The countdown begins! The Top 10 American Idol hopefuls performed Wednesday night in the first live show of Season 12. The evening opened with host Ryan Seacrest introducing the four judges — nope, make that three, as Nicki Minaj was "about seven minutes out" due to traffic. (Really?!?!)
The theme of the night was to pay tribute to the show's "legacy," in the words of Seacrest, with each contestant tackling a song that had been covered on the show by a former winner. (Interestingly, out of the previous 11 seasons, only six winners' songs were chosen.) Here's a breakdown of each performance:
Curtis Finch — "I Believe" (Fantasia Barrino): Finch offered a theatrical rendition of Fantasia's final number from Season 3, gesticulating wildly, doing a mini-windmill at one point and, of course, ending on a high falsetto. He's already proved himself to be a huge presence, both physically and vocally, so it might be more impressive at this point in the competition if he reined it in a little and proved that he can be just as powerful in a more subdued way. Keith Urban cautioned Finch that he might be letting "adrenaline" get the best of his vocals at the start of his songs, and Randy Jackson told him to change things up a little and move away from the R&B ballads. Grade: C
Janelle Arthur — "Gone" (Scotty McCreery): Redeeming herself from less-than-stellar performances in the last couple rounds, Janelle gave a boot-stompin' version of Montgomery Gentry's "Gone." Despite a couple of awkward moments where she lowered the microphone too quickly, and saying her mouth felt dry after the song, she looked more comfortable on stage than she did in the previous elimination round. (Mariah Carey complimented her "aura," saying she looked like she had been singing for large crowds for years.) Still, there's only one country queen in this competition, and that honor goes to Kree Harrison. Sorry, Janelle. Grade: B
(Side note: Nicki showed up! Wearing a T-shirt, a hoodie and sunglasses, and jawing on a piece of gum. Is "traffic" the new slang for "out too late the night before"? Let's not speculate. Back to the performances!)
Devin Velez — "Temporary Home" (Carrie Underwood): Saying he wanted to "step out of [his] comfort zone," Devin opted for a country song rather than a ballad this week. Vocally, the performance was fine, if a little boring — but he didn't win any points at the judges' table for taking what he perceived as a risk, song-wise. "That was not one of your better performances," Urban told him. Minaj disagreed, complimenting the song choice but saying the performance still lacked something. And Randy Jackson called the outing "way too safe," saying that when the field is this narrow, "You've got to go for broke every time." Grade: B
Angie Miller — "I Surrender" (Kelly Clarkson): Fresh off Jimmy Iovine's criticism that sometimes he felt like he was watching a beauty pageant during Angie's performances, she decided to let her vocals be the focus tonight with Celine Dion's "I Surrender" (while still managing to look great in a black leather dress). And in doing so, after three rather droopy performances by her competitors, she singlehandedly raised the bar for the night and perhaps the entire competition. "Stellar" was Carey's one-word feedback. And Minaj, who gushed about everything from Angie's legs to the way she walked in heels, agreed: "You're just perfection on every level. You personify perfection. The voice is flawless. I can't critique on anything." Grade: A-
Paul Jolley — "Amazed" (Scotty McCreery) : Iovine's assessment of Paul was that he "perpetually oversing[s]" so — despite protests that he's never sung in theater — he decided to tone it down a little Wednesday with Lonestar's country ballad. And it was a great choice, showcasing a softer side of Paul (vocally) while still allowing him to have a few of Randy Jackson's oft-referenced "moments" during the chorus. And his flattering V-neck/blazer combination didn't hurt either. "This is the first time you've stimulated my sexual appetite," Minaj (now sans sunglasses) told him. Grade: A-
Candice Glover — "I Have Nothing" (Jordin Sparks): Arguably this season's front-runner, Candice may have even one-upped Sparks with a powerhouse performance of "I Have Nothing" that left Jackson and Carey just shaking their heads even before she was halfway through. The only thing more impressive than her soaring vocals was the look of fierce determination in her eye as she sang. "It would be in everybody's best interest to never, ever perform that song ever again," Minaj told her afterwards, saying Idol should retire it from here on out. Jackson called the performance "perfect" and Carey added: "Every time you are on stage, it's mesmerizing. ... The only reason I didn't stand up is because my skirt's too tight." Grade: A+
Lazaro Arbos — "Breakaway" (Kelly Clarkson): In his coaching of Lazaro, Iovine said he needed to focus on making better song choices. Perhaps hampered by choosing one of Clarkson's biggest post-Idol hits, Lazaro handled the verses with aplomb, but fell flat when it came to the chorus and simply couldn't attain the vocal heights that Clarkson does on the number. "That song was way too big for you," Jackson said, and Minaj was even harsher when it came to Iovine's suggestion. "This was probably my least favorite from you," she told Lazaro, after complimenting his "Ricky Ricardo"-esque outfit. "Don't let anybody knock you off your square. Go back to feeling confident." Grade: C-
Kree Harrison — "Crying" (Carrie Underwood): Despite a rather snoozy take on Roy Orbison's ballad, Kree's reminded everyone why she's considered one of the frontrunners this season. Until the final moments, she seemed like she was sleepwalking (sleepsinging?) through the song a little bit, but her voice is so silky smooth the performance still went down like a nice glass of warm milk before bed. Minaj agreed, but likened it instead to buttermilk waffles with syrup (giving such a lengthy analogy that Urban decided to sniff her Coca-Cola cup to see if it had been spiked.) Grade: B+
Burnell Taylor — "Flying Without Wings" (Ruben Studdard): Saying he wants to transition to more up-tempo songs eventually, Burnell stuck to his tried-and-true R&B ballad formula Wednesday night — and ditched his glasses! (BREAKING: Paul Jolley is no longer the only heartthrob in the competition!) But back to the vocals. The song allowed Burnell to show off his range and also his "unique timbre," according to Urban — alternating seamlessly from a scratchy register to a sultry baritone. And seriously, the contacts really help. Grade: B
Amber Holcomb — "A Moment Like This" (Kelly Clarkson): Holcomb admitted she had "big shoes to fill" by taking on Clarkson's winning number from Season 1 — and unfortunately, she didn't appear to be up to the challenge. She succeeded in hitting the big notes, but the entire performance felt rushed. Maybe that wasn't the case in the studio though, because all the judges gave Amber effusive praise. Minaj called it "the best performance of the night" (Ed. Note: What?! Sorry, but she's wrong on that one. See: Candice Glover.) "Hashtag pow," Carey told her. We'll just have to agree to disagree on this one. Grade: B-
So what did you think? Who gave the best performance(s) of the night? And who do you think will be sent home tomorrow in the season's first elimination? Weigh in below!
American Idol returns Thursday at 8/7c on Fox.