Traditionally, the Top 24 has marked a period of transition in the American Idol process, when the judges hand off decision-making power to the loyal viewers while also storing an Ace (Young?) or two in their back pockets for when we inevitably screw up.

But not this time. And not anytime soon, either.

Directed Destiny

The Farewell Season is the first with an uneven gender split as there are 13 girls and 11 guys remaining (how much do you really, really want a female champ to bookend Kelly Clarkson?) and America won’t even get to chime in until the Top 10. (Actually, the judges are narrowing the group down to 8, and then America gets to vote for the two singers as wildcards to round out the top 10).

That means we have several weeks left, biding our time while the judges narrow the field from 24 to 19 to 14 to 8, before we finally enter the fray. Nothing is being left to chance, as swaying voters with pimp spot slotting, theme selection and pointed critiques has apparently been deemed insufficient at weeding out the Daniel Seeveys and Tim Urbans of the world.

And while there is a bright side to letting the pros handle the search for one final superstar, it kind of sucks to stick us with the wildcards and ride the Idol train to the scrap heap with a hearty “we don’t trust you with our legacy.”

And a One, and a Two

The first half of the Top 24 will be hitting the stage two times each this week, once by themselves and once with a former American Idol contestant. It is unclear if the paired performances will factor into the judgment, but it would certainly appear an easy way to derail anyone set up to fail (Hey, Dalton, lock them doors and turn the lights down low, because you’re with McCreery. La’Porsha, you get J-Hud). 

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The flip side is that it will expose anyone who can’t match star power, meaning someone like Sonika Vaid — who has struggled to own the moment despite stellar vocals —  has her work cut out for her.

Either way, American Idol is kicking things off by returning to the frantic 12-performance-in-an-hour format that logistically precludes being live. After Ryan Seacrest wastes five minutes of valuable time reminding the Top 24 how important this all is, introducing the judges and explaining how it’s going to work, we’re jumping right into the mix. 

Stephany Negrete Knows Best

She wants to be fluent in four languages (because it’s fun fact time!), and then it’s Jesse J’s “Mamma Knows Best.” She looks amazing, complete with leather-clad air kicks, and she shows off her wide vocal range. The lower-register parts aren’t necessarily pleasing to the eardrums, but overall it’s solid with the look of a star.

Keith thinks it was fantastic, and while she seemed relaxed on stage, he thinks that she could be even looser. Jennifer calls her the full package, but she needs to focus on being connected to what she’s singing about (she has to be more emphatic about what Mamma knows?). Harry agrees, advising her to focus on connecting the dots. 

MacKenzie Bourg Has Something to Say

He does an impression of Sean Paul before taking on “Say Something,” by A Great Big World. It’s been done before and done better, but he puts his own spin on it. The vocals are spot on and uniquely MacKenzie, but he’s smiling and giving the ladies in the audience sexy eyes while singing about giving up on the love of his life. This song is supposed to be laden with desperation, and if anything, he sounds like he’s keeping his options open.

J-Lo praises how natural he sounds, Harry can tell the lyrics are important to him, and Keith “believes it.” No. This song requires goose bumps, and there wasn’t a bump in sight. Even though we can’t vote yet, the judges are already trying to guide us. 

Jeneve Rose Mitchell is STILL Off the Grid

We get it. You have no electricity. And as such, she entertains herself with the 100 or so instruments she plays. Jeneve is singing “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan, and if there’s ever a song that needs to be as emotional as “Say Something,” it’s this one. 

She is accompanying on the harp and speak-singing all the words. Just put her in the musical Once already and get her off my Idol stage. She spends the second half of the song actually singing, and it’s quite nice, even alleviating some of my earlier rage. She found the connection, but it took her awhile to get there.

Harry thinks she did a disservice by adding the harp because he would’ve preferred an emphasis on the lyrics. Keith calls her the “real deal,” and J-Lo claims to not have been sold on her until now. She had “gooses” everywhere and it was beautiful. I don’t buy this as a revelation, but I guess the judges have their biases too.

Jenna Renae Goes Deep South

She easily memorizes song lyrics (we have something in common), and so she came home as a youngster singing “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and “I Wanna Sex You Up” (more in common!). She was home-schooled shortly thereafter (Catholic school for me, but two out of three ain’t bad). 

There is an ease to her rendition of Maren Morris’ “My Church,” and while the talent is evident, I’m not sure it’s the best song to show off her range. It’s just so deep. Still, she hits some big notes that garner a goose bump or two (but not many), and she’s clearly having fun.

Keith has a good handle on her personality, and while this was a good song choice, he’s curious to hear her other sides because it’s been a lot of yin and yin. Jenny believes she was in her element, and she got a sense of joy from Jenna that she hasn’t seen before. Harry praises her energy and enthusiasm, but he thinks she toed the fine line between the two and sacrificed pitch as a result. Then he patronizes the booing audience about who the so-called “experts” are. 

James VIII is Too Cold, Too Cold

He was ready to quit the Boy Scouts when his parents promised his first professional-level guitar if he earned Eagle Scout, and it was the best decision he ever made. He puts a laid-back spin on Kanye’s “Love Lockdown,” and it’s decent but sounds like a talent show. I might be more into it if it didn’t seem like the judges and the audience were bored to sleep. His sister and his mom seem to be wildly entertained, but it’s mostly forgettable because it doesn’t go anywhere. 

J-Lo found the song choice and arrangement interesting, but it stayed too even to grab anyone. Harry enjoyed it, but it was super easy and never got complex. Keith warns him not to confuse being indulgent with being chill. This was cool but not compelling, and you have to kill every time because you aren’t guaranteed another chance.

Sonika Vaid … What a Hitter

Sonika loves the look and smell of sheet music, but she doesn’t use it when she plays the piano. She’s singing “Safe & Sound” by Taylor Swift, and that’s exactly what this is — safe and sound. She looks glamorous in a long gown, but it’s the same old, same old. She’s spot on vocally, but she’s missing “it.” She’s basically the Marla Hooch of American Idol right now. 

Get on her stage with someone who can command it, and see how she does. That’s the make-or-break for her.

Harry found it to be one of the more emotional performances thus far, but he urges her to put more emphasis on enunciation to play up the feelings. Keith and J-Lo both praise her vocal prowess, but Jenny wants her to choose songs that make her heart sing instead of what she feels fits her voice.

Gianna Isabella Casts a Spell … As Long as Your Eyes are Closed

Brenda K. Starr’s daughter loves books, and she’s grown up from the fairy tales her grandparents used to read to her and moved on to horror novels. She’s singing “I Put a Spell on You” by Annie Lennox, and I’m glad she’s not trying to imitate mom again. 

She looks nervous and her movements are unnatural, but it’s her strongest vocal thus far. So, it’s spectacular if you’re not watching as the body language doesn’t match the shade she’s trying to throw. It’s the most potential she’s exhibited, yet she has to harness the attitude. 

Her voice is undeniable and there were moments when she owned the stage, Keith says, but it was inconsistent. J-Lo believes she has the most privileged voice in the competition, and while Harry praises her for hitting the right notes in the right places, her challenge is to do a better job locating the meat. Not on Ash Wednesday, buddy.

An Emily Brooke Stunner

Her autograph-covered guitar is her prized possession, and she’s singing Cassadee Pope’s “I Am Invincible.” It starts rough, and it doesn’t get better. She’s off key and doesn’t mesh with the background singers or the music, and for someone so reliant on rampant country twang, there’s none of it here. It’s just … it’s just not good. Ouch. It’s especially shocking because she was one of the early favorites.

Jennifer is an Emily fan, but the song was too low and didn’t show off the more beautiful parts of her voice. Harry needed her to sell the lyrics more, and he’s never seen her struggle with pitch like this before. Keith doesn’t believe that she played to her strengths, but he appreciates that she’s exploring. 

Where is Simon when you need him? I’m all for being sensitive, but this was just bad. And the judges hid that because she’s been so consistent in the past. 

Avalon Young Won’t Play Dress Up

Avalon doesn’t wear makeup, loves her Cosby sweaters and gets around on a skateboard, because that’s where her confidence comes from. She’s taking on Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself,” in a hoodie, sitting on the edge of the stage. I’m bobbing my head, and I hate that I now love two of the Biebs’ songs. Her talent speaks, and I love it, but I worry that the judges will think she’s not trying.

Harry believes that Avalon is the most in tune with who she is in the moment, and this was strong and terrific. Keith urges her to take charge and not be afraid to direct the band with confidence, and J-Lo loves her control over the audience and praises her smart and current song choice.

Jordan Sasser is All By Himself

He’s apparently the biggest turtle lover on the planet (I have an aunt who would beg to differ), and I have to roll my eyes at his selecting Celine Dion’s “All By Myself.” I get that he loves Celine, but he isn’t Celine. 

There’s not much of an emotional connection, though he’s clearly trying to match the depth of her voice. The difference is that she does it with ease, while he struggles to hit the giant notes. He’s right down there with Emily Brooke on a terrible chorus, and I can’t believe we lost Kacye for this. The final note is decent, though, and at least he got rid of that tiny stupid pony tail. 

Keith calls it overly theatrical and lacking emotion, while J-Lo wanted her heart broken, but alas, it is still beating. Harry doesn’t like how show-offy it was, and he wants a song simply sung instead of trying to cram too much into it.

Thomas Stringfellow is a Creep

The recently-dumped aptly-named musician is very good at speaking pig Latin, but will his rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep” live up to past performances? I’m immediately put off by the fact that wearing a flannel shirt and a cowboy hat, but there’s a fair amount of artistry in what he’s doing. Still, it’s another one that’s been done and been done better. Jena Irene was haunting, but there’s nary a ghost for Mr. Stringfellow.

J-Lo loves what he does and appreciates that he’s pushing the envelope with his vocal range. Harry praises his intonation and calls it a tremendous performance, while Keith believes Tommy is at his best when he goes for complete abandonment. 

But he’s no Jena Irene. 

La’Porsha Renae Makes Mary Proud

Proving the pimp spot still means something, the best of the bunch is closing out the show. When she wants to feel something, she skips pop, R&B and hip hop and goes straight to the film scores. The Karate Kid soundtrack (she stresses she’s referring to the Jaden Smith version, so no Peter Cetera up in here) makes her feel like life is a movie. Pat Morita just rolled over in his grave. 

La’Porsha is singing Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary,” and of course she is, because it’s the world’s most perfect song choice for her. Naturally, she slays it, and it’s just too easy. It’s as if she and Tina live in a house made entirely of wheels. 

Harry says one of two things will now happen. Either La’Porsha will make others get better, or she’ll make them want to quit. It was captivating and smart, and he refuses to critique it in any way. Keith, who gave her a standing ovation, warns her about being conscious of what she’s good at, because then she’ll be aware of it. As of now, she remains a portal for the gift. O..kay. J-Lo calls her a joy to listen to, and she dreams about voices like that.  

On to the Duets

If this was the only performance we were basing eliminations on, Emily Brooke, Jordan Sasser and James VIII would definitely be out. And then you could take your pick of anyone not named La’Porsha. 

She was the only true standout, though I liked what I saw from Gianna Isabella and Avalon Young in particular. If I had to choose two others to go, it’d be Jeneve Rose Mitchell and probably Tommy Stringfellow. But thankfully, we have another performance to go before the ax falls.

Who were your favorites, and who came up short? Were you surprised as how far Emily Brooke fell after being brilliant, and will that be enough to save her? Blending in is better than standing out for the wrong reasons, and the pressure is on to prove you deserve the spotlight. Now, we’ll see if they can share it and still stand out.

American Idol airs on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8pm on FOX.

(Image courtesy of FOX)

Bill King

Contributing Writer, BuddyTV

Emmy-winning news producer & former BuddyTV blogger. Lover of Philly sports, Ned, Zoe, Liam and Delaine…not in that order