Right now, “American Idol” feels broken – not smashed beyond repair the way it seemed destined to be after the failed Mariah Carey-Nicki Minaj experiment, but still pretty messed up.
Though the lengthy audition process, which wrapped up last week when they selected the 30 – well, 31 – finalists, was much more streamlined than in the past, they ended up with new problems. There were many singers who had good auditions never to be heard from again (Yahoo! has a running list) and that seems part of the we’ll-try-anything approach that makes the show feel wobbly. Of course, admitting there’s a problem is the first step in fixing it, right?
As “Idol” moves into the live shows tonight, hopefully they can hammer some of these issues out. After all, unlike last season, which still managed to produce a strong winner in Candice Glover, this season is overflowing with talent. The top 15 gals perform tonight and the top 15 guys (whether the 15th guy will be Neco Starr or Ben Briley will be announced tonight) perform Wednesday, with the top vote-getters advancing into the top 13 on Thursday.
Speaking of the judges, this year’s panel also seems to be finding its way. Keith Urban and Jennifer Lopez are knowledgeable and nice, though sometimes a bit too nice, while Harry Connick Jr. works hard to balance out all that niceness with “Harsh Harry” critiques that he feels are more rooted in musicianship. The problem is that Connick still wants to be liked as well as be respected, which is almost impossible to pull off on a show like this. He’d be better off just being honest.
He should also stop telling contestants how hard it is for the judges. As hard as it is for the panel of successful superstars who have seen their dreams come true to decide who moves ahead on the show, it’s way harder for the contestants who are all dreaming of their big break.
Luckily, that dream will come true for at least a few of this year’s “Idol” class. Here’s a look at some of the strongest contenders to reach the top 13:
Malaya Watson, 16, Detroit: She slayed Fantasia’s “I Believe” in her final performance, even after it started off in the wrong key. Steely nerves, bubbly personality and a great voice? That’s going to make her hard to beat.
Marrialle Sellers, 17, Indianapolis, Ind.: Her audition version of Bruno Mars’ “Grenade” was used as an example of how the new season was going to be talent-driven and she hasn’t let up since.
Jena Irene Ascuitto, 17, Farmington Hills, Mich.: Her original song was stunningly good. Her name, BTW, is pronounced Gina even though it’s spelled Jena. Thanks to “Idol,” this is the main thing we know about her.
Majesty Rose, 21, Goldsboro, N.C.: We’ve had plenty of guys-with-guitars champions. Why not a gal-with-guitar? Majesty is reminiscent of the great Valerie June and hopefully that will take her far.
Kenzie Hall, 16, Draper, Utah: She was incredible when she did Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Can’t Hold Us” as an acoustic guitar ballad, complete with rapid-fire rap. She was less incredible in other rounds, but she certainly has a spark.
Sam Woolf, 17, Bradenton, Fla.: His original song “I Try” was wrenchingly good and shows he’s destined to be an artist no matter how the show turns out. His sweet voice and pleasantly low-key manner should serve him well.
Emmanuel Zidor, 24, Atlanta: The Mariah Carey-esque high note at the end of “I’m Goin’ Down” should get him into the top 13 alone. His strong voice and equally strong personality should take him farther.
Alex Preston, 20, Mount Vernon, N.H.: He’s a singer-songwriter at heart, kind of in the Philip Phillips mold, but with more of an adventurous side, transforming will.i.am and Britney Spears’ “Scream and Shout” into an acoustic Dave Matthews song.
Briston Maroney, 15, Knoxville, Tenn.: Kind of emo, kind of cool and oh-so-adorable when he sings Passenger’s “Let Her Go,” he has the chance to be this season’s David Archuleta and connect with the tween voters.
Casey Thrasher, 22, Tuscaloosa, Ala.: There’s a bunch of good country guys in this class, but Thrasher has slightly more polish than Dexter Roberts. The mix of his back story and his voice should take him far.
Who’s your favorite? Let us know in the comments. To paraphrase Ryan Seacrest, our "American Idol" coverage starts now and rolls through the finale.