It was all smoke and strings tonight as the top 8 tackled hits from the 'American Idol' songbook

By Justin Kirkland
March 11, 2016 at 03:49 AM EST

I had to sing a duet with a girl in middle school. Very similar to American Idol, we were competing for a monumental prize: the solo to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” And I liked this girl a lot, but in the midst of our duet, I imagined her falling down or losing her voice or simply crying under the pressure as I managed to run the vocal scales like the young Christina Aguilera that I was back when. That’s the kind of fire I want to see on #IdolDuets tonight.

Yeah, I know it’s harsh, but we’re in the final 8 or the final 6, or who really knows because the judges/producers are making up the rules as they go along this season anyway, right? The finalists will sing one song as a duet and then one song as an individual. And then Nick Fradiani will sing a song that isn’t the “THIS! COULD! BE! THE! LAAAAST” song we’ve all gotten used to. And then two hopefuls will go home. There’s a lot to get through so let’s get to it!

La’Porsha and Trent, “See You Again”

Duet Winner: Trent

This is what we call a power couple. Their voices are different enough that each of them has an opportunity to stand out, but similar enough that it feels like it could be an actual duet. The best part of La’Porsha and Trent’s performance (other than the absurd fact that they’re singing a song from Furious 7) is that neither of them go overboard with their vocals. It’s almost a little unfair that (arguably) the two strongest in the competition get to sing together, but it’s a good test — one that both singers ace.

Avalon and Sonika, “Rise Up”

Duet Winner: Avalon? Maybe?

Where La’Porsha and Trent’s styles compliment each other, Avalon tries to make “Rise Up” an R&B hit while Sonika takes it in the classic Celine direction. To be honest, both ladies had strong moments (and flat moments), but in the competition between R&B swagger and ballad strength, it felt like R&B won out. Though I do give endless sparkle points to Sonika’s exaggerated bow-jumper.

Scott Borchetta comes out in a jacket made of 1 million snakes to announce the other two duets. He reveals that pretty much Lee and Tristan are the two on the bubble. Pray for Tristan. And pray for Lee. And pray for all those snakes that gave their lives to clothe Scott Borchetta.

MacKenzie and Dalton, “I Want It That Way”

Duet Winner: MacKenzie

Neither of these little heart throbs are excited about singing Backstreet Boys, which is just a slap in the face to everything Nick Carter has done for America. But what is fun about their performance is that while La’Porsha and Trent are a super-talented in-sync Garth and Cat, and Avalon and Sonika feel like they’re battling, MacKenzie and Dalton are able to support each other’s vocal styles while still showcasing each of their strengths. Harry completely disagrees. He asks them if they even know what they were singing about, and then I ask Harry what happened to him last week. No one answers.

Tristan and Lee, “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing”

Duet Winner: Tristan

The leather jackets that Lee and Tristan were forced to wear are a nice touch, but everything in this performance screams that two teenagers are desperately trying to sing a song that might make them sound like adults. The whole thing is super strange because they’re both just… kids. Tristan was making sweet, sultry love to the camera. And Lee was making sexy eyes at Tristan, and it’s just difficult because, I repeat, these are children. Their voices were strong in places, but this was a huge song for two singers who have so much more room to grow.

After a particularly harsh duet round, we launch into single round city.

NEXT: I think I’ve heard this song before…

This week, the contestants are given the opportunity to choose a song from the American Idol songbook. This can essentially go one of two ways. If I’m soliciting unwanted advice, I would say that this is an opportunity to choose something someone did horribly. Just saying.

La’Porsha Renae, “Come Together”

Rank: First

In a surprise twist, La’Porsha went with a Beatles classic, and it is the perfect choice. You don’t like La’Porsha runs? Fine. You don’t like her vibrato? Okay. Then this week is for you because La’Porsha took this rock song, kept it a rock song, and put her own La’Porsha twist on it without belting or running. But the reason that it works so well is because La’Porsha is firmly rooted in her style, and whether or not that style is your cup of tea, it’s hard to argue that La’Porsha has what it takes to make it to finale night.

MacKenzie Bourg, “You Are So Beautiful”

​Rank: Fourth

TV Boyfriend MacKenzie Bourg goes after “You Are So Beautiful.” If you think back, one of the strongest performances from season 5 is when Taylor Hicks took this song on. What works perfectly tonight is the beautiful arrangement. Then again, I’m a sucker for a string quartet and some fake fog. What mostly works tonight is MacKenzie. It was a nice performance, but it felt like it could have been stronger. That song is so beautifully simplistic and meaningful that you have to do something to make it even more important than it already is. MacKenzie mostly did that.

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Nick Fradiani

Nick Fradiani appears out of the Idol woodwork to sing his new song “Get You Home,” which is kind of like a salsa song that also mixes in a message about what you do with your lover when you get him/her home. I like that the message is kind of open, because when I get someone home, I’m all about a good game of Trivial Pursuit. Anyway, Nick does a decent job. We did good, America. We chose a good one.

NEXT: The meaning of “A Broken Wing”: discussed

Trent Harmon, “Stand By Me”

​Rank: Second

Trent could have faced the same issue that MacKenzie had tonight. “Stand By Me” is a song that has been sung by practically every person who has lived in the past 50 years. But what Trent managed to do that MacKenzie wasn’t is make the song different in a way that hasn’t been done before. What also helped was yet another string quartet. Keep it coming, Idol. Jennifer comments on his performance, quite coyly saying, “When you scream at me like that, I like it.” OH JENNIFER, KEEP THOSE KINDS OF SINFUL COMMENTS ON THE BLOCK, GIRL.

Tristan McIntosh, “A Broken Wing”

Rank: Sixth

Let’s be very clear: Tristan saved her Idol life with her rendition of Vince Gill’s “Go Rest High on That Mountain” last week. She could either continue to soar this week, or she could crash. What’s obvious with Tristan is something I said earlier — the same thing Harry attempts to point out by asking her about the song she chose to sing. “A Broken Wing” has been said to end with the woman in the abusive relationship taking her life, but Tristan is 15 years old, and even if she gets that, she hasn’t lived enough to carry that message along with her voice. Tristan is a great singer (regardless of that last note), but I’m not entirely sure she’s ready to take on these incredibly mature songs. And even with a decent performance, I’m not sure she did enough to save herself for the top 5.

Dalton Rappatoni, “Eleanor Rigby”

​Rank: Third

Fun fact: Dalton’s mom has blue streaks in her hair because she’s not like a regular mom, she’s a rock mom. Dalton chooses “Eleanor Rigby,” which shows the second time in one night that the string quartet/fake fog combo is used. He uses it in a completely different way than MacKenzie though. It takes Dalton a minute to get started, but once he gets going, the performance grows and grows until this amazing climax at the end. “Eleanor Rigby” has such a wonderful musical arrangement, so it would be easy to screw it up with a new approach. Fortunately, Dalton’s rendition blends enough rock and grunge without stepping on the original too much.

NEXT: Michael v Beatles v Whitney

That leaves us with Lee Jean, Sonika Vaid, and Avalon Young. This is not Avalon’s first rodeo — she was sitting in the bottom three last week, and honestly I wouldn’t be surprised if she rose up again to send Lee and Sonika home.

Avalon Young, “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)”

Again, Avalon understands what her strength is and goes for a Michael Jackson hit. The only worrisome part of her performance is that she seems so confident in her choice (justifiably so), that she comes off a little ambivalent. Avalon, in my opinion, is a slow burn. She wasn’t someone I would have called a winner from the get-go, but her voice is original, and that came through tonight in her performance. Jennifer, however, gives advice that makes every young woman in America cringe: If what you’re doing isn’t working, maybe change who you are. OH JENNIFER.

Lee Jean, “Let It Be”

Oh, it’s not Beatles week? Then it must be string instrument week. No? Could’ve fooled me because Lee Jean takes on “Let It Be” with a cello on his left. I’m a big Lee Jean fan and at one point would have called him the dark horse to potentially win. But he has proven that outside of his Ed Sheeran wheelhouse, he lacks the maturity and confidence to stand apart. His voice was heavy with nerves and vibrato, and not particularly in a good way. Harry tells him to do a Dijon mustard commercial (Lee Jean/Dijon). I don’t laugh. This is not a time to laugh because Lee likely just gave his last Idol performance.

Sonika Vaid, “I Have Nothing”

​Rank: Fifth

Tough run for Sonika last week. Based on performance history, Tristan should be in this spot and not Sonika, but somehow Tristan seems to have a paved path to the final 5. In her place is Sonika, who decided at the very best moment to take on a Whitney Houston classic. “I Have Nothing” is the kind of number that could save Sonika, but it requires a lot out of her. Sonika gave most of it. By most of it, I think that she gave enough to get by, but not enough to make her a contender. And that is the most frustrating part because Sonika really does deserve to shine… she just has to find a way to do it.

As much as I wanted Sonika to spread the good word of Whitney, she whispered it at best. But from the judges’ table, which is the one that matters, Sonika did it enough justice to get this week’s save, meaning that Lee Jean and Avalon Young sang for the last time tonight. Based on last week, I can’t say that the results should have turned out any differently.

But what do you think? Would you have saved Sonika? Should someone in the top 5 have replaced Avalon or Lee? And is there any song that you’ll be happy never to hear on the Idol stage again? Hit the comments or let me know by shooting me a tweet @justinkirkland4. I’ll see you next week, as we narrow down this group of 6 down to 5.