At long last, we've made it through the wilderness; the "American Idol" auditions are finally at an end, and now the real competition (such as it is) begins. After treading water for weeks with music-free group nights and tedious eliminations, let's jump straight to the performances, where we witnessed the Top 12 male vocalists -- plus the mystery 13th contestant -- taking to the stage with the song of their choice, each one vying for your vote.
Reed Grimm: "Moves Like Jagger"
Reed is a contestant who is memorable enough for me to feel confident that I've enjoyed his previous performances, but not so memorable that I actually recall any of said performances. He made the improbable choice to sing Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera's "Moves Like Jagger," which was spawned by the success of NBC's rival talent show, "The Voice." I guess it was intended to be "Idol's" passive-aggressive way of pretending that they're not threatened by their off-network nemesis (as was the judges' repeated insistence on complimenting the singers by calling them "the voice," which was just odd). That subtext was bubbling under the surface throughout the performance, and really, it just served to remind us that most of "Idol's" contestants this season would've failed to coax any of "The Voice's" judges into turning their chairs around during their audition process. Reed attempted to make the song his own with a slowed down, jazzy arrangement, which saw him breaking off to scat and play the drums midway through, but it still sounded a little too jazz lounge karaoke to me. The most interesting points of the song came from the little flourishes that Reed tacked onto the end of his phrases, but in his lower register, the song did him no favors.
It immediately became apparent that the judges had no interest in offering honest or valuable critique this season, since all three of them gushed over Reed's choice. Randy Jackson insisted that Reed was bringing out "shades of Casey [Abrams]" from last season, presumably just because they both scat; Jennifer Lopez fluttered over how well he'd shown America who they were dealing with, praising his "amazing voice," and Steven Tyler screwed up his own punchline by mistaking the name of Reed's band -- Shoeless Revolution -- with Shoeless Generation, while trying to make the point that a new generation of fans would be watching his ass from now on (see what he almost did there?).
Adam Brock: "Think"
In an effort to further belabor the point that he's really a black woman stuck in a white guy's body, proud father Adam tackled an Aretha Franklin tune -- with moderate success -- although he came across as fairly low-energy on TV. Uptempo numbers really do nothing for his voice, forcing him to rush through the lyrics with poor enunciation and no time to let the notes grow as he did during his impressive Hollywood Week performances, which is a shame. I continued to enjoy his raspy, bluesy tone, but considering that six of these guys are likely to go home on Thursday, I think he would've been better served by playing to his strengths as a vocalist instead of trying to show the judges that he can also sing energetic songs (because apparently, he can't).
Of course, Randy, Steven and Jennifer apparently neglected to switch on their hearing aids for the first half of the episode, so all three of them thought Adam was the best thing to happen to music since the invention of the CD. Steven called him "white chocolate," and praised him for setting the bar so high right out of the box, while Jennifer was impressed with the way he delivered the last note. Randy was more impressed by his Pittsburgh Steelers shirt, but dug Adam's throwback vibe. I did love him in Hollywood, so I hope he sticks around, but I also hope he becomes more disciplined in his song choices in the weeks ahead.
Deandre Brackensick: "Reasons"
Possessed of a flowing mane of curly locks and a eye-watering falsetto, Deandre could certainly add a unique flavor to the competition if he's allowed to continue. Unfortunately, this week that flavor was diluted by Deandre's inability to stay in tune, his pitchy, nasal upper register and the fact that he seems incapable of belting, which meant that his high notes got lost when he should've been pushing them out. He hit one sweet, pure high note towards the end of the song, but the rest of the time he seemed to have no sense of timing and shoehorned in a number of unnecessary runs.
Naturally, the judges were in awe of Deandre and his unique falsetto. "Your voice is so perfect to me," Jennifer gushed, while Randy declared that Deandre was one of the "most commercial guys I've ever seen," which ... is a lie. He's certainly pretty, and few guys can match Justin Timberlake's falsetto on the pop scene, but he's far from the perfectly polished package that the judges are trying to paint him as. Ryan Seacrest then paraded a couple of kids up on stage to give Deandre a hug, like he was the fourth Jonas, or something, and it was awkward.
Colton Dixon: "Decode"
The limelight-stealing brother of Schuyler -- who was apparently still determined to namedrop his sister at every turn, as if to implant her name in our subconscious for next season, "Inception" style -- probably is the most commercial of the contestants so far, forget about these other yahoos. Colton insisted that fans who were used to seeing him behind a piano would see a very different side of him this week, and then proceeded to open the song ... you guessed it, behind a piano! Apparently, the difference between this and all those other times (except for the two group performances and his initial audition, naturally) was that he actually stood and left the piano during the song. Oooh. He certainly sounded the most polished of the four singers we'd seen up until that point, but also the least original; he sounds like every other "indie, alt-rocker" on the radio, and while that's undeniably marketable, it's not terribly compelling. But he's white and cute and can play instruments, so he'll probably win.
Jennifer once again gushed that Colton (or "Kul-un") was a truly relevant artist, and Steven gave up on any pretense of having an original thought by repeating, almost verbatim, what Jennifer said. Randy crowed about how the show already has such variety and so many different flavors of artists, and said that it was about time that "Idol" had an indie, alt-rock singer, apparently forgetting all about Chris Daughtry, David Cook, James Durbin et al who have come before.
Jeremy Rosado: "Gravity"
The one thing "Idol" wants us to know about "Jere-bear" is that he's a really nice guy, who comforts people when they're down. Since we're not looking for "America's Sweetheart," I don't see how that's particularly relevant, but since we haven't had much backstory for Jeremy thus far, I guess we'll take what we can get. I won't deny, I got J.Lo's coveted "goosies!" while listening to Jeremy's performance, because it was sweet and controlled and tender, despite being a little bland. He doesn't have the strongest or most original voice, but his phrasing was solid and I enjoyed the rasp in his lower register, and overall it was pleasant to listen to. Not Billboard Number 1 pleasant, but good nonetheless.
"That was beautiful, you couldn't have picked a better song," Steven enthused, telling Jeremy that he sang his butt off. Jennifer told him that he had a voice from God, and that when he sings, she can forget she's a judge and just get swept up in the music (does she ever remember that she's a judge?). Randy said he was impressed with the "tender moments and the big, booming moments."
We then took a brief pause for Ryan and Steven to mock Jennifer's Oscar night nip-slip, with Steven fake-sneezing and exposing his chest to an unsuspecting viewing public. Jennifer loudly insisted "THERE WAS NO NIPPLE," but if I were her, I would've found someone to fetch me an urn of ash so that I could've dumped it over Ryan's suit in retaliation, Sacha Baron Cohen style.
Aaron Marcellus: "Never Can Say Goodbye"
Next up was a dude with very cute glasses and a very mediocre performance. We didn't see much of Aaron or his story during the auditions, but he turned in a few solid performances in Hollywood and Vegas. That talent was not really in evidence here. The arrangement of the song seemed very strange and ill-suited to Aaron's smoky, R&B tone, and there are so many other Jackson songs that would've done his voice justice far better than this. He also seemed to stroll around the stage without really working it, and his last note went off-key in a distracting way. It must've sounded different in the auditorium, because the judges ate him up.
Randy was so overcome by the performance that most of his critique consisted of him repeating "yes, yes, yes -- woo!" and applauding wildly. "That's how you do some vocals -- the run you did near the end was craaaaaazy," he praised. "Boy can sing -- you can sing anything," Jennifer agreed, before Steven summed things up with "the whole package, that's what you were tonight." I don't get it.
Chase Likens: "Storm Warning"
This year's prerequisite good looking -- but forgettable -- country crooner, Chase was certainly easy on the eyes, but your tolerance of him will be directly proportional to your appreciation for country music. Thankfully, I like it, so I liked him, although I'm unfamiliar with the song. It was an unremarkable performance, but Chase seemed comfortable in his middle register and I appreciate his style far more than Scotty McCreery's bass tone. It was a workhorse performance, unspectacular, but got the job done, and there's enough of a country market that he could easily go the distance now that Scotty and Lauren Alaina have reopened the doors to the genre on the "Idol" stage.
Steven was more fascinated by Chase's "Brendan Fraser in 'The Mummy'" good looks, but Jennifer praised his growth as an artist and Randy kept insisting that he has the range and skills to be a successful artist now, which sounded like pure hyperbole to me.
Creighton Fraker: "True Colors"
The New York-based starving artist already seems set to be the most divisive of the boys, if the varying reactions to him on Twitter were any indication. He's far too affected in his video interviews and performances, which makes him come across as fake, but despite the unnecessary dramatic runs (Jacob Lusk style, ugh) his performance was strong and undeniably confident. He has a Gavin DeGraw quality to his voice, which automatically gains my favor, and his tone has so many interesting nuances, you can tell he's technically accomplished in his craft. The real test will be whether voters can put up with his showboating just to enjoy his talent.
The judges were fairly euphoric in the wake of Creighton's performance, with Jennifer calling it "beautiful" and insisting in a creepy baby voice that she wanted him to stay (almost as if he was packing his bags and readying himself to leave right after the show -- it was odd), while Steven decreed it "stupendous," praising his phrasing, and Randy telling him, "you can definitely sing -- you definitely got the voice." (Crossover alert!)
Phillip Phillips: "In the Air Tonight"
I don't care how authentic Creighton pretends to be while incessantly declaring "I'm Creighton," Phillip is the real deal in this competition for me. He took his time with the song, and his voice has a natural rawness and a delicious graveled edge that doesn't need to be forced, making it far more enjoyable to listen to than some of the other performers. I thought the song felt like a cohesive whole, with Phillip's voice complimenting the backing music instead of working against it, and I loved the inclusion of a saxophonist -- in short, it was my favorite performance of the night, until we got to Joshua Ledet.
So, naturally, this was the first performance that anyone actually dared to criticize -- the one artist who was stronger and more competent than all of the others combined. "Idol," why do you make me hate you? Jennifer wisely pointed out that Phillip was one of the most special talents they'd found on the road, and Steven said he'd hit his stride tonight, but Randy admitted that he wasn't "jumping up and down about the re-harm on the melody," which basically meant that he was criticizing Phillip for confidently making the song his own in the way that most of the other contestants failed to do. Sigh.
Eben Franckewitz: Set Fire to the Rain
I'm still firmly in the camp that was baffled that Eben got through ahead of the much more accomplished David Leathers Jr., and this performance did nothing to change my mind about Eben's general unsuitability. Justin Bieber hair is not justification enough for allowing such a whiny, nasal voice onto such a grand stage, forget about letting him tackle an Adele song. This performance illustrated that the 15-year-old was far from ready for this competition, and if he isn't eliminated on Thursday, I'll frankly be outraged. It was truly painful to listen to.
But the judges refused to honestly critique any of the adults, so there wasn't a snowball's chance in hell they'd crush a kid's ego (come back to us, Simon, all is forgiven!). "You are so mad young and so mad cool and collected," Randy rambled, thankfully admitting that "it wasn't all perfect," but then completely undermining his vague criticism by insisting that Eben "brought it home at the end." Steven called it "pretty good," which, given his usual flowery praise, was basically the vocal equivalent of a kick in the jewels.
Heejun Han: "Angels"
"Idol's" most hilarious contestant continued his trend of being charming and understated, even if the song choice was totally wrong for him. Heejun has such a sweetness to his tone that it's always a pleasure to listen to him, even if he's still struggling with his enunciation, but when he opened up and sang from his chest, he hit some lovely notes. I'm actually rooting for the guy to win this whole thing, because he's funny, talented and a true underdog, since I'm sure that a depressingly large proportion of the audience will spend the rest of his time on the show mercilessly mocking his difficulty with English -- because nothing's more hilarious than foreigners talking funny, right, America?
After the judges flogged the dead "Hey June" horse for another few painful minutes, Jennifer told Heejun that he has a voice that's "smooth as silk." She noted that the song choice didn't do him justice, but finished up with, "there's no denying that you can blow." Which ... I guess she meant as a compliment? Steven agreed that it was the wrong song, but that people will soon find out how good Heejun is, while Randy praised his "tender moments and big vocal moments."
Joshua Ledet: "You Pulled Me Through"
Joshua has been something of a dark horse up until this point -- he didn't get much play in the audition rounds until nearer the end, but it was obvious that the judges saw something very special in him from the start -- faith that was born out in tonight's fantastic performance. It started out solid, and seemed as though it would follow along a traditional R&B line, but as Joshua got into the song and grew more comfortable, he began busting out a spectacular array of runs and vocal flourishes, hitting high notes that I don't think I've heard executed so confidently since Adam Lambert's year. If talent is more important to the audience than skin color, Joshua seems an easy favorite -- but we've had four years of instrument-playing white guys winning, and I doubt things have changed much since last season. I hope I'm wrong.
Joshua earned a rapturous standing ovation from the judges, with Randy enthusing, "I love you -- this is what singing is all about," while Jennifer gushed that he was amazing and that she wanted to punch him, she liked him so much (I don't know either). "You are the voice the world has been waiting to hear," Steven insisted, as Jennifer called for Ryan to punch poor Joshua for her.
Jermaine Jones: "Dance With My Father"
The mystery 13th male contestant turned out to be Jermaine Jones, who was by far the most worthy of the four tipped to be reinstated (I also wouldn't have minded David Leathers Jr). It's fairly obvious that this ploy was "Idol's" attempt at trying to replicate "X Factor's" success with Melanie Amaro, by arbitrarily tossing out an obviously talented singer only to give them a "second chance" after they'd sobbed all over our televisions and tugged at our heartstrings enough to merit a triumphant return. I don't much mind this ploy if it keeps Jermaine around, because I adored his duet with the irritating Richie Law, and he has one of the most distinctive and fascinating voices in the competition. His voice is far from marketable, and he doesn't seem pretty (or white) enough to appeal to the teen girl demographic who vote for "Idol," but he will add a much-needed depth to the contest while he's around. I loved his rich, throaty take on the Luther Vandross classic, and you could almost feel the reverberations of that well-trained bass rattling your bones as he sang. Needless to say, I dug him.
Thankfully, so did the judges. "Such a different voice -- we haven't had a low baritone ever on this show," Randy noted, while Jennifer praised both his voice and his spirit. Steven said that the performance totally justified their decision to bring him back, calling it "a beautiful thing."
Who was your favorite artist of the night? Were you glad to see Jermaine return (and don't you think the producers should bring back another girl, too)? Who do you think is most in danger of being eliminated? Share your reactions and predictions below.
"American Idol" airs Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m. EST on Fox.