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Climbing Back on the Tightrope 4/1


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Climbing Back on the Tightrope 4/1

 

This will be my only post this season.  I actually probably shouldn’t be writing at all, but after years writing about this show I feel obligated to make a farewell post.

 

You know, that makes this sound depressing, but actually it’s pretty great.  I am actually working on this season of Idol, which is the culmination of a decades-long dream.  I was hired last fall as an arranger and musical consultant, which is why I’ve been silent up to this point.  Saying “we’re strongly discouraged from publicly commenting on the show,” when the people doing the discouraging are the most powerful media company in the world.  But you know, I can’t resist one more go at a crop of contestants.

 

… Oh no.  Someone has informed Disney of my previous posts.  Including the old ones, where I really hated people.  

 

I may be fired.  TIME TO TEAR THEM APART!!!

 

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(look, if my first post is going to be on April Fool’s Day, I have to do something)

 

Ok, so no dream jobs.  But I am back, and feeling on an upswing.  It’s not like anything could be weirder, or harder to do incisive strategic commentary, than last year.  Thus far, it seems like Season 19 is more or less back to Idol as normal, aside from Lionel occasionally being confined in a separate box.  He wasn’t actually quarantining, they just needed to limit how much random cheering he could do.

 

I am cautiously optimistic.  There’s a lot of talent this season.  A LOT.  Honestly, it almost feels a bit unfair.  There are some contestants here who would have a substantial shot at least the midcard on most seasons, who are probably going to get cut in the first round because the competition is just that fierce.  But, grain of salt.  I’ve been recapping since Season 13, and every season (with the probable exception of 15) has entered the semi-finals with an abundance of talent, which it mostly squandered from then on.  For all the talent on display, Idol contestants are still young and unpolished, and need guidance and solid advice to achieve their potential, and Idol has been… not great about that.  Still, the judges have made some very insightful critiques in Hollywood, many of which echoed my own thoughts, even if they were sometimes peculiar in when they were delivered.  This has been the case repeatedly for this panel, great judging before the live rounds, mindless cheerleading afterwards.  I’m going to hope they finally carry through all the way.  If nothing else, we seem likely to be getting more performance rounds this year, and accordingly fewer mass eliminations.  That alone makes a massive change in how contestant arcs play out.  Maybe we can actually get some growth!  

 

A word on this year’s format.  If we do in fact get performance/elimination episodes on Sundays AND Mondays, I cannot do a full recap each night.  I will die.  And more importantly, I will get fired.  I’m tentatively leaning towards briefer rankings of just the individual performances each night (probably in line with what I send to What Not To Sing) the night of, and then returning later in the week to go into more depth going forward.

 

It’s funny, the men and women feel like they relate very differently this year, and it’s made deciding how to structure this first ranking a bit challenging.  The men, for the most part, have clearly defined genres, and fall into three clusters of natural competitors.  Two of those three feel like there’s a pretty clear hierarchy, while the third is a little murkier.  But these early rounds are probably going to depend on how those smaller groups compare to each other, with a side line in the nuances of how genre-based voting plays out.

 

The women, on the other hand, are a lot murkier.  Part of that is that very few of them fall cleanly into a standard Idol category, with a lot having a potential foot in two or more pools but maybe struggling to really lock in any one group of voters.  On top of that, there are a couple women who are REALLY strong in one element of their presentation (vocals, performance, interpretation), to the point where it feels like the rest of the field kind of warp around their presence.  Instead of being in genre-based mini-competitions at the start, it’s more about “how do I set myself apart from the field when I’m almost certainly going to be outsung/interpreted, where do I find a crack to fit myself into and then build from there.”  Some of them are likely to find a way, but it makes things feel very unstable for everyone at the start.  Even those powerhouses have some flaws.  In general, despite having clear frontrunners, it feels like the group overall could have a lot of surprises.  There’s nobody like, say, Melinda or Jeremiah who’s so broadly polished that their stumbling significantly seems almost unthinkable.  At the same time, it means that almost everyone has the potential to grow tangibly over the course of the season.  That’s pretty exciting.

 

I am taking the division between Groups 1 and 2 into account.  Which are also very different.  Group 1 is STACKED, and has most of the honest-to-god fodder.  Group 2 has a couple of people who would be shocking to see go, but a huge mass of people who could go either way.  I’m not sure it really makes much difference at the top of the heap, but that could be the difference between two fairly equal stragglers making it to Top 16.

Edited by muse273
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Men

 

1. Willie Spence

 

Willie seems fairly clearly to be the person the show is backing the most at this point.  He was given significant screentime in every round, and universally positive treatment.  He was, in fact, one of the only people to receive fully favorable comments about his Showstopper, even among the favored tier of contestants.  He’s also received a lot of discussion of his story.  Being the early favorite can be as much of a detriment as a benefit, but Willie doesn’t seem super-likely to get audience backlash, in part because there ARE quite a few people getting favorable treatment, if not quite as much.  He probably has the most impressive basic instrument among the cast, with a showy amount of power and solid range without being screamy, and he’s very rootable for as a person.  That puts him in strong starting position.

 

The main issue I see Willie struggling with is variety, in a couple senses.  While his instrument is impressive, it seems to mostly operate in one mode.  Normally this would come through dynamic, and he doesn’t do a huge amount of dynamic shifting, but he’s not at full blast all the time.  It’s more tonal.  Pretty much every note he sings has the same sound, not a lot of shifts to fit the phrasing and the words.  It’s kind of like the difference between a synthesized violin and a real one.  Each synthesized note comes out perfectly, but each one comes out exactly the same beginning to end without any of the shaping and subtle shading a live player provides.  In the classical sense, he lacks chiaroscuro (to point to a good example of that in play, compare to all the shifts in tone in Alanis’ Showstopper).  That basic tone is great, but if it’s the only thing on display it can get tiresome.  

 

It also seems unlikely that he’s going bring a ton of variety in his song choices.  I don’t really see him doing any big uptempo numbers, and the covers he has of less expected material (a weirdly large amount of billie eilish) come out sounding the same as everything else.  In a shorter season like the last few, this might not be an issue.  But if we’re getting more performances, there’s more opportunity for a consistent stream of the same thing to get old while more dynamic competitors keep the audience more interested.

 

(It does bear admitting that Idol has a horrible track record regarding the longevity of its Black male contestants, with only Ruben having won, only Justin having made the Finale otherwise, and Mike and Joshua in the Top 3.  I’m not sure that’s a huge impediment to Willie specifically, but it’s not an advantage either.  Having a relatively mainstream pop style might help.)

 

2. Chayce Beckham

 

I’m not normally the one to proclaim that the WGWG is unbeatable, everyone can go home, quite the opposite usually.  But that being said… Chayce is a contender.  It’s actually kind of fascinating, when you consider the history of Idol’s country singers.  There actually aren’t that many examples (especially compared to the frequency of female country singers), and most of the ones who do turn up are young guys who haven’t really lived particularly rough lives, singing about drinking away their sorrows and working till they die.  Chayce is not that.  There’s an authenticity to his interpretation of the material he’s working with which sets him apart, even without his back story.taken into account.  Dillon last year had a story along the same lines, but didn’t quite have the same image, or as distinctive a sound.  He’s not as vocally polished as some of his competitors, but it’s perfectly adequate for his genre, and his duet suggests a decent amount of range.  And while he’s not a hyperactive performer, he’s very intense.  If he can capture the Idol country base and also deliver interesting performances, he might actually be that unbeatable WGWG.

 

The question with Chayce is whether he can adapt himself musically to fit Idol without losing his individuality.  His song choices aside from his duet have been OBSCURE, and a fairly static set of mournful songs.  Even if Chris Stapleton isn’t obscure himself, I could name a dozen of his songs off the top of my head and that wouldn’t be one.  Is he willing to find somewhat more mainstream material that the country base will recognize and latch onto, or is he going to stick to his guns.  It’s also somewhat of an open question, given the lack of predecessors, whether that country base will actually support an actual troubled type with a rough past, or whether they’re more interested in teens playing Johnny Cash dressup.  That “everyone else is wearing boots” moment feels kind of emblematic.  It would be interesting to see whether he mixes in more rock material, given there’s basically nobody else competing for the votes other than Casey.  On the other hand, he was apparently in a reggae band, so who knows.  Maybe it’ll be all Bob Marley from here on out.

 

(Ok, I found pictures from the reggae phase.  It’s weeeeeeeird, he looks like Eddie Vedder.  I wonder if that could actually be a hindrance regarding the country authenticity)

 

3. Beane

 

I just don’t have the energy to use his actual name, he’s never going to on the show.  Anyway, I’m so tempted to move Beane up after Hollywood.  He presents maybe the most well-rounded package among the guys (possibly among all 24).  He’s very musical, a solid technical vocalist, and an energetic performer.  He also has a ton of personality and charisma, among a group of guys who are relatively introverted.  And you know, cute white guy, but more interesting than most of those.  He covers pretty much all the necessary bases for success as a performer.  He also had a bit of a slow start without really being negative, but lots of screentime, with one of the best Showstopper performances. That could give him a dark horse narrative that could be a big boost.

 

The main area he lacks is a clear Idol base to target.  His song choices have been kind all over the map, obscure funk, pop, “rock,” classic soul.  They’re all performed fairly coherently, so it doesn’t come across as schizophrenic as it could, but it’s still not doing a ton to lock in a group of consistent voters.  From his off-show recordings he seems to mostly be in the jazz-quiet storm-soul adjacent region, which isn’t necessarily a huge base to appeal to.  It’s possible to run off support for each individual performance until you build up your own base, but it’s very perilous.  He kind of reminds me of Casey Abrams (though completely different voices).  Prodigiously talented, but maybe too offbeat to find his place.  If he can carve out a clear niche, he could be a definite contender.  The other moderate issue is that some of his performances lean towards the overly rehearsed.  Not so much the vocals, his inherent musicality keeps those from feeling forced like some other people in the cast.  But the gestures and presentation in his audition especially were very “I’ve mapped out all of these moments and practiced them in the mirror,” and it could come off cheesy.  His later performances didn’t do it as much, so he may have made an effort to improve that.

 

I find it mildly odd that his sexuality hasn’t been mentioned on the show, since ABC Idol has been pretty open with its LGBTQ contestants, and he’s quite open about it on social media.  Not sure if that’s a pro or con, but food for thought.

 

4. Wyatt Pike

 

Here on down starts to get into a muddle of people trying to position themselves to make it through the next few rounds, and maybe move up if someone falters.  Wyatt seems like a fairly strong contender to fill out that midcard.  He’s well rounded in a somewhat similar way to Beane: reasonably solid vocalist, reasonably confident performer, some flashes of artistic insight.  And he’s in a more consistently successful genre than Beane, maybe more than the specific versions Chayce and Willie are presenting.  He doesn’t have a particular weakness, which should be enough to get him through the first few rounds of chaos.

 

The thing is, I’m not sure he excels in any particular area.  He’s not likely to blow the viewers away with a powerhouse vocal, he’s not as much of a performer as Beane.  He’s got good phrasing and musicality, but isn’t necessarily super deeply invested in his songs.  He reminds me a lot of Nick Fradiani in that steady way.  Of course, Nick was able to manage a slow and steady tortoise path to victory.  I’m not sure Wyatt can.  Nick’s success was in large part because he was on a season dead set on messing with the contestants as much as humanly possible, and he was experienced enough to roll with the punches without falling apart while his competitors struggled.  ABC Idol hasn’t been nearly as inclined to the messy dramatics as season 13-15.  And Wyatt is steady, but significantly younger than Nick, so most likely hasn’t developed the same level of nerveless equilibrium.  We’ll see how the season plays out.

 

Is it possible he’s actually Utica and just decided to double up on his reality show experience?  There’s an odd resemblance.

 

5. Jason Warrior

 

On the list of people who kinda got screwed by the depth of talent in this season, Jason’s near the top.  On a lot of seasons, he’d be competitive for the strongest male vocalist, but this year he can’t equal Willie’s natural instrument, and doesn’t really have DeShawn’s technical polish.  On the other hand, he’s more of a performer than either of them, or many of the other competitors.  If he’s savvy, he can find opportunities to stand out with the right songs.  He also made one of the more daring song choices for his Showstopper, although I’m not sure it’s a great song for competition.  Still, out of the box thinking is a gamble that can pay off well.  

 

A bigger concern with Jason is that, bluntly, he’s done this too many times.  I don’t only mean his semi-scandalous past on The Four (and The Voice but nobody cares about that).  I mean that he’s spent a lot of time in the last few years trying to fit himself into the right mold for reality singing shows, and it’s apparent.  You can see the calculation in his performances, where he’s trying to find the magic formula for success, and it takes you out of enjoying the song.  While we’re discussing Season 14 comparisons, he reminds me of Savion Wright, who got rejected as a raw and passionate performer, and came back with all his rough edges sanded off into blandness.  It’s possible that building up a couple of rounds of security could give Jason an opportunity to be more spontaneous, but he could also just falter due to a lack of that in-the-moment spark.

 

Jason’s also one of the people where we’ll see how Group placement impacts things.  In Group 2, he’ll be the only R&B male (and the women don’t really lean that way either), which puts him out of direct competition, but also means he needs to motivate that base of the audience to vote in large part by himself.  I think, given the general lack of powerhouse singers in the group, he’s got a fairly solid chance of picking up the votes, but he’s going to need to figure out how to match up to more comparable vocal competition in the next round.

 

6. Caleb Kennedy

 

Caleb’s another person who might have done better on a different season.  He makes an interesting contrast with Chayce.  On the one hand, he’s basically imitating the kind of life experience that Chayce already has, and that’s not necessarily a comparison that does him any favors.  It’s especially marked given there’s a similarity in their tones.  It kind of feels like a year or two of growing into his style might have made him a much tougher competitor, and being out of Chayce’s shadow would help.  On the other hand, he feels a few steps closer to the standard Idol country boy mold, without being a complete cliche like, say, Dexter, and that could give him a boost.  

 

The songwriting is a wildcard factor.  His audition original was very solid, and very commercial, but I wasn’t so impressed by his showstopper one.  It lacked structure, and didn’t really go anywhere, which is ironic given it’s the one he actually finished.  If the show gives him a bunch of opportunities to perform originals, it could get him further, though he’s not the only one with songs ready to go.  It’s hard to estimate how he’ll handle covers, since he’s only done one on the show and his off-show material seems to be mostly originals.  The Stapleton cover didn’t really impress me, and he definitely seemed less at home interpreting it, based on his instagram recording.  We’ll see if he does better with material that’s less blatantly “let me tell you about my alcoholism.”

 

My suspicion is that being in direct comparison with Chayce in Group 2 lowers his chances of going through, but probably only from a definite to a strong likelihood.  If he chooses something which sufficiently contrasts them, the same voter base could definitely be willing to vote for both.  It’s going to take some strategic thinking going forward though, and he is one of the younger contestant.  We’ll see.

 

7. Hunter Metts

 

Hunter was one of the few contestants who moved up significantly in my ranking in the last round.  I was not impressed by his audition or solo round.  Both his performance style and his vocal tone seemed pained.  Not, like, “I’m feeling this song so deeply, oh my angst” pained.  “Please call an ambulance, I have appendicitis” pained.  His duet wasn’t as bad, but seemed pretty bland.  I think there’s an element of nerves, a lot of his head and facial movements are jerky in a way that seems intentional, and in addition to looking awkward it might be impacting the vocal tone.  I also suspect there’s just a substantial limit to how much vocal power he can produce without straining, and he might be close to that point frequently.  I need to hear more to get a better technical sense.

 

His showstopper performance was significantly better though.  He mentioned that it was a new song, and I wonder if being less familiar with it got him more out of his own head.  It might have also benefited a more expansive band arrangement smoothing out some of the piercing quality of his tone.  

 

I basically see him playing out as the Elise to Wyatt’s Erika.  Wyatt seems more likely to produce a generally agreeable performance on a consistent basis, and seems more unflappable.  But Hunter’s better performances may have a higher quality level.  I’m not sure I believe he can manage the same heights as Elise was capable of.  He’s more reminiscent of Jonny Brenns in S16: Some surprisingly good moments, some terrible.  Also, very blonde.  I think he may benefit from being in Group 2, which is not only shorter on top tier competitors, but also significantly less belty than Group 1.  Less likely to get drowned out.

 

8. DeShawn Goncalves

 

DeShawn is frustrating for me personally.  He’s maybe the most technically polished singer this year, he has great control of his instrument.  And the basic quality of that instrument is also pleasant.  Maybe not as immediately impressive as Wilie, but possibly more enjoyable in the long term.  BUT… he’s tacky.  Suuuuuuper tacky.  He verges on the parody image of slathering unnecessary vocal flourishes all over his songs, and he does it in a way which is very unmusical.  It even comes through at times in his piano playing, most clearly in the beginning of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.  In both cases, it bogs down his phrasing, to the point where it kills the momentum of the song.  

 

He definitely CAN sing without doing it.  His duet, where he didn’t really have the freedom to mutilate the lines willy nilly, was significantly better.  The question is, will he be persuaded to show restraint?  Contestants frequently seem to think that those over the top decorations will impress, but the audience frequently doesn’t seem to get behind them (at least in generally weaker contestants).  Things are somewhat exacerbated by a certain overly-mannered way DeShawn presents himself.  He speaks in a very precise way which is kind of strange, it almost reads the way some non-native English speakers phrase things, although as far as I can tell he’s a native speaker.  It also kinda shows in his general posture and bearing.  Combined with a vocal style which gets in the way of connecting with the song, I feel like that may make it hard for him to win over the audience.

 

This is another case where the genres being divided between Groups may influence thing.  He may benefit from Willie (and the generally R&B-heavy makeup of the women) keeping fans of that genre tuned in and voting, who might be willing to throw him a few votes.  I think he’s borderline though, an emptily flashy performance could easily see him go home in the first cut.

 

9. Cecil Ray Baker

 

These last three contestants seem pretty unlikely to go far.  Cecil in particular is maybe the weakest singer of the season, and not particularly notable as a performer or interpreter either.  Based purely on his own merits, he should be the first gone.  He has a moderately notable back story, but so do like ¾ of the cast.  I’m not sure that does enough to get him through.

 

Cecil purely comes down to questions of genre, and Group division.  He’s the only country contestant in Group 1.  Will his performance alone be enough to persuade country fans to vote?  I’m skeptical.  He seems likely to be forgettable, so unless someone is REALLY dedicated to supporting all country singers (and I don’t think that’s actually so large a group), he’s going to struggle.  The only real advantage he has is he’s the closest of the country boys to the usual Idol country archetype, so he may at least be recognizably like past contestants voters liked.  And there’s enough fodder in Group 1 that a spot could open up by default.  But I think the chances of him making the Finals are low.

 

10. Graham DeFranco

 

I just don’t have much to say about Graham.  He’s not unpleasant as a singer.  He’s fine.  But he’s been almost completely un-notable on the show.  It’s a very laid back style, which is going to make it hard for him to stand out, especially in the belty Group 1, and there are enough more subtle performers in the Group (Cassandra especially) that it’ll be hard for him to draw attention by contrast.  Maybe if everyone else is a bundle of nerves, and he’s able to calmly maintain his equilibrium (like MK in S13), he could manage a spot.  But I’m not sure he’s practiced enough that it’s likely either.  I don’t really know that being in Group 2 would make much difference either.  I think he’s probably doomed.

 

11. Colin Jamieson

 

In a season where the contestants have, for the most point, seemed nice enough if not outright relatable, Colin feels like the most actively off-putting person, both from a personality standpoint and musically.  His singing is super-affected, very breathy, and comes across as almost a parody of the song at times, and his performance style verges on cheesy.  The boy band background just pushes it that much further into seeming like a joke.  Am I being punked?  Is this the real April Fool’s prank?  He’s like a throwback to Vote For The Worst, but even they’d probably be kinda bored.  He’s too in on the joke for them to really get behind.

 

Does he have any chance?  I guess he’s at least memorable in a kind of uncomfortable way.  But he seems pretty easy for the show to throw under the bus, and they need to clear some space SOMEWHERE in the unholy muddle that is Group 2.

Edited by muse273
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Women

 

1. Alyssa Wray

 

I’d be highly surprised if any of the Top 3 women fail to make the Finals, so I’ve been looking at them more with an eye towards how they can progress towards the endgame of the seasons.  All three have a lot going for them, but I think it comes down to Alyssa being farther ahead of her competition in the areas she excels at, while being relatively close in the ones she’s less dominant in.  

 

For starters, in a season full of people whose storyline centers on lacking confidence, she is bursting with it.  She’s got tons of charisma, exudes personality while performing, and is totally relaxed in her interviews.  She’s got a big ol voice, maybe not quite as mindblowing as Grace or as technically pristine as some others, but it’s unlikely anyone’s going to be able to just blow her off the stage through pure vocal power.  And she phrases things very naturally and musically, give or take a couple moments of showiness. She also seems pretty unflappable in performance.  She made a wrong entrance in I’m Here, which would leave a lot of contestants floundering and trying to catch up.  But she immediately adjusted and the rest of the song was fine.  She’s just memorable across the board.  She’s very reminiscent of Jordin, and not just because they’re both like 12 feet tall.  

 

There are a couple potential weaknesses which she’s going to need to deal with, although I think they’re pretty fixable.  She has some technical rough edges that still need to be worked out.  Most of the time she’s fine, and she’s capable of plenty of variety, but there are certain runs and high notes which don’t 100% land.  That shouldn’t be too difficult to address with coaching, but could become more of an issue as the pressure builds and they have more songs to prepare.  The other issue is theatricality.  Alyssa is giving about 10% too much in her performances at times, especially in the form of some crazy faces.  It comes across as the kind of performance which would read perfectly on a stage, but is too big in front of a more intimate TV camera.  I also have moderate concerns, relatedly, on how well she can fit into pop music.  ⅔ of her performances have been Broadway songs, as are almost all of her off-show videos.  She did perfectly fine with Grenade, and the Broadway she’s done has been very much on the R&B-pop side of theatrical.  But she’d do well to go more mainstream for a while.  I doubt her charisma and energy would fail to come through in something less showtuney.

 

2. Cassandra Coleman

 

In terms of which contestant I’d want to just hear a full album from, Cassandra is tops.  She’s by far the most individual and recognizable voice of the season, and intensely musical.  Pretty much everything she’s sung has been just right in terms of interpretation and phrasing.  While she has definite flaws as a vocalist and performing, she seems to have the gift that many great performers have of turning them into distinctive assets to be embraced.  The tremulous vibrato in her voice makes it more recognizable, and her somewhat uncomfortable stage presence mostly translates into a confessional openness.  Her personal music taste kind of runs to the overly-obscure for Idol, but she hasn’t really had any issues with the more mainstream songs she’s done thus far.

 

Her issues with confidence can be both an hindrance and an asset.  It’s classic Idol growth-arc fodder, especially since unlike some of this seasons “Oh I’m so inexperienced, I’m so unconfident” contestants, it ISN’T linked to technical failures, but DOES feel legitimate.  Maddie in S16 showed how much mileage you can get out of a series of “I feel like I’ve proven I can do X” interviews added to a solid baseline of competence.  The main concern for Cassandra is going to be less about how it impacts her live performances, and more about how it affects her strategic decisions.  It is definitely possible to win Idol with a campaign waged more on artistry, interpretation, emotion, and smart choices.  Maddie, again, is a perfect example, as is Kris.  But the last one of those factors is possibly the most important.  Without the cushion of a big voice or attention grabbing style, every performance counts more, and you’re more vulnerable to being kneecapped by a bad decision.  Maddie and Kris were two of the greatest strategists in Idol history, but we’ve seen MANY other quirky, flawed but fascinating contestants go down in flames after a misstep.  I’m not 100% certain Cassandra has the composure to nervelessly face those tough decisions and choose wisely.  Hopefully the show coaches her well through those but, uh, track records on Idol’s coaching are mixed to say the least.

 

A side issue will be how she contends with a very belty season (and very belty Group 1, although she should have more than enough momentum at this point for that to be a non-factor).  She’s best off essentially playing her own game of competing on her own terms without getting sucked into fighting Alyssa or Grace (or Willie) on theirs, and she’s strong enough in her own areas that it’s a viable strategy.  But it’s often tempting to show off “I can belt too!” and that’s one of the biggest hurdles that will call for the previously mentioned strategic thinking.  

 

3. Grace Kinstler

 

Grace is, undoubtedly, a powerhouse.  She’s probably the strongest vocalist, in terms of power, range and technical control, that has appeared on the ABC seasons.  It’s very impressive, to the point where as I said before it kind of warps the whole season around her.  Other than Alyssa and Willie, nobody else really has the potential to outsing her, so for a whole bunch of people it becomes a question of doing their best to get close, and find ways to make up the gap in other areas.  She’s not as confident a performer as Alyssa, and she doesn’t have Cassandra’s otherworldly style, but she’s a reasonably expressive emotional performer.  And the show has gotten a lot of mileage out of her backstory, which she smartly weaponized in her showstopper performance.  

 

I think the main issue is, Grace gets in her own way.  She can basically do anything vocally, but she’s made some really bad, unmusical choices in the performances we’ve made.  Some of those are artistic failures, where the notes are technically right, but don’t fit the song.  She got off to a bad start with me by beginning Midnight Train to Georgia at full top-of-her-lungs blast instead of giving the song shape and growth, although she’s made up a lot of ground since.  Her performances since haven’t been as blatantly off, but there are some definite moments where the desire to show off overpowers good taste.  More concerningly, there are times where the notes she’s singing are just musically wrong.  A good example is the high note in the middle of Grenade.  She and Alyssa end up singing the 2nd and 4th of the key, which is just… bizarre harmonically.  If she’d gone up to the 5th instead it would’ve worked perfectly, but it seems like she just went for whatever note and stuck with it.  Sure, this is a bunch of musical geekery, but it’s geekery founded in 400+ years of Western musical tradition, which the audience is so completely immersed in it’s inescapable.  Even if people don’t know WHY something is harmonically wrong, they still register that it doesn’t sound right.  And going off the rails harmonically can turn a performance into a trainwreck quickly if it happens at the wrong time.  That one didn’t blow up, but it makes me worry.  Big voices on Idol always have to dance around the “why won’t they stop screaming at me” accusation, and Grace seems like the most likely of the contenders to run headfirst into that.  

 

I think it’s nerves.  Grace is definitely capable of more restrained singing, as she showed in most of her Demi Lovato cover.  But under pressure, she seems to kind of get spooked and just default to attention-grabbing flash.  It’s a weird polar opposite struggle with the same basic problem as Cassandra.  If she can keep that reined in, she might be unstoppable.  

 

4. Alanis Sophia

 

Man, Alanis deserves to be so much more of a sure thing than I feel like she is.  She’s one of the most “I’m here and ready to be a pop star, please and thanks” contestants in ages.  She has a strong voice, tons of control (especially in the range of dynamic and tonal shadings she uses), a nice tone if a bit generic.  She’s super-poised, and a confident performer, although she could emote more with her face, and doesn’t radiate personality the way Alyssa does.  Even though she has a planty history, she doesn’t particularly read as over-polished the way some people do.  And she’s beautiful, in a season which isn’t necessarily overflowing with models.  In the early “lets make a teen pop star” seasons of Idol, the judges would be falling over themselves to get her the win.  

 

It just feels like Idol hasn’t actually been a show which is structured to create actual pop stars, and hasn’t been in a decade or more.  And there are a whole bunch of elements to the metagame of Idol which are against her.  While she’s a strong singer, it’s not really in the pure belt-your-face-off style that the “big sing” contestants usually use.  She’s really a pure pop singer, just barely shading into the Demi-style pop rock side, and that has a bad track record on Idol.  Partly because of the way a lot of contemporary pop is written to be aggressively unsingable live.  Studio-oriented pop, which is where Alanis seems to fit, loves flipping between conversational verses at the bottom of the singer’s range, and big belty choruses at the absolute top of their range, which is murder to try to balance out live.  Think of Firework, or Since U Been Gone, or Alive.  All in that mold, all easy to absolutely faceplant on live.  Alanis managed it well with Anyone, which is similar, but if she sings more of that material it’s going to be a constant balancing act.  If she was in a less vocally aggressive season she might be able to make headway on still just being the generally strongest female vocalist, but she can’t win that fight with Alyssa and Grace.  

 

The Idol audience also hasn’t been super supportive of traditionally pretty female contestants, they tend to go early.  And Latinas have I believe the single worst track record on Idol of any demographic.  Leaving aside Syesha and Sam (who I think were perceived as Black aside from their last names), and various Filipinas, Allison Iraheta is literally the only Latina to make it further than 2nd to last place in the Finals.  Vanessa (S2, 12/12), Karen (S10, 12/13), Emily (S13, 12/13), Michelle (S16, 10/10), and that’s it.  So she’s having to fight an uphill battle, with a genre which is less than ideal and serious competition.

 

It can definitely be done, but she’s going to need to be very canny in pretty much every choice she makes, even more so than usual.  She’s going to need to make a lot of very smart song choices which capitalize on her vocal strengths without letting her look weak in comparison to her competitors, and do some smart interviewing to bring out her personality and make her more relatable.  Without basically tanking her post-show potential.  I do wonder about one thing: Is there any chance of her going pop-country?  That was apparently what she was supposed to be doing with Big Machine, and it seems a little odd in the context of everything she’s done so far.  But it’s a well-supported niche with very little competition this season, and if she could believably make the transition there it could be a winning choice.  But I’m very skeptical of the “believably” part.  Sudden switch to country after Hollywood would be hard to pull off without coming across as opportunistic (which, I mean, it basically would be) and inauthentic. 

 

5. Madison Watkins

 

After a clear Top 3 set of contenders, with Alanis balancing awkwardly on the precipice of contendorhood, there’s a few of the women who don’t really feel like they have late-game potential, but might be fighting for the last Finalist slot or two. I wouldn’t be surprised to see 1-2 of them make it, but I also wouldn’t be particularly shocked if any of them went home at Top 16 (or even in the next round, thought I think there’s more obvious fodder left to fill up a lot of the next elimination slots).

 

I initially had Madison pegged as more of an indie-pop type based on her audition, with her primary competition being Cassandra.  However, Hollywood indicated she’s more of a pop-R&B type, especially her last performance, and that puts her more in contention with Alyssa and Grace.  Which is necessarily favorable to her.  However, I’m ranking her higher than I think many will, because she seems like a smart competitor.  There are a bunch of the remaining women who are very young, very green, or both, and Madison is clearly experienced.  She knows her voice, knows her style, and seems to have a sense of what makes an impactful performance.  I think she knows she can’t outsing some of the other contestants head to head, but has a better chance than most of realizing that and working around it.  She also seems like one of the more energetic performers among the women who aren’t completely doomed.  

 

Both of these assets are potential weaknesses though.  I appreciate a strategic thinker, that’s pretty much my entire thing.  But, for the Idol audience as a whole, it’s important not to let the calculations show too much.  That’s Jason’s potential downfall, and has been the problem for many other contestants, continually trying to find the secret to making the audience love you instead of it coming naturally.  That energetic performance style can easily cross into manic as well, so finding the right amount of energy to stand out and the right amount of restraint to avoid coming across as annoying is going to be key.  I think Madison has a good chance of getting through the next round (especially as, again like Jason, she’s one of the few belters in Group 2), but she’s going to need to walk a careful path afterwards.

 

6. Casey Bishop

 

If Madison is the contestant I think I’m going to rank higher than most, I suspect Casey is the one I have lower expectations of than many.  Idol presented her as one of its less common, but favorable archetypes: the precocious young rock girl.  That didn’t play out entirely predictably in her audition.  She chose a pretty obscure song, and didn’t deliver it in full on RAWK mode, then followed up with something completely different with jazz.  I was impressed with the amount of natural talent she showed, she has an interesting voice and good phrasing, and a certain lack of artifice to her performance style which is intriguing.  I did have some concerns about how much vocal control she has, the upper range especially gets iffy.  TBH, I preferred the jazz.

 

Her showings in Hollywood have given me less positive impressions.  Her two solos continued to raise technical concerns with me, and seemed to have her pushing her more into a forced rock direction than her audition.  HOTRS came across as kinda generic, and STTA was particularly yelly.  I feel like the show (or her own perception, her off-show recordings are pretty RAWK and pretty iffy) are pushing her into a box she doesn’t really fit, and I don’t really think she has the skills or polish to do rock songs without falling apart.  If she were going in more of a billie eilish esque alternative direction (not necessarily in voice, but in style), I think she’d have more traction.  But as is, I’m skeptical.

 

Given the lack of rock competition, and a reasonable amount of momentum coming in to the semifinals, she’s got a pretty good chance of going through, and potentially into the early finals.  But I see a huge amount of trainwreck potential in her, and I think it’s going to catch up with her eventually.

 

7. Ava August

 

Ava, like Hunter, jumped significantly in my rankings late in Hollywood, from completely doomed fodder to… maybe iffy early Finals.  It’s unintentional, but kind of weird how a couple of the contestants are moving in parallel.  I’m still flip-flopping on whether to drop her back down.

 

Ava was mostly invisible in the early rounds, and she came out of her duet more favorably than Hunter but still a bit bland.  Her showstopper round went well though.  I actually liked her original better than the others, although it’s still a work in progress.  She has an unusual tone to her voice, especially for her age, and she’s weirdly, preternaturally calm for a teenager.  I’m not sure I have a grasp on much else about her, which is why she still feels like fodder.

 

A lot of the re-evaluation basically comes down to other people more than Ava.  With Madison going a different way from what I expected, Ava goes from the probably doomed third-tier indie girl to maybe a passable second fiddle to Cassandra.  That weird calm might give her a chance to swoop in if Cassandra’s nerves get the better of her… if she can get through the next round to be in direct competition.  They also might help her make it through the muddle of Group 2.  I’m not sure, this really feels kind of tenuous.  But the people below her all have significant issues to face, so she could make some headway.

 

8. Anilee List

 

Anilee was one of the auditions who I immediately marked down as having long-term contender potential, so it’s kind of disappointing to not only put her this low, but admit that there’s a good chance she should be even further down.  She has a good Idol story which isn’t too blatantly dead family member/friend or lack of confidence.  More importantly, she’s got a great instrument, with a cool tone and pinpoint precision with how she deploys her voice.  It was a really cool audition.  

 

Unfortunately, that was almost the last time we saw her.  She was even more invisible than some of the more foddery contestants below, not appearing until her Showstopper.  Which, of course, was because she was originally eliminated.  The fact that the show already kicked her off once makes it hard to believe that they’re invested in giving her support going forward, though they were at least interested enough to bring her back.  Still, I have to admit I spent several minutes staring at this list trying to figure out why I was missing one female contestant, until I remembered she was still competing.

 

That showstopper performance was also a good example of concerns I have about her chances of success, and the reasons I think she was probably cut in the first place.  While she deploys her voice with technical precision, she’s another of several contestants where I question her taste level.  Unlike DeShawn she doesn’t actively interrupt the musical flow in her phrasing, and she’s not as musically questionable as Grace is at times.  The issue is more that she comes across as very detached from the material, like she’s more interested in manipulating the notes than connecting to the lyrics or the meaning.  It’s very “Look ma, I’m doing riff-based improvisation for the first time” young jazz student.  I’m also unsure where she fits into the competition genre-wise, similar to Beane (all these Berklee students…)  It’s well known that America don’t care for jazz, at least when it’s not a change of pace from an otherwise more mainstream contestant.  Her showstopper and some of her off-Idol songs seem to have her in the mold of a soul singer, but she really doesn’t feel authentic there.  It feels like imitation.

 

She has the technical goods to potentially give a good performance, and if she was in Group 2 I think she might be able to come out on top of the quieter pack, and start making up some momentum.  But in Group 1, I feel like she’s likely to get lost, especially if she does more old school soul and gets obliterated by the other people in that realm.  I’m preparing for her to go home.

 

9. Hannah Everhart

 

Hannah is here for basically one reason:  She’s the only female country contestant at the moment.  Theoretically.  None of her songs have really been actual country material.  Wayfaring Stranger is a folk tune that’s been covered by everyone on Earth (Ed Sheeran being probably the most recent well known example, though my personal favorite is Eva Cassidy), Wrecking Ball is Miley’s iconic pop era song, and the others weren’t even country adjacent.  Hannah’s mostly giving a country impression by virtue of being Southern and twangy.  Of course, the show is likely to push her more in that direction, so she might pick up votes from country voters who aren’t quite sold on Chayce or Caleb’s more eclectic styles.  Given the low number of clear frontrunners in Group 2, that could be sufficient to get through over some other people.

 

Beyond that, I don’t see any formula for her to succeed.  She’s maybe the weakest vocalist in the Top 24 (she, Cecil, Colin and Liahona can fight it out for last place), and an awkward performer.  I’ve seen some mention of her having “personality,” but I don’t see it.  She reads as sullen to me on camera, not engaging.  On top of that, she had one of the most negative portrayals in Hollywood with her uncomfortable duet.  I don’t really feel like she’s motivating a lot of people to get behind her.  Tangential factors could get her through a round, but I’m pretty iffy on her making the finals.

 

10. Mary Jo Young

 

Everything I think about Casey is even more so the case for Mary Jo.  She has a TON of potential and natural ability.  She also has not a single clue as to what to do with it.  A lot of people fake the “Oh, I’ve never performed, I don’t know what I’m doing,” story line, but Mary Jo really seems to be flying blind.  At times, she just isn’t singing recognizable pitches, and her stage presence frequently reaches actively terrified levels.  Plus the whole “forgetting the words” thing.  She is barely keeping it together.

 

When she does manage to keep a hold on everything, it makes a strong impression.  She pulled it off in her audition for the most part, and her showstopper was solid.  If she can replicate that level of quality, she could stand out in Group 2, although I’m not really sure what material she’d be going after.  The fact that she’s already repeated a song makes me wonder how much rep she actually knows.  But the time till she delivers an outright trainwreck on live(ish) television feels very brief.

 

11. Liahona Olayan

 

Oof.  I’m really not impressed by Liahona to be honest.  Her tone feels very put on, and it grates on my nerves, and she’s not a strong vocalist in general.  She’s energetic, but it sometimes feels forced.  Her genre solo was a weird “flip a switch, ok performing now” moment.  And her song choice for the showstopper was AWFUL.  While I take Idol portrayals with a grain of salt, the way she was shown in her duet was one of the most negative parts of Hollywood, which may have sabotaged her chances of getting the audience behind her.  

 

She gains a couple spots because, and tell me if you’ve heard this before, Group 2 is a much more open field.  In particular, there aren’t a lot of contestants likely to give a high energy performance, just Beane, Madison, Jason, maybe Casey or Colin.  So she could stand out in a pack of ballads.  I think as soon as she’s in contention with the larger field, she’s gone.

 

12. Alana Sherman

13. Andrea Valles

 

The last two ladies are basically interchangeable here.  Alana had maybe the least total screentime of any of the contestants, and isn’t nearly a strong enough vocalist to compete with the belting that she’s going to be going up against.  She’s maybe more likely to go uptempo, which could be a small advantage if there are a lot of ballads, but I don’t know if energy will be enough in Group 1.  Andrea is a moderately better vocalist, and has had a more consistent amount of screentime, but it didn’t feel like it was framed to boost her much, she was just kinda there.  And at best she’s aiming for like 6th-7th best vocalist in Group 1, which doesn’t feel like it’s gonna cut it, especially when her last impression was iffy and fleeting.  I think the overwhelming chance is these two go home in the first cut.

Edited by muse273
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Posted (edited)

Combined Ranking

 

These are still pretty fluid, I may come back and adjust.

 

All but guaranteed Finalists

1. Alyssa

2. Cassandra

3. Willie

4. Chayce

5. Grace

6. Beane

 

Prime Mid-Card Contenders

7. Wyatt

8. Alanis

9. Madison

10. Jason

11. Caleb

 

Early Finalist Potential

12. Hunter

13. Casey 

14. Ava

 

Struggling, but maybe Top 16

15. DeShawn

16. Anilee

17. Cecil

18. Hannah

 

Likely Top 24 Cuts

19. Mary Jo

20. Liahona

21. Graham

22. Colin

23. Alana

24. Andrea

 

Edited by muse273
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Saw your rankings of the Top 24, and I agree with most of them except for Liahona, in part because I like her.  But I respect your opinion, so I might consider her in the Top 16 instead of Top 10 as I thought.

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Wow, this was a very descriptive and accurate write up! You clearly know alot about vocals and artistry and adressed it all in an un-biased way (which is unique to IDF because there is a lot of bias on here LOL).  Im excited to see more of your thoughts throughout the season. 

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Thank you so much for this, this was such an interesting read! You have so much knowledge on not only music performance but also Idol history/ trends and reality TV in general. Definitely looking forward to reading more from you!

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