Finally, we have achieved the more traditional vote-'em-out phase of "American Idol." The Top 14 stands revealed and it's time to watch them each week, voting them out and eliminating them until we emerge with our next American Idol.
It remains to be seen if the newest Idol can buck the trend of recent winners and become a bona fide recording star as earlier winners and contestants did. Certainly, the contestants themselves are worthy -- with one impressing Katy Perry so much she requested a souvenir from their body -- but the show's ratings woes continue, with the latest episode achieving a new series low and losing the head-to-head battle with "The Voice."
What producers need to hope for is that one or more of the contestants really connects with viewers and goes viral for being great in the way Fantasia Barrino did with "Summertime." With the likes of Ada Vox, Cade Foehner and Gabby Barrett on their roster, it may be possible.
The new season has picked up the pace dramatically as well. Whereas usually things slowed down around Top 12 with us losing only one contestant, we'll be saying multiple goodbyes every week until the finale in just four weeks. And you'll be sharing that responsibility with the judges. This week, America picks the Top 6. Then the remaining eight contestants battle it out tomorrow night, with the judges sending four more through.
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 tonight, I'll rank 'em worst to first and we'll see who winds up in my Top 10 ... and my Top 6.
Jonny Brenns (19) _"This Is Gospel," Panic! at the Disco
Yet another contestant started lower than his comfortable register and it hurt his opening bars. Unfortunately, when he should have been settling into the groove of the song, he started missing more notes. His lack of experience as a performer may have gotten the best of him as he looked and sounded like someone who was very nervous. His voice was cautious even when he needed to project. I didn't think Jonny was ready after the last round, and I still think he's out of his depth here.
I know I dog this girl every time she performs, but that wail was like something a banshee would offer up. Michelle has a great stage presence, all the charisma and confidence in the world, and she can dance beautifully. She just doesn't have the vocal chops to back it up. She's -- as Randy Jackson would say -- pitchy in all the wrong ways, and her performances always grate on my ears. Maybe the judges are seeing an auto-tuned future for her?
No one has a voice quite like Phillip Phillips, and I could hear his voice in the arrangement and presentation of this song, which isn't great for Garrett. I needed him to find a way to inject himself into the song, and it took about halfway through the song before he gave us a genuine moment that felt like Garrett Jacobs. It was a pleasant performance and some nice vocal moments. Most importantly, Garrett showed a dynamic side to his performance that we haven't seen from him before.
Caleb Lee Hutchinson
Caleb Lee Hutchinson (18) "Midnight Train to Memphis," The Steelriders
While his voice sounded a little hoarse and the song didn't really showcase his vocal chops, he settled into storyteller mode for this high-energy country song and pulled it off well enough. The worry I have is that Caleb went first and there just wasn't enough memorable about that performance. Caleb has been so much stronger in the past, I'm worried about his future on the show. Luckily, if America doesn't pick him up, he's got a good shot with the judges.
Despite a few shaky moments and a wonky note here or there, Mara really proved her emotional depth on this heart-wrenching song. It was an emotional performance, and at times it felt like she was letting her own emotions get the better of her to the detriment of her voice. There's a fine balance to use emotion to fuel a performance without getting overwhelmed by hit. She skirted both sides of that line. It wasn't her best performance of the competition so far, but she definitely connected with it.
Marcio Donaldson (28) "It's a Miracle," Barry Manilow
Marcio could have picked a hipper song, but he always sounds great in any vocal. He was a little buried under the music at first, but he was able to merge in front like a 1970s Barry Manilow. The problem is that while Barry Manilow has his fans, a lot of younger people aren't exactly blow away by his music. I fear this song choice will come across as a little boring and not connect with the people most likely to vote. With all the songs in the world to choose from (that "Idol" approves), surely he could have gone with something more engaging.
Cade Foehner (21) "Black Magic Woman," Santana
As this is a singing competition, my advice to Cade is to spend more time polishing your vocals at the start of your songs than playing guitar -- which he also does very well. He rocked it out by the end, with a performance full of grit, gravel and passion. He makes up for a slight lack of range with the dynamism of his vocal and performance. He's definitely the only true rocker in the competition, but that wasn't his best performance. He's not going anywhere. Even if America doesn't put him through (they will), he's got the judges. Hell, Katy had him give her a souvenir from his body in the form of a hair or two. Yes, she pulled hair out of his head.
Dennis Lorenzo (26) "In My Blood," Shawn Mendes
Like many of the other contestants on the night, Dennis had nerves in his voice during the opening verses, or he was struggling in the lower register he selected so his voice could soar in his more comfortable range later. It's important to have as much confidence in the bottom of your voice as you do the middle and top. You can win them over by the end, buy why make it an uphill battle? That said, when he's on, Dennis has one of the smoothest and most polished voices in this competition. He makes huge vocal performances look easy and he's so easy to listen to. And yes, by the end, he had the audience.
Ada Vox is easily one of the best vocalists in the history of "American Idol," but she risks going camp at times and I felt she teetered on that edge with this Queen performance. I was expecting her to absolutely slay Freddie Mercury vocals because we've seen the range and power she possesses, and she hit a whole bunch of impressive notes, but I felt myself remaining disconnected to her throughout. That said, her costuming and presentation are always stellar and she definitely made a strong impression both visually and vocally.
Catie Turner (18) "Take Me to Church," Hozier
This was kind of an odd performance for me because most of it was the best I've ever heard her sound. But oddly enough, she was weakest on the first chorus of the song. She absolutely nailed the verses, but felt rushed and disconnected from the lyric during that chorus. It was oddly disconcerting. She absolutely owned this and she never sounded more tender and genuine, peaking with maturity at the best point.
It's very hard to pull of a high-energy performance and a strong vocal on this show, which is why uptempo songs are a rarity. So what a joy it was to see Jurnee slay all three women's parts on this funky jam and aside from a few missed notes here and there, do so with confidence, poise and command. She has Ariana's range, Jessie's power and even managed to keep up (mostly) with Nicki's flow. I'd suggest she practice more to figure out the best breathing moments as she moves around the stage, but that was a confident and commanding performance that demanded she be noticed ... and she was! She was like a junior Beyonce just starting to bloom up there.
Michael J. Woodard
Michael J. Woodard (20) "Titanium," David Guetta f. Sia
Michael is in his own class on this show. He has shown such diversity in his musical approach and such consistency in the power of his voice. Even more importantly, he interprets each song through the filter of his own life experiences and presents it as if it were his own. He finds the hook that he can connect to and through that pulls us into his world. He's so joyful and makes it look so easily, and he's one of the few contestants where you can see what kind of an artist he will be. And damn if that isn't an interesting artist.
Maddie Poppe (20) "Homeward Bound," Simon & Garfunkel
Finally, someone came out and nailed a performance from the first note. Maddie is a storyteller and so folk music fits her like a glove. This was a great choice, and then she proved even more adept at navigating the lyrics than I even anticipated. That falsetto! The character in her voice! The confidence she exuded with every strum and every look. Maddie may well be the most ready contestant on the show. She's ready for her shot. She knows who she is and she is divine in it.
Gabby Barrett (17) "The Climb," Miley Cyrus
What a triumphant way to close the show. I think it's safe to say that Gabby outperformed Miley with that vocal. She has such presence and control from the first note, for the first time she reminded me of Carrie Underwood at the start of her "American Idol" career. Country music does well on these kinds of show because Middle America tends to be tuning in more than the coasts, and Gabby is the total package when it comes to what country music is looking for in its next big star. Everything about that performance was greatness.
Honestly, this looks like a pretty clear divide to me. There was greatness on the night and there were some contestants who clearly looked like they were out of their element and not yet ready. Based on my rankings, I'm ready to say goodbye to Caleb, Michelle, Jonny and Garrett. That sounds right to me.
That leaves a pretty brutal Top 10, and honestly, one bad vocal could change those rankings in a heartbeat. While this first cut -- if it goes the way I predict -- won't hurt too bad, it's going to get painful after this. Especially as we're losing multiple people each week.
Tomorrow night, America puts six through and the remaining eight fight for the judges' support. They've continued to push Jonny and Michelle through, despite my protests, so I might be in for another upset. But I don't see better choices for who should go.
"American Idol" airs twice weekly on Sundays and Mondays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.