“American Idol” Sudden Death Recap: The Twilight Zoanette

Ten dames stepped up to the mic on Wednesday night. Nine of them sang. One of them exploded. 

And was rewarded for it. 

And… I’m fine with it? Let this be a lesson to everyone: If you are a fine singer who gets an opportunity to wow the nation on American Idol, but you choose the lite-FM nonchalance of Alicia Keys’ “No One,” maybe you deserve to finish between 20th and 40th place. Maybe I think that’s justified, Cristabel Clacky. And maybe if you’re a howling claymation clown sorceress named Zoanette Johnson who sets the bar for unthinkable camp monstrosities with a performance of (wait for it) “The Circle of Life,” maybe you really do earn your place in the Top 20 — even if you can’t sing, control yourself, or really do anything except blubber and wail like a watercolor-drenched Pagliacci. Maybe.

Actually, I’m not sure. Zoanette Johnson was so insane last night that my rankings this week feel useless. I want to rank everyone except Zoanette, then rank Zoanette separately among her true contemporaries like three-headed serpents, earthquakes, and Sanjaya. But oh well. Here we go. (I note whether the judges saved or eliminated each player at the end of each critique.)

10. Melinda Ademi, Jessie J’s “Nobody’s Perfect”

I think I’ve said it before, but I’m not convinced of the emotional power of Jessie J. Her lyrics are chockablock with platitudes, and coming from the mouth of an awkwardly strutting Idol hopeful like Melinda Ademi, the “message” of the song withered into weepy sentimentality. She also just withered in general. This performance was a case study in unimportance. I actually adored her last note, but I resumed indifference once she defended herself against the underenthused judges by claiming, “I tried to use my artistry.” Grumble, grumble. VERDICT: Eliminated.

9. Janelle Arthur, Lady Antebellum’s “Just a Kiss” 

Ugh! I am a Janelle sympathizer! It shouldn’t be this way.

See, Janelle’s the kind of self-proclaimed “country girl” who at least has some rascal in her. Her local sheriff has almost certainly described her as “a firecracker” at some point, and you know what firecrackers don’t do? Sing the hits of Lady Antebellum. Lady Antebellum is the Mount Everest of nothingness. It’s as if some producer had the brilliant idea: “Hey! What if we tried slowing mediocrity down?” If you want to not matter, please sing Lady Antebellum. Weirdly, the song gave Janelle neither the chance to exhibit her nervy stage presence or even the opportunity to thrill us with poignant notes. It was just Beige: The Experience. Get this woman a Dixie Chicks hit, something “Goodbye Earl”-adjacent, and steer her tractor back onto the rutted dirt road of rebellion. VERDICT: Survived.

8. Cristabel Clacky, Alicia Keys’ “No One”

I famously believe Alicia Keys is the nadir of hip-hop soul, the most Hallmark-brand songwriter of the past 10 years, and possibly the murderer of Blu Cantrell. Blu, come back to us! If your dismembered limbs aren’t buried beneath Arista headquarters, that is.

Which is why “worship leader” Cristabel Clacky’s song choice was so disappointing for me. First of all: The only worship leader I know is my copy of Ray of Light. Secondly, though Cristabel does have an interesting, even provocative croak in her voice, I felt her performance hinged on that gimmick rather than benefited from it. I wish Alicia Keys would try croaking too, namean? VERDICT: Eliminated.

7. Zoanette Johnson, the chewed-up remnants of Elton John’s “The Circle of Life”

I often struggle to remember Idol performances when I’m recapping them, but Zoanette’s blaring, bizarre, songless version of “The Circle of Life” is, for once, a struggle to forget. I will say this: It was a brilliant song choice. It is so everything Zoanette is, a cartoonishly grandiose feral circus. Righteous and ridiculous. Wrong and more wrong. And the leopard-print frock she wore for her performance was a clever smattering of camp. Then there’s Zoanette’s voice, which admittedly had a couple of cool moments in its car-horn tonality and Muppet diarrhea urgency, but mostly she sounded like Leontyne Price gettng hit by a fire truck. Just not even close to a legitimate instrument, her voice, because she has no ability to work with it. Here’s the thing: If Zoanette had even a 25% better voice, she’d be my favorite thing in the competition. I can’t remember the last time a vocalist on the show was so doggedly self-defined and jarring, and basically on purpose. This isn’t the Danny Gokey School of Accidentally Being Totally Infuriating. This is the Zoanette Johnson Academy Of Zoanette Johnson Does Whatever She Wants, and that’s at least slightly rock n’ roll. But can she do anything else but Big Bad Wolf every song in her path? Because this shtick will probably get tired. In the meantime, it is freakish and unforgivable, but not lame. VERDICT: Survived

6. Jett Hermano, Rihanna’s “Only Girl (in the World)” 

This started out wonderfully. Jett Hermano’s arrangment of Rihanna’s clubby “Only Girl (in the World)” threatened to expose emotional elements that the original version never came close to revealing. Seriously, it was “Evergreen” for a second — and I don’t even like “Evergreen,” but here it sounded surprising and poignant and un-A Star is Born-y. I liked Jett’s work at the piano, and I appreciated how she took her time with the song — because seriously, when do people take their time on Idol? Truly never. But when the chorus kicked in, a loungey vibe took over and Jett receded back into her own anonymity. Still though: a stunning start! VERDICT: Eliminated. Whoops.

5. Rachel Hale, Grace Potter and the Nocturnal’s “Nothing But the Water”

OK! I thought this was a progressive move for Ms. Hale, whose sweet, but stark tone remains underrated in the competition. Pinned as a “smiley” performer, Rachel amped up the nerve and drama with this tune, creating a bigger, more bad-ass persona than we’ve known from her previously. Vocally it wasn’t her best, but we could basically say that about everyone who stepped up to the mic tonight. Unlike Janelle Arthur or Paul Jolley, Rachel saw the Sudden Death round as a place to establish her range and ability to surprise us, and it needed to be rewarded. Can you guess what happened? Let Randy’s condescending chuckle lead you to the door. VERDICT: Eliminated.

4. Aubrey Cleland, Beyonce’s “Sweet Dreams”

God, I’ve really proven that I hate lots of songs tonight, and here’s another one. “Sweet Dreams” — with the possible exception of the execrable “Halo” — might be Beyonce’s worst song. Trite, dumb nothingness. OR A BEAUTIFUL NIGHTMARE. See what I mean.

I’d hate to give the judges too much credit, but they were often excellent in their critiques last night, particularly for the gorgeous, Rihanna-riffic Aubrey. First of all: That is some dress. That is among the greatest looks I’ve ever seen on the Idol stage, and yes, I’m including Naima Adedapo’s self-made yellow Rasta gowns. Secondly, what a fine performance! She didn’t exactly switch up the familiar track, but I found her delivery and stage presence Grammy-ready. Unlike Nicki Minaj’s “Roman” fiasco of ’12. #shade VERDICT: Survived.

3. Breanna Steer, Jazmine Sullivan’s “Bust Your Windows”

Weirdly, Jessica Sanchez — who was pretty flavor-deficient on season 11 of Idol —  did a better job communicating the raw, “Before He Cheats”-y grit of this jam when she performed it. Breanna’s got the firepower, and I think she exercised a bit of it, but I look forward to seeing her become more fearless and soulful. Because I secretly think she may have more command than anybody else in the game, and I’m including Empress Seacrest. Breanna clearly picked this song because it was stankalicious and naughty, not because it was an obvious forum for pageantry and easy emoting. (Ahem, Cristabel.) I’m rooting for this dame. Hard. VERDICT: Survived.

2. Juliana Chahayed, Demi Lovato’s “Skyscraper”

Surely we just witnessed the robbery of the season. I’m not saying Juliana’s performance of this Demi Lovato crowd-pleaser (which Juliana gleefully announced that she originally hated!) was a kickass supernova, and I’d certainly concur if you wanted to call it too precious or, as Space Empress Mariah called it, “celestial.” (Actual quote: “I wrote down ’celestial.'”) But this is the true one-of-a-kind performance of the evening, a real meditation and interpretation. Nicki Minaj nailed it when she said that Juliana is the only contestant with an already-defined sound, and Keith wasn’t too wrong either when he compared her to Jewel and Taylor Swift. I’d actually add in a weirder influence like Charlotte Church too, because Juliana’s voice is nearly too delicate and choirloft chic for pop radio. I cannot believe this was her last performance. VERDICT: Eliminated.

1. Candice Glover, “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman”

Sometimes sticking to a standard is the freshest choice, as my girl Candice evinced when she took the original Idol go-to “Natural Woman” and re-ignited it with her bubbling-under rage, passion, and cool stage control. Candice often looks crestfallen and under-inspired when standing next to Seacrest, and it’s that straight-faced shyness that makes me worried she won’t progress nearly as far as she should. I’m having disturbing “10th Place –Erika Van Pelt”-style visions right now. No! Nonononono! Candice has not only the talent, but the subtle ability to stare down an audience too. Her vocal adversary Kree Harrison doesn’t quite have that yet. For now, Candice remains the leaderboard high priestess thanks to sheer skill, but she should watch out for the fiercer “natural women” in her midst. VERDICT: Survived. 

Your turn. Who ruled? Did you Zoanette your pants?