of the panel, because the left side together are so spot-on that by the time the right side starts yammering I don’t even care. Actually, I must say I’ve found Mariah has become ever-so-slightly less useless as the season has evolved, integrating wisps of accurate musical terminology and coherent feedback into her babble. That’s the opposite of what usually happens at this point in the season, so good for her. Really though, it’s all about Nicki and Keith. They’ve got such a great dynamic between them; entertainingly playful like that of the Voice coaches, or the old Simon/Paula dynamic, but unlike either of those examples, this banter is entirely free of animosity and has an underlying tone of deep, genuine mutual respect, which I for one appreciate im-mensely. I’ll admit I’m finding myself kind of fascinated by Nicki and the feedback she gives – I often disagree with her, but when I do I actually find myself trying really hard to understand her perspective. Love her or hate her, you have to admit that unlike most of her predecessors on the panel, she’s present, she really cares about what’s happening, she knows what she’s talking about, she has strong opinions and she stands by them. Meanwhile Keith, while certainly a bit overindulgent with the praise, falls squarely on the Shawn Stockman end of the Shawn-JLo indulgence spectrum. What do you mean that doesn’t make any sense? You don’t make any sense! Juuust kidding. I just mean that I never feel as though he’s giving praise because he’s being pressured to or because he doesn’t know what else to say – his praise is specific, it’s mostly logical, and never rings false.

Okay, enough about the judges for now, on to the gals! Ranked as per usual in order of my own personal, purely subjective preference. TPTB already released this week’s theme; “Music of the American Idols,” (which is to say any song released by a past Idol winner or performed by a past Idol winner during their season) so for funsies I’ll be including my own personalized suggestions for each of the ladies.

5: Amber Holcomb

Well hot damn am I glad that TPTB finally let Amber out from whatever rock they had her hidden under all through the audition and Hollywood rounds! Seriously, where did she come from? I’m really glad she’s gained enough momentum in such a short time to make it into the top 10, because that’s no small feat given the limited screen time she’s gotten. Her spot is so well deserved; she’s got a crazy instrument, her song choices thus far have been very smart, and she really did have one of the strongest overall Vegas showings. She also brings a fun, youthful energy that’s conspicuously missing amongst these finalists when compared to the top 10s of seasons past. I tend to prefer experience over youth, but as much as I personally love the older, more experienced vibe among this season’s top contenders, it is nice to have a little youthful energy amongst the ranks. Anyway, thus far she’s at the bottom of the pack for me, but I won’t be surprised if she pulls a Jordin Sparks and just keeps getting better each week until she wins the whole thing. And if not, this is a damn fine pack to be at the bottom of…

For this week, I want to see more energy and personality from Amber.  All three of her Vegas songs fit her voice perfectly, but I think we can find her something equally suitable from this century, yes? I suggest either Dark Side (by Kelly Clarkson) or Dare You To Move (by Switchfoot, performed by David Cook in season 7)(Yeah, I know that second one’s a little out there, but I have a weird soft spot for that song, and I could totally hear Amber ripping on that chorus!)


4: Angela Angie Miller

I’m really loving what Angie is doing this season because not only is she a crazy talented technical singer with a clear, heartbreakingly beautiful tone, she knows exactly who she is as an artist and thus far has refused to stray from that. And even beyond all that, I love that the kind of artist she is isn’t really like anything that’s been showcased on Idol before. I mean, the closest comparisons you could make are probably Brooke White and Crystal Bowersox? But both of those ladies fall into a very specific vein of singer-songwriter, and there are all kinds of great female singer-songwriters in the pop music universe who don’t, like, play the ukelele or sound anything like Carole King and Joni Mitchell. Angie’s sound is a little darker, a little indie rock-ier, and I love that. I think it’s super cool, and I think she’s super cool.

The reason Angie is #4 on the list is mostly that as much as I love what she’s doing, I feel personally and emotionally invested in the three ladies above her in a way I haven’t quite felt with Angie yet. I’m not certain, but I think it may be partially a song choice thing. I want a slight change of pace from her in one way or another, just to add some variety, and a crowd-pleaser to really draw me (and I guess the audience at large…but yeah, mostly me) in wouldn’t hurt either. I suggest Natural Woman (by Aretha Franklin, performed by Kelly Clarkson in season 1) (yeah, I know, Kelly’s version is one of those performances you just don’t touch, and she did just reprise it at the Grammys last month… and Candice did just do it the week before last… but I’m imagining more of an Angie twist on the Carole King version at the piano. That’d be really different from either Candice or Kelly, and also a different side of Angie than she’s been showing) or else Catch my Breath (by Kelly)

3: Janelle Arthur

Janelle, baby, I fucking love you, and I need you to stop this shit and come back to me!! Now!! Keith hit the nail on the head when he said that Janelle’s first Vegas song choice was disappointing because it had such a limiting, narrow range and structurally it just didn’t really go anywhere. Her round two choice did at least have a little bit more of a range, but it was still really sleepy, and while I did tear up a little at her top 10 celebratory song, that was mostly because I was so relieved she made it through, because that wasn’t super exciting either. We need a return to fiesty, auditions-round Janelle with the uptempo and the energy! The minute she stops singing she’s all bubbly and adorable, why does she keep forgetting to bring that to her performances?? (Speaking of adorable, on a completely random note, I just noticed for the first time in Vegas how TINY she is! I loved how they kept having them stand in lines, but then they wouldn’t be able get her in the same shot as the rest of the girls… Waugh!) It’s super unfortunate for Janelle that she’s hit this weird slump right as a certain other country lady hit her stride. I’ve been Team Janelle for too long to jump ship after a couple of bum weeks, but she’s falling way behind in this race, and if she doesn’t get her shit together soon she’s got no hope of catching up.

For next time, I’m going to go a little ways out into left-field and propose a country-rock twist on Heartbreaker (by Pat Benatar, performed by Jordin Sparks in season 6). She’d also sound great on Wasted (by Carrie)

2: Candice Glover

I’m finding it really difficult to find words to express the wonder that is Candice Glover’s glorious vocal prowess, and that’s kind of a big deal, because in case you haven’t gleaned this already, words, and music, and words about music are kind of my jam. Candice is the kind of vocalist that makes me gnash my teeth with jealousy, because I’m a kid with little to no natural talent who has worked all her life on her craft to become a not-entirely-terrible musician, and this girl was just born with music inside of her fighting to get out. She’s an incredible technical singer, but I don’t think she’s even trying to do the things she does, I don’t know if she even knows consciously what she’s doing, it just comes out of her naturally, instinctively. The rest of us can only dream of having instincts like that. I’m so totally in awe of her, and I hate her guts, and I want her to be the next American Idol.

I’m going to recommend Candice sing Without You (originally by Badfinger, popularized by Mariah Carey, slain like a fucking dragon by Kelly Clarkson in season 1) partly because I’d love to see her just stand still and sing a song straight without all the acrobatics, but mostly because I’d love to see her out-sing Mariah right to her own damn face. Or if she doesn’t want to stand still, she could have her way with Come Together (by the Beatles, performed by Kris Allen in season 8)

1: Kree Harrison

Over the years that I’ve been watching Idol, I’ve had a lot of contestants who I adored – like Janelle – and a lot of contestants who I was in awe of – like Candice – and then there have been a sparce few sprinkled through the years who I was plain old smitten with, and that’s about how I’m feeling about Kree Harrison. Her voice makes me swoon, her wonderful blend of humor and humility makes me swoon; I just think she’s awesome. I keep finding myself watching and rewatching her performances, and they make me smile so big… She’s the kind of girl you can’t help but root for, because she’s got such a lovely attitude, and she’s clearly put in the work, and you can just feel what this means to her and that her whole heart is in her music. And her voice, beyond being consistently excellent from a technical standpoint, has so much character and depth and versatility. I’ve so enjoyed all of her song choices so far, and I love that she’s proven herself so willing and so adept at crossing genres spanning the gospel-blues-country-folk-rock spectrum. I make a rule of never dropping the K-word into these discussions, but Kree’s charisma and versatility certainly are reminiscent of a certain infamous Idol winner whose name also begins with a K. (Hint: it’s not Kris Allen)

Kree has been so smart with her song choices up to now, I’m sure whatever she comes up with next will be better than what I could come up with, but I would love to hear her on I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (by U2, performed by David Cook in season 7) or Something (by The Beatles, performed by Taylor Hicks in season 5)

And that’s all she (I) wrote! Come back next week, same time same place. If there’s any justice in this world we’ll still have all 5 of our girls to continue discussing. Don’t let me down, America!!

Til next time,