After a decidedly lackluster night with the Top 13 male vocalists, it was the girls' turn to take the "American Idol" stage. While things started out wobbly for a number of singers, by the latter half of the show, we'd had three powerhouse performances that easily blew the guys out of the water. I think critics say this every year, but I truly believe that a number of these women have the talent to break the four-year streak of young, white, male winners -- we'll have to see whether America agrees.
Chelsea Sorrell: "Cowboy Casanova"
Of all the Carrie Underwood songs to tackle (and it's always a risky choice on the show that discovered her), Chelsea picked one of the least flattering for her voice. The speedy, mid-tempo rhythm had her rushing through her phrasing, and because she was concentrating so hard on nailing the lyrics and staying in time, she didn't have the opportunity to hit the high notes or make sure that she kept on pitch. From what I vaguely remember of her during the audition rounds, Chelsea has the capability to knock a song out of the park, but that was not the case this week.
All three of the judges concurred that it was a poor song choice for her, with Jennifer Lopez dubbing it "nasally," and Randy Jackson telling her that she needed to separate herself from Carrie Underwood's vibe to show everyone what her particular style was. Steven Tyler warned her to watch her timing and her phrasing.
Erika Van Pelt: "What About Love"
Erika's low, raspy tone was one of the most memorable during the auditions, but despite being vocally solid, tonight's performance felt completely pedestrian to me. She didn't belt the song as much as she could've, which seemed strange considering that the song was perfect for letting loose and taking some risks. She kept to the timing and generally stayed in key, but there was a passion and energy missing from the rendition. Even when she attempted some of the bigger notes, there was a noticeable reserve in her normally booming delivery. She's much better than what she gave us here.
Steven didn't seem to notice, praising her confidence and gushing that she "breathes wings into a song." (Steven truly is the new Paula Abdul.) Jennifer noted that since Erika is one of their "power voices," she knew that she could've gone further with the performance, instructing her to "let loose" next time. Randy, on the other hand, liked that she showed restraint, before somewhat bafflingly comparing her to Adele.
Jen Hirsch: "One and Only"
Speaking of Adele, Jen was one of two performers to tackle her song this week (and was definitely the weaker of the pair). Since Jen sounds nothing like Adele, that allowed her to put a fairly distinctive spin on the tune, although she was lacking the heart that makes Adele's music so evocative. She had an easy confidence in her delivery, so even though her take sounded kind of like a karaoke, Celine Dion version of the track, she still demonstrated some sweet runs and an interesting, breathy quality on some of the notes. She also belted a few lines the way Erika should've done, which probably won her points with the judges.
"I felt the feeling in the song," Jennifer enthused, commenting that Jen was the first one to come out and really let loose. Following his air theme, Steven commented that Jen has a confidence that can make a voice fly, while Randy called her "one of the greatest singers in the competition this year." I'm not sure she really deserved that much praise, but compared to the first two singers, I guess it made sense.
At this point, Randy paused to admit that he'd watched the guys' performances back and realized (at last) that the judges had been too lenient in their critiques last night. "We gave some passes in some of our judgment," he acknowledged, while Jennifer tried to excuse it as "first night excitement." Glad someone finally mentioned it, because they were a lot harder on the girls in this episode, although none of them were Simon Cowell-level nasty. I get that each contestant is a special and unique snowflake, but seriously, the rest of the record industry isn't going to pat them on the head and give them a lollipop every time they deign to perform in public, so the judges shouldn't either.
Brielle Von Hugel: "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay"
Sadly, there were no dramatic nosedives from the stage, Symone Black style, in Brielle's confident performance. She certainly has swagger, and she was the first performer who actually looked comfortable working the stage (despite an unflattering dress), but I get the feeling that she thinks she's better than she actually is -- likely due to her overbearing stage mom. She started out in a key that was too low for her, and in the first part of the song she seemed to have trouble finding the notes, but she has a rough, bluesy quality to her voice that makes it unique, with some attention-grabbing turns of phrase.
Jennifer told her that she was a "true performer" who consistently comes out on stage and "eats it up." Randy compared her to Janis Joplin, which didn't seem at all warranted, but also offered the most insightful and meaningful critique of the night: "you actually can really sing." Wow. I wonder how much they're paying him?
Hallie Day: "Feeling Good"
It wouldn't be "Idol" without someone breaking out this song, and though it didn't have the spine-tingling quality of some of the best performances (Adam Lambert's always comes to my mind first), this was a competent effort from Hallie. She has a naturally sweet tone and demonstrated excellent control at the start of the song, which was soft and understated, before opening up on the chorus. Her vocal choices were deliberate and solid, and though she truncated a few phrases that could've benefited from being stretched out, she still hit the big notes where it counted, allowing us to hear -- to use a Paula-ism -- all the unique colors in her tone. It didn't give me chills, but it was a solid effort that should see her into the top 13.
Steven enjoyed her "old-timey, old-fashioned" voice, while Jennifer liked the slow start and thought she had some beautiful moments. Randy took things off course by asking her what kind of artist she wanted to be, since he obviously (and reasonably) thought that said old-fashioned quality wouldn't be particularly marketable in today's industry. I don't know where she'd fit on the charts, which is pretty much the name of the game on "Idol," but technically, you can't deny that Hallie is a strong artist.
Skylar Laine: "Stay With Me"
So very, very country. That's not necessarily a criticism, but Skylar certainly out-twanged Lauren Alaina, even if the two share a penchant for dangerously short, glittery costumes (that I kind of loved). Skylar wasn't great about moving gracefully around the stage, almost losing her balance towards the end of the song thanks to all of her jumping around, but she certainly had attitude to spare. Though the song choice didn't really highlight her capabilities, it was energetic and fun, and she seemed to be so caught up in the music that her enthusiasm was infectious. She also demonstrated a beautiful vibrato and a great, graveled rasp, so while it was kind of all over the place, presentation-wise, her personality certainly shone through.
The judges threw out comparisons to Reba McEntire, Kelly Clarkson and Tina Turner, while Steven called her a "pistol" and Jennifer praised her energy and her twang.
Baylie Brown: "Amazed"
Sadly, there was nothing amazing about poor Baylie's performance, which was pitchy and arranged too low for her from the start. She could clearly hear that she had missed the notes and that threw her off the whole way through, since she seemed unable to get herself back on track in either the chorus or the second verse. It's a shame, because she showed some real potential during the auditions, but this was the worst performance of the night by a country mile. The last note was screechy and just wrong all over -- yikes.
Of course, the judges felt compelled to sugarcoat the horror, with Steven telling her that he liked it, noting that it wasn't the best song she could've picked but calling her "very pretty." Jennifer doubled down on the compliments with, "you're not pretty, you're beautiful," but thankfully went on to say that "it was a little shaky all the way through." Randy noted that she never really seized control of the song, but also praised her looks and called it "good," not "grrrrreat."
Hollie Cavanagh: "Reflection"
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night, meek and mild Hollie managed to completely floor the judges -- and likely a number of viewers -- with her controlled, confident take on Christina Aguilera's "Reflection," which is an insanely complex song that requires an awful lot of technical ability to pull off. It wasn't perfect, with weak, wilting low notes in the verses, but every single high note was pitch perfect and warbled with a lovely vibrato, and her belting on the choruses put her miles ahead of the competitors who came before her. Goosies!
Steven smugly observed that she had been one of his favorites from the start, and his comment was "just beautiful," although he wanted her to (literally) let her hair down. Jennifer thought that she had the kind of voice that could win the whole competition, and declared her one of the frontrunners, and while Randy acknowledged the difficulty of the song -- "you tried to slay the biggest dragon" in tackling one of Christina's songs -- he said that she had the vocal ability to pull it off. "The parts that were brilliant were genius," he gushed, nonsensically.
Haley Johnsen: "Sweet Dreams"
Annie Lennox is another dangerous artist to tackle, since her voice is so distinctive and quirky, and it was obvious simply from the split at the judges' table that it was a divisive performance. For my part, I thought Haley started off strong before the backing music really kicked in, showcasing the smooth, sultry quality of her voice. She lost the tune when she launched into the first verse, but managed to recover far more confidently than Baylie did. It was another questionable song choice that didn't really allow her to demonstrate her vocal ability and somewhat overwhelmed her in the middle, but Haley did manage to toss in a few spectacular runs, turning the notes and adding fascinating flourishes at the end of her phrases to keep things interesting.
"I hope America could hear all of the special things you were doing with your voice," Jennifer said, noting that she obviously has skills and soul, although the song choice wasn't the best for her. "The money shots were right on," Steven praised, sounding vaguely obscene. Randy, on the other hand, called it a nightmare instead of a sweet dream, calling it "pitchy all over the place."
Shannon Magrane: "Go Light Your World"
The 6ft 16-year-old went a little more gospel than any of her contemporaries, but her choice of a lesser-known song might've paid off, since it allowed her to put her own spin on it without a major artist looming over her shoulder. Unlike many of the other artists, her range was solid from top to bottom, with the low notes just as controlled as the high, and there was a transfixing richness to her voice that was incredibly impressive considering how young she is. I didn't feel an emotional connection to her, and I think she, like Hollie, needs to work on adding more personality to her future performances.
Shannon earned Jennifer's first "goosies!" of the night, observing how much passion she has for her age (I'm not sure...) while Steven enjoyed the way she started low and then went upstairs and "took it up a notch." Randy said she came out swinging, calling her "mad young and cool and collected," before risking her father's wrath by declaring "this girl's hot!"
Jessica Sanchez: "Love You I Do"
The girls under 20 are completely dominating this competition so far, because Jessica was utterly phenomenal, and probably the best performance of the night. She'd allegedly had "swollen vocal chords" all week, which Ryan made sure to emphasize in her pre-performance interview, but all the ploys for sympathy were totally unnecessary, because Jessica was pitch perfect in almost every way. The opening was a little shaky and her enunciation wasn't great in the first verse, but as soon as she opened up for the chorus, it was like a whole new performance. She demonstrated impeccable control from the soft, tender moments up to the big, belting ones, and by the end of the song the judges were on their feet and the audience was chanting her name. I heard something eerily Jennifer Hudson-esque in her tone, and if a guy doesn't win, I think Jessica is the early favorite.
Randy shouted "yo" about 20 times before getting into the actual critique, which was to tell her that she was "one of the best of the last two nights." He also praised her Beyoncé vibrato. Jennifer was practically incoherent with glee, gushing over "that swag, that attitude, the punctuation, the way you pulled back, the way you let us have it ... all of it!" Steven noted that she has exceptional timing and that her pitch was perfect.
Elise Testone: "One and Only"
I can't imagine why the producers would allow two performers to sing the same song, but I guess the girls both signed off on it. Jen Hirsch is probably regretting that decision now, since Elise's rendition was far and away the more accomplished, technically impressive of the two. I couldn't actually choose between Jessica's performance and this as my favorite of the night, since Elise seemed more solid at the beginning and middle, while Jessica was better during her middle and end. Nonetheless, Elise provided a worthy end to the show, starting off on the piano with a beautifully controlled opening. Her voice has beautiful natural breaks and a raw, soulful rasp that makes her sound unlike anyone else in the competition -- she seems like a truly marketable voice, someone who could cut an album tomorrow and prove to be a hit, and I hope she makes it all the way to the finals.
She didn't earn a standing ovation from the judges (which seemed odd), but Steven told her that she "blew it out of the water" with her bluesy tone, with Jennifer noting that her voice is "so different and special" that she's "maybe the best singer here." Randy told her that he got chills just from hearing her "turn the notes at the end."
Who were your favorite performers of the night? Which 5 girls do you predict will make it into the top 13, and who might require a wildcard save? (And why didn't the judges bring back another female vocalist like they brought back Jermaine?) Weigh in below.
"American Idol" airs Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m. EST on Fox.