Against all odds, American Idol has turned out to be pretty awesome in its first post-Simon season. The revised and brief semifinals round proved to be one of the strongest in ages, and given all the talent that didn’t crack the top thirteen, it’s left me wondering if maybe the problem all along was… Simon? Of the top twelve guys, only one was truly, inexorably awful, and of the girls, no one was a full-on disaster.
Sadly, only thirteen could advance. Let’s take a look at the group in advance of tonight’s first week of the finals.
Ashthon Jones: The only thing I don’t like about Ashthon Jones is having to remember the extra H. Seriously, how frustrating it must be to always say, “It’s Ashthon with two H’s.” If someone told me that, I wouldn’t even know where to put the second one. But I digress wildly. I am a big Ashthon fan, from her style to her attitude to her voice to her hair. She looks like she could be a recording artist; someone I could see on MTV (if MTV played music videos). Definitely rooting for her.
Casey Abrams: People love Casey. I’m not saying that he’s bad, but I have yet to be won over. His semifinals performance felt indulgent and over-the-top. The good news is that he has charisma and can hit his notes; so already he’s leaps and bounds ahead of last year’s sorry cast.
Haley Reinhart: Poor Haley is one of two girls I would have swapped out for someone else. But only by a hair. What I like about Haley is that she has power. And she can hit her notes. Sounds like a given, but quite often the teenagers on Idol get so nervous it’s a miracle that any sound comes out of their mouths. Haley certainly can sing, but like Casey Abrams, she’s a bit indulgent. All her growling and melisma feels forced at times. If she can rein it in, I’ll feel better about her inclusion in the top ten. Otherwise I’ll be ruing the day she got picked over Kendra Chantelle or the woefully underrated Lauren Turner. (I would have also been down for a Rachel Zevita upset had Rachel not chosen to be so jazzy in the semifinals)
Jacob Lusk: So here’s the thing about Ms. Jacob. He sings in a style that doesn’t particularly speak to me — old fashioned R&B and gospel ballads. Jacob is one for the grandmas out there. That being said, his range is pretty extraordinary, and he possesses that elusive attribute that so many of the singers seek out: excitement! When Jacob comes on screen, you can’t help but wonder what the hell sort of vocal acrobatics he’ll pull off. In some ways, he’s the Siobhan Magnus of this season. I’m enthused to see how he’ll fare.
James Durbin: Ugh. Okay, let’s start with the pros: the guy can sing. He can squeal even better. He moves around on stage well, and he adds a nice heavy metal splash into the mix. The bad: his hair. His bandanas. His whole persona. James does not feel like an authentic rocker, and if he were a rocker, he’s a rocker from a bygone era. Whatever. People seem to like him, and so far he hasn’t totally pissed me off like certain other American Idol wannabe rockers. If he were one of the first to leave though, I’d be aiiiight with that.
Karen Rodriguez: Karen is the only finalist who I out and out believe should not be in the top thirteen. Her bilingual rendition of “Hero” was generally flat, soulless, and matronly. However, because she unprecedentedly sang half in Spanish, I think she received a) a significant Latino vote, and b) a more receptive reaction from the judges. I’m not trying to be cynical, but there’s absolutely no way they could have thought her performance was as amazing as they said it was. Furthermore, nearly every singer who deigns to take on Mariah gets viciously thrashed apart by the judges for biting off more than they can chew. Even if it’s not always merited, the judges accuse the singers of sounding copycat or karaoke. Here Karen sounded like both, and on top of that, she seemed old fashioned and boring. She was objectively terrible, and yet the judges sang her praises. No surprises here: she sailed into the finals without a problem. Not deserved. Karen may be a sweet girl, but when it comes to the more talented vocalists who were left on the sidelines, she really is out of her league.
Lauren Alaina: I like her. She’s kind of forgettable though. But Lauren can do the rock and country thing, which means all the red states will adore her. I predict a lot of Shania in her future.
Naima Adedapo: I’m a big fan of Naima. Sure, she may be too emotional, and sure, she has armpit hair, and sure, she often dresses like a pile of rags, but the rags work for her in a bohemian chic way. And furthermore, Naima has a great voice. I wouldn’t advise her to do anything from Porgy and Bess anytime soon, nor would I recommend she continue on the jazzy route (seriously, between her and Rachel Zevita, it’s like they forgot they were vying to be contemporary musicians), but I think Naima has some major, major potential.
Paul McDonald: I dig Paul McDonald’s style, which seems authentic to him as a person and as an artist. His voice is funky too. However, he reminds me too much of the quirky singer-songwriter morass of last season; so it’s hard for me to truly embrace him. Plus, Paul seems to be about ten years older than everyone else. Does he even realize he’s on American Idol and not some really big coffee shop?
Pia Toscano: I haven’t been keeping up with the buzz, but I’ll assume Pia is a frontrunner, what with the standing ovation she received from the judges and her all-around commercial good looks. Her rendition of “I’ll Stand By You” by The Pretenders was pretty damn good; although, I’m not sure it deserved a standing o. In fact, in the beginning I thought it was merely very good. However, she nailed it in the end, and Pia brought honest emotion to the song, and perhaps that’s what resonated most with the judges. Either way, I back The Pia Train, even if it is a little overrated.
Scotty McCreery: Oh Scotty. Our little country crooner. The guy has a rich, deep voice that is stunning for his age. I can’t help feel like he’s a novelty act for this show. He could kill it in the country scene, but for this format, I see his shtick getting old. That being said, I want him to stick around a few weeks until he winds up in a genre that will truly challenge him vocally.
Stefano Langone: After the semifinals, I was not a Stefano fan. I didn’t see why the judges loved him so much. However, when he failed to crack the top ten, J-Lo et. al gave him one more shot, and honestly, he made me a believer. Stefano was awesome, and as long as he can keep it up, he might become a favorite of mine.
Thia Megia: The biggest surprise for me had to be Thia Megia. Standing meek and dough-eyed, I thought she was going to tank. Instead she did the opposite. She transfixed the audience, both in studio and at home, with a quiet but powerful ballad. Thia was the only one all night who managed to bowl the judges over with understatement, and in that way she was sort of the most memorable. I hope she’s not a one trick pony, and at sixteen, it’s shocking how good she is.
Look at this cast. It’s hard to imagine sending any of them home. EXCEPT KAREN RODRIGUEZ. Regardless, our judges have done a fine job with the talent this year, and for the first time in a while, I’m excited for how this whole mess shakes out…