Stevie Wonder's last album was released almost seven years ago and the one before that 17 years ago. While Mr. Wonder will no doubt be an inspiration to generations of artists to come, it should be the artists who are genuinely inspired by Stevie Wonder who choose to interpret his music. Instead, American Idol forces its contestants to pay tribute to an artist who may or may not have had any relevance to who they are as artists today and in doing so, American Idol also forces its viewers to listen to music that was at its height over three decades ago.
While a tribute to the late Whitney Houston was timely, it was certainly odd that the boys were given Stevie Wonder songs while the girls got to perform music that is not only more current but has been rejuvenated by Houston's recent passing. Perhaps that was the reasoning behind the decision to divide the contestants by gender Wednesday night; something that is usually abandoned after the semi-finals. If American Idol knew that the guys would be at a deficit with Stevie Wonder's songbook, why subject them (or the viewers) to that? Would it not have been significantly more interesting to hear male interpretations of Houston's music?
I'm just keeping it real, as Randy Jackson says.
With that being said, it is hard to pretend that there wasn't already a significant bias towards the girls going into Wednesday night's show since there was little interest in hearing the male performances . . . yes, even Phil Phillips's (a noted favorite of mine). Surprisingly, some of the boys "worked it out" and didn't make viewers feel like they should be donning polyester leisure suits.
Joshua Ledet: Joshua sang, "I Wish," and admitted early on that he was completely out of his comfort zone. Jimmy Iovine and Mary J. Blige felt that if Joshua could let go he could do well. The judges gave Joshua plenty of positive feedback; Randy claiming that Joshua "blew it out," but Josh's performance was one of the most dated of the evening and the orchestra of horns certainly didn't help. C
Jermaine Jones: Jermaine brought his deep voice to "Knocks Me Off My Feet," and somehow Stevie Wonder suited the 25-year-old, self-proclaimed Mama's boy; one could almost imagine a pre-pubescent Jermaine performing Stevie for his mother in their living room. And while the genre suited Jermaine (certainly far better than his 1980's Michael Jackson inspired jacket paired with a pink polo shirt and red high tops) it doesn't necessarily equate to a riveting or memorable performance. C
Colton Dixon: Colton's performance of "Lately," was like a ray of hope shining into the dingy, stagnant recesses of Nigel Lythgoe's most recent American Idol failure. After Colton gave Jimmy and Mary context by playing an original song, they advised Colton to rely on his vulnerability. Somehow Colton managed to make the song sound not only believable but even current. It wasn't a flawless performance vocally, but who really cares when there is that much emotion behind it? B+
Deandre Brackensick: Mary J. Blige tried to convince Deandre Brackensick to be "less pretty" while performing "Master Blaster," and Jimmy said he'd have to do more than swing his hair around. Essentially they were telling Deandre to not be . . . well, Deandre. The judges, who have continued to baffle with their enthusiasm over Deandre, were true to form on Wednesday. Still, it wasn't the worst performance of the night, the Jamaican-flair helped earn him the plus. C+
Heejun Han: Heejun had to be the surprise performance of the night. Not only did he manage to win over Jimmy, who had some pretty harsh words toward Heejun last week, but for the first time his singing outshone his own comedy. Heejun sang, "All in Love is Fair," and though it wasn't particularly modern, beautiful, emotional vocals are timeless. B
Jeremy Rosado: Jeremy was intent on proving that he deserved the wild card save and chose to sing, "Rhythym in the Sky." What resulted was a completely forgettable performance that may have convinced many people that America got it right by not voting him in to the top 10. Only Randy was keeping it real, saying that Jeremy needed more swag (swag would have been nice but I would have settled for a pulse.) C
Phillip Phillips: With such a unique, indie sound the chances of Phil pulling off a Stevie Wonder song weren't great. Colton's performance gave those of us who were tormented by anxiety for Phil throughout the entire episode, a glimpse of possibilities. If Colton could make Stevie sound current maybe Phillip could make Stevie sound edgy and alternative? Phil's decision to sing "Superstition" was perhaps the only feasible decision he could make since it might just be the one Stevie song he could succeed with. Often, artists are encouraged to connect to their audience but when Phil Phillips performs he gets lost in the music so completely, it seems as if he forgets the audience is even there. It is that inaccessibility that makes him enigmatic and fascinating to watch. B+
Elise Testone: Poor Elise. Though one of the best vocalists on the show, she was completely out of sorts with her song choice. Elise originally chose, "The Greatest Love of All," but Jimmy and Mary pushed her to do "I'm Your Baby Tonight," instead. While the song certainly suited her better than the first, Elise seemed dejected and frustrated by having to perform a song she wasn't familiar with. That frustration continued into her live performance. The judges even commented that they felt like she was boxing with the song. C
Erika van Pelt: Erika, a wild card save, is proof that sometimes the judges get it right. She chose, "I Believe in You and Me," and was encouraged by Jimmy and Mary to really make the song her own. Her "meat and potatoes" voice, as Mary J. Blige termed it, was satisfying and as she reached the latter part of her song, she really added her own flavor. Jennifer claimed she had "goosies" even before Erika sang - she was that good. B
Shannon Magrane: Though there was a moment in rehearsals when something clicked and Shannon hit some impressive notes while singing, "I Have Nothing," in her live performance, the only thing clicking was sound of the audience's tongues as they shook their heads in pity. Even the judges had to admit that Shannon's performance was not good. (Steven Tyler said she "crashed and burned," which is a far cry from his standard "beautiful.") Afterwards, Shannon tried to convince America that she could really sing that song but the harder she tried to convince us, the less credible she seemed. C
Skylar Lane: Skylar managed to give Mary J. Blige "goosies" after heeding her advice to keep it softer while singing, "Where Do Broken Hearts Go." On stage, Skylar played it soft but still managed to exhibit the same drive that made her stand out in last week's performances. Though Jennifer complained about it sounding a bit nasally early on, Skylar took a Whitney Houston song and dressed it up in country clothes and it worked. She could go far this season. B+
Hollie Cavanagh: Hollie selected Houston's, "All the Man that I Need," because she felt as though it had a lot of emotion. Hollie's voice may be tailor made for emotional songs but there are variations of emotion and this particular song, though she sang it beautifully, was not believable coming from Hollie. The judges think that Hollie might make it to the end, which is hard to disagree with when she sings like this and picks such great outfits! B+
Jessica Sanchez: And then there was Jessica who sang Whitney's defining song, "I Will Always Love You." Even if Jessica didn't choose this song herself, chances are the producers would have forced it on her since someone needed to sing it and only Jessica could pull it off. Jessica is a vocal powerhouse with a breathtakingly beautiful voice; the judges were enraptured and covered in goosies as they gave a standing ovation, the audience collectively wept over the blessing that is her voice, and American Idol critics everywhere put Jessica's name in their headline, knowing it would optimize their web traffic. But before we announce the winner in Week One, it must be said that the arrangement was rushed and didn't allow the song to build to its natural crescendo. Had the timing of the arrangement been better, she may have had a truly genuine moment - not just a moment that the producers convinced viewers she would have. A-
On Thursday, Idol will announce the boy and girl who earned the least amount of votes and the judges will have final say over who goes and who stays. Chances are that the bottom two will be Elise Testone and Jeremy Rosado, with the judges electing to send Elise home (which, by the way, would be the wrong choice but divination is the master of these predictions, not justice.)
Check back on Friday to learn who made it to the American Idol Top 12.