Here are my quick-takes on the performances from the first semifinals round. I’ll go ahead and put a letter grade on ‘em, mostly for fun and comparisons with Bob Gregory. I try to stay consistent with my grades, so it will look like I’m getting softer and softer as the show goes on. What’s actually happening – or at least what usually happens – is that the singers get better and their performances get tighter. Tonight was pretty loose, so the grades will be lower.
Stephany Negrete semifinal performance: “Mama Knows Best” – Jessie J – C+
Steph was a little stiff, a little imitate-y, and a little out of tune. She has a big voice, but the competition is too stiff to let her keep making mud pies. She needed to be noticeable to have any chance; the show expressed their opinion about her chances when they gave her the opening spot. That spot is death in the semifinals, even when the judges are doing the voting.
MacKenzie Bourg semifinal performance: “Say Something” – A Great Big World – B-
The original version of this song is really quirky, sort of like an REM album cut. MacKenzie, who usually makes his versions quirkier than the originals, actually made this song less quirky. I don’t think that’s a good move for a guy who doesn’t really have a deep arsenal of vocal calisthenics he can draw on.
Jenna Renae semifinal performance: “My Church” – Maren Morris – C-
Jenna has a terrific voice and she can sing melodies all night long, but whenever she tries to go big or go low she loses her intonation. I think she needed to be perfect tonight, and she wasn’t.
Sonika Vaid semifinal performance: “Safe and Sound” – Taylor Swift ft. The Civil Wars – B+
Most years Sonika would have competition for her style but she seems to be the only one who sings the movie themes and whatever Celine Dion just put out. She stuck the ending like a champ, which should make everyone forget a couple of wonky notes in the middle. Her tone was beautiful, and she nailed her dynamics.
James Dawson VIII semifinal performance: “Love Lockdown” – Kanye West – B-
I loved it because I love his style, but J8 gave ’em an album cut on singles night, and nobody was happy. He’s going to be white knuckling it.
Jeneve Rose Mitchell semifinal performance: “Angel” – Sarah McLachlan – B+ (singing only D)
It’s impossible to not love her. Her vocal technique is awful, her range is limited, and her tone is all over the dammed place, but it doesn’t matter with her puppy dog eyes, her 47 instruments that all sound like they just got done playing “Amazing Grace,” and her heart-on-her-sleeve emoting. Whatever ‘it’ is, Jeneve has it. Now, for chrissakes, will somebody teach her how to sing?
Gianna Isabella semifinal performance: “I put a Spell on you” – Annie Lennox – D+
I don’t know why they called it an Annie Lennox song, but whatever. Gianna has a strong, richly textured voice, and just enough knowledge to get herself in trouble. She’s like a good high school golfer: she can hit long straight drives, crisp irons, smooth chips, and strike firm putts. If she doesn’t hit it crooked she can shoot a score that looks as good as a pro’s score – but if she mishits juuuust a little bit the whole world is reminded that she’s not a pro. Not yet, anyway.
Emily Brooke semifinal performance: “I am Invincible” – Cassadee Pope – D
Oh Gawd that was a total train wreck – she was out of tune from the first note to the throne she threw up all over afterwards. This would have been bad drunken kamikaze karaoke. From mortal lock to already gone in sixty seconds. Apologies to the late, great Glenn Frey and the not so late, not so great (kidding) Nicholas Cage.
Avalon Young semifinal performance: “Love Yourself” – Justin Beiber – C+
I felt like she was trying to do too much – trying to ‘perform’ instead of just being natural – but her gumdrop tone came out and she finished strong. She always sounds like herself, which I think might be what the judges were saying unconsciously. They want her to have another facet. I don’t know if she does.
Jordan Sasser semifinal performance: “All by Myself” – Celine Dion C-
Eric Carmen, but never mind. He did Celine’s version, which was a bad idea in front of judges old enough to have heard the original.
I hate the song choice for Jordan; he’s already at risk of sounding too white, and he sang one of the whitest songs ever written in one of the whitest ways possible. None of that would have mattered if he nailed it, but I felt like he promised this massive thing and then he delivered something smaller, like watching someone light off a huge firework and watching it fizzle and pop a little, then fall over. The whole thing was underwhelming and unimpressive to me.
Jordan needed to be better than this tonight.
Tommy Stringfellow semifinal performance: “Creep” – Radiohead – B
My only reservation comes from liking the original version of the song so much that Tommy’s version was a little jarring. The judges hammer singers for not sounding emotional enough all the time, but what it actually means is that they want to hear a more emotional delivery, not that they need to actually feel the emotions. Tommy doesn’t ever have to worry about it because his natural delivery is emotional. Tommy has to be careful on his high notes – he was on the edge (or over the edge, depending on your tolerance for edges) of screeching there for a few notes.
La’Porsha Renae semifinal performance: “Proud Mary” – Tina Turner – C (but an A for bravery)
Getting the pimp spot means she is about as safe as she can be, but hoo boy that was not the safest song choice and Chia Girl stood toe-to-toe with Tina Turner herself, practically copying her arrangement down to the dance moves. I know she’s safe, but if one of the less safe contestants had done that they would be in trouble. She couldn’t hit her high note at the end, either, without catching her breath and setting her feet first. That was weird and uncomfortable.