Zoanette Johnson in the "American Idol" Sudden Death Round. (Michael Becker/Fox )
Another 10 contestants – the last of the women -- shrank to just five on the third night of the Sudden Death rounds in Las Vegas. Surveying the landscape, you can't fault the judges for failing to embrace eclecticism.
They gave us …
Zoanette Johnson: Despite what any of us watching at home think, this out-there Tulsa, Okla., 20-year-old has been a judge favorite almost from the moment she stepped in front of them at auditions and sang the national anthem. Her final Hollywood performance, which she made up on the spot while accompanying herself on drums, prompted Nicki Minaj to declare herself grateful to be part of "The Zoanette Era." On Wednesday night, we learned more of Johnson's backstory. Born in Liberia, she left to come to the United States at age 2, escaping civil war. Her truly primal performance of "Circle of Life," from "The Lion King," made Keith Urban, Minaj and Randy Jackson rise to their feet. Urban offered "kudos to the queen of the jungle." Minaj gushed about how "proud" Johnson had made her. And both Jackson and Mariah Carey toasted her "spirit." We'll see what the voters think.
Aubrey Cleland: This leggy 19-year-old student from Oregon seemed to make it through because of her fashion sense and runway-worthy looks as much as anything else. She sang Beyonce's "Sweet Dreams/Beautiful Nightmare," a little dully, I thought. But Urban said he admired her "balance of poise and fire." Minaj declared herself to be obsessed and Cleland to be current. Jackson called her "the complete package," though he did allow that the song choice might not have been perfect. Carey, though, said Cleland was "limitless."
Candice Glover: Glover, a South Carolina 23-year-old who was eliminated last year during the Vegas round, is so beloved this season by the judges, she would have had to really mess up not to make it through to the live rounds. She didn't mess up even a little bit, turning in a super-solid rendition of Aretha Franklin's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." Urban, for some reason the only judge who gave Glover a standing O, called her a "natural singer." Minaj said she was born to sing. Jackson encouraged her to show off a little and reach for notes no one else can hit. Carey didn't seem sold on the arrangement but still called Glover a "bona fide singer."
Breanna Steer: One minute we're seeing Steer, an 18-year-old from Louisiana, clean up her house after Hurricane Isaac, and the next she's singing – very convincingly – Jazmine Sullivan's angry "Bust Your Windows." Urban seemed a little frightened by her powerful performance, telling Steer she made him "believe you could literally bust the windows out of my car." Minaj liked her "swag" and called her "sexy on a stick." Jackson thought she brought "drama." Carey admired her "presentation" and called her "marketable."
Janelle Arthur: There's something about this 23-year-old Tennessean's lush, open tone and laid-back demeanor that's just so appealing. The judges think so too, but they weren't feeling her song choice this round: Lady Antebellum's "Just a Kiss." Urban found the chorus "limiting." Minaj said she was upset because Arthur is among her favorites and she felt she had overdone it. Jackson agreed, but said he was still holding out hope, because she was his favorite country singer in the competition this year. Carey liked Arthur's lack of pretension.
Heading home were smiley, upbeat Rachel Hale, who took everyone to a revival meeting with her take on Grace Potter's "Nothing But the Water"; Melinda Ademi, who may have been undone by her first-singer-of-the-night nerves; Juliana Chahayed, a breathy-voiced, guitar-strumming 15-year-old whose "Skyscraper" Carey called "celestial"; Cristabel Clack, whose signature growl earned her a standing ovation from Jackson, but not a chance to advance (at 29, she won't get another shot); and Jett Hermano, whose musicality, which she displayed by accompanying herself on the piano, Urban alone seemed to admire.
Do you agree with the judges' picks? Are you a fan of Zoanette?