In some ways, Wednesday night’s telecast was just like every other episode of American Idol that came before it. Ryan, the judges, and the contestants came out in turn to applause and then we got down to business. We got to see everyone’s tear-jerking hometown visits and everyone performed once before he lights dimmed and we said goodbye to another contestant.
But in other ways, the ominous fact that it was the last episode being filmed on CBS’s Stage 36, where all the finals episodes up to the finale are filmed, hung in the air as a reminder that the iconic series was coming to an end and when Ryan said his tearful goodbye at the end of the night, it underscored the fact that it was almost all over.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about the performances first before we reminisce over Idol‘s first two seasons before next week’s big finale.
In Round 1, MacKenzie took on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for the 4th time in Idol history and while the judges were right that the performance highlighted everything quintessentially “MacKenzie” it also was an interesting case study in his limitations. “Hallelujah” is an intensely emotional song and while I felt it in the delicate maneuvering of his voice, I think he could have gone even further with it. I also wouldn’t have been opposed to him shedding his guitar because, in some ways, it feels like a crutch for him. I was hoping that MacKenzie, with his lone self-chosen song, would do something a little more out of the box than a song we’ve heard so many times before and that sounds like everything else he’s done. That said, it was good vocally and emotionally, but not great like it could have been and, at this stage in the competition, ought to have been. Rating: B
In some ways, the judges were spot on with the critiques of Dalton‘s performance of Blue October’s “Calling You.” Like MacKenzie’s, it felt like an ownership of who he was as an artist, but also like MacKenzie it revealed some of his biggest flaws. Dalton often lacks the breath support in his voice to really go for big notes and the fact that he chose to sing a lackluster (and often flat) version of a fairly unknown song might not have been the best way to start a crucial night of performances. I also think Harry hit it on the head when he said Dalton knows how to perform and, while it can come across as over-rehearsed at times, it’s true that he knows himself as a performer. Rating: C+
After a double knockout punch last week, Trent needed to keep the momentum going and his smooth cover of Chris Stapleton’s “Tennessee Whiskey” was just the ticket. He channeled that same acapella glory and that soft lilt to his voice as he did last week and it came across beautifully. It’s interesting that Trent’s definition of “coming into his own” in this competition has been about finding a way to blend his bluesy R&B sensibilities with country and southern rock and I think, more than anything, it shows his diversity and viability as a recording artist and, like JLo said, might be enough to kick-start him into the Final 2 and possibly win it all. Rating: A
For the last performance before the night’s elimination, La’Porsha brought a spiritual version of John Legend and Common’s “Glory.” Harry Connick Jr. called it “critique proof” and while I generally agree that La’Porsha, like Trent, is in another league, I still think there are parts of this performance that could have been better. In some ways, I wish she would have moved around a bit and shown a bit more life given the “call to action” nature of the lyrics. I also think that might have given her voice a little bit more of the fire that it’s had in the past. My big worry is that, while Trent is peaking and getting better, La’Porsha is hitting a plateau and needs to find another level to take herself to. Rating: A-
After round one, Harry brought all the contestants up and, without much delay, sent Trent and Dalton to safety, leaving La’Porsha and MacKenzie in the Bottom 2. Fortunately for us, the voters spared La’Porsha and sent MacKenzie home and while, based on his body of work, I think MacKenzie deserved to outlast Dalton, I’m just glad the strongest two competitors made it to the Final 3. Then, Round 2 began with Scott Borchetta’s choices for the contestants.
Dalton definitely did, as JLo said, bring something new and fresh to Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” His punk rock Green Day-esque spin on it worked well and his voice actually sounded better than round one, despite the upped tempo. I think Harry is right that in order to get any further in this competition, Dalton needs to focus on what works for him because, vocally, he can’t compete with the other two contestants and this performance, in its own way, was just that. Rating: B
For Round 2, La’Porsha was saddled with a song that she didn’t entirely believe in the message of: Lorraine Ellison’s “Stay With Me.” I’m torn whether her honesty after the performance will help or harm her. I think, in a way, it made her more human and vulnerable, but in a way it also sucked the life out of an otherwise great performance. As JLo said, she “sang the mess out of it” and brought back the vibrato that she’s been restraining some over the last few weeks, but to then be told that she was “playing a character” and, maybe, not necessarily well enough to sell it, it may not have been the best thing to hear after being put into this week’s Bottom 2. Rating: B+
In no short order, JLo and the other judges said Trent was singing to win with his take on Justin Timberlake’s “Drink You Away” and in some ways, I agree. He gave us all the vocal fireworks in his arsenal and killed it the way JT himself did on the CMT Music Awards last year (with Chris Stapleton). I do wish that the breakdown in the middle had gotten even further down and dirty and just stretched out longer but that might have been a by-product of time limitations. Either way, I don’t think the performance hurt Trent’s momentum. It might not have propelled him forward, but it definitely kept it going by reminding the audience that he’s capable of singing the heck out of current stuff too. Rating: B+
After all that, the contestants still had one more performance with their songs chosen by the judges.
The judges chose Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” for Dalton in round three and then proceeded to drone on about the key he put it in and while I agree that certain parts of it felt really low for him, I don’t think that alone was the performance’s biggest flaw. The thing that surprised me is that Dalton, with all his creativity, didn’t decide to tackle Lorde’s dark and atmospheric version of the song from The Hunger Games series. In my mind, I thought it would be the perfect version for him and would minimize the karaoke effect that this performance had for me, especially with the wild faces he was making. Rating: B-
For her final performance, La’Porsha was given the biggest song of the night with Adele’s “Hello.” It’s only natural that the judges would compare this season’s diva with the biggest diva on the pop charts right now, but I didn’t think it was the best or most creative song choice for her. There’s no question that La’Porsha handled the song with ease and delivered a version that was true to the original without feeling too karaoke, but I think she was a bit tied down by the fact that it’s such an iconic song and any changes she made would have been too big of a risk. Still, maybe the popularity of the song and the cuteness of her daughter will pay off and get her the necessary votes to give her the spot she deserves in the finale. Rating: A-
Perhaps the best song pick of the night came from Keith for Trent with Parson James’ “Waiting Game.” The song was a perfect example of that ease that Trent has to just sink into a song. There’s never a worry whether he’ll hit the notes he’s going for and he always surprises with some interesting vocal choices. I really think the declarations of La’Porsha as the front-runner and early winner a few weeks back-lit a fire under him and has made these past few weeks of his growth arc really interesting to watch. After this performance, I sincerely hope we’re in for a bombastic vocal showdown between the two of them next week. Rating: A
Speaking of vocal showdowns, back in Season 2 Idol had one of its strongest duos in the finale: Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken. We’ve seen both of them this season and since the end of their season, the pair have released plenty of original music. Clay has even branched out into Broadway and politics over the past few years. Other strong contestants from that season, like Kimberley Locke, Josh Gracin, Trenyce and Kim Caldwell have released music and Trenyce has even gone on to do some acting, appearing in Kickass 2 and appearing on the West End in London.
Before that, Idol crowned its first winner in Kelly Clarkson. She was the dark horse that season, unexpectedly triumphing over judge favorites like Justin Guarini and Tamyra Gray. She has since gone on to release 7 albums, as well as a greatest hits album and a remix album of her latest one, Piece by Piece, which includes the Idol version of the single of the same name. Kelly, along with a lot of the other Idol winners and contestants will be appearing on Idol‘s big finale next week.
But until then, I leave it up to you to vote in the polls below for your favorite performances and leave a comment letting me know who your ideal Top 2 is. I’ll see you next week for my final Idol recap.