As we inch ever closer to Ryan Seacrest hopping on Simon Fuller’s back and riding off into the sunset taking American Idol with them, something spectacular is about to happen on The Farewell Season.

For the first time in 2016, America’s votes actually matter. And I’m not talking sorting through the trash to choose leftover scraps that join the judges pre-selected caviar in the next round. Viewers will honest-to-goodness decide who stays and who goes based on the previous week. No judge rescues. No Twitter Insta-saves. No final performance to render your votes moot.

Simply put, it’s time for us to screw this thing up on our own.

What It All Means

While my excitement mostly stems from not having to discuss the terrible format, like, ever again, I’m also stoked about what happens moving forward. Because if things played out as expected last week, this result is like trying to find a needle in a giant stack of needles. 

There’s no need to dive into any breakdown of the predictions, because I am fully confident Sonika Vaid is about to call it a day. She has made multiple appearances in the bottom two/three, and she did nothing to help herself with sub-par renditions of “Let It Go” and “Clarity.” 

American Idol Predictions: Who Will Be in the Top 4? >>>

Heck, you may have already voted to send her home at least twice, and a whopping 73 percent of those who answered our poll believe it’s the end of the line for the young lady whose vocal prowess is matched only by her failed alter-egos. 

But then we’ve got our Top 4, and that’s where it gets interesting.

Welcome to Fillerville

Club sandwiched (because there are A LOT of layers) around time-wasting and probably oddly-placed performances from David Cook, Katharine McPhee and Sia, the Top 4 will be tackling the “Chandelier” singer’s songbook and a classic rock tune inspired by other-mentor, Steve Van Zandt, a.k.a Little Steven of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band (and Silvio from The Sopranos). And the pressure could not be more intense.

(On a side note, the legendary guitarist and I apparently share a veterinarian and happened to have pooches in need of medical attention at the same time. I was giddy when the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer walked into the lobby with his signature do-rag and a foo foo pup. My wife, however, had no idea who he was.)

But back to MacKenzie Bourg, La’Porsha Renae, Trent Harmon and Dalton Rapattoni (are you upset you won’t get to hear Sonika sing “Love Me Back to Life” and “Because the Night?”), they are so closely matched that there’s no more skating through a round.

American Idol Recap: America Picks the Songs as 1 is Sent Home >>>

Sure, La’Porsha and Trent are the likely two to square off in the finals, but a poor performance or bad song choice could sink even the heaviest of favorites. Overall talent, marketability, artistry, creativity, originality, potential and likability won’t be enough on their own, as there is no room for error while we size up the total package. 

It doesn’t matter if the singers have ceilings vaulted as high as the Sistine Chapel; If they don’t leave it all on the stage, they will be leaving it. Can I get an “in it to win it,” dawg?

La’Porsha Renae Bats Leadoff

Ryan reminds us that the epic finale is just two weeks away before introducing the judges, each rocking his or her signature style (i.e. suit, T-shirt/leather jacket, dress — I’ll let you figure out who is wearing what). The rock songs are up first, and La’Porsha and her new dreads are kicking things off with the bizarro choice of the night — Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.” 

Scotty Borchetta, fresh off his awful wiseguy impression to Little Steven, is concerned about the pick because he doesn’t see La’Porsha convincing anyone that she’s a cowboy. Van Zandt tells her to go for it.

I’m not sure I really believe J.B.J. as a cowboy either, but this is a straight cover. She sounds great as always, complete with standard overruns, though I’m not sure it’s particularly memorable. The song doesn’t give her much opportunity to show off her strengths, and the arrangement is such that it feels like good karaoke. 

It’s “killer” for Keith, and it’s cool how La’Porsha can bring out the soul and swagger in any song. J-Lo drops the standard “sing the phone book” line, and Harry believes her natural ability allows her to span every genre. He also loved how she slowed down her vibrato. 

I get that she’s the last hope for a female Kelly Clarkson bookend, but just because something is unexpected doesn’t automatically make it good when it’s not bad. Adele could sing the Oompa Loompa song, but that doesn’t mean she should. Actually, that sounds awesome. Now cue the Angry Birds filler!

MacKenzie Bourg Wants You to Want Him

Singing classic rock is out of Big Mack’s wheelhouse, and Little Steven isn’t loving his choice of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me.” He was struggling to find an arrangement that suits his style, and they collaborated to put together something they think he can crush.

It’s a slowed-down acoustic version, and while it fits MacKenzie, I’m not a fan. It’s sleepy and sucks all the life out of one of my favorites. If he’s dumbing it down this much, it needs to be laid bare and reinterpreted to strike a level of desperation that could bring a new perspective.

J-Lo loves the song, but she’s not sure she loves how MacKenzie “MacKenzie’d” this one, because it wasn’t as exciting as she wanted it to be. Harry believes the slowdown ruined the sense of immediacy, and it was just alright because MacKenzie needed the energy underneath him. Keith flat-out hated the arrangement, because it either needs to match the original or be stripped down completely. 

David Cook and Other Random Filler

After weird filler involving a fashion designer creating personas for the Idols’ alter egos, it’s time for previous winner David Cook to take the stage for “Heartbreak” while the screen behind him cycles through former contestants who will be appearing during the finale. 

Remember when they used to save stuff like this for the results show, so as to not confuse voters by mixing professionals into the performances they are voting on? Those times made more sense. But now, try to remember La’Porsha and MacKenzie after listening to this.

David Cook got married last summer, and his bro is next to take the plunge. Then Ryan reveals he’ll be stealing my and my wife’s idea for mixed gender wedding parties when he stands on his sister’s side for her pending nuptials. Well this has been a fun eight or nine minutes, hasn’t it?

Trent Harmon is Sharply Dressed

Trent’s safety means Dalton Rapattoni and Sonika Vaid are in the bottom two, and Little Steven helps him make ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man” entirely his own. And they believe it’ll be something special, but I’m still skeptical.

Right from the get go, it’s definitely nothing like the original. It’s slowed-down, jazzy and loungy version, almost Michael Buble-like, and I’m digging its smoothness. He brings the rock back in about halfway through, and though it’s solid overall, the inconsistency is off-putting. I would have loved to see how it would’ve played out if he’d done the whole thing the way it started. 

Harry was content with the grove in the beginning, but it was a brilliant arrangement because it was like two different songs that both satisfied. “It was so freaking good,” Keith gushes, because this one was a mishmash that showed off all of Trent’s strengths. J-Lo has been waiting for a performance like this one, as it was exactly what everyone wanted. 

God Only Knows Dalton Rapattoni is Safe

Dalton is tackling the Beach Boys, and his safety means, as expected, Sonika Vaid has been eliminated. It’s sad to see her go, but she was never able to evolve as necessary to stick around. She did a great job developing her style, though. A montage of her highlights backed by the Sia song she was set to sing walk her out, and congrats, America. You weren’t wrong.

Back to Dalton, who was initially set on The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” But it didn’t go anywhere and wasn’t working for him, Stevie or Scotty B., so he was forced to go with his backup plan. He saunters out and launches into a heartfelt and humble rendition of “God Only Knows.” It’s not perfect or even strong vocally, but it strikes a chord with goose bump moments and tugs on the heartstrings. It’s bare and doesn’t build to much, while still leaving him wide open. 

I suspect that if you like Dalton, you appreciated the raw emotion in this performance. But if you’re not a fan, you probably view it as disingenuous and self-indulgent with pitch issues.

Keith praises the song choice, and he was impressed by Dalton’s attitude regarding his failed first approach. J-Lo understands what it’s like to have an idea that feels right but doesn’t work, and she appreciates that he listened to the mentors and was able to provide a great moment. For Harry, this was Dalton’s most complex song that perfectly revealed his vulnerability, and it didn’t need to be about the vocals. 

There’s No Place Like Home for Katharine McPhee

After more NASCAR filler, Idol welcomes back season five runner-up and now-TV star Katharine McPhee for a reprisal of her signature moment — Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” 

She’s an experienced professional now, so she knows a thing or two about owning a song like this. And as such, thankfully, I don’t need to dwell on her awful pitch issues. Plus I love her, so that would just be mean. 

Still, her original take on this one was a glimpse at her immense potential and also a maddening reminder of the frustration over her inability to ever match that moment in any other round. So really, we can thank her for Taylor Hicks. 

Now it’s time to kick off the Sia songbook portion of the show, and whoever goes first is at a decided disadvantage, especially with said songbook author still on the set list. 

La’Porsha Renae Goes First

After a trip through Sia’s resume and a group-wide donning of the wigs, La’Porsha gets to work on “Elastic Heart.” In keeping with her gimmick, Sia guides La’Porsha on an emotional journey of preparation without ever showing her face. Her advice to stay true to who you are, and if anyone tells you otherwise, kick them in the teeth.

La’Porsha is going tribal with a pair of giant drums, and then it reverts to a more traditional arrangement. As usual, she sounds amazing, which is expected at this point. It’s not engaging though, and I’m certainly not sucked in or invested. The emotional content has been mostly stripped away, which makes the over-singing and overdone runs all the more apparent.

J-Lo had a flashback to La’Porsha’s first few appearances when she was under the radar, but she’s since ceased judging because La’Porsha is essentially perfect. But all I hear is that she wasn’t captivated enough to avoid having her thoughts wander.

Harry found it beautiful and unexpected, and he feels like he’s in the passenger seat of a NASCAR when La’Porsha is singing (That’ll be $30, racing league). Keith praises her evolution as an artist before she admits they all got to see Sia’s beautiful face.

MacKenzie Bourg is Made of Steel

Big Mack scored “Titanium,” which is completely out of his comfort zone, and Sia pushes him even further. He has an idea in his head, but he can’t match the verse with the chorus. So she urges him to go with a falsetto, a note that he feels could be a make-or-break moment. Her advice to him is to trust himself.

He does what he does to songs, and while the higher part is nice, the rest is a mess of pitch issues and sexy eyes that don’t fit the lyrics. And as soon as he hit the falsetto, he gets this smug smirk of satisfaction that turns me off. #SSOSMacKenzie

Harry’s one word is “nice,” but what annoys him is that this was like an ice skating competition where everyone is waiting for the triple axle. And he’s bothered that MacKenzie made the whole thing about one falsetto note at the expense of the rest. 

Keith appreciates that MacKenzie rode through that moment, and he liked the stripped-down arrangement. J-Lo wants him to go even further out of his comfort zone and wow us with another side that shows off what he’s afraid to do. But really, that’s probably because he can’t do that yet and still sound pleasing.

Sia Splits up Round Two

Now it’s time to put extra emphases on Dalton and Trent by breaking up their performances with a rendition of Sia’s “Cheap Thrills.” She’s solitary on a pedestal with three Sia-wigged interpretive dancers gyrating around the stage. It’s nice and bizarre, and wow does Sia sound spectacular live. 

Still, something is going to have to wake me up at some point. I’m sure that the pimp spot is going to Trent for “Chandelier,” but that’s a long time to wait for a highlight. Speaking of duration, “Cheap Thrills” is a long song. It goes on and on. And on. Or maybe it just feels that way when you’re trying to fill the gaps with words.

A giggly Sia had fun, and she’s apparently picturing everyone in the audience naked. She found the contestants to be sweet and like every other human being in that they’re searching for love and affirmation, which she wanted to supply. 

Trent Harmon Swings from the Chandelier

Wow, and so the pimp spot goes to Dalton! Sia isn’t a huge fan of how Trent is making her favorite song his own, but she doesn’t want to mess too much with his creative expression. She pushes for the high notes, though, and ends up with goose bumps when he complies.

I’m expending a haunting rendition of this song from Trent, and “just fine” won’t be good enough. He needs a moment to avoid being a disappointment, and the opening verse is perfectly subdued building to the chorus. He keeps it restrained until he hits a masterfully placed crescendo, and it’s technically flawless from start to finish. It’s the best of the night by far, but if I’m being nit picky, I would love to have seen a bit more raw power behind the big notes that would’ve elevated it to an even higher level with detracting from the peak moment.

Keith calls it beautiful, and the grandeur of the melody played to his strengths in what was an exquisite performance. J-Lo is amazed that this Trent is entirely different than the guy we saw earlier, and it shows he can morph his persona to fit the genre. It was phenomenal for Harry, who praises the artfulness and technical difficulty that Trent easily handled. From the first note to the last, it was 100 out of 100. 

Dalton Rapattoni Goes to the Birds

I’m surprised that Dalton nabbed the pimp spot, which means they want to keep him out of the bottom two. Sia was inspired by the emotion he put into “Bird Set Free,” and she thinks he can have a moment once he finds the balance between restraint and opening up. They bond over the fact that they’re both bi-polar, and Sia believes he can help a lot of people who are suffering.

It’s not a song I know, though it appears to be one that touches people who do. It’s one of those instances where I find myself watching instead of typing, captivated by the raw anguish on display. 

The first verse could’ve benefited from a bit more restraint, while the chorus and the second verse could have used a little less. But it’s clear that the lyrics hit home for Dalton, as he’s pouring his heart into this one. It’s memorable more for the message and the expression of pain in the lyrics and vocals (thus the line, “I don’t care if I sing off-key”), and it hits on all of those levels. 

J-Lo points out that everyone is cheering him for his bravery, because all anyone wants is that moment where you feel comfortable in your skin. For Harry, the “There’s a scream inside that we all want to hide” line best encapsulates why this was the perfect singer-song pairing in the Sia library. And regardless of how it sounded at home, this was simply something Dalton needed to do. Keith praises him for always pushing through his limitations, and he’d take honesty and emotion over soulless perfection any day. 

Who Helped the Cause?

That’s it for the Top 4 performances, and I think based on a combination of placement and performance, Trent and Dalton sang their way into America’s hearts. And that means a seldom-seen and barely-deserved spot in the bottom two for La’Porsha. 

Luckily for her, I don’t see any way that these weren’t MacKenzie’s final Idol performances. It wasn’t his best, and especially with three guys on the docket, it will be tough for him to steal votes. J-Lo continues urging him out of his comfort zone, but the problem is that he does only one thing very well. 

Still, the Top 4 is nothing to bat your eyelashes at. Much like how the Top 5 is nothing to bat your eyebrows at. 

Who won the night for you, and who is likely on the chopping block? The Idol train is about to pull into the station for the final time, and one of these four will be the final champion, burdened with a legacy the weight of 1,000 Seacrests. Or like 100 normal people. 

So who’s it gonna be?

American Idol airs 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