'American Idol': Leaving Them in Las Vegas

The Atlantic

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Last night American Idol unveiled a whole new segment of the competition, one I'm really not sure I like. They're calling it Vegas Week, which when it was originally announced I assumed meant that the kids would spend a night singing on the stage of some Cirque du Soleil show, awkwardly stumbling around and then getting loaded back onto a school bus to Los Angeles. They've done that in years past, and it's usually only a night of the competition. But oh, no. Not this year. This year "Vegas Week" means "Weeks and weeks of semi-live singing." Y'see, they taped this show on Tuesday night, meaning we're all caught up in the present. There's a live audience and everything, though we can't vote yet. This is the preamble to the semifinals; done, I suspect, so we aren't so clueless about who these contestants are when we start voting. I guess the producers don't like who America has been voting for, they think you're doing it wrong, so they're trying to guide your voting fingers a little more heavily. Will it work? Who knows? I guess it is good to have a better knowledge of who everyone is before the real competition begins, but it also inevitably means that we'll get sick of them sooner than normal. Think top eight instead of top six. Anyway, the other revolutionary aspect of this new level (Randy is still the level boss, don't worry) is that it's sudden death. Meaning each night 10 singers will go, and then immediately after they've all performed, one by one they will go in front of the judges and half of them will be given the heave-ho. Which likely means the groupings are in no way arbitrary. They're not going to risk one of their favorites biffing it and getting sent home because they have to send five people home. I bet they have some vague idea of who the five are going to be before the show even starts. But maybe that's silly conspiracy theory. After all, no actual conspiracy has ever been proven at Idol, though there are hints of them on the wind, everywhere. Anyway, let's go singer by singer, shall we? Last night was a girls night.

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Jenny Beth: Poor Jenny Beth was the guinea pig, thrown out to the slaughter first in a sad ruffly pink dress and silly boots. She warbled some indistinct country song and tried to smile gamely, but you could tell that she knew she was dying practically before the music was even cued up. But she tried her country hardest, the judges' thin, strained smiles telling her all she needed to know. She got only a minimal amount of praise and was then sent to the shadows to await her fate. We all knew what her fate was going to be. She knew what her fate was going to be. Everyone knew. The world knew. The Martians up in outer space knew. Some distant cosmic being that burps quasars and poops black holes, even it knew what awaited Jenny Beth. There was no question about poor Jenny Beth. Jenny Beth, Jenny Beth. And her sad country death.

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Tina Torres: For me the most memorable part of Tina Torres's performance was her enormous, truly voluminous hair piece. It was some kind of weave or wig or something, but whatever it was, it was clearly made for someone who's head is two or three sizes bigger than Tina Torres's head is. She's a medium, but she got the extra large. Maybe the extra large hair was the only size they had at the store that day. I don't know. The point is, it was big. Nicki said something about the hair, said she should change it, which I thought was sharp of Nicki. I mean, it would be hard not to notice this, but I'm glad she said something. Nicki did well all night, in fact. She's pretty good. And so is Tina! Tina sang some ballad, I forget which one, but it was '80s-ish and plaintive and though she kinda screeched it at parts, the judges liked it, writing "Sing: 10, Wig: 3" on their scorecards.

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Adrianna: This is a tiny Filipino girl from Alaska who sang Aretha Franklin's "Ain't No Way" and duly impressed the judges. Nicki was happy because she got to get in a shout-out to her "Filipino Barbs." Mariah gave it an A+. I didn't quite get all the thrills and chills, it seemed like standard boring Idol balladry, nothing remarkable, reminiscent of Thia Megia or some other small person with a wail of a voice. But what do I know. And it isn't up to me anyway. The judges liked it. That's all the matters. Ryan also liked how short she is. He made a joke about it. Oh, Ryan.

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Brandy: Well, golly shucks, Brandy is just the sweetest country peach you ever did see. Well, no, that's not really true. If the country peach was shellacked and lacquered and put in a glass case in an air conditioned room in Tulsa, that's what Brandy would be. She's all pageant-y sheen and shine but somehow as dull as the Milkwater. She sang a sad Travis Tritt song about lost love and yet she smiled as big as the Sunsphere the whole time. The judges called her on that, especially Keith, saying she didn't connect to the song at all. Brandy bobbled her big, hard head and smiled her vaseline smile and you could tell it wasn't really sinking in. Or if it was, the message was "Frown during sad songs." Nothing about actually connecting with a song, just getting how you should look right. Oh, well. It doesn't really matter now. You could tell where this one was going.

Shubha Vedula: Sadly, the most fun name to say this year is not the most fun contestant to watch. To her credit, Shubha tried to do a capital-P Performance, starting Lady Giggums's "Born This Way" all slow and saucy on the piano and then lurching up to sing the fast section as part of some sort of breath and movement routine dreamed up by Bill T. Jones. I guess you have to respect the kid's ambition, though the execution was wiggly at best. She sounded good and competent on the piano, but the minute that she tried to get down with it, really break it down on center stage, the whole thing collapsed like a cheap souffle. The judges called her on that, Nicki saying that it was like a mix of Christina Aguilera (burn?) and the "Gangnam Style" guy. So, Shubha Vedula, sadly, did not go over so well.

Kamaria: Poor Kamaria. Poor, poor Kamaria. She came out looking cute and fun and was set to sing "Mr. Know It All," the Kells Clarks jam, and yet when she opened her mouth to sing all that came out was an old casette recording of cats drowning in a river. That old cassette squiggle and moan distorting the sound of the cats, who are likely long dead now, as this was probably recorded in the mid 1980s. Kamaria seemed to realize that something was wrong, but there was little she could do about it. She kept making this sad, mournful, but also chilling noise and the judges grimaced. She yelled out the last note, and then fell silent, and an uneasiness filled the air. When, finally, the judges did criticize her, the audience actually clapped for the criticism. They clapped! That's pretty unprecedented. Poor Kamaria was off from the get-go, that train was going off the rails no matter what she did. It was a complete technical meltdown. Oh, well. Better luck next year.

Kree: This is that girl who lost both of her parents by age 20, who pulled out a ticket to this round just at the very last minute in Hollywood Week. She seems likable enough, though in her little intro video she said "American Idol is such a cool platform for a performer to tell their story," which... I'm not sure that's even remotely true? Is it a "cool" place for "a performer" to "tell their story"? I really don't think that's the case. Whose story? Danny Gokey's story? I don't know that Idol has ever been a good place for "a performer to tell their story." We still don't know a thing about Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood's stories, and that's just fine. I mean, what, they're from Texas and Oklahoma. That's about all we know. Idol is not storytown, it's singtown. Don't come on this show if you want to tell stories. Anyway, she sang Patty Griffin's "Up to the Mountain" (that was it, right?) and it was actually quite purdy, delicate but powerful and all that good stuff. Weirdly Nicki said that Kree "made love to the song" which is not how I would describe that soft, sad ballad performance at all, but oh well. Nicki's gonna say what Nicki's gonna say, I guess.

Angela Miller: Here she is. The big dog. The one they want to win so bad. Oh man do they like Angie Mills. She's the one that sang her original song during the final round of Hollywood Week and Keith Urban's wig actually spun off his head and got stuck up in the rafters, Sven the janitor using a long pole to get it down, muttering to himself "These music people vith their damn vigs..." So yeah, there were high expectations for Angie Mills last night. And... well, she only sorta met them. She sang a Jessie J song, which was totally the wrong choice, and she bleated through it, sounding a bit shaky and tonally weak. The judges grimaced and Jimmy Iovine put his small turtle head in his heads and they all decided they'd have to wait another year to crown a girl. Angie's performance rather perfectly ended on the words "Nobody's perfect," which, yeah, no sh-t Sherlock. The judges were all "Last time was sooooo good..." looking wistful and sad. Basically they told her not to push it too much, to just be confident in who she is. Which is good advice for her. Who knows if she'll really take it the right way, but we'll wait and see. To me she seems like Miley Cyrus but with an actual singing voice. I'm not sure that's a good thing, though.

Isabelle: Isabelle doesn't have a last name, apparently. She's just Isabelle. Isabelle decided to sing "God Bless the Child" and suddenly I was whisked, as if I'd touched a portkey, to a cruise ship in 1989, headed to Nova Scotia, listening to little jazz trio performing during dinner. It was a real cruise ship number (not a number-two cruise ship) and it was not interesting. In her judging, Isabelle was all brassy, joking about "If I come back, I mean when I come back," and that was awkward. Then she sauntered off in her tight shimmery dress and went to wait in the shadows with everyone else. She didn't have to wait long.

Amber: The last of the evening, Amber came out in a nice red outfit and sang a perfectly competent version of "My Funny Valentine." It was no Melinda Doolittle singing that very song in the semifinals many, many moons ago, but then again there can be only one Mindy Doo. Amber did well enough though, and the judges seemed very excited. Nicki did, rather astutely, express some concern that Amber's "inner shine" might not "shine through the TV," which is an important thing to consider, so that was appreciated. Well done, Nicki! And, hey, well done Amber. Again, Melinda Doolittle owns that song on Idol in perpetuity, but it was a pretty good second place.

And then it was time to do the chopping! They made the girls come out one by one and stand really close to the judges, like awkwardly close, three or four feet maybe. It was very strange and uncomfortable, but I suppose that was the point. Anyway, the saved were: Tina Torres, Kree, Angie Mills, Amber, and Adrianna. Meaning, sadly, that Shubha Vedula is gone. The other four, who cares. But poor Shubha. Oh, well. She's young. She can do it again next year.

All the contestants gave the judges strangely intimate hugs — I mean, they were standing that close, why not — and then Ryan wrapped up the show, but not before telling the last eliminee, Shubha, "you can go be with your friends," meaning the losers, and pointing her off-camera. It was a sad and wonderful moment, as brief as this unending show is long. And there you have it. Here we are in this new Vegas Week reality. I'm not sure I like it, but again, I don't have a vote.

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