There are 40 contestants hoping to make it through the Las Vegas rounds and head back to Hollywood as part of the top 20 on this season of American Idol, for the chance to sing their way into America’s heart. In yet another effort to shake things up, Idol is trying out a brave new format: Sudden death. Each night, over the course of four shows, 10 contestants will sing, the judges will deliberate and five singers will go home, winnowing the herd of Idol wannabes to 20.
The first sudden-death round featured 10 women singing (and oversinging) their hearts out in hopes of making it another day in the Idol trenches. The big standouts were Kree Harrison, whose version of Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain” was iTunes purchase-worthy, and Amber Holcombe’s “My Funny Valentine,” which Nicki Minaj deemed an “A-plus-plus-plus” vocal. They easily made it through to the next round along with out-of-nowhere favorite Angela Miller and Adriana Latonio, the show’s first Alaskan contestant. In a somewhat surprising move, Tenna Torres was the fifth contestant to make it through, edging out Isabelle, perhaps due less to her performance and more to her status as a Camp Mariah alumna. Mariah Carey does like a cooing fanbase, after all.
Here are a few other highlights from last night’s American Idol:
Shubha Vedula’s wedding band version of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” was divisive because the audience loved it while the judges seemingly hated it. Keith couldn’t help but snark, “It’s all about America’s voting.” The audience booed when Nicki said Shubha’s version of the song sounded like a mashup of “Christina Aguilera and the ‘Gangnam Style’ guy.” Most shocking was Randy Jackson going against years of Idol tradition by telling the 17-year-old singer, “Every note doesn’t have to have a run on it.” When Shubha was cut, Keith told her, “You were fought for tonight,” which should provide her with some cold comfort back in high school.
Jenny Beth Willis is a junior in high school who sings (and dresses) like a 40-year-old at a honky-tonk. Her decision to do Trisha Yearwood’s “Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love” did her no favors, with even Mariah telling her that she needed to work on everything but the last note. She handled her dismissal with dignity.
Torres was able to choose any song in any genre to sing last night and she opted for Natasha Bedingfield’s “Soulmate.” After the performance, Nicki told her to “lose the hair!” because her newly acquired blonde mop was “aging” her.
Latonio, 17, flew from Alaska to Oklahoma to audition for the show, and earned a standing ovation after tackling Aretha Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way.” Keith explained his inability to keep a poker face, “It was hard not to react because it was so damn good.” While Nicki just wanted to focus on the important stuff: “How tall are you?”
Brandy Hotard’s performance of Travis Tritt’s “Anymore” was pageant-y and Nicki scolded her for smiling during a serious song, quickly adding, “But you look beautiful!” For her part, Mariah added, “It doesn’t bother me if you’re smiling, I just see a beautiful person singing.” Brandy was cut despite her looks.
Keith found Kamaria Ousley’s version of Kelly Clarkson’s “Mr. Know It All” unnecessarily theatrical and Nicki didn’t like her vocal quality, but complimented her outfit and told her to “be proud of that.” She was sent home, undoubtedly to audition for Project Runway.
Nicki couldn’t stop smiling during Harrison’s performance and it was clear that while the contestant’s biggest booster is Keith, she is winning over the rest. However, when it came time to mete out judgment, Mariah told her, “You know I never liked your voice,” and while it was probably intended as a joke, the delivery was off and it sounded mean and will probably come up in Kree’s therapy over then next 10 years.
Miller may have peaked already because the judges can’t help but compare her performance of “Nobody’s Perfect” by Jessie J to the original number she performed last week, which Mariah said “clothed me in goosebumps.” Still, Miller easily made it through to the next round.
Isabelle delivered a solid if somewhat lounge-y version of “God Bless the Child,” which Keith, Nicki and the audience really liked, but Randy deemed “a bit old-fashioned.” Her performance was solid, though, and she probably deserved the spot that ultimately went to Torres.
Holcomb’s version of “My Funny Valentine” earned a well-deserved standing ovation from everyone except for Nicki, of course. Keith had to ask her, “Why do you make it so hard on everybody else?”
Most Mariah Moment: “I think you know how brilliant that performance was . . . I wanted to smack you,” Mariah said to Amber.
American Idol Milestone Reached: During Angela Miller’s performance, Randy worked in his very first “She’s in to win it!” of the season.
Most Nicki Moment: While assessing Kree Harrison’s performance, Nicki humbly said, “Let me tell you something about you.”
Best Reason to Come Back Tomorrow: The first 10 men face off in another round of sudden-death eliminations.
Previously: And Then There Were 40