The first 12 finalists pull out everything from harps to haircuts to impress the judges.

By Justin Kirkland
February 11, 2016 at 03:29 AM EST
Michael Becker/Fox

American Idol

S15 E11
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  • TV Show
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I’m going to be honest with you. I hate Hollywood Week on American Idol. Let’s not church it up like it’s the best part of the show — it’s just a roadblock between the contestants who are pretty good and the contestants we want to root for (except for Michelle Marie… You deserved more, baby girl. Your life will be vindicated in scores of sequins and boots.). As I was on the elliptical today, crying while listening to Carrie Underwood, I pondered, who among these 24 finalists can I ever see myself listening to while vaguely exercising. Maybe some Trent Harmon slow jams? A La’Porsha dance track? Who knows, really? That’s where the showcase round comes in. It helps us get down to the top 12, and for all that is good, it’s about time.

Because it’s the farewell season and you are farewell fans, the showcase round returns to the outdoor set of The Bachelor The Vibiana in Los Angeles. You want to hear something crazy, though? There are IDOL DUETS this year, which means that contestants are paired with Idol veterans, some of whom haven’t seen a stage since their own seasons. Harsh, I know, but let’s be real honest about it, Bo Bice. Tonight is solo night, though, and 12 of the top 24 will take the stage. So let’s get to it.

Stephany Negrete, “Mama Knows Best”

My Rank: Eighth

Stephany’s rendition of “Mama Knows Best” by Jessie J doesn’t show off a lot of range, but she does manage to squat a lot. That’s not a technical term; that’s literal squatting. I don’t know if that enhances the performance, but it’s hard to miss. The judges tell her that it’s strong, but they’re not entirely overwhelmed either. Listening to Stephany feels a little bit like when I end up singing a Kidz Bop song in the middle of the work day after hearing it the night before. I wouldn’t choose it, but I’m not completely opposed to it in private company.

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MacKenzie Bourg, “Say Something”

My Rank: Fourth

Follwoing Stephany, my TV boyfriend performs a wonderful version of “Say Something.” It’s the kind of performance that you would download from one of those free Starbucks cards next to the register. There’s considerably less squatting than Stephany’s performance, and that’s not an insult because you can tell that MacKenzie’s greatest strength is that he knows his genre. MacKenzie is (probably) not ever going to come out on stage groin first. He’s a singer/songwriter, and if he sticks with that, he has a place in the live rounds.

Jeneve Rose Mitchell, “Angel”

My Rank: 6/12

After commercial, Jeneve Rose Mitchell’s (who should only be addressed by her full name) accent has somehow thickened. Full of a million country-time surprises, she goes after Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” with a FULL BLOWN HARP, her strongest braid/gospel blazer yet, and a surprisingly subtle vibrato. Jeneve is winning me over real hard. She made me forget that this song is unofficially about abused dogs, and that is a feat in itself. She’s also winning over Jennifer, who admits that she wasn’t sure if she was the real deal at first. But here’s the thing: Jeneve shows up as this Reba McEntire/Laura Ingalls Wilder/Carrie White (the Sissy Spacek one, not that Chloë Grace Moretz garbage) combo, and she is not apologizing for it. And that’s why Jeneve stands out so easily above the rest.

NEXT: Oy with the full-length gowns

Jenna Renae, “My Church”

My Rank: Twelfth

Admittedly, I don’t know the song “My Church.” Some would say that’s to her advantage because Jenna could make it her own, but ultimately, I’m distracted by her fedora missing the whole first half of the song. The opening felt pretty forgettable. But as she breaks into the meat of the song, I remember that Jenna is better with the big notes than simple ones. Problem is, the big notes are great when they’re great and awful when they’re not. Harry and Keith back me up, admitting that the performance is a bit of a back and forth, at best.

James VIII, “Love Lockdown”

My Rank: Tenth

Turning Kanye’s “Love Lockdown” into a blues hit is a lot like a Pinterest project. The concept looks super fun, but somehow it never turns out like the picture. That is how tonight shook out for James VIII. That’s not saying that it’s bad because, like most Pinterest projects, I still ate it up, but it also feels like a unrehearsed cover that you’d hear at a local blues bar. Harry, Jennifer, and Keith all agree that it was too simple for the showcase round and that he has to be better. Maybe he’s a bit like Taylor Hicks: You like his Idol performances, but you’d never buy the CD, ya know?

Sonika Vaid, “Safe and Sound”

My Rank: Fifth

Dress Grade: F

I’m going to complain about Sonika Vaid again. And when I say that, I mean that I’m going to complain about producers and what they’re doing to Sonika Vaid. Luckily, she chose a totally different style of song with her rendition of “Safe and Sound.” Her powerful voice was super chill, and she made the song her own. But like, why is she in a floor-length gown? Is she grown up Jackie Evancho? Is she going to stop by and make a duets album with Rod Stewart after the show? Stop putting Sonika in budget couture, and just let her sing. In another life, Sonika is my frontrunner for American Idol.

Gianna Isabella, “I Put a Spell on You”

My Rank: Second

I’m going to get real serious. At Gianna’s best moments, she throws some serious Kelly Clarkson vibes. At her worst moments, she’s better than just about everyone who went before her. What I struggle with is that when Gianna is singing, she sounds like the workings of an accomplished artist. But when I open my eyes and see her wearing the leftover wardrobe from Allegra’s Window I get annoyed. I’m not saying this is a fashion show because it’s not, but let’s give these kids a chance. Gianna’s powerful voice is enough to overshadow everyone else, guys. If she’s not in the live rounds, it’s because the system has failed us.

NEXT: Samson cuts his man-bun

Emily Brooke, “I Am Invincible”

My Rank: Eleventh

Emily immediately starts off at a disadvantage because I’m pretty sure she is about an octave lower than she should be. She goes flat on and off during the song, and the judges don’t let her forget it. The thing that sucks is that Emily is really good. But that song choice, man. If she bounces back from this week’s blunder, I hope she comes back with a song in her range (preferably not sang by a Voice alumni because nothing is tackier than showing up to the party with a half-eaten appetizer from another party) and a willingness to fight for a place in the live rounds because this performance didn’t take us there.

Avalon Young, “Love Yourself”

My Rank: Third

Avalon Young reminds us that she is different because of those absurd sweaters that she wears. She’s not a girly girl, y’all! She chooses Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself,” and she has one of the few voices this year that could easily be on the radio. On top of that performance, I’m a big fan of Avalon because she chose to perform in an exact replica of what I wear to the gym. As annoying as the “I’m going to be myself, screw standards!” routine is, I really, really like Avalon and her confidence.

Jordan “Man Bun” Sasser, “All By Myself”

My Rank: Seventh

I’m immediately shocked because Jordan has nixed the man bun. He’s traded it out for this wispy Jonathan Groff updo. His rendition of “All By Myself” is a bit shouty, but I get distracted by his personal journey. Do you think this song is prophetic? Like, it starts with him casting aside his man bun, but then he leaves his less-talented wife. And then his child, too, because, let’s be real, babies can’t even sing. And yeah, he ends up center stage on Broadway, but at what cost?? But back in reality he gets called out for being too much of a showboat, reminding him that he’s not above that man bun.

Thomas Stringfellow, “Creep”

My Rank: Ninth

I like Stringfellow a lot, but I can’t help but feel that he’s the guy you ask to prom when MacKenzie Bourg tells you that he’s going with your cooler friend. His rendition of Radiohead sounds screechy to me, but the judges are all about it. Harry even says that when he yells, it’s because he’s frustrated with what the song is about and the “creepiness of it.” Thomas nods with the commentary because, um, yeah, of course he meant to do it like that. I feel like there can only be one hipster dreamboat, and that belongs to MacKenzie. Sorry.

La’Porsha Renae, “Proud Mary”

My Rank: First

Now, I know some of y’all are anti-La’Porsha, and that’s fine. Everyone’s entitled to have an opinion, even if it’s wrong. I never like to tell anyone their opinions aren’t valid, but after this performance, I feel confident in my assessment. It could have been yelly. It could have been full of runs. But it wasn’t. She danced and kept the melody, and at the end, she picked up all the haters and put them in her hair for safe keeping. At the end of the day, La’Porsha has nothing to prove to anyone because she knows that she’s fire. Every group needs a Beyoncé, and La’Porsha is happy to fill that void.

Tomorrow we return for our Idol duets, but for now, any guesses on who will rise from this first group of twelve and who should just…stay down? Hit the comments, or let me know on Twitter @justinkirkland4.

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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