"American Idol" 2013: Top 10 Performances (Prior Idol Week)

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Nikki Minaj was absent for the start of the first live performance show. I cannot ever remember a judge not being present during a live performance round. Apparently she was stuck in traffic. Are you kidding me? If I was Nigel I would be positively shitting myself with fury if the only judge people even care about was LATE to a live performance show, much less the FIRST live performance show.

The theme was music from previous American Idols -- any song from any previous winners of the show. I’ve thought this would be a smart theme idea for few seasons now, but expanding it to previous “Idol” contestants in general, not just winners. Chris Daughtry, Kimberly Locke, Jennifer Hudson, Kellie Pickler, Clay Aiken -- some of those guys went on to be more successful than people who actually won the show, and have some pretty damned good songs of their own. But the show did approach this differently, not limiting it to just songs BY previous winners. The new kids could select any song ever sung by the winners on the show. So that broadened it considerably. (I do think it’s fun to point out that the only winners not represented tonight were Taylor Hicks, David Cook, Kris Allen, Lee Dewyze, and Phillip Phillips -- all of the non-country white guys. I mean, even RUBEN got a song in there!)

Curtis Finch, Jr. opened the show with “I Believe,” the coronation song for Season 3 winner Fantasia Barrino. Curtis has to watch his nasal tone -- it’s front and center whenever he sings in his middle register. His “yeah yeahyeah” section in the middle also bordered on comical. Overall I thought it was fine, but unspectacular until that last falsetto note. My fear with Curtis is that he peaked in the Sudden Death rounds -- he’s been a bit of a letdown the past two weeks. Keith Urban made some comment about Curtis’s adrenaline causing him to sing above where he was supposed to. I couldn’t tell if that was in reference to oversinging, or a comment on Curtis’s pitch. Randy Jackson doomed Curtis by telling him he has to do something different than just these spiritual songs. Mariah Carey, meanwhile, only wants to hear more gospel-tinged music from Curtis. So Curtis was cursed not only with the Death Spot, but he’s also getting wildly conflicting advice from all the judges (minus the still-absent Nikki). So he’s off to a fine start.

Janelle Arthur is really playing up her country twang in the interviews. I don’t feel like she was quite so…rustic prior to making the Top 10. She chose “Gone” by Montgomery Gentry, which was performed by S10 winner Scotty McCreery. I found it difficult to really gauge Janelle’s vocal here because she was moving so much that I felt like it was impacting the singing. To me it sounded consistently flat, and I was surprised by how little power she exhibited. It was basically the same level throughout the whole performance. After the end of the song she said that she had “cotton mouth.” That might have explained the lack of dynamism. Nikki had shown up at this point -- wearing a hoodie and ridiculous sunglasses -- and told Janelle that she wants to see her singing prettier songs that show off her voice. Randy also picked up on the go-nowhere aspect of her performance. Mariah thought that Janelle’s “aura was giving us star.” I thought she seemed like an obvious pretender. She too wants Janelle to pick mid-tempo ballads. God, please don’t make these children sing nothing but mid-tempo ballads. It’s so damned boring to sit through for two hours.

Devin Velez went with Carrie Underwood’s “Temporary Home,” which he pointed out was different from his usual ballads with a Spanish flare. Devin blew the words in beginning of the first verse and it threw him for a few seconds, but he got it back by the chorus. Devin seemed unsure of himself during the performance, and where he was supposed to be looking. But the vocal was quite lovely, even if the song itself was not my favorite. Keith didn’t think it was one of Devin’s better performances, saying that Devin didn’t seem comfortable with the song at all. Nikki disagreed with Keith’s critique 100 percent. She thought the song was in Devin’s comfort zone, and thought he sounded and looked great. (I would agree that Devin already seems to be benefiting from the styling help.) Randy thought it was way too safe and that Devin didn’t really do anything with it. Even Mariah told him that he kind of biffed it with his song choice tonight.

Angie Miller selected Celine Dion’s “I Surrender,” which Kelly Clarkson sang back in Season 1. This was a great song choice for Angie, and it really showcased her range and great pop voice. The performance did come awfully close to what mentor Jimmy Iovine was talking about when he said that Angie can sometimes be a bit beauty pageant-ish. Keith says that Angie can take a song from any age and make it sound current. Nikki said that Angie looked like a billion dollars, and that she personifies perfection. Randy predictably said that the competition started with Angie, and that she was in it to win it, and blah blahblah. Pull the string on his back again and he moos like a cow. Mariah simply said it was stellar. How much is she getting paid to judge this show, again?

Paul Jolley continues to exist, so he’s got that going for him. He did “Amazed” by Lonestar, sung by Scotty McCreery in S10. Is Scotty really that influential as a past winner? How weird. The song scraped the bottom of Paul’s register, so the beginning was really breathy. And bless his heart, but the cornball performance was still there, and you could see that he was actively thinking about how to hold back. What’s so upsetting is that when Paul is on, he sounds wonderful. About 3/4 of the way through there were a few bars that were radio-ready. I just fear that he is destined to be a back-up singer, because he just doesn’t have leading guy qualities. Keith, however, thinks that Paul is listening to the criticism, and that this was one of his better performances. Nikki said that, “This is the first time you’ve stimulated my sexual appetite.” What do you say to that? Randy thought it was a great song for Paul, and then he totally misinterpreted Jimmy’s notes to Paul. Mariah told Paul to forget about everything that people are telling him and just go for it. Again, great contradictory advice from our esteemed panel.

Candice Glover seems really sweet, and she looked tremendous tonight. She did “I Who Have Nothing,” performed by Jordin Sparks back in Season 6. Candice sang the shit out of that song. She did a very straight version of it, but made it sound much more modern than it actually is -- it sounded like a Mary J. Blige joint in parts. I also thought her performance was authentic. This to me was a breakout performance for Candice. She got a standing ovation. Keith said that Candice evoked Shirley Bassey’s effortless command with that performance. Nikki said it was her favorite performance Candice has ever done -- it was current and fresh. Mariah finds Candice mesmerizing, saying that a singer of her ability can really do anything she chooses no matter what genre.

LazaroArbos went with “Breakaway” by Kelly Clarkson, which was certainly ambitious. The jacket Lazaro was wearing was doing no favors to his figure, I’ll just say that. As usual with Lazaro, the verse was too low for him, so he was just marking time until he could let loose on the chorus. But even that was pretty unimpressive. Typically Lazaro has one or two moments in his performances that are pretty special. But this was almost exclusively karaoke-grade. The last note was nice. That’s about all I can say. Keith said that he didn’t think the song was in Lazaro’s wheelhouse, and Lazaro agreed with him. Then why did you pick it, dear? Nikki said it was her least favorite performance thus far by him, saying that Lazaro usually seems comfortable and calm. Nikki, are you watching the same thing I am? Because Lazaro NEVER seems comfortable on that stage. Randy said the pitch issues were prevalent, and the song was simply too big for him. Mariah again tried to make it less about singing and more about Lazaro overcoming obstacles. This isn’t Perseverance Idol, dear. How much longer will Lazaro continue to advance because of what he’s gone through, not what he’s actually doing?

Kree Harrison picked “Crying” by Roy Orbison, which Carrie Underwood sang back in S4. Love that song, especially k.d. lang’s version. Kree looked ravishing -- whoever is doing her make-up deserves a raise. I loved the beginning of it, but it felt a little rushed once it hit the chorus. But Kree handled the very challenging high-note section of this song beautifully, and it was believable. Absolutely lovely. The best I think she’s ever sounded. Keith said that he simply loves Kree’s voice, and she’s “there,” ready to record. Nikki started talking about eating buttermilk waffles for breakfast with Aunt Jemima syrup. This was all so she could say that’s what Kree’s performance reminded her -- smooth, delicious, and she could enjoy it at home by herself. Did Nikki stop at a bar on her way to the show? Is that why she was late? Randy said that Kree’s voice makes him feel good all over, and he loves that she puts emotion into everything she does.

Burnell Taylor gave S2 winner Ruben Studdard some love -- somebody needs to -- by picking “Flying Without Wings.” Jimmy Iovine wisely warned Burnell about picking only mid-tempo r’n’b ballads, because people are going to get sick of that fast -- it’s simply not going to bring in votes. Burnell started the song by emerging out of a huge cloud of purple haze. Hilarious. This song is so goddamned boring, but Burnell sounded wonderful on it, up until he hit the really high notes. Then it got pinched and uncomfortable sounding. But when he’s in his sweet spot, nobody sounds better than Burnell. Keith talked about the unique timbre of Burnell’s voice, and the eccentricity of his performances (those flapping hands!). Nikki loved Ruben’s first album (!!!) and was glad Burnell picked one of his songs, and thinks Burnell is “well on his way.” Randy blathered on and kept talking about Louisiana. Randy Jackson: shut up about Louisiana. We get it. We know where you’re from. Mariah said nothing of consequence.

Amber Holcomb is more charming than I initially expected. She did “A Moment Like This,” the S1 coronation song for Kelly Clarkson. It’s funny; when that song first came out I kind of hated it, but it stands up remarkably well -- especially when compared to most of the other coronation songs. (It still makes me laugh that poor Lee Dewyze couldn’t even get an original song of his own, he had to cover U2.) They played with the tempo here, and Amber struggled to keep on the beat up until the chorus. I had some issues with the other minor changes she made to the melody, but overall it was a solid performance. Not deserving of the standing ovation she got, and nowhere near as good as Candice, but it was good. I suspect it sounded better in the studio. Keith loved how easy it seemed for Amber, even in the super high notes. Nikki called it best performance of the night -- no. She also said that Amber’s voice and aura remind her of early Whitney Houston. Again: no nono. Amber is good, but she’s not there yet. Randy summed up the night succinctly by saying that the girls absolutely killed the guys. Mariah again said nothing of consequence. I really think the judges praised Amber way too excessively.

Recap: Curtis was fine but not great, and the recap highlighted his worst moment -- interesting; Janelle is really pretty bad; Devin can sang but was terribly boring; Angie was great; Paul was arguably the best of the guys, which is a terrifying statement; Candice jumped to the front of the line in a big way; Lazaro is in living in a high -- school talent show, or perhaps an episode of “Glee”; Kree was gorgeous but oddly I found I forgot her; Burnell sounded good but sang another boring-ass song; Amber was really good, but still a bit overpraised.

Predictions: It has to be a guy to go home, right? Aside from Janelle all the women did really well. My personal Bottom 3 areLazaro, Janelle, and Devin, but I think both Devin and Janelle have fan bases that will save them for a few more weeks. Burnell and Curtis will probably split votes, and Curtis’s first slot can only hurt him. But if we’re talking strictly vocal, it should come down to Lazaro and Janelle for the boot.

Tomorrow: Bon Jovi, Phillip Phillips, and a sing-off for a spot on the tour.

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