Recap: ‘American Idol’ Top 13 Performances – Whitney Houston & Stevie Wonder

Now, we’re truly down to business on “American Idol.” Yeah, we got live performances last week and America got to vote and all of that good stuff, but Wednesday (March 7) is when things can really get serious.

How do I know that? Well, HitFix’s “American Idol” Predictions Game is up and running. And that’s serious.

Anyway, Wednesday’s episode finds our Top 13 singing songs from Stevie Wonder (if the contestants have male genitalia) and Whitney Houston (if the contestants have female genitalia). And what if a man wanted to sing Whitney? NO! And if a woman wanted to sing Stevie? NO! Or that’s the way FOX press releases have sounded. Maybe there’ll be more wiggle room than that. 

Click through and follow along…

Singer: Joshua Ledet
Song: “I Wish”
My Take: As Josh observed, this isn’t exactly his thing, especially with the brass band off to the side chirping in at semi-oppportune moments. But although we don’t instantly think of Josh as being an up-tempo kinda guy, I can definitely buy him as this sort of Motown-style singer. He’s got the range to do Stevie, which most of tonight’s males will not.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: “Hey, man,” Randy greets Josh, celebrating that he just blew it out. You wanna know what Randy really loves about Josh? He’s got the church voice, but… something or other. He calls Josh “flavorless,” but he means “flawless” and corrects himself.

Singer:Elise Testone
Song: “I’m Your Baby Tonight”
My Take: Changing songs immediately beforehand isn’t always a recipe for disaster, but it definitely isn’t a recipe for genius here. Elise is far more out of her comfort zone than even Josh was and while he made the most of being a fish out of water, Elise is fighting off her cocktail lounge instincts from the very beginning. The arrangement of the song isn’t helping matters, nor is her “Two Girls Short of a Girl Group” bopping up and down. This just isn’t a look she’s comfortable with, a song she’s comfortable with or an arrangement she’s comfortable with. The vocals themselves are fine.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: J-Lo says that it’s undeniable that Elise has an amazing voice, but she thinks this just wasn’t her best and that Elise was “unsure” and that there were timing issues. Tyler laments that this was good, but her intensity was missing. “What it felt like was that you were boxing with the song,” Randy says, vaguely confusingly. J-Lo and Randy wish she’d done more with the melody and the rhythm. In the end, Randy goes so far as to say “That one wasn’t good.” While Elise admits she didn’t have time to make the song her own, she isn’t making any excuses.

Singer: Jermaine Jones
Song: “Knocks Me Off My Feet”
My Take: I’d love to keep Jermaine around for a while, because he’ll be singing different songs from the usual tripe and giving us different spins on familiar songs. His rumbling, smooth voice is resonant and our expectations about his lower register are almost a ruse to keep us from noticing that he’s got pretty fair range. Now what he’s got to work on is the stuff that goes with his voice. He’s like Lurch out there, a 6’8″ giant with no clue how to move his feet or move his arms or connect to the audience in any way. It will be a liability and it’ll probably be a liability sooner rather than later. I hope he gets to learn a bit on the “Idol” stage.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: “That song fits you like an Armani suit. That was perfect,” Tyler says. “You are such a sweetheart,” J-Lo says, calling him adorable, but urging Jermaine to connect a bit more with the songs beyond just the notes. Oooh. Tangible comment! “I love the verses,” Randy says, but he did not enjoy the chorus where Jermaine did his own thing. The audience boos Randy for trying to be real.

Singer:Erika Van Pelt
Song: “I Believe In You and Me”
My Take: I’m catching up to this performance after missing it on East Coast Time. I like Erika. She’s a woman. There’s something to be said for not looking and sounding like a little girl about there. She connects to the song, connects to the words and projects at the camera, if not at the audience. I’m not wowed by the vocal, but it’s sturdy and avoids imitation in all of the smart ways. I still think she’s better than this, singing-wise. Given how bad several people were, I hope that this will be good enough to let us have another week of Erika.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: “You have an amazing voice and an unbelievable tone,” Randy says. GOOSIES! J-Lo has GOOSIES! She liked Erika’s interpretation and vocal fullness. Tyler thought it was perfect.

Singer: Colton Dixon
Song: “Lately”
My Take: It seems to me like maybe if Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston are such awful matches for this particular Top 13, maybe they weren’t a great theme for the first week of this particular Top 13? I mean, you’re not showing America anything if you’re putting all of these singers in awkward positions this early? Colton’s piano-free and he’s got some weird “Inception”-style skyscrapers going up and down on the screen behind him. Listening to Colton makes me have to blow my nose. Everything he sings is so entirely coming out of his head and not in the sense that we all sing from our heads, mouth-wise. No, it’s all nasally and shrill. This is an inert and one-note performance showing earnestness, but little range. He’s missing notes everywhere, but the last falsetto is decent and the judges seem to be responding enthusiastically.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: Yeah, the judges disagree with me. Steven calls it “great,” “beautiful” and “outstanding.” J-Lo calls it great, but I couldn’t tell you why, for the life of me. Randy says that “technically it wasn’t picture perfect” and that there were notes that were sharp and flat. Randy adds that in THE LAST EIGHT BARS, Colton was flawless. So, um, he was sharp and flat for every note up to the last eight bars and that earns a “Dude, well done”?

Singer: Shannon Magrane
Song: “I Have Nothing”
My Take: Shannon Magrane wasn’t born when Whitney had most of her biggest songs. She’s young. And she’s tall. It would be almost impossible for Shannon to have less believable connection to this song. In the beginning it’s just karaoke dull. But as she progresses and the song gets bigger and bigger, Shannon is getting worse and worse. She’s missing notes. She’s bailing out early on notes she can’t sing. She’s changing keys for no reason. It starts average and becomes a disaster.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: “I think the thinking got the best of you,” J-Lo says. You know what else got the best of Shannon? The song. And the singing of it. J-Lo advises her to relax and tell the story, which goes back to my lack-of-connection point. Steven says that the nerves got the best of her and she “crashed and burned on the turnaround.” Randy thinks the other two judges were both right. Randy even blames the band in a desperate effort to not blame Shannon for not being able to sing the song. “I do agree with the tonight,” Shannon agrees, blaming nerves.

Singer: DeAndre Brackensick
Song: “Master Blaster”
My Take: More tech problems. I catch the frantic more-Marley-than-Stevie second half of the performance. This isn’t a Stevie song that I know particularly well and this isn’t encouraging me to learn more. Once again, I shall be forced to deal with the fact that the judges and I are on very different pages when it comes to DeAndre. And it’s sad because DeAndre seemed like one of the contestants who ought to have been least hampered by tonight’s theme.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: Steven’s always liked DeAndre and he liked him tonight. J-Lo loved what DeAndre did, praising his rhythm and his soul, though she had issues with the ending. “You and Joshua showed two other sides of yourself tonight,” Randy says, raving that he didn’t want DeAndre to stop tonight. “Job well done,” Randy says.

Singer: Skylar Laine
Song: “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?”
My Take: Oh come on. Why didn’t Country Girl at least do Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”? The option was there! Take it! Instead, Skylar has shifted gears dramatically from last week’s high-energy stage hopping. What she’s done here is transformed this Whitney track into a country anthem just by slowing it down slightly and adding her native twang. She’s forcing nothing country onto the song, she’s just making it flow throw her organically. That’s impressive. I still prefer Jessica by a lot [I’m catching up with Skylar after-the-fact] but she did well for herself.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: “You are like the definition of composure,” J-Lo says, warning that the first half got nasally, but the second half was amazing. “That was a thing of beauty,” Tyler says, protesting that even the front was beautiful. What Randy loves about Skylar is that she’s a country girl, but she can sing any song.

Singer: Heejun Han
Song: “All Is Fair”
My Take: We’re just gonna keep raving about Heejun’s tone this season. And his gooftastic personality. And those will presumably cover a multitude of sins. Those sins include clear difficulties with phrasing and enunciation, which are just a biproduct of of the fact that he’s not singing in his first language. There are some big, pure, beautiful notes here. And then there are long patches that are tone and nothing more. That’s not singing anymore. It’s just sound. And why is there no way to transfer Heejun’s personality to any of his performances? That wacky, deadpan sense of humor isn’t necessarily perfectly tailored for integration into a performance, but it’d be great if there was just a bit more spirit when Heejun sang.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: J-Lo? A fan. Tyler loved it. “It wasn’t perfect, but it was really good,” Randy concludes.

Singer: Hollie Cavanagh
Song: “All the Man That I Need”
My Take: Hollie’s got a big enough voice to be tackling Whitney. She’s capable of hitting the notes, even wallowing in smoke up to her waist — it’s gotta be five or six inches of smoke there. She starts off stumbling her way through in the dark a bit, but down the home stretch, it’s one killer note after another. Bigger and bigger to the climactic note that she sells totally. Hollie’s also not big on personality in her performances, but she’s a more sturdy practitioner than Heejun is, so it makes up for the blandness with technique.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: This was Whitney’s “prime joint” in Randy’s opinion and Hollie nailed it. “That was beautiful. That’s the Hollie I know from last year and this year,” J-Lo says, hoping for two women in the finals. Tyler agrees.

Singer: Jeremy Rosado
Song: “Ribbon in the Sky”
My Take: Nobody’s going to sing any of my personal favorite Stevie Wonder songs tonight. I’m a bit relieved. No investment. So if Jeremy wants to blast “Ribbon in the Sky” through his nose accompanied by a string section? That’s fine. I’ve always found the song too darned treacly anyway. It’s actually perfectly suited for Jeremy’s overgrown teddy bear personal. If you just pretend that it’s Winnie the Pooh singing? Whatever. High. Nasally. Hyper-earnest. Forgettable. Inoffensive. Whatever. J-Lo loves Jeremy and this won’t convince her not to love him, but for most Americans? This probably won’t be enough to win fans.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: “Velvety smooth, high, beautiful voice,” Tyler says. “I love to hear your interpretation of songs,” J-Lo says, weirdly suggesting there was something interpretive in that. Randy, however, plays the voice of reason saying he didn’t quite believe it and that it needed more swag.

Singer: Jessica Sanchez
Song: “I Will Always Love You”
My Take: Hmmm… So this is either a huge mistake or a game-changer for Jessica. If she nails it, she becomes the favorite immediately. If she blows it, she could doom herself. Jessica starts off a cappella, as required. On the gentle notes, she sounds beautiful, only occasionally pushing too hard on the end of notes. And when she gets to the chorus… She hits it. Totally. I’d listen to a whole Jessica performance of this song. No, it’s not Whitney. And it’s not Jennifer Hudson at the Grammys. In fact, I’d say that as arrangements of this song go, this is probably as simple as low-stress a cut-down as you could cobble together. All Jessica can do, though, is to deliver on what she’s given and she lands the big notes and on the little grace notes? It’s lovely. The judges are on their feet and so is the audience. The best part is that when Jessica gets to the end, SHE knows she did it. It’s like watching an Olympic athlete after a particularly figure skating or gymnastics performance just… releasing.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: “Jessica Sanchez is legit,” Randy cheers. Somewhat damning the performance with faint praise, Randy calls it one of the best vocals of the night and calls her one of the best singers in the competition. Ummm… We knew that already. “Just… just… amazing,” says a speechless J-Lo. “You may be the one,” Steven Tyler says, saying that Jessica just made 40 million people cry.

Singer: Phillip Phillips
Song: “Superstition”
My Take: So is this a Dave Matthews Band arrangement? That’s just what I’m going to assume Phil-Phil is doing whenever he gets on stage this season. And I have no real objections. He’s strumming away on his guitar, bringing some welcome musicality into tonight’s performances. The vocals are awfully shout-y. And when he isn’t shouting he’s growling. He’s not singing very much at all. You know what I like? Just singing, Phil-Phil is painfully twitchy and uncomfortable. Playing the guitar along, Phil-Phil is twitchy and uncomfortable, but far less so. But when you put Phil-Phil between two professional guitarists, he’ll interact with them. He’ll play with them. He’ll listen to them. Half-way through, I remembered that Phil-Phil actually did this one for his first audition song way back in the day and it was the pre-guitar performance that he needed “Thriller” to cover up for. This is much better than that.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: I miss Steven and J-Lo’s comments. I’m not really sad about that. Randy loves what Phil-Phil does and he looks forward to watching Phil-Phil drive his own car in his own lanes.

I’ll fill in the other performances later tonight. Sorry for all of the tech issues tonight. It probably led to a really, really distracted recap. Mea culpa, y’all.

Anyway, who did you guys like? Who did you hate? And what do you think about the weird voting twist tomorrow that pretty much seems to undermine everything “American Idol” has ever been about?