For the first time ever, "American Idol" aired live coast-to-cast so that every time zone could vote live as the show was airing. Votes were captured until the final commercial break so that decisions could be made in real time as to which three contestants would get the boot, and once again America mostly rejected diversity with its picks.
Regardless, it was an impressive night of performances and truly a showcase of the best of the best. There was not a bad number on the night, meaning it was a choice between great and slightly less great. I can't remember a Top 10 this consistently strong from top to bottom. I even had former front-runners in my picks dropping to the bottom, which isn't to say that they were bad tonight, but just less on point than those ahead of them, either in voice, emotional connection or overall passion.
Perhaps no moment was quite so passionate as when Katy Perry found out that her newest crush on the show was actually smitten with a fellow contestant. All we can say is Gabby Barrett better watch her back as she and Cade Foehner explore their feelings for one another, because there's a cougar on the loose and she is table-throwing upset.
Following the lead of fellow ABC reality competition "Dancing With the Stars," "Idol" offered its first ever "Disney Night." Because when you're part of the House of Mouse, these things are expected. "Frozen's" Queen Elsa herself, Idina Menzel, stepped up as mentor for the contestants this week. Welcome to the family, indeed!
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 now, I'll just keep ranking 'em from bottom to top, and tonight we'll see who emerges in my Top 7.
Idina gave Ada some great advice, suggesting she reign in the diva high notes and offer more of that equally impressive lower register, which offers more of the warmth in her voice. Ada struggled to connect with America last week, despite the biggest range and most powerful voice in the competition. Thus, the problem must be in the emotional connection with the lyric and the audience, and she struggled a bit in these areas. Ada goes big and broad in almost everything she does, and while it's technically impressive, it's not going to win a competition where you have to let people in and have them feel connected with your journey. She did a better job of connecting on an intimate level with the song, but I worry viewers will still see it as passionless riffs and vocal tricks.
Michael J. Woodard
Michael J. Woodard (20) "Beauty and the Beast," "Beauty and the Beast"
Michael dropped the work-uniform style for a hideous sweater and then he over-enunciated the opening lines of the song, really disconnecting me from what he was doing. Michael has long been one of my favorites to win this competition, but I did not like the way he opened the song. Thankfully, he picked it up as we moved along. He nailed and held a beautiful note forever. It was a great middle and end to a classic song with very little vocal range or dynamism. And yet, it was his worst performance yet ... or perhaps I should say least best because none of them have been terrible.
Maddie Poppe (20) "The Bare Necessities," "The Jungle Book"
Idina helped her find a bigger range in her voice, which she used sparingly and wisely in this upbeat indie-style song that otherwise sat right in the pocket of what she does so well. As the first vocalist of the night, Maddie needed to make sure she stood out in a hugely memorable way so she could hang onto votes throughout the broadcast. Smartly, she chose to break it down and show off vocally in the final moments of the song, which she turned into a classic Maddie jam.
I've not been on board the Michelle train for a while now, but the times she really connected with me were when she embraced her bilingual roots, because those seemed to be her strongest and most emotional vocals. Michelle seems to try and distance herself from her roots to fit in better in America, but it is those roots that define her. Once again, she was more comfortable, confident, and most importantly, she sounded better than she has in weeks. Music is more about passion than language. Just like English songs can do well in non-English cultures, so can Spanish language connect in America if the vocal is there. She still cracked at a few points -- she's not the strongest voice we have -- but this is a Michelle I can understand the judges backing.
Dennis Lorenzo (26) "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," "The Lion King"
This was a technically proficient performance that spent more time being flawless than emotional, despite Dennis having a genuine connection with the film and the song after the murder of his father. Dennis is an effortless performer and one of the strongest voices in the competition, but on a night where there have been no bad performances, I'm not sure the emotion he felt came across strong enough to carry him through.
Caleb Lee Hutchinson
Caleb Lee Hutchinson (18) "You've Got a Friend in Me," "Toy Story"
This is admittedly going to be a weird criticism, but this performance was almost a little too smiley. Don't get me wrong, Caleb has one of the biggest natural talents in the competition, but he made it look like he was hamming it up a little too much through most of this song. The vocal quality of his voice never faltered. The country singers are really bringing it this season, and it wouldn't be too hard to imagine the two of them sitting at the top of the leaderboard going into the finale. They're both likeable, good-looking, down-to-earth and talented, to boot.
Tackling this modern classic from "Moana" is a perfect fit for Jurnee's voice and her story with her mother. Her voice is has an ethereal quality and all she needed to do was connect to the emotional impact of the song to really make an impact. I didn't quite get as much of that sense of longing and wistfulness that the song evokes in the film, but Jurnee sang it beautifully. She really does have a fantastic voice, and grabbing a song from a current Disney hit will help with younger votes (if any younger people are watching).
Cade Foehner (21) "Kiss the Girl," "The Little Mermaid"
Cade pushed himself in a wholly new direction with this soft, romantic classic from "The Little Mermaid." This will be like the requisite rock ballad that all rock-and-roll stars drop from time to time, and it's great to see Cade offering a different side of himself. Idina was right in that he made the song almost unrecognizable his own. Gone were thoughts of a crab trying to sereande Prince Eric into kissing Ariel. Instead, it was a beautifully rendered power ballad by Cade Foehner. It was fully recognizable as him, but I could see this take climbing the charts today and becoming a heartthrob concert staple, which is saying a lot. Katy was beside herself over his performance, and completely lost it when Ryan suggested that Cade and Gabby were developing a little "Idol" romance. It was a little scary, not gonna lie.
Gabby Barrett (17) "Colors of the Wind," "Pocahontas"
It was exciting to see Gabby step outside of her country wheelhouse and pour her heart into this powerful anthem, and she did so beautifully. Gabby has one of the most polished voices in the competition, but it was absolutely breathtaking to watch her strip it all back and really connect with the lyric and the positive message of this song. I could hear that song on a soundtrack tomorrow and it would make perfect sense. Gabby has been making a case for herself as the next "American Idol" for a few weeks, and considering how well this show does in the Heartland, that title may well be in her future if she keeps bringing it like she did here.
Catie Turner (18) "Once Upon a Dream," "Sleeping Beauty"
What a classically beautiful voice. Catie showed more range, nuance and vocal command. That performance was both emotionally wrought and simply beautiful. She absolutely transformed into a princess up there, without losing her own quirky identity. Catie is an absolute goofball, but she has an amazing instrument when she settles in to sing a song. I was worried when she picked a song from so long ago in the Disney catalog, but she absolutely nailed this performance, making it timeless and current at the same time. Just wow. Really.
I absolutely do not think my Bottom Three tonight will go home, because America is not voting based solely on what happened tonight. Personally, I'm shocked that Ada Vox wound up at the bottom for me, but it's more a testament to how much everyone stepped it up tonight; there was not a bad performance and in a Top 10 situation that is truly remarkable.
This is such a talented Top 10, I find myself incredibly disappointed that we have to burn through these next three weeks and then it's all over. This is a group I could enjoy for months to come, losing one per week. Alas, that's not how it goes.
Last week, I called out America for its seeming racial and homophobic bias in some of its choices. It took the judges to save Michelle, Ada, Jurnee and Dennis despite some of the strongest voices being among that group. This week, there was no judges save so it was all about what America chose in their live voting during the show. Ryan sent Caleb through first, followed by Gabby, as Middle America kept its country duo strong. They were joined by Michael, Cade, Maddie and Catie.
Ironically, the four people Ryan left hanging were the same four people America didn't want last week, so clearly nothing has changed. Once again, some amazing and strong performers are going to go home as four people of color -- two of them gay -- are the least of what America wants. Of them, America sent through Army wife Jurnee, though if this trend continues, she won't survive next week no matter what she does.
As a counter to my own argument, I will concede that I had Ada and Michael in the bottom of my own rankings for the week, though I was way off on who was going to go home! Maybe I'll do better next Sunday as we whittle out two more contestants.
Also, even as I'm pointing out a trend I'm not mad with any of these choices for Top 7 as this Top 10 was stacked with talent top to bottom. Any one of these remaining contestants could make a case for being worthy of the ultimate prize.
Next week, "American Idol" airs live from coast-to-coast, Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC. The cuts are happening quick as we go from seven to five to one. It's all over May 21!