Welcome back to the rapid-fire portion of American Idol: The Farewell Season, with the second half of the Top 24 set to hit the stage for 12 solo semifinal performances crammed into 60 frantic minutes (like 42 if you count commercials).

The first half of our Top 14 have been chosen by the judges after a few noteworthy performances, and whether you love or hate the new “America the Moot-iful” format, they mostly got it right. James VIII and Jordan Sasser barely belonged to make it to the showcase, Emily Brooke crapped the bed once she got in the spotlight, and Jenna Renae failed to stand out in any meaningful way.

Judging the Judges

I would have preferred Stephany Negrete (and possibly Jenna) over any of Thomas Stringfellow, Jeneve Rose Mitchell and Gianna Isabella, but considering five gals and only two guys advanced, Tommy was needed simply for Title IX purposes.

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One of those guys, MacKenzie Bourg, perfectly captured everything that was wrong with last week, encapsulating why there were few, if any, real “moments.” His solo — A Great Big World’s “Say Something” — was spot-on vocally, but it failed to make the easy connection on such an emotional song. Like I said last week, he was making googly eyes at the ladies in the audience, seemingly a bit too excited to finally be “giving up on you.” 

Then his duet — “I Hope You Dance” with a googly-eyed Lauren Alaina — was so far out of his comfort zone that he barely bothered to try. I danced to that song with my mom at my wedding four months ago, so it’s tough to make me not feel something during any rendition of it. 

Rising to the Challenge

The clear highlights — La’Porsha Renae’s wheelhouse solo, Sonika Vaid and Caleb Johnson’s duet, and Avalon Young’s team-up with the velvet teddy bear — were few and far between because 1. The kids haven’t figured out how to match vocals with body language that fits the tone, and 2. Most of the ex-Idol pairings were doomed to fail from the start.

If you want to judge the contestants based on those performances, as a sign of how they’d be as professionals, then MacKenzie deserved to be eliminated for sure. But he wasn’t (and I don’t think he should have been), but then perhaps America would’ve given Emily Brooke another shot as well. 

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Hopefully, this batch of singers — with favorites like Olivia Rox, Dalton Rapattoni, CJ Johnson and Shelbie Z — has its shit together. 

Shelbie Z. Kicks it Down a Notch

After Ryan Seacrest welcomes us back to the shoe box that is the Vibiana (it reminds me how tiny the Saturday Night Live set is), it’s time to learn that Shelbie Z. is a rebel who likes shooting guns, riding ATV and mud bogging, whatever the hell that is. But she hates wet paper. And it’s a surprise that she’s going first. 

She’s singing Gretchen Wilson’s “Work Hard, Play Harder,” and it’s underwhelming, especially considering what we’ve come to expect from her. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just not good. There are a few pitchy spots, and even a big final note can’t compensate for a lack of wow factor.

Keith believes she kept the key down to set up the last note, essentially sacrificing the song to end big. J-Lo knows she has amazing vocals that she didn’t show off this time, while Harry thinks it was solid but isn’t sure how well she’ll stack up against the competition. 

Manny Being Manny

Manny Torres is a pastor’s kid who was thrown up on the alter a lot, and that’s where he gets confidence to perform in front of an audience.

He hasn’t been my cup of tea thus far, and his rendition of Coldplay’s “Adventure of a Lifetime” doesn’t change anything. He’s like a karaoke version of Adam Levine crossed with Jack Johnson, and while he definitely has a stage presence to him, this one isn’t even audibly pleasing. There are several rough spots, but Manny does what Manny does, and his personality is on display even if his lyrical gifts are not.

Jenny loves his voice, but he failed to make a connection with the audience. For a tune like this, she wants to be sung to, and he was moving all over the place. Harry calls it piecemeal and stresses emphasis on the lyrics, but he liked it overall. Keith feels the song suited his spirit but not his voice.

Kory Wheeler Be’s Himself

Kory’s journey was cut short in Hollywood last week, and his secret talent is playing multiple instruments at the same time. 

He’s at the piano singing James Bay’s “Let it Go,” and while it’s not mind-blowing, it delivers a goose bump or two. He’s trying to connect emotionally with the lyrics and it comes across as genuine. I just don’t think his voice is great enough to achieve a moment with it.

Harry think it was decent, but not particularly special or moving. Jenny believes it is the most comfortable he has looked so far, and it’s poignant that he was singing, “I’ll be me.” Keith likes his mix of confidence and vulnerability, and this is the perfect song choice to show that off. 

Amelia Eisenhauer Wakes Up

When she was younger, Amelia Eisenhauer  would get upset over a bad performance, so her parents made a rule that once she was in the car, any words were allowed without punishment. And none of what followed is repeatable. 

She’s doing Avicii’s “Wake Me Up,” and the intro is her own original take which is quite good. Then, she transitions to the more traditional arrangement, and it’s rough and seems to knock her off her game. I can’t tell if she forgot some lyrics, but she looks uncomfortable. It’s a mixed bag, because that first part was so good. But she didn’t know she was lost … on stage. 

Keith appreciates that she’s trying new things, but it wasn’t the perfect song even though the audience was into it. J-Lo agrees it was the wrong choice, but Amelia is special. Harry urges her to find songs that are a bit quirkier, because that fits her personality. 

Jenn Blosil is Sorry

Drew Barrymore-on-Ambien doesn’t drink or do drugs, but she does love to dance like a hippie weirdo.

It’s a barely-coherent version of Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” with her own unique arrangement on the piano. The verse is indiscernible, but the chorus is completely goose bump-inducing with one perfect note that gets the audience on its collective feet. It and she remain as memorable as can be, even if this one had highs and gobbledygook lows. 

Harry calls her a breath of fresh air, but that note that garnered applause was the only time she was in key the entire time. It was not good for him. Keith commends her originality, and that one moment compassed what she was trying to convey by doing the song. Jennifer believes the arrangement was risky and rough in the beginning, but once she got to where she wanted to be, it was great.

CJ Johnson is Love Suicide

I’m confused why we call him “CJ Johnson” when the J stands for Johnson, but he’s been pounding the pavement for years and has excelled due to his maturity and experience. He also made friends at high school parties by playing the guitar behind his head.

He’s tackling Edwin McCain’s “I’ll Be,” which is one of my favorites, and he’s ditching the guitar to, I guess, facilitate movement? It’s a mistake though because he’s just wandering around the stage like a lost puppy. It sounds great save a few rough notes, but I’m preoccupied with his ambling. And that’s the bad kind of bling that is much less flashy as a result. (Anyone else getting a poor man’s Gokey vibe?)

From the first note, it was the perfect song in the perfect key with the perfect range for Keith. Jennifer feels like he was singing to her and everyone in the audience. Harry believes he sang it well, but it would’ve been even more powerful if CJ was in tune.

Lee Jean is a Mimic 

He’s the 16-year-old heartthrob-to-be with a tendency to scream sing all over the place, and he loves the order and discipline of origami. 

He’s doing Ed Sheeran’s “Runaway,” and for the most part, it’s a more controlled version of Lee than we’ve seen. But at its core, it’s basically a copy of Ed Sheeran. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s definitely not original. He has all the raw talent in the world, but there’s nothing memorable about it. Still, it’s better to blend into the middle than stand out for the wrong reason. 

Keith believes it when Lee tells a story, but this was yet another bad choice. Jennifer loves his sound and rhythm, but she doesn’t understand why no one is picking big hits to encourage the audience to sing along. Harry points out that when Lee starts singing, he stops playing the guitar, and that’s something to practice. It’s one of the better performances of the night, he says, but only based on the competition. 

Who is Trent Harmon Listening to?

Trent loves hats, and everyone needs a red one and one with a feather. But his go-to is one from his grandpa. 

It’s “What are You Listening To?” by Chris Stapleton, yet another obscure choice. I’m not sure what he’s doing on the runs, and I can’t even figure out a way to describe it. You know how when your teeth chatter, it’s a consistent and fast clack-clack-clack-clack? That’s what each reverberation of his run sounds like, and collectively it’s almost epileptic. But the rest of it is absolutely spectacular, and he makes a soulful connection to the lyrics with his tone and body language. So great job … but what’s the deal with those runs?

When Trent sings, it gets to Jenny’s heart, and she loves him. Harry calls Trent one of the most gifted vocalists in the contest, but this one didn’t leave him on the edge of his seat as he’s accustomed. Keith, however, feels it was a tremendous choice and that Trent just made everyone realize that this is actually a good song. 

Tristan McIntosh is a Good Girl

The daughter of Major Mom knows the alphabet forwards and backwards, literally. And she’s bets that she’s the fastest in the state, which will help out if she ever gets pulled over by a cop. 

She’s tackling a big song with Carrie Underwood‘s “Good Girl,” and the selection has me worried. It’s solid overall, with some definite highs and lows, and it’s the first time she’s ever shown off any real power in her voice. Good moments aside, it’s probably too big for her. And she’s no Carrie, at least not yet.

J-Lo felt it picked up steam at the end after Tristan spent the first half thinking too much. Harry heard her sing loud for the first time, but the bad news is that everyone has been just okay so far, and she’s no different because she’d never sing that during the finale. Keith praises her look and talent, but this wasn’t the right song.

Adam Lasher Gives it Another Shot

Adam, a.k.a. Carlos Santana’s nephew, is another returning contestant looking to make his mark, and he hopes a nifty haircut will be the difference. His hobby is collecting strange and random instruments.

He’s singing Sam Sparro’s “Black and Gold,” which no one in the history of time has listed as a favorite song in his or her yearbook. He’s rocking gold sneakers and is giving off a definite John Mayer vibe, but while he seemingly sounds great and has good energy, I started browsing the internet like 15 seconds in (I was trying to find a synonym for “wander.” I went with “amble”). My point is that I have nothing bad to say, but it certainly didn’t captivate me.

Harry loves the choice, but it’s a shuffle, and it’s Adam’s job to set the groove. He was like a buoy on the ocean, and regardless of how it sounded, Harry can’t get past the wishy-washy performance. Let that sink in, because I understand very little of it. 

Keith is baffled at song choice, because everyone here can do something that no one else can, and it’s their job to find a song that shows that ability off. J-Lo feels it could have been better, because she couldn’t get into the melody or hop on for the ride.

Dalton Rapattoni is a Rebel who Yells

So far, he’s tackled ‘NSYNC, Olivia Newton John and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and he’s made them all his bitch own. His secret talent is that he can control the movement of his eyes independently of each other, which has not helped him get girls. Ya hem. 

This time, it’s Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell,” and his beach bum Adam Lambert style actually resembles the 80s rock icon. He continues to be the most original and creative singer we’ve got, and he actually performs his unique take on the song. He’s got the judges singing along, and dude’s voice is top notch. He’s my favorite guy in the competition, and he comes off as nice and humble, as well.

J-Lo screeches a lot of praise, and all she cares about is that this made her feel something. He’s pretty as can be, and he’s all about heart and performance, performance, performance. Harry calls it “absolutely phenomenal” with great interpretation of the lyrics, and Keith applauds Dalton for never disappointing, putting his own adult spin on everything and having his own genre. 

Olivia Rox Gets the Pretty Pimp Spot

Closing out the show is Olivia Rox, my pick for best audition and the lady to my Dalton. When she was 7, she knew all the Aretha Franklin songs. And one time she had the opportunity to sing to the legend, and I believe the point of the story is that she accidentally sang a different artist by mistake. Not positive on that, though.

She starts off Demi Lovato’s “Confident” on the guitar, which she drops halfway through to move awkwardly around. Her voice is straight up powerful, even if she’s not quite ready to own the stage in a comfortable way. She nails practically every note in what nearly matches Dalton for the best of the night, and I see her developing into a Hayley Williams if she can match her temperament with her vocal prowess. 

Harry calls it a strong performance, with his only nitpicking critique being to make rhythm paramount (or Paramore???). Keith, who gave her a standing ovation, says the shows starts right now (even though it actually ends right now). It was so good, and as for her tone, well, she’s a lucky girl. J-lo loved it too, but her advice is to find her inner rock chick to match her voice. Which is exactly what I was trying to say, but with better words my integrity wouldn’t let me steal.

12 Down, 12 to Go

That’s it for the solo round, with Dalton Rapattoni and Olivia Rox head and shoulders above the pack. It makes me feel smart for picking them as my favorites weeks ago, and I think they may be the pair to beat at this juncture. 

That could all change of course, and we still have duets with Constantine Maroulis, Chris Daughtry, Kellie Pickler, Jordin Sparks, David Cook and Haley Reinhart before we figure out who stays and who goes. 

Who were your favorites, and who came up short for you? Based just on the solos, which five do you predict are on the way out? And can they save themselves with a solid pairing? Thankfully, we’ll have a whole extra hour for the exact same number of performances.

American Idol airs 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