At last, we are at that point where the final fourteen survivors of the long Idol winnowing process are competing directly against each other. While I’ve had a list of favorites in mind, I was waiting for the clarity that I hoped this new, high-stakes test would bring. This week, I was fortunate enough to have had a visit from My Daughter Diandra and it was a wine and Idol night like the old days, as well as a night of extraordinary music criticism. As always, we got deep into arrangements, vocal technique, phrasing, enunciation, song selection, song interpretation, stage presence, and a zillion other things – all with a level of critique that would make Simon Cowell proud.
In general, it was a rough night. Bad song choices and nervousness were the major themes. Nerves I assume will get better as the Idolists get used to the big stage. As to song choice, it is always a big deal but so far, it seems even bigger this year. Song choice involves two things: finding songs that fit your voice and vocal style; and finding songs that fit your identity as an artist. The reason it seems to be a big deal already is that there are a few Idolists who appear to have locked into this and it’s putting them ahead of the game.
Here are the key categories and grades.
In it to win it
- Gabby (The Climb Miley Cyrus) Gabby earned her glory spot (last one to sing) with a glorious, professional, flawless performance that turned a familiar song into something fresh and new. She has the look, confidence, and ability of a winner. A+
- Maddie (Homeward Bound Simon and Garfunkel) Maddie has a strong sense of who she is as an artist which is demonstrated in her out-of-the-box song choices. This was the most captivating performance of the night in terms of both having a magnetic presence and (as with Gabby, above) turning a familiar song into something fresh and new. A
- Dennis (In My Blood Shawn Mendes) Dennis got off to a rough start (nerves?) but recovered nicely. As always, song choice is everything and he put a modern R&B-meets-rock spin on a current pop song. B+
I was hoping for more
- Jurnee (Bang Bang Jessie J/Ariana Grande/Nicki Minaj) Terrible song choice. First, it’s a trio song and Jurnee doesn’t do what either Jessie J or Ariana do well, although she redeemed herself by doing Nicki’s rapped portion of the song. She has one of the best voices in the competition but never sounded like herself tonight. B
- Mara (This Is Me from The Greatest Show on Earth) Nerves seemed to get the best of her right from the start. Moreover, the art of singing an emotional song is to convey emotion without being too emotional because the voice loses control when overcome with emotion. Mara needs to grow in this art if her talents are going to shine in the competition. C
- Caleb (Midnight Train to Memphis The Steeldrivers) Nerves; poor song choice as he doesn’t sing with the drive needed for the song; and bad enunciation. C+
- Michelle (Friends Marshmello & Ann-Marie) As usual, Michelle has more energy and attitude than vocal skill. This was pitchy, screamy and a bad song choice. I’m giving some credit for her look and stage presence. C
- Garrett (Raging Fire Phillip Phillps) P2 won Idol in large part because of his unique singing style. Garrett has a pleasant enough voice but one that is certainly not unique. Hence, while this was a competent performance, it was a bad song choice. C
- Ada (The Show Must Go On Queen) Yes, Ada has a big voice. But at times, she has a very nasally voice and, at times, she has a shrieky voice. My Daughter Diandra observed that she needs to learn when and how to use her chest voice and head voice better. B
- Michael J. (Titanium Sia) He has a very unique and interesting voice. But he over-stylizes his approach to every song with the result being a complete emotional disconnection from the lyrics. It’s a great talent to not only be able to hit all the Sia notes and hit them in myriad ways. But Sia’s songs are emotional songs and the song’s meaning got lost in all of the excessive styling. B-
- Marcio (It’s a Miracle Barry Manilow) Yet another old song from Marcio and with a terrible Broadway-ish arrangement that made it sound even older. Worse, the too-fast tempo never allowed us to hear what a rich voice he has. D
- Catie (Take Me to Church Hozier) Too campy. Too cabaret. Zero interpretation of the meaning of the song. D
- Cade (Black Magic Woman Santana) Sacrilege. And he can’t sing. I’ll give him some credit for the guitar solo. D-
- Jonny (This is Gospel Panic! at the Disco) My Daughter Diandra: “I want to throw my phone at the TV.” Poor Luke Bryan went from “what is this?” to “this isn’t very good” to “this is straight-up awful.” F-
I’m excited – with the clear potential to be very frustrated – to see how the elimination process will unfold. We’ll vote for the Top 6 – and I’m very curious to see what the voters are thinking. Then the judges will add back four of the eight low vote getters. What isn’t clear is if they will sing again, i.e. re-compete for the judges. That seems likely but we’ll see.
Until tomorrow, I hope you get to listen to some good music. I know I will.
 My Daughter Diandra said that I said “competent” with a dismissive sneer.