"American Idol" 2013: Sudden Death, Round 1 (Top 5 girls revealed)


The good news is that we’re spared the endless, obnoxious semi-finals this year. The bad news is we have two weeks of its replacement, a new Sudden Death Round. Each of the next four episodes will feature 10 contestants (still separated by gender) performing in front of the judges and a studio audience in Vegas. The judges still make the decisions, however, with only five singers advancing per episode. I’m curious to know how the remaining 20 girls and 20 guys were split up over the nights. There’s serious potential for people to get screwed. If six are great one night, someone is still going home. Yet if only three are good the second, two lackluster singers are getting free passes. I’m not sure how that’s fair. In the case of a split decision on the panel, Jimmy Iovine will be the tiebreaker. Interesting.

This was also our first opportunity to see the judges in a less-edited format. My basic sense: Keith Urban is competent at the critique, but so low-energy that he’s a bit of a wasted spot. Randy actually had some salient points tonight, and I will never forgive myself for saying so. NickiMinaj continues to surprise with her insightful critiques and genuine interest in these contestants -- she is unquestionably the breakout star of the season. And Mariah Carey is obviously our “nice judge,” straining to find positives for pretty much every contestant. But she also has a bit of a mean streak that I think viewers will find offputting.

First up was Jenny Beth Willis, 17, from Kentucky. Have we ever seen this girl up until now? She picked a country song I didn’t know, and it started out WAY too low for her. This was barely passable karaoke. Terrible song choice for most of it, and Jenny didn’t get herself together until the last quarter of the song. That girl had chaff written all over her. Keith was way too nice too her, talking about her “effortless confidence.” Oh, Keith. Give me a break. Nicki said that Jenny didn’t come alive until the end of the song. Yep. Randy said it was all a little jerky and that Jenny never got in synch rhythmically with the band. Mariah asked Jenny if she had fun. That’s always the kiss of death. She wanted Jenny to be more dynamic with the verses and to have some fun on the stage.

Tenna Torres, 28, from Queens picked another song I’ve never heard before and it was very slow, but showed some serious range. Tenna over-emoted a bit, and she kept raising and lowering her arms to the point of distraction. Still, the voice was pretty good -- except one really off high note toward the end -- and in fact was better than the song itself, which was dreadful. Apparently it was from Natasha Bedingfield. That explains a lot. Keith liked the emotional diversity of her voice in the song and the control she exhibited at the end. Nicki asked why she looked so sad, and said that the performance reminded her about why she fell in love with Tenna to begin with; she says that Tenna’s tone reminds her of 1980’s r’n’b singers (that is a good thing). Randy liked how Tenna connected with the song and that’s what the next American Idol is all about. Mariah said that Tenna gave every bit of her emotion, and went all in, and that it was a natural, pure performance. I don’t know about that -- she was clearly forcing it in the beginning.

Adriana Latonio, 17, is from Anchorage, Alaska. Again: have we ever seen this girl before? Another song I’ve never heard before -- what is going on with the obscure song picks tonight? Apparently it was by Aretha Franklin. It was a mid-tempo, longing r’n’b number, but Adriana sang it really well. There was a lot of character and soul to her voice; she reminded me of a less dynamic Jessica Sanchez. It was pretty great up until the last note, which went significantly off pitch. Keith talked about how Adriana’s abilities belie her age. Nicki said that Adriana is tiny but she commands the stage, and that it seems like Adriana has already been doing this for a while. Mariah -- who was singing along with her during the number -- gave her an “A+.”

Brandy Hotard, 26, from Louisiana did another country song I don’t know. Apparently it was originally by Travis Tritt. It was slow and pretty boring, and while Brandy started out OK she wobbled about halfway through, right before the big notes in the chorus, which she totally nailed. Brandy can obviously sing, but she also has to watch the tone and the consistency in her voice. Keith liked her voice and her take on the song, but he found her emotions off -- it’s a sad song but there were times where she seemed happy. Nicki had the exact same note, and called Brandy’s number a “pageant delivery.” Boom! Randy said that the song didn’t show us what kind of artist Brandy wants to be. What a stupid comment; she obviously wants to be a country balladeer. Mariah said she didn’t notice the emotion issues, she just saw a “beautiful person smiling and singing a song.” She praised Brandy’s mid-register vibrato and said she’d like to hear her do an album of classics. That’s a pretty stupid comment.

ShubhaVedula, 17, did “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga, but slowed it down and started by accompanying herself on piano. I kind of wish she’d stuck with that a little longer, because it was really pretty and she sounded lovely. But when she hit the chorus she got up, revved up the tempo, and bounced and gesticulated. It hurt the vocal, but there was still a lot of really good stuff there. I liked the interpretation of the song. I liked the range, both in terms of the vocal and performance. Keith thought she crammed a lot into that song, and he found it partially confusing -- I agree. Nikki also agreed that there was too much going on, and that Shubha almost flirts with musical parody. She called it a mash-up of Christina Aguilera and PSY, which is a pretty accurate assessment. Randy told her to take it down a few notches, but that he thinks she has great potential. I agree with that, too. Mariah too wished that Shubha had stayed at the piano because it was less forced, and that Shubha seems to feel a need to please the crowd.

KamariaOusley from Oakland, California, is apparently a back-up singer for some noted r’n’b performers. She did “Mr. Know-It-All” by Kelly Clarkson and it was DISASTROUS from the first note. The performance was so fake and overly staged. The vocal was off pitch and her tone aggressively annoying. She sounded almost as if she was in pain. Dreadful. Keith called out the song choice, because it didn’t show her voice and there was no real emotion, calling it unnecessarily theatrical. Nikki complimented Kamaria on the styling -- she really did look great. Nikki brought up the throaty goat thing Kamaria had going on, which both of us found offputting. Randy called it all over the place pitch-wise, and her worst performance ever. Mariah felt like Kamaria was struggling to hear herself, but she thinks Kamaria is vivacious and adorable. She called Kamaria “marketable.” Yes, that is what we need: more people making records who cannot perform live for shit.

Kree Harrison, 22, is a studio singer from Nashville. She did Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain,” which was a very good choice for her voice, although I feel like we’ve heard her sing this song before. I also need to say here that I think Kree is absolutely gorgeous. Anyway, a really lovely vocal from Kree, and one that prompted a standing ovation from Keith and Nikki. Keith called her a natural-born singer, and praised her blues and gospel leanings. Nikki said that if she wasKree’s competition, she would be very afraid. She said that Kree makes loves to the songs she sings, and that Kree is very sexy when she sings, even fully dressed. My land! Randy said that it was effortless, and that he felt like he was at a Kree show, and that she’s been doing this for 25 years. Mariah said that Kree was lost in the song, and was unaffected and organic.

Angela Miller, from Beverly, Massachusetts was the front-runner going into tonight. She sang a song that I found familiar but couldn’t place. But it was a strong, assured, pop-star performance. There’s something about her face that reminds me of Katy Perry -- that is a compliment. Anyway, a really good, controlled, professional-sounding performance, and Angela should cruise right into the finals. Keith basically said so in his love-fest critique. Nikki pointed out that Angie perhaps screwed herself with her original performance in Hollywood Week, because everything will be compared to that going forward. Remember the guy from a few seasons ago who had that amazing moment in Hollywood and never recaptured it? Andrew Garcia with “Straight Up”I? I hope the same doesn’t happen here. Mariah says that Angela’s potential is limitless and encouraged her to keep writing original music. The show is REALLY pimping this girl, but she seems to have the goods.

Isabelle -- just Isabelle, which I find instantly annoying -- is 22 and from New York. She went with “God Bless the Child,” which is not a great song for this show -- it’s just kind of ridiculous and over the top. Isabelle has a real diction problem. I had no idea what she was saying about halfway through the song, and I know that song. She has a good voice but every single thing about Isabelle screams “TRYING TOO HARD.” Keith told the admitted Former Fat Girl that her performance should be a middle finger to all the guys who never asked her out. Activate jerk-off motion. Randy says that Isabelle’s got a big voice and huge talent, but it was too old fashioned and very pageant-ish. God, don’t make me side with Randy. Isabelle promised to do something contemporary if she comes back.

Amber Holcomb, 18, from Houston, Texas, wrapped things up with “My Funny Valentine.” I’m kind of amazed the show allowed her to perform in a sheer top with her bra showing right through, but whatever. The vocal was decent. She sounded lovely in the sustained high notes, but she has to extend that energy to the verses, which sounded a bit dead to me. She had some good old-fashioned r’n’b runs that seemed natural and unforced. That said, the whole thing, right down to the song choice, was quite old fashioned. The judges gave her a standing ovation, which I thought was undeserved. The whole thing felt very “Star Search” to me. Keith said that her performance was timeless. Wrong. You would never, ever hear that on mainstream radio today. Come on. Nikki complimented Amber on her “legs for days.” Nikki called it an “A+++” vocal. No; there were better vocals just tonight. She did wonder if Amber’s shine will translate through the TV, and I honestly don’t think it did. Mariah said she wanted to smack Amber, but in a good way -- she loved her voice and interpretation.

The judges were unanimous in their decisions, so Jimmy Iovine was not needed. Jenny Beth Willis got axed, and she knew she was screwed. She dealt with it like a champ. Nikki Minaj really struggled to give Brandy Hotard the cut -- that was painful to watch. Tina Torres was the first one to make the Top 10, and I’m not sure if that was the right decision -- she’s talented but I had already forgotten her by the end of this episode. Kree Harrison was basically a gimme after her tongue bath of a critique, but Mariah Carey tried to punk her (I think people were booing Mariah during that, which was funny) before putting her into the Top 10. I’m curious to see how Kree progresses. Regarding Isabelle, Keith Urban said he really liked her performance, but the judges were mixed on her. She was cut. That is 100 percent song choice, because she has the voice. Angela Miller is the Chosen One for “Idol” 12, so she was obviously put through. But NickiMinaj did make a cryptic comment: “After tonight the world gets to decide what it thinks of Angela.” Remember PiaToscano from S10? How everyone loved her, and yet nobody was voting for her?

Next up Kamaria got the news, and she admitted that she couldn’t hear herself in rehearsal or performance. It didn’t matter; she was toast. But again, she handled it really well (and she did look super cute). Amber was up next, and Mariah again tried to twist the knife -- she has a really nasty edge to her, I think -- before putting her through to the Top 10. Again, very curious to see how she develops.

That left the last spot to go between Adriana and Shubha. Based solely on vocals Adriana should have gotten the nod, but if we’re talking about potential, I think Shubha could be a lot more interesting. Of course the two of them became close friends during this process, so this was yet another exercise in sadism on the part of the producers. Keith told Shubha that she was really fought for tonight amongst the judges, but ultimately Adriana was given the final Top 10 slot for the episode. That’s tough, because you can totally see where Shubha was coming from with that audition.

Tomorrow: 10 guys perform. I wonder how many we’ll actually recognize!