Personally, I’m pro-Minaj — the first judge to match Simon Cowell’s eye for that elusive ratio of raw talent to commerciality—and anti-Johnson, which made the former fawning over the latter (since cut) all the more irritating. But that’s par for the course for a judging panel that, for the most part, finally shows some fierce identity and discretion. Between Keith Urban’s sick ear and Minaj’s generally on-point critiques, there’s enough good on the new panel to outweigh the bad (I’m looking at you, Randy Jackson’s vocabulary and Mariah Carey’s favorite assets).
Between Keith Urban’s sick ear and Minaj’s generally on-point critiques, there’s enough good on the new panel to outweigh the bad.
Of course, if the stellar Season 11 and its worthless judges taught us anything, it’s that the strength of an Idol season is based almost solely on its contestants. This season’s recently revealed Top 10 is a mixed bag, with its talent skewing heavily in the girls’ favor.
Let’s size up the finalists who will sing for your votes tonight (7 p.m., Channel 26), tackling the first ever “Music of the Idols” theme night:
1. Lazaro Arbos, 21 (Naples, Fla.)
It’s rare that backstories have a consistently palpable effect on contestants, but Arbos’ does; every ounce of built up frustration from his stutter seems to ooze out of his performances, giving them a texture and vulnerability that’s hard to deny.
But if you take a step back from that initial reaction, Arbos’ lack of experience is overwhelming. He’s a few years of vocal training and exposure away from firmly standing on his feet as an artist. Right now, as evidenced by his shaky rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” on the Top 10 reveal show, it looks like the competition might simply swallow him whole.
2. Janelle Arthur, 23 (Oliver Springs, Tenn.)
I’m not entirely sure who Season 12’s twangiest finalist wants to be as an artist, seeing as she covered both Lady Antebellum’s dreadfully boring “Just a Kiss” (-2 points) and Dierks Bentley’s gracefully patriotic “Home” (+1 point). Based on her lack of vision, I would’ve swapped her out for the more intriguing Breanna Steer, but it’s not hard to understand Arthur's appeal: Between her adorable and undeniably southern personality and her unique (to the competition) voice, she’s at least a memorable contender.
3. Curtis Finch Jr., 24 (St. Louis)
Yo, judges – here's your homework assignment for tonight’s show: Watch Joshua Ledet’s Season 11 performances. Take a moment to worship and reflect. Study his blend of massive talent and restraint, passion and control.
Then you may proceed with judging Finch, whose enormous talent needs some serious reigning in, and whose persona needs a giant dose of humility if he wants to make it past April Fools Day. If you still feel the need to stand up for spectacles like his overwrought rendition of R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” I have no words.
4. Candice Glover, 23 (St. Helena Island, S.C.)
Hands down the best technical singer in the competition, Glover has delivered nothing but immaculate — if not a tad too mature for her age — performances, including last week’s polished “Ordinary People.” I’m enamored by her sheer talent, but I fear she’s in danger of getting edged out Melinda Doolittle-style by contestants whose personalities shine through a little brighter.
5. Kree Harrison, 22 (Nashville)
In contrast to Glover, Harrison sings with my favorite kind of imperfection — the kind that bleeds authenticity and unbridled emotion. There’s always a light under the part country, part soul, part blues singer’s performances, a wisdom that comes from truly absorbing life’s ups and downs. I worried for a while that her personality veered on the heavy, defeated side (see: Elyse Testone), but she nipped that in the bud with one hilarious, off-the-cuff quip to Minaj – her “wife.”
6. Amber Holcomb, 18 (Houston)
What up, H-Town? I’m thrilled that Holcomb’s representing this city, with her breezy confidence — she flew through Whitney Houston’s “I Believe In You And Me” with the ease of a seasoned pro — and organic tone / vibrato combo that recalls the R&B singers of the '90s. If Holcomb can push the boundaries of her comfort zone, despite no encouragement from the judges to do so, Mayor Parker might be making top three homecoming parade plans come May.
7. Paul Jolley, 22 (Palmersville, Tenn.)
There’s not much to say about the guy who wants to be the male version of pop
-country artist Taylor Swift, but who sings with about 95 percent less believability. As Urban astutely pointed out, Jolley’s affected theatrics often detract from his connection to the song and to the audience. Plus, there’s an air of desperation to him that ultimately undermines his confidence. Unless he very quickly learns to keep this all in check, he’ll be among the first to exit stage right.
8. Angie Miller, 18 (Beverly, Mass.)
I’d say that if anyone has a shot at breaking the “White Guy With Guitar” (WGWG) stranglehold over the Idol crown, it’s Miller – but alas, there is no WGWG this year. Was it a producer-driven omission? Will it succeed at generating a female winner? Who knows.
Here’s what I do know: Miller is the first girl in years to possess what made the previous WGWGs –specifically Phillip Phillips, David Cook and Kris Allen-- magnetic to the public. She’s imaginative, relevant, widely appealing and humble. She also sounds unlike any female contestant we’ve had on Idol in 12 seasons, from the Hayley Williams quiver in her voice to her purely pop-rock repertoire of songs. Miller’s Idol journey will be an interesting one to watch, indeed.
9. Burnell Taylor, 19 (New Orleans)
I dig Taylor's firm self-belief and nuanced voice, but I sometimes find it hard to connect the dots between his retro style and the modern music industry, which, ironically, has been kind to throwback artists these past few years. An injection of ingenuity and energy might give him that extra push in the competition, as will dropping the awkward hand gestures.
10. Devin Velez, 18 (Chicago)
The quietly confident dark horse of the competition, Velez is the only guy to crack my commitment to the girls this year. I cringed when Minaj told him to stick to the “Spanish thing” and continue to split his songs into two languages; Velez needs to switch things up every week in order to keep the audience on its toes, as he rightly did last week with Israel Houghton’s soulful “The Power of One.” I suspect he's more versatile than anyone’s giving him credit for, and I’m excited to see what he cooks up over the next few weeks.
Tune in tonight to see the Top 10 battle it out for the first time on the big stage in the two-hour episode, followed by a special sing-off for the eleventh spot on the Idols Live tour. (Yeah, I’m as unimpressed as you are.)