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Tapdancing on a Tightrope 4/8


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Tapdancing on a Tightrope 4/8

 

 

Do we remember when Idol struggled so much with fitting 10 performances into an hour that Paula Abdul experienced spontaneous fits of precognition?  Pepperidge Farm may remember, but I don’t because my brain has been pulverized by having 48 freaking performances crammed into it.  I no longer remember my childhood pets’ names or the password to my Redfin account, just that John Splithoff is apparently a person who exists and has recorded things.  I feel like Victor in The Rules of Attraction after he reels off an entire week of European debauchery in a single run on sentence.

 

All joking aside, I do have to give Idol credit for taking on an utterly insane amount of performances and more or less surviving.  I’m not convinced that it was the best way to highlight the contestants in their first full voting appearances, at least the solo rounds.  The majority of the solos ranged from eh to decent, with only a couple standouts and a few disasters, owing in large part to only having 80 seconds apiece.  As a result, the duets were nearly all superior (this may be a sign of the impending apocalypse, but honestly we’ve had like 387 of those in the last year and the apocalypse has still declined to appear, so meh).  Still, the overall impression of this week was good.  Let’s look at some aspects.

 

The Good

The Talent- There is a ton of talent on this season.  It’s been said before, and it’ll be said again.  If the voters don’t completely screw things up, and the showrunners can avoid sabotaging everything, you could easily end up with a Top 6 to rival the elite groups of past seasons.  That’s, uhh… a big assumption, given the entirety of Idol history.  But for now I will maintain hope.

 

The Freshness- Out of 24 solos, 20 were new to the show.  The average age of the songs was 8.5 years, and that was with three elderly songs (Willie’s, DeShawn’s, and Caleb’s) in the mix.  Without those, the average was less than 4 years old.  There were 10 new artists to the show in these two episodes’ solos.  This is… mindboggling, by Idol standards.  Has the show finally decided that letting, or even encouraging, the cast sing current hits might actually be a formula for post-show success? Do they actually care about post-show success?  Is this real life?

 

The Celebrity Guests’ Advice- Did it kind of seem like a lot of this week’s duet partners were auditioning to potentially take a spot on a new judging panel?  Jewel, Brandon Boyd, Brian McKnight and Joss Stone in particular seem like they are in the right “not so much career going on right now but bring musical cache” place to fill a spot.  Most of the mentors gave pieces of advice that aligned with my main criticisms of the contestants, and some actually worked?  This, as much as the additional time, seems like the reason that the duets were significantly better in many cases than the solos.  

 

The Bad

The Solo Format- I’ve already said it, but let’s say it again.  This was just not enough time to make a solid first impression on audiences.  It didn’t leave room to create a proper structure to the song, or display a diverse range of facets to the voice.  It also felt kind of abruptly cut, without that second or two of space that lets your mind go “Ok, performance is starting, pay attention.”  Mostly, these passed without really sinking in.

 

The Song Choices- This goes somewhat hand in hand with the previous issue, in that a couple of these songs could have been workable if there were more space to develop them.  But while most of these felt fairly appropriate to the contestants, they weren’t necessarily the best showcase for them.  It seems like Cassandra could have found a more impactful indie solo to work with, for one, or Anilee.  Some of them, I can see the logic behind, like Grace’s choice, but they didn’t quite work. The high number of recent, new songs does mean having less reference for what works in the circumstances of a singing show, which has an impact also.

 

The Arrangements- I have been quite outspoken over the years that, unlike many in the Idol fanbase, I don’t think rearrangement of songs is an inherently positive thing.  There have been many terrible arrangements thrown onstage under the basis of “well at least they did something different,” and we got a few here.  It was less “Completely turn this inside out and ruin it in the process,” and more issues of execution.  Which suggests to me that it’s less of a problem with the contestants, and more the staff arrangers.  The soul arrangements on DeShawn and Anilee’s solos felt forced, verging on cheesy, and the one for Willie’s wasn’t much better.  The one I found most baffling was the instrumentation for Hunter’s solo.  An acoustic version of Chandelier is hardly mindboggling, but it prominently featured both mandolin and slide guitar, which are diametrically opposed instruments.  Mandolins are mostly used for their ability to repeat notes, which lends itself to driving, percussive songs, while slide guitar brings gliding, legato elements which tend more towards to mournful, drawn out songs.  These aren’t 100% unbendable, but most of the time one or the other would sound out of place when combined.  In this case, it was the mandolin.

 

The Hmm

The Overall Format- It’s abundantly clear at this point that I had issues with how the performance time was filled.  HOWEVER, I was pretty happy with the overall proportion of performance time to judge/filler time.  With 24 performances to stuff in, there was no time for awkward babbling by contestants, to say nothing of some of the horrible filler we’ve seen before (David Hasslehoff songs a song?  Here’s Grumpy Cat for some reason?).  The judges were also forced to be relatively brief.  If future episodes had a per-performance proportion of about 3 minutes performance time, 1 minute of mentor/backstage footage, and a minute or less of judge comments, I’d be pleased.

 

The Celeb’s Performances- While the mentoring was mostly on point, the celebrity guests were a mixed bag in terms of how gracious they were as duet partners.  Some were great!  Josh Groban and Joss Stone, despite being two of the most powerful vocalists, made a clear effort to give their contestant partners room to show off, and blended beautifully.  Brandon Boyd was also very generous, though his voice is showing some signs of age.  Others, like Brian McKnight seem to have just sung their parts as they would, and how well the contestants kept up was pretty much up to their own abilities.  Jewel outshone both her partners, although it doesn’t seem to have been for lack of trying to get them to step up.  And Tori Kelly and Ryan Tedder seemed to be actively trying to steal the spotlight at times, which was quite offputting.

 

The Judgery- Well… they were trying. There were many performances which the judges declined to give the necessary harsh criticism (especially of the vocals, rather than confidence, interpretation, performance, blahblahblah), and the endless number of standing ovations remains farcical.  However, they did at least try to offer some criticism for a decent proportion of the performances.  Will they ever actually give live performances to match the level of insight they bring to their judging and criticism in Hollywood?  It seems doubtful.  But at least there wasn’t much of them.

 

I’m going to discuss each group separately, weighted more towards how they did this week specifically, and then a combined ranking that still has an eye towards the longer term.

 

Top 24 Pre-Semifinals

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Group 1

 

1. Grace Kinstler, “Queen” by Jessie J; “Midnight Train To Georgia” by Gladys Knight (with Joss Stone)

 

Grace’s performances this week weren’t equal in quality, but they did indicate several things which are promising for the future.  Queen was only ok in quality, even with the limited timeframe taken into account.  Grace didn’t quite feel in sync with the backup singers, although it seems like that may have been their fault, and the front half didn’t show her to good advantage, while the back half was showy without being impactful.  However, it did reflect one skill which can make the difference between a strong competitor and a winner: The person angle.  The lyrical theme of body positivity and empowerment dovetail perfectly with Grace’s backstory of weight loss, and general “I am woman, hear me roar so loudly I blow a wall down” style.  If she can turn use that thought process to pick a better song under better circumstances, it could be a season-defining performance.  

 

While a solo showing potential but iffy quality does not make a frontrunner, her duet was a killer performance, and she owes Joss Stone a huge thanks for her guidance.  It was the best vocal performance of any of the 48 songs this week, and that’s because it was delivered with precision.  I’d previously pointed out that Grace is an amazing vocalist who sometimes gives in to the temptation to show off in ways which detract from her performances.  This time, she waited for just the right moment, and then let all the glory notes come out.  The earlier restraint made the final power much more impactful.  This was also the most confident and comfortable Grace has seemed on stage.

 

How well she holds on to this position will depend on how she continues from here.  Without a mentor explicitly demanding that she save her punches for the right time, will she still make good choices?  Or will her nerves get the better of her and lead to generic belting?  We shall see.

 

2. Alyssa Wray, “Something in the Water” by Carrie Underwood; “I’m Your Baby Tonight” by Whitney Houston (with Katharine McPhee)

 

I thought Alyssa did well in a lot of ways this week.  She had probably the most effective solo of either night, and one of the best overall sets.  She was one of the only people who managed to fit a lot of variety into her short solo, plenty of dynamic range, lots of emotional variety.  She also landed pretty much all of the vocal gestures, rather than being a bit hit-or-miss in the past.  Her duet was a strong contrast, and highlighted the skills which set Alyssa apart from her competitors.  She was not intimidated by her partner in the slightest, and she continued exuding star power and confidence.  She’s also a rare competitor who can stay balanced in this kind of song, which runs on rapid delivery and energy instead of giving the singer room to wail on individual notes.  Overall, it was a strong effort. 

 

There are a couple concerns though.  One is, simply, Grace is her most direct competitor, and her show-closing duet one-upped Alyssa on vocal power, and did a fair job of giving a solid stage performance even if she didn’t muster the same kind of energy.  On top of that, the song choice was a mixed bag in relation to the “how will she fit into pop music instead of Broadway” question.  On the one hand, I didn’t feel that she seemed out of place in either song.  It wasn’t an overly theatrical or overarticulated vocal, although she’s still giving a little too much face.  I’m not sure, in a round where a lot of people were showing “This is how I fit into current music,” that this gave us a clear impression.  SITW is more of a crossover Christian Contemporary song with random banjo and slide guitar, rather than a straight country tune, which made it a little closer to the R&B style where Alyssa will most likely fit most comfortably.  The duets weren’t really the contestants’ choices as far as I can tell, and were overall much older/more familiar than the solos, but it was a bit dated.  Alyssa needs to figure out how to position herself in more of a consistent niche I think to really get momentum going forward.

 

3. Willie Spence, “Wind Beneath My Wings” by Bette Midler; “The Prayer” by Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli (with Katharine McPhee)

 

Willie underwhelmed me this week, to be honest, although not so much that I think it necessarily put a major dent in his momentum.  In a round where nearly all the songs were both recent and new to the show, WBMW seemed especially dated and boring as a song choice.  Without Bette’s mega-extrovert delivery, it’s a song which just doesn’t transcend its cheese.  While the arrangement was probably the most successful soulization of several in this episode, it didn’t really help the cheese.  Willie sang it fairly well, but it really didn’t offer much in the way of knockout vocal moments.  Overall, the effect was to make Willie seem like a solid singing show contestant, rather than an interesting artist.  Maybe there would have been more impact if the story about his grandfather’s death had come before the solo and emphasized the emotional content, but coming after the fact muted the impact.

 

The Prayer was better.  Willie’s solo lines still have a very monochromatic quality to them, but he pulled back from the full pushed sound in the harmonies, and the contrast to Kat’s tone softened the effect.  It was pretty beautifully sung, though again not as vocally showy as you’d expect from someone running their campaign entirely on vocals.  I’m just not sure it had a lasting impact that people will recall a couple weeks from now, the way they might remember Grace’s duet.  It also, like Alyssa’s choices, doesn’t say much about what kind of artist Willie is.

 

(It remains hilarious to me that The Prayer was sung on Idol in a week when Josh Groban sang two duets, and yet he was not involved)

 

Willie is undoubtedly going through to the next round, so he has time to show more.  I’m having trouble shaking the feeling that, unlike what I saw in Grace this week, he’s just going to be a static contestant who comes out and does more or less the same thing without growth or killer instinct.  And I don’t think he can win in that case.

 

4. Cassandra Coleman, “Find Me” by Sigma ft. Birdy; “Apologize” by OneRepublic (with Ryan Tedder)

 

Cassandra had some strong points this week, and some things which caused me concern.  Her solo was clearly the kinda of material she would record, and gave maybe the strongest “This is who I am, if you like that get in my corner” impression.  I’m not sure that makes it a good song to choose in the circumstances of Idol.  It didn’t feel intensely impactful, and her placement early in the episode made it a bit more forgettable.  If you like this kind of music/contestant, it probably piqued your interest in her, but if you weren’t already fully sold I’m not sure this is what would turn you into a full-on supporter.  Despite not necessarily being her actual genre, Apologize did feel like a good fit for her vocally, and Idol audiences do love contestants who unexpectedly succeed on out-of-character choices if they’ve firmly established an identity already.  Again though, maybe not the most impactful performance, partly because Ryan Tedder was one of the worst duet partners.

 

With an eye more towards future performances, there were plusses and minuses.  I felt like she was doing a lot of emoting with her facial expressions, which isn’t always the case with this type of contestant.  A lot of the folk types seem like they get inside their own heads, but Cassandra seems to wear her emotions on her sleeve despite not being an aggressive performer.  With more time to focus on that emotional resonance, and a better song to work with, that could be a major strength.  However, the vocals were a bit concerning.  This was not a huge belting song, and it still felt like she was being pushed to the edge of what she could manage without her tremulous tone collapsing.  The comparison to Florence Welch she’s been getting may be dangerous, because while there’s a tonal similarity, she doesn’t have nearly as much raw power as Florence.  Trying to lean too heavily into that comparison could lead to a vocal disaster, as even strong vocalists have struggled to match up.  I’m not sure Cass has enough of a sense of her capabilities to recognize the line.

 

Overall, she didn’t really lose any ground, and she probably kept people who are inclined to like her interested.  However, I think she has more pressure on her than the three previous people to really make a strong impression in the next round.  She’s at the risk of being overshadowed before she can find her groove.  It’s especially an issue given Ava is her closest competition, and made probably the biggest leap this week.  If she continues to grow, and Cassandra performs this way head-to-head, she could be in trouble.

 

5. Andrea Valles, “Lo Vas a Olvidar” by Billie Eilish and Rosalia; “Careless Whisper” by George Michael (with Brian McKnight)

 

If there was one lower-tier contestant who came into this week determined to fight for a spot in the competition, it was Andrea.  I’m not sure it’s ENOUGH, given how far behind she was in exposure and how many people are being cut, but I have to give respect to the effort.  Of the two performances, her solo wasn’t quite as strong.  It had a lot of atmosphere and intrigue, but it wasn’t a super in your face performance.  It benefitted from rewatching with time to linger and consider, which may not be something a lot of the audience will do, and the tuning was a bit questionable at times.  Still, there was something captivating about it.  

 

Her duet was stronger, in part because it was less stylized and gave more opportunity to just sing.  She was one of the competitors most comfortable with sharing the stage with her partner, and the contrast between their tones and styles elevated the performance.  She played off Brian McKnight’s smoothness well, and it gave her a chance to show how relaxed she seems on stage, which we hadn’t really seen before.  I think there’s a definite limit to the power of her voice, which may make it difficult for her to keep standing out, but this was a good showcase.

 

Will she get through?  I think she’s on the fence.  Weirdly, the eyepatch may actually be a major advantage for this one round, because it makes her instantly memorable when you’re scrolling through the voting apps, and I could see people throwing her some votes even if they weren’t immediate backers.  I’m hoping she gets through to next week, but she’s going to have a hard time pushing past that point.  Still, she’s surprised once, maybe there’s more waiting.  At the very least, I want to see how many more bedazzled eyepatches she can pull out.

 

6. Wyatt Pike, “Rubberband” by Tate McRae; “Brand New” by Ben Rector (with Ben Rector)

 

Wyatt was fine this week.  It felt like the epitome of a mid-card showing, which is pretty much what he’s shaping up to be.  His solo was in his wheelhouse, even if he gave it more of a folkie styling than the original it didn’t feel like a massive swerve.  It was kind of awkwardly tailored for the timeslot, but he delivered it solidly.  It was a very passable WGWG performance.  His duet was more energetic than past performances we’ve seen, which I think was to his benefit.  He and Ben Rector fit well together, although there was too much unison singing (don’t make me explain this Mary Jo, I beg of you). There were some weird faces which could become kinda cringey, but it wasn’t a major issue.

 

I’m still struggling to find a lot to say about Wyatt.  It was solid.  It was definitely enough to get him through to the next round.  It probably didn’t make any difference further down the road.  Wyatt has always felt like the “here to fill a niche but not rock the boat” type, and this reinforced that.  I’m having a hard time imagining him winning, or making the late finals.  It’s very like Walker from S17, safe bet to make the early finals, but not really a contender for the win unless he pulls out something surprising soon.  But it’ll do for now.

 

7. Alanis Sophia, “Alive” by Sia; “Shallow” by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper (with Jimmie Allen)

 

I feel like a lot of people are overrating how Alanis did this week, and it may be dangerous.  Personally, I think she underdelivered, and in a way which raises a lot of concerns for the next couple rounds.   Her two songs were, on paper, maybe the best set to make an impact in the context of a singing show: super well-known but not QUITE played out, big sings, hooky.  However, neither quite landed for me.  Sia’s songs are essentially built out of throat-rending belting and PTSD, and Alanis didn’t nail either.  Kudos to her for not dropping the key so much in pursuit of sustainable high notes that the bottom end became unmanageable.  But that first sustained belt barely landed on the note, and in general she was straining right at the edge of her vocal limits.  More concerningly to me, she delivered very little emotional performance aside from a couple generic hair tosses.  This is an agonized song, and she came across as very plastic.  Maybe it’s odd to complain about her not emoting facially on a song by someone whose whole schtick is having their face hidden.  But there’s a reason Sia pairs that with dancers and martial artists and three ring circuses.  And frankly, Sia can convey quantities of emotion through her voice that Alanis didn’t even come close to.  It’s especially dangerous given what I’d previously mentioned about the struggle good looking pop singers face on Idol.  “Plastic and emotionless” is the absolutely last impression you want to give in that position, especially when you’re not completely killing the vocals.

 

Vocally, she was fine in the duet, but it didn’t feel like it did much to showcase her.  Jimmie Allen wasn’t as selfish a duet partner as some of the other celebs, but the balance didn’t seem to favor Alanis.  I think she suffered somewhat from being the first person, even beyond the usual “Will they remember you by the end of the night” issue which early voting softens.  The extreme brevity of the solo performances was kind of jarring, and Alanis was the first time we saw it.  It almost seemed like an error, like the song had accidentally cut-off in the middle.  The sound balance between her and Jimmie was also off, with her sounding underpowered, which they mostly fixed in the later duets.  

 

I think, but am not 100% confident, that she will make the cut this week.  However, I can see her being in trouble next week.  She didn’t do anything this week to really maintain her momentum from the showstopper round, and in a week that may have declined heavily.  If she can come back with a song which fits more comfortably into her voice, and really emotionally deliver it, she could make a come back.  But if she repeats the quality of her performances this week, I could easily see her “shockingly” failing to make the Finals.

 

8. Anilee List, “my future” by Billie Eilish; “Tell Me Something Good” by Rufus and Chaka Khan (with Joss Stone)

 

It seems like the four cuts this week are going to come from the next five people (or Andrea), and the survivor is going to be cut in the next round, so it’s pretty much a question of who managed to nab just enough votes to get one more performance.  

 

Of these contestants, Anilee probably fit the Idol standard “hit you in the face with my voice until you love me” path to success best, although it wasn’t the best example of that method this episode.  I felt like both her songs verged on trying too hard.  The arrangement on the back half of my future went full-on lounge, and I don’t really understand the point of turning a Billie Eilish song into a belt fest.  If that’s all you want to do, there are songs which are more suited to it, and it pretty much kills all of the atmosphere that her songs run on.  Her duet was more of a fit for that style, and Anilee did a reasonably solid job of singing it.  But my problem with her has been that she feels like she’s imitating the style of her songs without actually really getting them, and that impression did change here.  She didn’t really settle into the funk or the sensuality of the song, it was just generic belting.  While Joss was a very generous partner, the contrast between her expert grasp of the style and Anilee’s copy didn’t do her any favors.  

 

Given the other performances below were mostly subdued, without really making up the gap in emotional connection, Anilee could be the one to sneak through.  But I’m not sure how she goes further, and she could easily go home here.

 

9. DeShawn Goncalves, “Forever Young” by Bob Dylan; “I Lived” by OneRepublic (with Ryan Tedder)

 

DeShawn came out and did exactly what I thought he would.  Unfortunately.  For about 30 seconds he gave a restrained performance that rested on tone and sincerity, and that was pleasant and interesting.  Then it hit the change, and veered off into meaningless (and, unusually, strained) vocal flailing.  Kids, 80 seconds is not enough time for a tempo change to not suck.  Don’t do it.  I’ve made clear that I don’t care for DeShawn’s style, but I’m skeptical that even those more swayed by pure vocal showboating would find much to like here.

 

(It again seems like the backup singers are doing the contestants no favors here)

 

In his duet, he just seemed timid.  Ryan Tedder again seemed intent on pulling focus, which did DeShawn no favors, but he didn’t really manage to push himself forward either.  Cassandra at least got some emotional moments in her song, while DeShawn seemed content to just smile blandly through.  Admittedly, it’s a weaker and less emotive song to begin with.  It was just a backup singer performance.

 

DeShawn could make it through.  He has the benefits of a reasonable amount of screentime (unlike Graham or Alana, or Andrea), and wasn’t a vocal trainwreck (unlike Cecil).  But it pretty much seems to be a default spot.  I would be stunned if he made Top 12.

 

10. Graham DeFranco, “Raye” by John Splithoff; “Love Like This” by Ben Rector (with Ben Rector)

 

I will give Graham a brownie point: He chose a song I’d never heard, by an artist I’ve never heard of, and that’s happened less than a dozen times that I can remember in 19 seasons of Idol.  I’m not sure anyone else gives points for the most obscure song choice possible, but my brownies are delicious so pbbbb.

 

Beyond that, his solo was pleasant and unremarkable.  I don’t think it did anything to dig home out of the deficit of screentime he was facing.  His duet was pleasant and unremarkable.  While Ben Rector was a pretty good duet partner, the contrast between Graham’s sleepy delivery and Ben’s greater intensity only made Graham seem more forgettable.  

 

He could stick around.  It seems pretty unlikely.  Who was I talking about again?

 

11. Alana, “Blow Your Mind (Mwah) by Dua Lipa; “Back at One” by Brian McKnight (with Brian McKnight)

 

Well, she tried.  Andrea managed to pull out some surprise elements which gave her at least the ghost of a chance of making it through to the next round.  Alana… tried.  If we were only getting solos, this might have worked out better, as there weren’t a ton of uptempo numbers.  But the duets upped that number significantly, so she couldn’t stand out on energy alone, and the vocals were nothing special.  Dua Lipa’s not a showy singer, but both Alana and Beane found out that delivering them solidly while also putting out the energy is harder than it looks.

 

Alana’s duet was heavily into the “backup singer gets a little moment in the spotlight” end of things, and this time it wasn’t really the celeb’s partner.  She just doesn’t have the vocal presence to stand out, and the song isn’t one which allows a lot of room for performance.  She just faded in to the background.

 

Just repeat the “not completely impossible to make it through, to Top 16, almost 0 chance of Top 12, flip a coin for the last spot.”

 

12. Cecil Ray, “Paint Me A Birmingham” by Tracy Lawrence; “Freedom Was A Highway” by Jimmie Allen (with Jimmie Allen)

 

Let’s not talk about the performances.  The solo was wretched beginning to end, and only made worse by even the rest of the fodder being passable for the most part if not outstanding.  Duet was marginally better.

 

Let’s talk about country voters.  Because I feel like there’s a weird perception in the Idolsphere which conflates two things.  There are plenty of country performances which lean fully into the stylization, and which non-country fans don’t care for.  This is a large portion of why, if you look at WNTS rankings, country consistently polls about 10-20 points lower than most genres and struggles to reach 5-stars unless it’s being performed by a non-country singer, yet doesn’t produce any more major trainwrecks than any other genre.  

 

There are ALSO performances of country songs which are objectively terrible, regardless of genre.  These two things are not equivalent, and there’s a conviction some people seem to have that country voters (who will vote for the first kind of performance, because they DO like that stylization) will vote for ANYTHING sung with a twang, even if objectively horrible, because hey they vote for those dumb country songs at all.  And I don’t think it’s remotely correct, because country fans actually like country music, and presumably have heard it sung well.

 

That’s why Cecil’s going home.

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Group 2

 

1. Ava August, “driver’s license” by Olivia Rodrigo; “Both Sides, Now” by Joni Mitchell (with Josh Groban)

 

Ava, more than anyone in either episode, really made a case for sailing up the rankings.  It’s the kind of “Wait where did they come from” showing that turns non-entities into contenders.  It doesn’t guarantee a victory, but wow has my perception of Ava changed from 2 weeks ago when I was ready to put her in a guaranteed elimination 12th place.

 

Her solo was very solid, but not necessarily a game-changer on its own.  It’s not a song which really gives a lot of room for vocal display, and the timeframe didn’t leave a lot of room for a dramatic arc.  However, Ava’s unusual vocal contrast of husky lower range and ethereal upper range shone in the sparse arrangement.  More importantly, the emotional delivery was open and vulnerable, without feeling put on.  Idol’s teen contestants are usually the overly-precocious “I’m an old soul who sings like a 40 year old and loves music older than my parents” types, or heavily groomed stage kids.  Ava seems like an honest-to-god teenager (even if she’s not, she hides it well), and sang an actual teenager-relevant song.  It’s almost jarring.

 

What makes it more shocking is that her duet, on the opposite end of the spectrum, was maybe the best moment of the season thus far.  She had some major advantages.  Not only was Josh Groban the best and most generous duet partner of either round, Both Sides, Now is by far the best song.  By virtue of being one of the greatest songs ever written.  This gave much more room for a display of beautiful vocals than her solo, and she fully took advantage of those opportunities.  But I’m most impressed by how authentic and believable she seemed, in a song which is full of emotional weight which no teenager should be able to grasp.  I normally hate contestants posing at lyrics they can’t possibly have the life experience to understand, but somehow it worked.

 

Maybe it’s not that strange.  Both Sides, Now is fascinating enigma of a song.  It was written before Joni Mitchell had even recorded her first album, when she was still fresh...ish (she’d already left home, had a child alone and put her up for adoption, and started fighting her way into the folk world with a legendary determination, but comparatively young and innocent).  It’s written with childlike language at times, then transitions to extreme world weariness.  There’s a story that Joni attended a concert by Mabel Mercer (a much older jazz singer), where Mabel performed the song.  Afterwards Joni went up to her and said “I never realized that song was meant to be sung by an older woman.”  Mabel, not having any idea that she was the songwriter, wasn’t amused to be called old.  Joni recorded it again over thirty years after her original recording, when her voice had dropped from a high soprano to a chainsmoker contralto, and the song gains enormous amounts of lived-in weariness.  But by nature it’s timeless, not just in the usual “oh it’s such a great, timeless song” platitude, but in its actual meaning.  Both the young, innocent singer, and the older and wearier one come to the same conclusion, that they barely know anything at all.  In a way, the contrast with her duet partner brought that out.  You had the older, experienced singer, and the younger one, both feeling the same sentiment.  And Josh’s much lower voice contrasted with Ava’s higher one kind of gave both musical versions of the song.  

 

Well, that was a whole essay.  Anyway, Ava hasn’t quite locked herself into frontrunner status yet.  There’s a lot still to be seen, which is both a pro and con.  Most of her songs have been quiet and slow, and not huge vocal showcases.  Can she perform more energetically?  Will we get a bigger vocal, not on par with Grace or Alyssa, but something which delivers on the hints of power in the duet?  These are questions which will probably need to be answered, and she could fall short.  But if she can deliver on more facets, and create a growth arc, she may have a legitimate shot at the crown.

 

2. Chayce Beckham, “Afterglow” by Ed Sheeran; “Drive” by Incubus (with Brandon Boyd)

 

If Ava is the come-out-of-nowhere ingenue who surprises everyone, Chayce feels like the established professional teetering on the edge of just becoming inevitable.  He has the kind of fully-formed artistic persona which only rarely appears on Idol, without feeling as over-routined the way some equivalent contestants on The Voice do.  He’s covering a range of genres without feeling like he lacks consistency.  He’s just ready for this, in a way which makes many other people seem like amateurs.  And, you know, he’s pale, male and… can play a scale?  Sure, we’ll go with that.  I’m rarely in the camp that those qualities are enough to win on alone, but he’s got a lot of other qualities to work with.

 

His solo was, bluntly, sexy.  I could see that getting him a substantial amount of support (shades of Michael Johns, RIP) on its own, but it’s bolstered by a clear sense of how to make the restrictions of the format work.  This was one of the only solos which felt like it managed to put together an actual arc, climax, and come to an intentional conclusion instead of just cutting off awkwardly.  There’s an emotional sincerity in Chayce’s performances which is kind of oddly akin to Ava’s (or Cassandra’s) from a completely different direction.  

 

The duet was the most explicitly rock that Chayce has gone, and it’s a good fit for him.  Probably better than full-on country, although finding material which toes the line between them would be a strong strategic choice.  It was also a more extroverted song than his previous choices, and pulled out a solid upper range he hadn’t shown much before (other than in his past duet).  Brandon was another strong mentor this episode, and the contrast between their tones boosted the song.  Additionally, this was one of the few pairings where the contestant felt like an equal to their partner, rather than someone lucky to be on stage with them.

 

There’s still room for Chayce to show us more, both vocally and energywise (again, oddly in step with Ava), and how well he does so while maintaining his consistency will determine how things go, but he could start making it tough for some of the other contenders.  The main risk I see is that, potentially, that impression of “he’s already an established artist” could come across as him not really needing votes.  There is sometimes a sense of “he already has a contract right?  He’s just doing a guest performance?  Maybe I should vote for one of those fresh faced kids who needs a shot instead.”  I feel like his backstory may counteract that though.  We’ll see.

 

3. Casey Bishop, “Decode” by Paramore; “Wish You Were Here” by Incubus (with Brandon Boyd)

 

Casey did a solid job this week, which says more than it sounds like since I’ve kinda been waiting for her to implode on stage, and she didn’t!  She was my husband’s second favorite performance of the night, and I liked her fairly well.  I don’t think she matched Jena’s level of finesse on Decode, or the controlled power in the belting, but it was a respectable job given how little time there was to work with.  I was moderately surprised she didn’t do something more old-school, given how throwback she’s been thus far, but that’s a plus even if Decode was still on the older end compared to the relentlessly “last five years, if not actually released last week” nature of the song choices this week.  

 

I actually liked the duet better, although it may have been less attention grabbing.  I like Casey’s voice a lot more when she’s not pushing it to the edge of shredding, and this time it stayed mostly within reach.  I also feel like her stage performance felt more genuine here.  While Katy may have been correct that she didn’t fully demand attention, the happiness to be performing felt more real than any forced rawkstah antics.

 

I still have reservations about Casey’s longevity in the competition.  Decode held together, but it was concerningly close to the edge.  A part of me is still waiting for parts of her larynx to spontaneously rocket out her mouth and hit Katy in the face.  The pressure is only going to get bigger from here.  But if she can find solos more along the lines of her duet in terms of vocal demands and style, there’s potential.

 

4. Beane, “Don’t Start Now” by Dua Lipa; “Angels” by Robbie Williams (with Josh Groban)

 

Beane is this group’s Alanis, in that his performance is… probably enough to get him through to the next round, but needs to be a serious wake up call if he wants to go any further than that.  His solo was the weakest of any of the real contenders.  Part of this was, again, the arrangement.  Seriously, timeframe small, tempo changes time consuming, combo bad.  It’s not just a question of not having enough time to properly develop either section.  There’s no time to transition smoothly between, or for the singer to have a second or two to get their breath under them.  Both DeShawn and Beane, who had previously been solid technicians, struggled with their control when their songs transitioned.  Beyond that, Beane’s optimistic energy runs the risk of becoming offputtingly cutesy, and he kind of hit that in this song with the random scatting.  It makes him feel like a lightweight rather than a serious contestant, without actually being fun or playful, and that’s grating.  Added to the arrangement feeling more interested in its own cleverness than musical functionality, it dragged an already shaky performance down further.

 

However, he benefited from a top-tier duet, which most likely was enough to save him.  Josh was, again, a fantastic partner.  I think the fact that he has a deeper toned voice than any of the other celebs or contestants was a real asset, as it made more of a contrast with his partners.  The thing that really set this apart from Beane’s solo was that it was maybe the first time he really showed sincerity.  He’s had fun in previous performances, but this felt like the first time he fully invested in the song.  Part of that was in the emotional delivery, but he also avoided any tricksy departures from the general melodic shape, and it felt much more serious than even his strong past performances.  If he can mix solos like that with more energetic and lighthearted ones without the contrast seeming jarring, it could put him back in contention.

 

I think he has sufficient prior support, when added to the quality of his duet, that he should be safe to get through.  My jaw wouldn’t entirely drop if his solo dragged him down enough to go out, but I think there’s enough of a cushion of weak and middling performances to keep him safe.  But, like Alanis, he absolutely cannot afford a performance on par with his solo next week.  If he repeats it, he won’t make the finals, and I’m not sure he’d get a Wildcard either.  As a side note, he did mention his sexuality after I wondered about it being kept quiet last time.  I don’t really think it will have a negative impact on his voting at this point, given his supporters kinda have to be on board with the theatricality to begin with, but it does add a little extra blip of anxiety to the voting.

 

5. Caleb Kennedy, “Midnight Rider” by The Allman Brothers; “Fly Over States” by Jason Aldean (with Jason Aldean)

 

Somewhat like Wyatt, Caleb did more or less what he needed this episode without it necessarily feeling like there would be much impact on the competition as a whole.  He delivered a reasonably solid rendition of a classic Southern rock tune which, while it wasn’t exactly country, was close enough for his core audience.  Caleb kinda benefits from the way other contestants turned out.  With Chayce straying further from country this round, and Hannah and Cecil cratering, he’s the closest thing to a default country option right now.  His duet was fine, but didn’t really make a strong impression.  It just kinda cruised.  Wait, that’s a different mediocre bro country group.  Nevermind.

 

Right now Caleb kind of feels like a default potential finalist, maybe more recognizable than Wyatt but not quite as solid.  I do wonder whether he will have the chance to perform more originals, which could tilt things more in his favor.  Unlike Alejandro, he doesn’t seem completely vocally swamped while singing covers.  It’s more that he just seems kind of uncomfortable.  The omnipresent hat doesn’t really help with that impression, as it feels like he’s hiding behind it.  He could at least get a top hat and go full-Slash.  There’s room for him to improve, but I’m not sure the foundation of his skills is strong enough for him to really take risks without falling apart.

 

6. Jason Warrior, “Call Out My Name” by The Weeknd; “How Deep Is Your Love” by The Bee Gees (with PJ Morton)

 

Jason is here to fight for his spot, and I appreciate that.  I’m not sure I love how he’s trying to go about it.  I think the Weeknd song was a good choice, as it’s recent and showy.  However, I’ve identified one of the things which bugs me about Jason’s singing.  He has a tendency, when not going full-belt, to not sing through the ends of his phrases.  He’ll get to the last word, and the tone cuts out.  I think he might believe it comes across as emphatic and sensitive, but for me it just sucks the energy out of his singing and makes it come across as overly fussy. Once he got into the belting section it was a pretty solid vocal, and he did better than most at not sounding awkwardly cut short by the timeframe.  The performance was verging on hysterical though, and I’m not sure that does him any favors with the audience.  Jason clearly really wants this, but it’s coming across at times as desperation, and his backstory of trying out for shows over and over again kind of pushes that even more negative.

 

The duet didn’t really work for me, and it’s not totally Jason’s fault.  Or PJ’s actually.  The tones of their voice, and the way they phrased, seemed like they melded poorly.  It’s difficult to make two people riffing and stretching a well-known melody at the same time sound like they’re on the same page, and these two didn’t.  If it had been more trading off sections, it would’ve worked better, or if they’d had more time to rehearse it.  But it just came across as two people singing the same song at the same time without actually singing it together.  

 

I feel like Jason did enough to grab the attention of voters to get through to the next round, but didn’t necessarily do himself favors in the long run.  I feel like some casual voters who may have been on the fence about him could have written him off entirely, and if the competition next week is tighter, that may be a key factor in who claims a last spot in the Top 10/12.

 

7. Madison Watkins, “Holy” by Justin Bieber; “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” by Stevie Wonder (with Tori Kelly)

 

Madison came off very similarly to Jason in this episode, somewhat appropriately since they were back to back.  Solo-wise, I’m not sure she was quite as attention grabbing vocally.  She pulled some tricks, like the modulation, but it felt like she was on the edge of her vocal capabilities and starting to strain.  The performance wasn’t quite as histrionic, or cheesy exactly, but it felt over rehearsed.  Pageanty almost, which is rarely a good thing.  I feel like Madison was more appealing in the more restrained style she had in her audition or her duet with DeShawn, and trying to compete with the full-on belters isn’t helping her.  

 

Speaking of competing, the duet wasn’t badly sung, but it wasn’t particularly harmonious.  It felt like two people trying to show off, and that’s not a face-off which favors Madison.  Tori was kind of the Ryan Tedder of this episode, possibly even more attention-grabbing.  The big riff in the middle almost awkwardly stopped the song in its tracks, to the point where I wonder if there was an error.  In fact, going back I’m not sure they sang an actual harmony until the very end of the song.  It’s weird, because Don’t You Worry Bout A Thing has so many in-rhythm riffs that if they’d sung them in harmony it would’ve been showstopping.  I feel like it added to a sense of Madison’ not having a ton of substance this episode.

 

Madison’s in an awkward position right now.  I feel like she could have lost some ground with people who were previously in her corner but not full-on supporters, and that could give her trouble this round.  I think Jason may have put more people off long-term, but have a better chance at this moment.  Madison may also be more disposable, if it comes down to needing a wild card.  

 

8. Mary Jo Young, “Castle On The Hill” by Ed Sheeran; “Foolish Games” by Jewel (with Jewel)

 

I actually thought Mary Jo did well!  Maybe better than this placement.  I barely spent any of her song biting my nails and wondering if she was going to fall apart.  Maybe a little at the end.  But she held it together pretty well in her solo.  I think uptempo songs may do her some good, she has less opportunity to get bogged down in overweighting her vocals.  By her standards, this was a good, non terrifying performance.

 

Her duet was also pretty decent.  It brought out some different, more subtle facets of her voice, and Jewel didn’t really actively overshadow her per se.  It was a bit of a difficult pairing though. Jewel is such an individual artist, that it’s hard to not sound generic while singing next to her, especially on her own song.  Especially because, as was evident here, she tends to play around heavily with her phrasing rather than repeating the recording verbatim, which makes it harder for her partner to know exactly what she’ll do.  But Mary Jo did decently.

 

I’m just not sure decent is enough for her to be safe here.  If she had the level of support coming in that, say, Cassandra or Wyatt had, she’d probably be a safe bet to go through.  But she’s been so inconsistent that I worry people aren’t really invested in her, and these weren’t quite good enough to really lock people in.  Again, she’s kinda on the bubble.  A lot of people are in this group.

 

9. Colin Jamieson, “Locked Out Of Heaven” by Bruno Mars; “Hollow” by Tori Kelly (with Tori Kelly)

 

It’s honestly hard for me to objectively rate Colin.  He kind of aggravates me, and chose a solo which I actively hate.  It’s Bruno Mars’ most annoying song, and Colin is no Bruno.  At least this didn’t have the sound effect in the background cranked up to max volume like the last time it was performed on Idol.  He wasn’t an active trainwreck, but this did nothing for me.  

 

His duet wasn’t as bad.  When Colin’s singing in his upper range (which he mostly was here, to align with Tori), his voice is decent.  It just completely disintegrates when he goes into his lower register.  His stage presence still reads as near-parody to me.

 

Given the number of people from this group who either struggled to make any impression, or gave decidedly mixed ones, Colin may benefit from the Lazaro effect.  I didn’t care for his performances, but I at least remember them.  For people who are inclined to like him, that could get more of them to vote for him than, say, Mary Jo.  I don’t think he can translate 

 

10. Hunter Metts, “Chandelier” by Sia; “Who Will Save Your Soul” by Jewel (with Jewel)

 

In terms of how likely he is to continue in the competition, Hunter would be a few spots higher.  He’s not 100% out of danger, but I think he’s a safer bet to go through than Madison/Colin/maybe Jason.  However, I feel like he did serious damage to his long term chances with his performances this week.

 

His solo felt small.  Not an intimate performance, small, like he didn’t have the resources to do anything more with the song.  I’m not sure what made him think Sia was a good idea.  At least recent Sia, if he’d chosen Breathe Me (which is probably her best song anyway), it would’ve suited his abilities much more, without making it as obvious that he can’t match the original.  When the song reached its climax, he just did not have the ability to take it anywhere impactful.  We won’t even talk about comparisons to Trent’s still quite memorable performance.  

 

If his solo implicitly showed that his abilities are limited, the duet felt like he was explicitly stating “No, really, I can’t do anything difficult, don’t make me.”  Jewel tried repeatedly to get him to commit to doing something which didn’t just fade into the background, and he fought as hard as he could not to.  Which… given the whole wispiness that is Hunter, was about as hard as particularly fatigued kitten.  But he still did as little as he could in the duet, and it showed.

 

This episode really screamed (whisper-screamed, fine) that Hunter doesn’t seem likely to grow or stretch.  The showstopper, and general WGWGness, is probably enough for him to go another round, but he’s beginning to feel like he’ll vanish momentarily.

 

11. Liahona Olayan, “Just Friends” by Audrey Mika; “Say So” by PJ Morton (with PJ Morton)

 

If Hunter was constrained in his capacity to sing, Liahona just felt lightweight.  Her vocal tone continues to put me off, and the whole delivery felt unimpactful.  It was theoretically a performance that should have run off the stage energy, but I didn’t feel much of that either.  It felt like a first choreography rehearsal, where you go through the steps but you’re not really delivering them with intensity or precision, just getting the general sense of them.  I thought that her saying that emotional performance wasn’t really her strong point was telling.  Happiness and enthusiasm are also emotions, but she doesn’t seem to convey those much more than sadness and vulnerability.

 

“Like a rehearsal” was also, more damningly, my impression of her duet.  This sounded like PJ was performing, and she had just wandered in and occasionally sang along, but didn’t fit into his performance at all.  I kind of wonder if PJ’s style just does not suit a situation where there’s limited rehearsal time and partners who aren’t as experienced in the give-and-take of riffing.  If you have someone to play off who can lock into the groove of the song and bounce off you, it can be amazing, but these kids don’t have the practice to really pull that off.  This might have been the worst of the duets, which were otherwise at least passable.

 

I don’t know.  I don’t really see any source of vote which gets Liahona through this round, much less the next one.  Potential only goes so far if it’s never realized.

 

12. Hannah Everhart, “I Was Wrong” by Chris Stapleton; “She’s Country” by Jason Aldean (with Jason Aldean)

 

Oof.  This solo was apocalyptically bad.  Close to You missed key change bad.  To say that Hannah went entirely off the rails and ended up in a different key at the end would be inaccurate.  It would imply that she actually ended up in a definable key, instead of just pitchless yelling.  Before that last section it was strained and listless, but the final disaster really turned it into a nightmare.

 

The duet was a step, reaching merely extremely mediocre, but she still couldn’t sing for any extended period of time without the pitch and tone fraying.  Like Cecil, I don’t think country fans are going to have any interest in voting for this mess.  Even people who liked her are likely to pass on voting, given the solo.

Edited by muse273
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Posted (edited)

Combined Ranking

 

1. Grace

2. Alyssa

3. Willie

4. Chayce

5. Cassandra

6. Ava

7. Casey

8. Beane

9. Wyatt

10. Caleb

11. Alanis

12. Jason 

13. Hunter

14. Madison

15. Mary Jo

16. Andrea

17. DeShawn

18. Colin

19. Anilee

20. Graham 

21. Alana

22. Hannah

23. Liahona

24. Cecil

Edited by muse273
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Love your write-ups as usual. Two things I disagree with:

 

1 - I though that Casey's "Decode" was the best version done on the show so far, because it felt much more "Rock" than the other versions. It was more raw and powerful, and she never let the song overpower her. The emotion also felt perfect for the song and the lyrics, you could hear the doubt and the angst in her voice. Even if the vocal was not perfect (and I don't know much about that), it felt perfect for the song and style.

 

2 - Alyssa's solo did her no favours, in my opinion. I think Katy's advice was spot on, Alyssa does not feel the songs and convey that emotions, she thinks about hoe her face and gestures need to be to try to convey the emotiont the thinks the song should convey, and those are two VERY different things.

 

Loved your little essay about Joni's song. It is really a work of art. And it made such a stark contrast to the other awful song Ava sang before. The performance was good, but "driver's license"'s lyrics are just so cringey and bad, it really made an interesting contrast to Joni's masterpiece.

 

Also, Joss stone is a beast.

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Now that the Top 24 has become the Top 16 (and the Top 12, but that’s a subject for another time), I’m going to add my own two cents on why certain contestants failed to make the Top 16, based on David Bloomberg’s comments on what American Idol contestants needed to know on his old Foxes on Idol website:

 

1.  Alana — what went wrong?  First of all, she was pretty much the definition of cannon fodder.  She had little screen time to begin with, so she needed to follow the first rule and show singing and performance skills, and pick a suitable song for her solo per the second rule.  Her song choice was obscure and while it allowed her to showcase performance skills, it wasn’t a song that allowed her to show singing prowess, while she faded into the background in her duet, although I love the song.  That is why Alana lost.

 

2.  Anilee — what went wrong?  Like Alana, she had little screen time to begin with (although in Anilee’s case, the lack of screen time was in part due to being a replacement for Benson Boone), so she needed to pick a song that enabled her to show off her vocal and performance skills, and then blow other contestants who had a head start in gaining fans but had weak vocal and/or performance skills out of the water.  Unfortunately, she might have chosen the wrong solo song to show off her vocal prowess and her duet wasn’t enough to show off her vocal or performance skills.  That is why Anilee lost.

 

3.  Andrea — like Alana, she was close to being cannon fodder and like Alana and Anilee, she needed to stand out and show her vocal and performance skills, especially in her duet.  Unlike Alana and Anilee, I think that she succeeded in standing out in her duet and her solo showed her skills more.  So what went wrong?  Sadly, I think that it was her song choice for her solo.  It maybe wasn’t quite as good as her duet and more important, she sang Spanish lyrics.  While I loved it (especially since I minored in Spanish in college) other voters might not have done so.  And as a result, the hill proved to be too hard to climb.  That is why Andrea lost.

 

4.  Cecil — well, unlike the others, I don’t really have to examine why he lost.  He totally blew his chances of winning with a train wreck of a solo, and his duet wasn’t much better.  That is why Cecil lost.

 

5.  Jason -- Jason had a decent amount of screen time, and I think that he showed enough of his vocal prowess to move on, and Muse felt that his song choice may have been good enough for him to follow the second rule.  So what went wrong for him?  I think that there were a couple of factors.  The first is that Jason's performance style may have been too showy. too dramatic and might have put people on the fence off of him.  The second is a rather interesting one:  Jason has a history of trying out for reality tv vocal shows, and on one of them, he came off as a jerk.  That reputation may have come back to haunt him.  These two problems are part of the fifth rule, which states that you are a package, and the bad reputation is part of the fourth rule, which states that you must be memorable for good reasons.  Jason was memorable for a bad reason, and that along with his overly-dramatic singing style made him a package that too few people liked.  That is why Jason lost.

 

6.  Hannah -- like with Cecil, I don't really have to go very far in explaining why Hannah lost.  She was already probably the weakest in vocals among the girls coming in, so she needed to either sing her socks off or compensate with awesome performance skills.  She did neither.  In fact, her solo was probably the worst of all of the contestants in Group 2.  Her duet was better, but nowhere near good enough for even country fans to vote for her.  That is why Hannah lost.

 

7.  Mary Jo -- like with Jason, this is also a surprise.  Mary Jo's solo was solid, and I just loved her duet with Jewel, although part of it is due to my loving the song.  So what went wrong?  Muse might have hit on part of the problem by mentioning her duet partner.  While Jewel tried to blend in with Mary Jo, she's such an individual artist that it's hard for her to be part of a duet with anyone.  But there were two bigger problems, relating to the third rule and the fourth one, respectively.  First, the third rule indicates that you should be consistent, and Mary Jo really wasn't.  This could have hurt her ability to create a fan base and thus follow the eighth rule.  Another problem which affected her ability to create a fan base may have been problems with the fourth rule, which states that you should be unique.  Mary Jo was a pop singer, and a somewhat generic one at that.  Although the changes to voting limits the ability of vote-splitting to hurt contestants, she might have been still competing for votes with Madison, and since Madison has this unusual hair style, that might have made Madison stand out more.  So put that all together, and you can see why Mary Jo lost.

 

8.  Liahona -- this is the hardest article for me to write because she was one of my early favorites, and even though I was able to move on to Ava August, it's still hard to write about an early favorite falling short this soon.  But she did, so what went wrong?  Like with Jason, I think that part of the problem may have been her being remembered for something potentially negative.  When she participated in the duets in Hollywood week, Liahona allowed her unhappiness over her brother Ammon being eliminated during the genre challenge to affect her, causing Katy to rebuke her, and that might have caused some fans of her to lose interest.  But a bigger problem lay in the first rule, which indicates that you need to show vocal and performance skills.  She's like me, not really an powerful vocalist, so her best shot would probably have been to compensate with great performance skills.  But in her confessional during her meetings with her duet partner, she mentioned that she had a problem with being emotional and being vulnerable -- stuff that is part of performance skills.  And she had problems with it during her solo.  I thought that she improved in her duet, but she clearly did not improve in her performance skills enough to stay.  So put that all together, and that is why Liahona lost.

Edited by CarmenSandiego
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