And so, another season of a little show I like to call American Idol: Search for a Superstar comes to an end. The coronation of Scotty McCreery after a Scotty-Lauren showdown was just like pretty much everything we’ve gotten from those two all season – entirely predictable, entirely anti-climatic, entirely unmoving, but at the end of the day, entirely adequate. I have a lot of love for both Scotty and Lauren; I think they’re a couple of genuinely sweet, lovely kids with a lot of raw, natural talent and big careers ahead of them if they want them. Also, not that it really needs to be said, but even TPTB seem to agree that both of them are so far superior to what’s-his-name-who-won-in-season-9 that he doesn’t even deserve to share a stage with them. However, for me – and this is entirely a matter of personal preference – they were not the reason to watch Idol this season.
One of the great, yet frustrating things about Idol is that people watch for any number of reasons and get behind contestants for any number of reasons, and none of those reasons are more legitimate than any other. Personally, I’m a music kid. I’ve studied a lot of music and listened to a lot of music, and I’ve also watched every episode of American Idol since season 1 (seasons 1-4 after the fact, but still) and sometimes – both with pop music in general and with American Idol – it starts to feel like I’ve seen and heard it all before. Therefore, when I watch Idol, I’m looking to be impressed. I’m not all that impressed with cute or charming. I’m impressed by people who can take a song and break your heart with it; people who take your breath away and make you believe in God through the sheer power of their voice. I’ve seen that on the Idol stage – it’s what keeps me watching after all these years – and I saw it this season, but rarely from either of the final two. So, with that long preamble, I present my favorite performances of Season 10 – the ones that had me crawling with goosebumps, jumping out of my seat and squee-ing aloud at the television:
#7: Kendra Chantelle – Georgia on my Mind
This may seem like an obscure pick, seeing as it was so early in the competition, but this will also be the first of 2 performances in this top 7 that came out of wildcard night. For those who weren’t watching avidly, or at all, this season the judges narrowed it down for us into a top 24, then split them by gender and in one spectacularly dramatic night they took the top 5 vote-getting girls and the top 5 vote-getting boys and put them through, picked 3 boys and 3 girls out of the remaining 14 for a second chance, and then picked 3 out of those 6 to round out the top 13. When those 6 wildcard contenders took the stage, they brought an urgency and a passion that was heartbreakingly beautiful. For the record, if there had been an 8th spot on this list, it would have gone to Naima Adedapo for her wildcard performance of For All We Know. Now, Kendra Chantelle got very little screen time in the early rounds, but what little I saw of her put her on my radar in a major way, and you always know that’s a good sign. Her Blackbird with Paul McDonald in particular was the highlight of Vegas night for me. I must admit, I wasn’t a huge fan of her top 13 performance, but I was still hoping she’d get a chance at the wildcard because I wanted her to have a chance to sing something better and prove how awesome I thought she was. This was the performance I was hoping for. The arrangement and the way she played with the melody – starting low then shooting up to show her considerable range – was gorgeous, and it was just pitch perfect and emotionally stunning and AH! So good! I love the end too, where she just keeps going, and going, and then she’s like “I mean, if you keep playing, I’ll keep going…” The fact that she didn’t get one of the wildcard spots after this performance is totally baffling to me. What were they thinking??
#6: Pia Toscano – Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me
I mean, Pia Toscano, what is there really to say? Going into the top 24, I honestly thought she was fodder. Top 12 girls’ night, when I realized she was closing the show instead of Lauren Alaina, I was shocked, then more shocked when she went all Buffy Summers on Stand by Me. Next week I hear she’s coming out to sing All by Myself, and I’m like “girl, are you crazy?” and then she’s all like “yeah, actually I am a little crazy, crazy awesome at singing.” Pia Toscano’s Idol journey consisted of her taking on every single song in the Idol songbook you’re not supposed to touch and killing them, one by one, dead. Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me is, to me, number one with an astrisk on the list of Idol songs no one should ever sing again. It has been sung exactly TOO MANY times over the 10 year history of Idol, including by notorious Idol runners up Justin Guarini, Clay Aiken, Bo Bice and David Archuleta, so I say, leave well enough alone. But of course, Pia had to leave her mark on it, and I think we can go ahead and say that it was TOTALLY AWESOME. With the direction of Idol shifting toward these more stylized singers and singer-songwriters, it was nice to have a good old fashioned diva up there for a little while to show the rest of the kiddies how the pros do it.
#5: Stefano Langone – I Need You Now
Okay, here’s the other wildcard performance on the list. I’m going to confess something, mostly because I’m pretty sure that if you’re still reading this, that means you’re a little bit crazy: I shed actual tears while watching this episode of American Idol. It was that moving, and yes, I’m a little bit crazy too. But come on, this performance… if you’re not heartbroken, you’re not listening. I could go on about all of the little nuances and everything I love about this, but I think the performance speaks for itself. It’s a shame Stefano never really recaptured the magic of the performance over the course of the season, but I’m excited to see what he comes out with next.
#4: Casey Abrams – Nature Boy
Casey, Casey, Casey. America didn’t seem to know what to do with Casey (hence his being ousted twice in 6 weeks) because he’s so different than anything the show has seen in its 10 year history. On the one hand, he’s got this really keen jazz sensibility that’s so cool in a music nerd-y kind of way. He scats and he infuses the melodies of these well-known songs with jazzy harmonies and he plays the upright bass and the result is much more intellectual and complicated than the average person watching American Idol is probably accustomed to. On the other hand, he’s a guy who doesn’t take himself at all seriously and he wants to be sure you know that at all times. The reality is that if you were to find the cross-section of people who like jazz and people who like Jack Black impersonations, that would be a relatively small group compared to, oh I don’t know let’s say people who like good Christian teenagers who sing country music. I just so happen to be among the tiny cross-section. I love Casey the Jazz Geek and I love Casey the Comedian, and I say, if you’re both funny and great at music, why not do both simultaneously? This performance for me was where he found the perfect balance between humor and musicality and I just loved everything about it.
#3: Jacob Lusk – You’re All I Need to Get By
The first time I saw this performance, I was watching it on my laptop with headphones in while sitting at a table across from a friend. Halfway through the performance, I looked up and saw that he was glancing over and smiling at me quizzically, and it was only then that I noticed that my face had been taken over by the hugest, stupidest grin. In a way, Jacob Lusk this season was the anti-Scotty McCreery. Whereas Scotty never made a misstep, Jacob made a whole lot of them. With Scotty you always knew what you were getting – the same adequate, pleasant country performance – and with Jacob you actually never knew. It could be a hot mess of a vocal and/or a hot mess of an arrangement, or like this performance, it could be absolutely gorgeous. When Jacob was bad, it was bad, but when he was good, he was DAMN good. To me, he is the epitome of a soul singer, because you can just tell watching him that he doesn’t sing because he wants to or because he’s good at it, he sings because his whole being is just consumed constantly by this huge force of musical energy and if he doesn’t let it out he’s going to EXPLODE! Between the energy and the crazy vocals and the tiny suit jacket and the huge grin on his face… this performance just makes me so happy.
#2: Haley Reinhart – House of the Rising Sun
It was hard to pick a favorite among Haley’s performances this season because, let’s be real, Haley had more amazing performances in the last three weeks of her Idol run than any other season 10 contestant had all season. Sure, House of the Rising Sun was a perfect vocal – she found just the right balance of edgy and soft and captured the emotion of the lyric so beautifully, and best of all, it wasn’t horribly overproduced! – but she had so many performances that were perfect. This one was put over the edge for me by its context. You know that old narrative trope where the protagonist knows something and you know they’re right but no one else in their world believes them? And then there’s that moment where everyone else finally catches on, and there’s this great feeling of vindication, and the protagonist who was totally powerless and alone suddenly holds all the cards? Well that was this moment. Haley had been getting inanely criticized by the judges for spot-on performances while every other contestant in the competition was getting over-the-top praise for mediocre and plain old bad performances for weeks, and this week it got to the point where I was actually livid. After THIS, her solid first performance of the night was deemed not as good as THIS, James Durbin’s travesty of a first performance I was about ready to start throwing things. Then she came out for this song with this fire in her eyes, all “Go ahead and tell me I’m not awesome NOW, bitches! Really, I dare you, tell me.” and I just knew it was going to be epic, and it was. That look on her face at the very end after the lights go off just says it all. SHWAAAABAAAAM!
#1: Haley Reinhart and Casey Abrams – Moanin’
Okay, so this is not only by far my favorite moment of the entire season but possibly (check back with me after the dust settles a bit) my favorite Idol moment of all time. Even now, as I watch it for the 40 billionth time, it gives me chills. Casey is just fabulous as ever and so in his element – he even looks so Jazz geek-chic in the suit with the hair! – and their voices blend so perfectly and the harmonies are delicious, but most of all HAAAAALEEEEYY!!! This was the performance where we were first properly introduced to Haley’s unbelievably gorgeous falsetto, and can I tell you about Haley’s unbelievably gorgeous falsetto? It’s the greatest thing ever. I’m pretty sure my idea of heaven is just Haley Reinhart following me around singing in gorgeous falsetto, forever. It’s just, it’s like some kind of sexy clarinet on psychedelic mushrooms, and it makes my SKIN CRAWL. And then she just seamlessly transitions in and out of it from the edgy/growly place, and, just, GAH. PERFECTION. (By the by, for the record, immediately following this performance, Haley was sent into the bottom 3, again. #AmericaIsDumb) This was truly a Masterclass in singing from two of the most compelling reasons to watch Idol this season. I expect great things from both of them in the future!
So there you have it, the best of season 10 of American Idol – a season which can only really be described with two words, and those two words are TOTALLY and AWESOME.