Curtis Finch Jr. performs in the Sudden Death round of "American Idol." (Michael Becker/Fox )
For its second Sudden Death Round, on Thursday night, "American Idol" pivoted from "the ladies" to "the guys." And those dudes, while on the whole nowhere near as talented vocally as the women we'd seen sing Wednesday on the same Las Vegas stage, turned in some performances that made the ladies look tea-party tame by comparison.
It was a wild night, leaving Nicki Minaj at times a bit overheated. "So far tonight, Nicki's wanted to marry Chris's vibrato, cradle Charlie and have Elijah's baby," Ryan Seacrest noted after one commercial break.
It also left Randy Jackson a tad confused about what show he was working on. "I don't know where I am right now … [or] what's going on," he said at one point. Because it sure wasn't like the chummy, risk-averse panel he's sat on the past few years.
There were clear disagreements among the judges as they gave their critiques – and no "American Idol" cliché was safe. Even Jackson's well-worn line about it being a vocal competition, at the end of the day, was suddenly in dispute. It's "really more of a connection competition," Keith Urban said, not incorrectly, noting that style, movement and charisma, as well as voice, all play a role.
Ultimately, the judges said they – with a little help from Jimmy Iovine – chose singing over style when it came time to make their selections, though that wasn't true without exception. But it did mean the ultra-hot Chris Watson, who'd chosen a song that showcased his hotness more than his vocals, was denied his shot at America's vote. (And we were denied more of his hotness: Minaj called Watson perhaps the prettiest man she'd ever seen, ever – and she may not have been exaggerating.) Also heading home were glittery JDA, whose overcooked take on Adele left the judges cold; cheesy beach boy Johnny Keyser; sweet family man Kevin Harris; and dully nice country wannabe Jimmy Smith.
Those making it through:
Curtis Finch Jr.: This year's velvet-voiced gospel-singing answer to last season's Joshua Ledet tackled Luther Vandross, showing remarkable control, tone and range. Urban was left bowing down to him, exclaiming, "Preach on, Brother Curtis!" and saying he felt "thoroughly cleansed" of sin. But while everyone loved Finch's voice, not everyone loved the 25-year-old's stern high-school-principal look. (He is actually a tutor in a charter school.) "Keep it young," Jackson advised. Carey added he should "loosen up your tie and relax a little bit." Not that that put Finch in any danger of elimination. "Stop with this act," Minaj told him when he walked out to learn his fate. "You know damn well you're going through. Congratulations."
Paul Jolley: The aspiring country singer was one of two contestants to tackle a Keith Urban song on Thursday. This seemed to tickle Urban, though most of the judges seemed to agree that the performance wasn't Jolley's best. But Jackson said that, even though this go-around was "not perfect," he saw "great potential" in the Tennessee native who's dedicating his "Idol" run to his late grandpa. Iovine, who rescued Jolley from a judge deadlock, agreed, saying he was just a "good singer with the wrong song." (Sorry, Keith.)
Devin Velez: This 18-year-old Chicago high school student and coffee shop barista, raised by a single mother he called his "role model" and "rock," sang Beyonce's "Listen" with a nice, mature open tone – and sang part of it in Spanish, at that. Minaj called that choice "smart," saying it would make him more marketable. Jackson was even more effusive, saying, "Dude, I love you … love, love, big props to you."
Elijah Liu: Also 18, this California college student came across onstage like a "half-Mexican, half-Chinese" Justin Bieber. He is, he said, "successful with the ladies," and certainly he can count Minaj among his fans. "You are a super duper star, little boy," she gushed. "I want to have your babies … You're sexy. You're my new favorite boy." The judges agreed that, even though his vocals were shaky, at best (his higher notes just sort of disappeared), he was "marketable." We'll see if the market agrees when America votes in a couple of weeks.
Charlie Askew: Even before this awkward (by his own admission) teen stepped out onto the stage in his vintage duds and his sparkly JDA-selected belt to sing Elton John's "Rocket Man," in a vaguely Shatneresque performance, he was already entertaining us – rehearsing with a golf club because it was sort of like the mike he'd be using and rolling his eyes at Seacrest like the host was his dad or something. He shook, he kneeled, he sort of sang, and then Minaj gave him a standing ovation. Urban said Askew was "like if Freddie Mercury had a love child out of Woodstock," and noted that, no matter what anyone at home had to say about his performance, they surely hadn’t been able to look away from it.
"Your weirdness, your awkwardness excites me … It's rock star. It's fresh," Minaj said, adding, as Seacrest later noted, that she wanted to "cradle" him in her arms.
That and an Askew non-sequitur about turtles confused Jackson. But Mariah Carey expressed tempered nostalgic appreciation, capping her critique off with two words that could fairly sum up the entire night: Strangée, darling.