Once again, 12 men and women enter, but only seven will continue into the next round after this week's performances on "American Idol." Tonight they sing solo, followed tomorrow by duets with "all-stars" like Bebe Rexha, Allen Stone, Lea Michele and Rachel Platten.
Already, some front-runners emerged from these dozen, and not just front-runners for this week but for the whole competition. Marcio Donaldson brought the house down with his emotionally-wrought performance; so charged was it that the judges rushed him on the stage for a massive group hug after it was over. Elsewhere, Ada Vox knocked our socks off again with her range and power. In fact, there were so many strong voices, it was other factors that helped determine a Top 7.
Last week, this round couldn't have worked better for "Idol." Not only did we get to see some fantastic solo and duet performances, but we began to foster a relationship with the finalists, becoming emotionally invested in their journeys. We got to watch Cade Foehner continue to light the stage on fire, while Michelle Sussett and Jonny Brenns showed improvement by leaps and bounds. Spending this kind of time with them before we get to the live votes helps keep the integrity of those early votes as we've already spent some time with these contestants.
With only three judges, you stand as the fourth, as your votes will certainly have a lot to say about who wins. I'll proudly stand beside you. "Who do I think I am?" you ask. Well, I spent nearly a decade of my life sweating and bleeding to the music as a dancer, performing with the St.Louis Ballet Company. During this time, I was also a member of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, as well as a gymnast, writer and cartoonist. I had a lot more energy in my younger years. And I've spent the last sixteen years analyzing and critiquing reality competition shows for various media publications. I've got this.
Fair warning, since I'm safe at home, I'm probably going to be a little harsher than my colleagues Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan. But I might be nicer, too. Maybe. For these next few episodes, I'll just keep ranking 'em worst to first and we'll see who winds up in my Top 7 each night.
TOP 12 - GROUP 2 SOLO
Garrett Jacobs (18) _"Treat You Better," Shawn Mendes
I'm not gonna lie, that eyebrow actually bugs me now. Luckily, Garrett has a really nice vibe to his voice and he represented himself very well until he screeched into a falsetto that sent mice scattering. He was actually better in voice when he stayed behind the guitar. I get that he was trying to connect more with the crowd by slinging it behind him, but he really lost me vocally. He needs to really focus on getting the notes right more consistently.
I did not like this take on this high-energy song. Amelia sounded like she was falling behind the beat even before she started singing, and she lacked the breath control necessary to rip through the rapid-fire lyrics without some awkward pauses throughout. She sounded a little shrill at a few points and like she was losing her voice at others. Amelia has a cool swagger to her stage presence, but her vocals have sounded significantly better. There was nothing wow about that.
Something went wrong with Shannon here. She blew us all away on a Katy Perry song, but she seems to have gotten completely lost trying to chase the unique and low vocal affectations that Adele puts on her songs. There is no one quite like Adele, and I just don't think Shannon was completely up to the task completely throughout that song. I don't think she did enough that was memorable in that performance to avoid the cut this week, unless she pulls out an amazing duet.
Alyssa Raghu (16) "Stay," Rihanna
Alyssa's homework was to work on her stage presence and movement throughout a performance, but that's only because her voice is nearly flawless. She was effortlessly in command of a Rihanna song, even making it her own while nailing every note. She didn't bring much more to her physicality, but I found her look and control in the smallness of her performance compelling. Plus, if stage presence is where you're lacking but your voice is amazing, you've got it mostly made.
Effie Passero (26) "Barracuda," Heart
Garth Brooks wasn't a good fit for Effie in the last round, but Heart is right where her powerhouse voice needs to be. She's got the power and that rock edge that made me wonder if she was a secret third Wilson sister. I love that she wears bright colors in a pinup style with a mohawk and tattoos and then belts out higher notes than we've heard from her yet. Effie still has tricks in her arsenal and even if she didn't quite nail all of them where she wanted, that was a performance that demanded attention. She just needs to get her body language as confident as she is in voice.
Caleb Lee Hutchinson (19) "Die a Happy Man," Thomas Rhett
There are elements of Scotty McCreery in Caleb's vocal approach, but he reminds me more of the classic country singers of the 1990s who told relatable stories and pushed country to new heights of popularity. This was the first time his voice actually sounded a little tired on the vocal, but he still has such a natural quality to it that draws you in and leaves you hanging on his every word. This was probably his weakest performance yet, but he still has a genuine quality that is infectious. As he matures and can relate more to his lyrics, he's got a real shot at stardom in country music.
Jurnee (18) "Flashlight," Jessie J
This kid is ready to be a pop star yesterday. She's got the stage presence and her confidence is fully open her now. She's been shaky in the past, but this was such a confident and polished performance. Her voice is like smooth butter on warm toast. She commanded the vocal and the stage and the audience through sheer charisma and command of her voice. What a clean sound she has, and what a current-sounding artist she is.
Ron Bultongez (21) "Dancing On My Own," Robyn
The gravel in Ron's voice did not work in the early part of this performance. When he got into the song, though, he really started to make it his own. His voice is something wholly unique and it helps him stand out in a field of good singers. I agree he needs to work on emoting with his face to match the passion in his vocal, because he just kind of stands there and looks flat. It emerged into a vocal that I will remember tomorrow, though it took him a second to get there.
Maddie Poppe (20) "Brand New Key," Melanie
Who knew that Maddie had such a cool indie vibe to her voice. She absolutely nailed the slow-yodel aspect of "Brand New Key" and in doing so, showed off a very hip intonation she'd been hiding before this. Couple that with her swanky striped pants, and Maddie made sure she was remembered. It's weird that she lacks confidence in herself because she commanded the audience and the stage with minimal movement and simply the quirks and storytelling capabilities of her performance. Maddie has kind of been a dark horse to this point, but I'm not overlooking her anymore.
After getting criticism for having too many hairflips in her high energy performances, Mara scaled her physicality way back with this Whitney Houston classic that was all voice. She missed one mark high up, but from her previous performances it was pretty obvious that she had this capability in her. What's remarkable is the power and range of her voice at such a young age. She's still growing into it!
Ada Vox (24) "Feeling Good," Nina Simone
I don't care if Ada is Ada or Adam, that voice is undeniable. She says that Ada gives her all the confidence in the world, and she exudes that in spades while controlling both her incredible instrument and the crowd. We haven't seen a voice like this since Adam Lambert, and this time around she rocked out and gave us more grit and edge than we've seen from her and all I can say is... DAMN! If America can accept a drag queen, Ada may just run away with this whole thing. That was simply divine and I am ready to line up for tickets to her show right now.
Marcio Donaldson (28) "Inseparable," Natalie Cole
This is a song that properly sung lures out a timeless quality in a singer's voice, and Marcio has that in spades. He massaged the notes, caressing them all around and hit notes that would have made Barry Gordy stand up and sign him. It's also a song that's easy to oversing, but Marcio showed incredible restraint, only teasing the audience with the full capabilities of his instrument. It was a breathless and flawless performance, and one that elicited an immediate emotional reaction out of Marcio himself. It was as if he's been holding his emotional breath and then just let it all out. The moment was so palpable that after giving him their (glowing) critiques, the judges all rushed the stage for a massive group hug.
Effie Passero just missed my Top 7, but it was by the slimmest of margins. With so many talented singers, it's becoming more and more about who stands out from the pack with a distinctive style, voice, personality, etc. It's all those other "it factor" things that make a star.
Tomorrow night brings "All Star Duets with Banners, Colbie Caillat, Cam, Lea Michele, Bebe Rexha, Rachel Platten and Allen Stone. Those performances paired with their solo work tonight will help the judges determine who moves forward, and which five contestants have to say goodbye to their "Idol" dreams.
"American Idol" airs twice weekly on Sundays and Mondays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.