Who knew "American Idol's" new sudden-death round would be so satisfying?
"One song, one chance, no mercy," Ryan Seacrest told us ominously. And certainly the five women eliminated from the competition after singing a song of their choosing from any genre Wednesday probably didn't find the proceedings terribly enjoyable. But it sure was a lot better than the general messiness we used to get during Las Vegas week.
Here, if I've understood Seacrest correctly, is how it will work: Each Wednesday and Thursday night this week and next, 10 contestants will sing in front of the four judges and a large audience at the Mirage hotel in Las Vegas. At the end of each night, five of the 10 will go home and five will move on to the next round to compete for America's votes.
The judges will make the decisions (off camera) and then emerge (through the floor!) to deliver their verdicts, with considerably less interest in the fake-out (a la "we're very sorry to have to tell you this but … [pained expression, dramatic pause] … you're going to have to stick around with us a little longer!") than in previous seasons. If the judges can't agree, Jimmy Iovine, seated in the audience but apparently in on deliberations, will cast the deciding vote.
Going home at the end of Wednesday night's show were 17-year-old country singer Jenny Beth Willis, who had the misfortune of singing first; Brandy Hotard, a pageant-pretty psychiatric nurse whom the judges took to task for smiling while singing about heartbreak; and high school student Shubha Vedula, whose energetic performance pleased the audience, but not all the judges -- especially not Nicki Minaj, who said the busy display of talent bordered on being "comical."
Not nice, Nicki.
Also eliminated were Diddy back-up singer Kamaria Ousley, who couldn't quite get a handle on pitch, and was hammered for her delivery too. You knew Ousley was a goner when the judges complimented her on her outfit -- always a bad sign. They did the same thing with fellow also-ran Isabelle, a one-named singer who had emerged like a butterfly after struggling with her weight as a teen and hoped to inspire others. "Eat your heart out, boys, because she's up here looking like a diva tonight," Minaj said. But it would be Isabelle's last night to look like a diva on the "Idol" stage this season.
So who made it through? Well, let's see. There was …
Tenna Torres, a promotional model from Queens, N.Y., who went to Camp Mariah, a Fresh Air Fund career readiness camp, as a kid. "My story is the story of the underdog," she said, and gave a performance the judges called beautiful, controlled and heartfelt. Minaj didn't like Torres's hairdo, though, rightly noting that it made the 28-year-old contestant look much older.
Adriana Latonio, the show's first ever finalist from Alaska, confidently performed Aretha Franklin's "Ain't No Way" and earned standing ovations from both men on the panel. Minaj liked her poise. Mariah Carey gave the performance an "A+."
Kree Harrison again, as she had in Hollywood, came off as genuine, likable and down-to-earth during her performance. Not to mention talented. Keith Urban praised Harrison's "effortless believability." Randy Jackson liked that she didn't have to get all decked out to capture our attention. (She was wearing a pale, oversized shirt, skinny jeans and heels, and her hair looked remarkably unstyled.) Carey loved the way she got lost in the song. But Minaj had the highest praise, telling Harrison that she had a mysterious ability to "make love" to a song and that, even completely clothed, she came of as "so sexy" when she sang. "I'm in love," Minaj declared. Even Seacrest was impressed, telling Harrison it all seemed "second nature" to her.
Angela Miller had blown the judges away during Hollywood Week when she sang her own really good original song. (Hearkening back to it, Minaj said it was the most beautiful thing she'd experienced during her time thus far on "Idol.") Miller probably would have been waved through if she'd stepped out and sung random, disconnected notes Wednesday night, but she didn't sing random, disconnected notes. She performed well, prompting Carey to call her potential "limitless" and Randy Jackson to launch into one of his riffs: We were witnessing "the building of a superstar right there," he said. "This girl is the real deal, America. She's going places."
And -- last, but not least -- Amber Holcomb, an 18-year-old assistant teacher who returned with new confidence (and a fresh makeover) after being eliminated in Vegas last season. Her "My Funny Valentine" earned her standing O's from everyone but Minaj. Carey said Holcomb's performance was so good she wanted to slap her. (Wonder what she'd have wanted to do if she'd hated it.) And Minaj said she was impressed by Holcomb's "legs for days," her "pretty little dimples" and her "A-plus-plus-plus" vocals, but feared (for some reason) that her "inner shine" wouldn't reach audiences watching on TV. We suspect she needn't worry. But we'll find out for sure in a few weeks.