The judges welcome 17 of the Top 30 in a great big ballroom; M.K. Nobilette says she's 'very obviously gay'

By Annie Barrett
Updated February 13, 2014 at 08:49 AM EST
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Are you sick? Well, SHUT UP! This is Hollywood; sleeping is illegal. Harry Connick Jr.’s show-opening rant about contestants who lead with how off-kilter and sleep-deprived they feel was a full throttle of fresh air on American Idol. “Don’t tell us how to feel for you ever, for the rest of your performing careers!” Yes. Exactly.

I love how he rapid-cycled from fan (“I’m sorry if you’re not feeling well — I paid to see your show!”) to accomplished star — “This is show business! We don’t care. I don’t care. Just suck it up; it’s entertainment.” I was so tickled I had to rewind it twice. Harry doesn’t care. Never forget.

Seventeen of the Top 30 were announced tonight, but it’s just a partial reveal — we’ll learn the rest during Thursday’s final Hollywood Week hour. Here’s who’s through!

WOMEN

Andrina Brogden

Bria Anai

Emily Piriz

Jessica Meuse

Jillian Jensen

Kristen O’Connor

M.K. Nobilette

Malaya Watson

MEN

Alex Preston

Dexter Roberts

Emmanuel Zidor

George Lovett

Jordan Brisbane

Malcolm Allen

Maurice Townsend

Sam Woolf

Spencer Lloyd

Noteworthy: The elevator incorporated into tonight’s terror-trap was MUCH more effective as a dramatic motif than the freaking chamber — excuse me, The Chamber — used during auditions. Turns out all the chamber needed were some up and down buttons. And much more at stake. And a glamorous ballroom.

A tale as old as time: Beauty and the Beasts

Emily Piriz was the standout of the night for me. The Allison Williams lookalike with a certain je ne sais quoi (update: they’ve cracked the code and she’s Cuban) totally soared on Grace Potter’s “Stars” and looked “absolutely gorgeous” to boot, said Harry. I think this was the most uninterrupted Solo Night footage we saw on anyone, so in this way Emily was reminiscent of Angie Miller last season. Will everything else she does be measured up to Solo Night? Who cares? I’m down to hear her sing no matter what.

I love when Keith Urban perks up during certain performances: “Hello!” That’s how you know you need to rewind and really really listen. Because a few verses later, Keith will execute a five-layer yelp of ecstasy that you also do not want to miss.

Spencer Lloyd mostly seems pretty. He took a risk with an original for his solo, but only in theory because the performance itself seemed very, very safe.

As a reward for doing so well in Hollywood Week, Spencer gets the Guy We’re Supposed to Think is the Murderer on Dateline edit — and right after he’s shown singing the line “What you feel is what you are, and what you are is beautiful,” to boot.

The contrast is delicious. Is he a dark force or a beautiful spirit? Only time and Twitter will tell.

NEXT PAGE: Why Jillian Jensen over Keri Lynn Roche? Jillian Jensen (pictured above) sure is the star of her very own soap opera, huh? Yikes. She can definitely sing and convey emotion, but she also strikes me as a tragic Kristen Wiig character who just had a makeover that didn’t quite work. Her energy is very serious and intense; I’m exhausted even remembering it. Also, when she was “hugging” Harry and Seacrest, she lingered on their shoulders a bit as if attempting to channel a connection on some sort of deeper level — innocent enough, but it almost seemed like they were going to make out for a second. Obviously this is absurd. I just wanted it to stop.

Madelyn Patterson was a VERY mature 15-year-old in handling her cut. Everyone got a big hug from her. She’ll be back. More cuts: Michael Simeon, Lebryant Crew, Sabrina Lentini (the one who looks like Emily from Revenge). “If anything, this no makes me want it even more,” Sabrina gushed as I welled up with tears, because YES, that is how you make an exit, and that is how you deal with rejection. I need to keep a better record of inspiring rejection quotes from reality TV contestants (Dancing With the Stars excluded, obviously, because who cares if you can’t dance) and refer to it during times of strife.

George Lovett picked a great song in Jason Mraz’ “I Won’t Give Up” — tons of room to show off his vocal range. He got so physically invested in the performance, he threatened to fling his sweatshirt from his balled-up fist into the crowd on every note. Thrilling! Standing O from Keith and J. Lo; requisite reaction from Harry.

This is season 13 in a nutshell. Why should he stand, really? Why should he even maintain eye contact? Harry Connick Jr. will internalize your performance on HIS terms. Don’t like it? “I don’t care.”

Cut: Connor Zwetsch, whose original reminded Harry, then Keith, of “Sweet Home Alabama.” D’oh!

Keith immediately hung his head in disgrace after Sam Woolf announced he’d be singing an original — but it was a good one, about his mom who’d moved away. Emotional yet subtle. And that face! And those green eyes! As Keith Urban might say…. “Hello.”

Keith lets down an unnamed girl I have never seen before in my life, and then another, with this fun metaphor about not giving up. “Talent is very much like running water — when it hits something, it just goes around it.” Very profound, especially in this internet age. Always be streaming. I get it.

Keri Lynn Roche was brutally cut following a very soulful solo performance of “I’d Rather Go Blind” that left her sprawled out on the floor grasping at this opportunity for dear life. Why would they cut her? That’s crazy. She was one of the most dynamic onstage we saw all night, and she got the “I think I’ll get a spot” edit to boot, you know, where they try to make someone appear over-confident so you sort of root against her? Ugh, I hate that. You’re damned if you act hopeful and damned if you don’t. And suddenly, within two seconds of footage, you can go from this….

to this:

This is gut-wrenching! I must admit I am enjoying the drama!

NEXT PAGE: Malaya’s got the runs Malaya Watson may need to let go of the “resident tuba player” shtick pretty soon, but only because she has so many other things going for her aside from the nerd squad backstory. Like silly dance moves, for one. Let’s all do “the cat burglar” in our desk chairs right now. Okay, I’m done. Good workout today. Anyway, what Ryan called “a rocky start” during Solo Night looked like a full-on nightmare to me — Malaya and the band were singing/playing in different keys. I still can’t believe this ever happens! Wouldn’t you have to adjust your voice and sing up or down to the band? Or would it compromise everything because you have to sing in exactly your chosen key? Anyway, she miraculously worked it out and even walked the plank out to the judges during Fantasia’s “I Believe,” teetering in those dangerous red heels. Worth it! Way too many runs on that last line, but hey, whatever, girl’s covering the inventor of runs so she can do whatever she wants. (I am just kidding! I know Mariah Carey invented runs.)

Maurice Townsend is a tricky one. He’s good at singing; no one can dispute that. “He’s smart, he’s smart,” mused Harry after recognizing “Wrecking Ball” during Maurice’s big solo. But is he memorable beyond that great big family of his? I never got excited during this performance. The judges could only remark on his singing, and in the ballroom of doom, Keith mentioned “that unidentifiable thing you’ve just got to have” in addition to being a good singer… but apparently they believe Maurice can acquire it, because he’s through! It’s almost like his segment was edited specifically to make us doubt him. Cannon fodder, I guess. However, if Harry thinks Maurice is a “badass” then I have to believe him. I do want him to kick it up a notch. I must be dazzled.

Bria Anai Johnson thoroughly charmed me with her goofy “speed walk” down the gilded ballroom mile, but even more important, she slayed her solo on “It’s a Man’s World,” creating her own sense of rhythm and tonal emphasis within a well-covered song. Crazy-high energy in a good way from Lipstick Girl. I love her. I wanted to see the whole performance!

Jessica Meuse and Jesse Roach had to do this absurd a cappella sing-off even though Jessica was clearly the stronger choice based on their solos. Meuse authentically rocked out on an original called “Done,” which included the terrific line “Who ya gonna crawl to now? Baby, I’m done, don’t even turn back around.” I realized that I really dig when there’s a very clear “second party” within a song and things get contentious. She has one of the clearest musical personalities we’ve seen. Whereas Jesse, sweet and talented as she is, forgot the lyrics to “Wide Open Spaces.” This was a NO-BRAINER.

But nope! “I wish we could let them both through,” Keith complained. But they couldn’t, because you can’t have two Jessicas. There are infinite amounts of yeses, but only room on “the bus” for one Jess. Was anyone buying this dramatic deliberation? Anyway, Jessica it is. Duh. “I’m ready to stop selling CDs out of my trunk,” said the Meuse-ster.

Dexter Roberts was another no-brainer with his “real bad country” characterization and visible shakes. “We’re trying to find people that are the real deal,” Keith reminded the farmer’s grandson. “You can’t be sort of phony — all hat, no cattle.” At this, Dexter came alive. “Certainly,” I believe he said. Certainly! Much like Jessica, Dexter is “ready to leave the farm work behind.” All of the animals were super-rude and never even offered to pay for the CDs he sold out of his truck.

Emmanuel Zidor is going to grow tiresome to a great many people very soon if he hasn’t already. Vocally, I’m not sold, but he’s not aggressively incapable, either, and this guy is a CHARACTER. I wouldn’t mind seeing this proposed walk-off between him and J. Lo in heels (she’s buying). Do I want to hear him sing again? Does it matter? I just don’t think that is the point of Emmanuel Zidor. He’s something else entirely. This guy compelled the judges into a group hug with him at the center and got Harry Connick Jr. to blow him a kiss as he happily sauntered out of the ballroom. That does not scream “great singer” to me, but it does scream “magical creature.” Mr. Congeniality of the group for sure.

Speaking of being gay, Emmanuel never did that because he didn’t need to (no one ever needs to), but M.K. Nobilette wanted to, felt it was time, and officially became the first openly gay contestant on American Idol. It’s a crazy technicality, really, but believe it or not, no one has ever said “Yep, I’m gay” on the show itself. “I’m very obviously gay,” M.K. proudly announced. Could we get to the important part? Her singing? Jennifer Lopez got it exactly right when she called her “a quiet storm.” I felt a little lost on her cover of Ed Sheeran’s “A Team” but I think that was her intention, to play with the timing. Her low and grave tone is something different we don’t often hear on this show. It almost reminds me of Annie Lennox. Whoa! I know! She will however need a much stronger mic than Annie Lennox.

NEXT PAGE: Leah Guerrero, we never knew you Kristen O’Connor the nurse was way too tremulous for me on Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally” — each new note delivered a fresh bout of anxiety re: whether she would hit it. If she didn’t know, I definitely didn’t know! I like the actual tone of her voice and what an open book she was during the ballroom fortune-telling segment. We’ll see if she can make that vulnerability work mid-performance.

Wee one/great big fellow Jordan Brisbane did not inspire much confidence with his final solo performance of “Halo.” I did think it was cool that he didn’t try and do any weird runs. He could surprise us.

Aw, it’s goodbye to Group Round drama-monger Nica Nashae. “She was one of the best singers,” lamented J. Lo. Really? That has to be everyone, then, in a way. I guess it’s just something to say. (Isn’t everything?) And Casey McQuillen got cut, too, probably as soon as she told the cameras, “I’ve always wanted the big stage, the big auditorium.” Wrong, Casey. Think bigger! Think beyond your high school!

Leah Guerrero was the real heartbreak of the episode for me, because it made no sense at all why she would be pitted against Andrina Brogden in the ballroom of doom. Her gritty cover of “I’d Rather Go Blind” was just as soulful if not more than Andrina’s “Burn,” so the pairing just seemed arbitrary. “She’s what the other girl wants to be,” Harry was shown saying to J. Lo during Andrina’s performance — but he could have been referring to anyone. We don’t know. I have nothing against Andrina, but I really liked Leah and we hadn’t really heard from her! “It was brutal and almost interchangeable,” J. Lo assured them. Why?! The match-up ultimately led to the…

Most horrifying orchestrated shot of the night:

CRUEL AND UNUSUAL.

And then outside the holding cell, crouched down near the recycling bins, it just looked like poor Leah was on the john. Well done, team! You have mightily kicked this tattered and spirited sprite when she was down. Ugh, this was really awful.

“This whole episode, my nose is gonna be red,” sniffed J. Lo. But maybe a bit of extra color would have helped?

Esteemed Colleague Email Interlude:

Clearly we needed even more tears. Bring on the facial flush!

Keith seemed to be inspecting his own tender and juicy forearms for “goosies” during Malcolm Allen‘s “I’m Going Down,” which was very good, but I think I will remember him more for that bright yellow sweater, at least for now.

Alex Preston can play soooo many instruments. He needs to have one strapped to him at all times, like Linus with his security blanket. Keith can relate. His original tune contained the perfect-for-the-situation lyric, “Is it the finish line or the start?” and another heavy-handed one about how “this is a fairytale and you’re a damsel in distress.” He’s a cool musician, but it’s hard to tell whether his unorthodox style will play on Idol. My guess is no, but I’m just a local bum. Perhaps this is the year of the question mark.

I really liked how after Alex’s solo, J. Lo demanded a verdict and Harry gave a tentative “question mark” but made sure “We’re gonna go back all over this again, right?” All three of the judges actually care this year. It’s so lovely.

What did you think? Will C.J. or Casey make it through? Which cuts upset you? Discuss!

Three-part Sequence of Zen:

Episode Recaps

American Idol

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.
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