Recap: ‘American Idol’ – Top 4, take two: Now and Then

Senior Television Writer
05.01.13 4 Comments


Hey all, as you can tell by the byline above, Dan’s not around tonight. Due to unforeseen circumstances, tonight’s “American Idol” recapping duties have been handed to me – who hasn’t watched an episode of the show since early in the Scotty McCreery season, but who used to write about it regularly on my old blog – and what better time for me to jump into a new season, with a new judging panel, than with the top 4? My apologies; this is Dan’s world and I’m just lamely filling in.

Since this is my first time watching these contestants, and 3 out of 4 of these judges, I’m  curious to find out how the show feels these days, and also how I reacted to the singers. There’s definitely a sense of personal investment you get when you’ve watched from auditions all the way through the finals, and you start grading on a curve – or, at least, looking for subtler gradations in the performances. Parachuting in like this with no history, I’m just hoping for some good performances.

On the plus side, with a split theme of Now and Then (songs of 2013, followed by standards) we have Harry Connick Jr. back as mentor – better known as “Harry Connick Jr. demonstrates why he should personally occupy every seat on the judges panel.” He’s energetic, he’s funny, he’s articulate and unlike certain longtime, catchphrase-loving “Idol” judges, he understands the value of singing the song as written. Can he get through to our final quartet? Let’s find out.(*)

(*) Spoiler: Because this all came together at the last minute, I’m not actually live-blogging (despite maintaining the present-tense voice of Dan’s recaps), and can tell you upfront that Harry’s words were heard at times, and unfortunately ignored at others. And then he schooled the dawg at the end, which was nice.

Song: “Diamonds”
My Take: Angie has rearranged the Rihanna hit into… what, exactly? She’s stripped away everything that’s distinctive about the original for a sleepy rendition that’s notable mainly for how aware she is of where the camera is for every single second of the performance.

Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj, Randy Jackson and Mariah Carey Say: Keith begins a night of hard-core music nerditry by lamenting the loss of the “percussive, muscular weight” of Rihanna’s version, and wishes she had tried to rearrange a different song (or, at least, changed the melody while she was tinkering anyway). Nicki calls her out for the excessive eye contact and says, “It was lackluster. You can do a lot better.” Randy agrees with Keith, and then salutes her shorts. Mariah takes forever and a day to get around to admitting that she didn’t like the performance, or how much Angie played to the camera – then gets annoyed when Nicki notes that she just agreed with her. Boy, I can tell how much fun their sniping is going to be already!

Song: “Just Give Me A Reason”
My Take: While meeting with Harry, she worried about not mastering the lyrics. In the live performance, she seems to know all the words, but mainly because her phrasing is so mush-mouthed a lot of the time that all you can tell is that words are being sung, if not what they are or whether they’re correct. The arrangement is relatively high energy for a ballad, but Amber is clearly nervous.
Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj, Randy Jackson and Mariah Carey Say: Nicki preferred the lively girl from the rehearsal video to the nervous one on stage in front of her. “Idol” vet Randy notes that this is usually the time each season “where the fun goes away” and contestants struggle.  Mariah wants the confident Amber back. Keith (by far the most insightful judge of the night) stays in music nerd mode talking about the unforgiving intervals and “flat sevens” making the song harder than it seems when you listen to Pink sing it. 

Song: “When I Was Your Man”
My Take: Candice sensibly doesn’t bother changing the genders of the song (though it confuses the hell out of the judges later). Candice doesn’t seem entirely engaged until it’s time to start belting late in the song, but it feels like a lot of big notes being shoved together, rather than a natural progression, and the anguish and regret of the Bruno Mars version isn’t particularly coming across.

Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj, Randy Jackson and Mariah Carey Say: Time for our first Randy-ism of the night: “If you can sing, you can sing anything.” Mariah agrees with the dawg. Keith tries to dismiss the gender issue by saying every girl in the country is singing along to the song the same way, and calls it a winning performance. Nicki declares it worthy of a standing ovation, and gets the two male judges to join her; Mariah pointedly waits until the other three are seated before rising to her feet, lest anyone think she would do anything suggested to her by Nicki Minaj. More fun!

Song: “See You Again”
My Take: Harry gives the first of several lectures on the value of keeping it simple and singing the melody as well as you can. This time, Kree listens. There’s no garnish here; just a clear, rich vocal that’s easily the best and most consistent of this round.

Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj, Randy Jackson and Mariah Carey Say: Mariah is glad Kree didn’t go wild at the end with “a complete vocal tirade for laughs” (huh?), and enjoys how authentic she is. Keith wasn’t happy with the staging, which saw Kree seated next to the guitar player while the larger band was hidden. Nicki is pleased with the way Kree “sang with your eyes,” and feels she believed what she was singing. Randy felt her and loves the sound of her voice. Harry Connick then insists on coming out from backstage to commend Kree on her performance – and, implicitly, for listening to Harry Connick Jr. – and will hang out for the rest of the show.

Song: “Someone to Watch Over Me”
My Take: Harry again issues a warning about singing notes that do not exist in the song as written, and Angie largely obliges. She begins strongly with the soft and intimate part of the classic torch song, but becomes less compelling and more pageant-y the bigger her vocals get. It is another distractingly toothy, flirty performance; she’s trying very, very hard.

Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj, Randy Jackson and Mariah Carey Say: Keith says he kept thinking “Does then have to be so ‘then’?” (a witticism Randy loves so much he’ll repeat moments later), but appreciated the timbre and clarity in her voice. Nicki compares her to a Disney princess; Angie’s not sure that’s meant to be a compliment. Randy didn’t love the arrangement, but falls back on “if you can sing, you can sing anything” and calls it an amazing vocal. Mariah picks a fight with Nicki by suggesting that unlike some other judges, Mariah doesn’t feel Angie should sing every note from the top of her register. Ryan Seacrest is mainly concerned about whether they’ll make up in time for their traditional show night dinner.

Song: “My Funny Valentine”
My Take: Fienberg tells me this is a song Amber has sung multiple times on the show before. Despite this, she has no idea what the lyrics are actually about until Harry explains it to her. There’s a bit of mush-mouth again here, but at least she seems to now understand this is a sad song. She goes on a couple of different runs – one of them quite sharp – that have no real place in the song, but that the judges predictably eat up, and reward with a standing ovation. It’s a lot of flourishes in search of a song to go with them; as Harry will note after the commercial break, standards don’t need runs, and “Singing high notes at the end of ‘My Funny Valentine’ doesn’t make sense.”

Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj, Randy Jackson and Mariah Carey Say: Nicki starts praising Amber, but Amber is so overcome with emotion and nerves and the moment that she begins crying, hard, and Nicki has to give her a pep talk to calm her down. Randy unsurprisingly loved the song’s run-heavy second half. Mariah says “tonight, the spirit is there, bigger and better than ever before.” Keith blames a lot of the shakiness of the performances so far on a dead crowd, and notes that Amber didn’t really come to life until the audience reacted to the first run.

Song: “You’ve Changed”
My Take: Harry urges Candice to sing the song straight and risk some of the 14-year-olds in the audience not getting it, and for the most part, Candice obliges. Even when she reaches for a big note midway through the song, she displays an amazing level of vocal control in pulling back from it just as quickly as she got there. The arrangement’s a bit all over the map, but when you combine degree of difficulty and execution, it’s probably the night’s most impressive performance so far.

Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj, Randy Jackson and Mariah Carey Say: Randy first has to rebut Harry’s earlier complaints about runs and goes for a three-megaton name-check in Miles Davis to justify his position. He loved Candice and says, “Speak your truth, girl. That was amazing.” Mariah intends to download that performance ASAP, and particularly loves hearing Candice’s voice on a sing that a lot of chord changes. Keith praises her power and control, and Nicki literally says she has nothing to add and calls for Ryan.

Song: “Stormy Weather”
My Take: Last time Kree sang, Harry’s pleas for simplicity were heeded and paid off well. Here, Kree tries to follow his advice at times, but you can tell her heart’s not in it. The problem is that when she starts throwing in the vocal licks he tried to talk her out of, she sounds out of tune. And in both modes, she’s drowned out by the orchestra. Kree talked a lot before her first song about needing to reconnect with the audience, and she accomplished it there; here, everything’s a struggle and she just disengages after a while.

Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj, Randy Jackson and Mariah Carey Say: Mariah once again struggles to say something critical, throwing out a lot of unrelated words and phrases before ultimately trying to put the blame on Harry’s mentoring for swaying the way she viewed the performance. Keith agrees with Harry that she should’ve just sung the melody, but suggests she’d have been better off choosing a different song that would have given her more freedom to improvise. Nicki more or less says she wishes Kree had ignored Harry altogether and trusted her instincts, but also complains that the song choice was in danger of putting the audience to sleep. Randy suggests that Harry was wrong in telling Kree to try the Lena Horne version rather than the Etta James version, then tells her, “Always stick to who you are.”

This is the point at which Harry Connick Jr., sensible human, has had about all he can stand of Randy Jackson, as he points out the absurdity of telling Kree to be herself while also telling her to sing someone else’s version of the song. “We want you to be Kree! That’s all we’re interested in!” Randy insists, to which Harry replies, “‘We want you to be Kree, but choose the Etta James version!'”

Overall, it was an unimpressive night. Candice’s second song had the best ratio of ambition and execution, but Kree’s first was probably the most successful overall, and also the strongest supporting argument for Harry Connick Jr’s philosophy of “Idol.” Angie was mediocre twice, and Amber was bad once and then wildly overpraised the second time. If I’d been watching all season, I might have a better sense of who’s going home. Given that they’re combining votes from last week and tonight, and what I can recall of “Idol” voting patterns, I would probably put the target on Amber’s back, but we’ll find out tomorrow…

… when I may also be recapping – and, if I am, recapping fairly late in the evening. Apologies in advance. With any luck, Dan will be back in full force next week for the all-important hometown visits.

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