If the “American Idol” guy contestants last night seemed to separate out into front-runners and also-rans, with a few standouts leading the way, tonight’s female competition proved a lot tougher to handicap, with a lot more consistency top to bottom.
To get down to five finalists (and a judge’s wild card) from this batch is going to require some heavy lifting, and it seems only Randy Jackson, once more assuming the Simon Cowell naysayer position, expressed any misgivings, much to the consternation of the crowed, urged to lustily boo by rabble-rousing executive producer Nigel Lythgoe.
The two youngest contestants, 15-year-old Filipino hopeful Thia Megia and 16-year-old Georgia cheerleader Lauren Alaina did nothing to dispel their favorite status, with non-spectacular, but steady takes on Irene Cara’s “Out Here on My Own” and Reba McEntire’s “Turn on the Radio,” respectively, but it was Pia Toscano, the Howard Beach, N.Y., make-up artist in the so-called “pimp” position as the final act of the evening (that’s what they call it, but it sounds kinda weird using it to refer to the women’s competition) who stole the show, garnering the first standing ovation of the evening from the judges.
This was the season’s last taped competition, shot before a studio audience on Monday night, and it introduced a strong field that included two Diana Ross pretenders (the newly re-spelled Ta-Tynisa Wilson, looking like the young Diana of The Wiz, and the also-re-spelled Ashthon Jones, whose eerie google-eyed camera stare was right out of Ross with The Supremes on the old “Ed Sullivan Show”), a Billie Holiday (Naima Adedapo), a pair of Latina bombshells (Karen Rodriguez, Julie Zorrilla), a zaftig Bette Midler belter (Lauren Turner), someone who turned a Fiona Apple song into a Broadway vamp (Rachel Zevita) and a couple of sexy girl-next-door divas-in-training (Kendra Chantelle, Hailey Reinhart).
A dandy dozen indeed, and while Steven Tyler and J. Lo were enthusiastic about most of them, the Big Dawg (wearing a nice sweater – kudos to the stylist) had reservations about several, reserving his enthusiasm for the final trio of Megia, Alaina and, especially Toscano, whose performance of The Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand By You,” he praised as one of the greatest in Idol history. “You just put yourself at the top of all the amazing performances we’ve had here. That was unbelievable. That’s how you do it.”
Here’s my list of the Top 10 female contestants as I see it:
1. Pia Toscano (The Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand By You”): A subtle build to a devastating close, Toscano earned her final spot in the line-up with a soaring performace that clearly placed her in the driver’s seat moving forward. Steven got off one of his patented head-scratchers, claiming, “After Monday and Tuesday, even a week says WTF… That was gorgeous.” Hunh? J. Lo gushes: “You were saving it all along for when it counted. It was out of this world.”
2. Thia Megia (Irene Cara, “Out Here on My Own”): With a supportive Asian-American community, this diminutive teenager with the big voice has a great shot at becoming the youngest American Idol winner ever. She paced herself with a rather quiet take on this song, but the lyrics fit the situation and had the judges gushing. “I wonder/Where I’ve been/Do I fit in?” There was no question about that. “I can’t believe you’re 15,” marveled Tyler. “This is a touch choice, but you’re making it easy for me right now.” J Lo marveled at the youngster’s ability “to come out here, stand still and just captivate every single person in the room.” Even Randy was won over by the quality of the tone, and how it reminded him from the beginning of a young Michael Jackson. “This what hot singing is all about. It doesn’t matter what age you are.”
3. Lauren Alaina (Reba McEntire’s “Turn on the Radio”): The pre-game favorite to win it all gave a strong, if not overwhelming performance, that was definitely reminiscent of first season winner Kelly Clarkson, a comparison also noted by Randy, who said she has the country vibe of another “AI” champ in Carrie Underwood. “You have a natural talent,” he said. “I don’t believe you know how good you can be.?” Said Tyler: “Just because you can sing into the stratosphere doesn’t mean you should do it every time. You didn’t here and I missed it, but you still kill me. Your voice goes from here to there and they haven’t seen the best of you yet.” J. Lo gushed, “You look so beautiful. You don’t even have to try. It’s just amazing what a natural you are.”
4. Naime Adedapo (“Summertime”): The Milwaukee Summerfest janitor and single mother has the most inspiring back story and a way of channeling Billie Holiday that evokes all sorts of flower metaphors from the judges, but she did justice to the “Porgy & Bess” classic, even if she didn’t quite put herself in the upper echelon. She did inspire the night’s first audience standing o, while J. Lo pointed out, “You’re like an exotic flower in a rose garden,” though Randy felt it was “a little bit like a lounge singer,” comparing it unfavorably to a version of the song by yet another “AI” champ, Fantasia several years ago. The Big Dawg seemed to use his status as the panel’s longest-termed member to dip back into his memory bank several times during the episode. Tyler compared her to “early Ella Fitzgerald,” saying “it’s a new old-timey thing that we could use right now.”
5. Ashthon Jones (Monica, “Love All Over Me”): Not her best performance, but Jones’ accomplished stage presence will definitely serve her well as the competition intensifies. Tyler was particularly enthusiastic. “You’ve got the confidence of a queen. You go places with your voice few have gone. We found one.” J. Lo went even further: “You have all the makings of a diva… the big hair, the body, the moves, the composure,” only to have Jones answer, “I get it from you.” Randy complained about the song choice. “I think you’re broader and bigger than a Monica joint,” making the Diana Ross comparison explicit. It was that freaky, self-conscious look into the camera which cemented it for me. This girl has the eye of the tiger. She’s out to kill the opposition, so don’t sleep on her.
6. Lauren Turner (Etta James, “Seven Day Fool”): This housekeeper from Louisiana had the temerity (and chops) to cover Etta James, proving not only does she belong, but she could make some noise. Randy compared her to Amy Winehouse meets Florence + the Machine, while Tyler said she was “Lauren Turner meets Lauren Turner… Spectacular. End of the song was upstairs… a perfect full complete sentence.” J. Lo complained that “physically, you’re holding back… That would have put you over the top. Give it to me.”
7. Hailey Reinhart (Alicia Keys’ “Falling”): This wholesome Midwestern girl with the husky Joss Stone belt didn’t do anything for Randy, who called it karaoke as the ultimate insult, but earned high marks from Tyler, who herd “just the right amount of style and sexy… If I agreed with you,” he turned to Jackson, “We’d both be wrong.” She may not have the world class voice needed for this competition, but she can sure put across sensuality, which may well be a deterrent with the public vote.
8. Karen Rodriguez (Mariah Carey’s “Hero”): Don’t underestimate this bilingual charmer, who combined English and Spanish lyrics in her performance, which delited both Lopez and Randy. “That says it all,” blurted J. Lo, pointing to the goose bumps on her arm. I love that you showed your true flavor.” “Definitely a one-of-a-kind singer,” said Tyler. “You should get together with Jacob Lusk for a duet on that one.” Don’t underestimate her Latin base when it comes to voting.
9. Kendra Chantelle (Christina Aguilera’s “Impossible”): Given Aguilera’s current problems, Chantelle’s cover choice seemed a little ironick, but that didn’t take away from her performance, which pleased all three judges, with Randy loving “that vibrato which reminds me of Lauryn Hill. It makes me feel warm and connected to you.” Anything that can do that to the grizzled Dawg has to count for something. As for Tyler: “Voice hot, clothes hot, style hot… The whole package.” J. Lo praised her “heart… You fought your way into the Top 12. We’re just scratching the surface with you.”
10. Rachel Zevita (Fiona Apple’s “Criminal”): I thought it was a nervy, risky choice to turn the Apple song into a cabaret tune, but apparently the judges didn’t agree, turning thumbs-down on the returning Season Six hopeful. “A little too Broadway for me,” said Tyler, who nevertheless loved her “strut, swagger and moves. Randy didn’t recognize it was a Fiona Apple song, but nevertheless complained the rest of the night about cover versions that hewed to closely to the original. In the end, she doesn’t have a prayer, but I liked her gumption.
Both Julie Zorilla, with Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway,” and Ta-Tynisa Wilson, with Rihanna’s “Only Girl (In the World),” didn’t elevate them past the highly competitive field.
All in all, the girls were a lot more talented, top to bottom, then the guys, with fewer highs and lows, but it should be a real battle to determine a final 5 in each… with two judge’s wild cards. More to come tomorrow night, folks.