'American Idol' recap: Kelly Clarkson returns to cheer on the top 10

A lot happened on “American Idol” on Thursday night. In the course of two hours, we learned the six singers who would join the judges’ four “fast-pass” picks – La’Porsha Renae, Dalton Rapattoni, Olivia Rox and Trent Harmon – to round out the Season 15 top 10: Tristan McIntosh, Sonika Vaid, Gianna Isabella, MacKenzie Bourg, Avalon Young and Lee Jean. And, after saying an all-too-quick goodbye to also-rans Manny Torres, Thomas Stringfellow, Jenn Blosil and Jeneve Rose Mitchell, we also watched the top 10 perform, in some cases quite impressively.

But mostly what happened to “Idol” on Thursday was Kelly Clarkson. The Season 1 winner returned – very pregnant with her second child and bubbling over with enthusiasm – to help critique the final-season contestants’ performances and bring fresh, positive, informed energy to the judging table.

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Clarkson also brought out the fan boy in Harry Connick Jr., who gushed about what an amazing pop singer she was, and the girlfriend in Jennifer Lopez, who swapped compliments with her at the outset. And when, at the end of the show, Clarkson sang her song “Piece by Piece,” a song about the father who abandoned her as a child and the husband (and father of her daughter and the son to whom she is expecting to give birth any day now) who restored her faith in men and in fathers, she brought out the tears – big time – in Keith Urban and, well, almost everyone.

Clarkson herself grew so emotional she had to stop a few times along the way. She blamed hormones.

"I actually wrote it pregnant with my little girl and now I'm pregnant with my little boy,” she told Ryan Seacrest before taking the stage. “So if I don't make it through and I start crying, just laugh. It'll make me feel better."

No one laughed. Many cheered. Pretty much everyone was deeply moved. And perhaps there were others who, like me, thought to themselves, “Well, these are the sort of rare and lovely moments that will make us miss ‘American Idol’ when it’s gone.”

The sand in the hourglass is running out with startling speed. As Seacrest reminded us on Thursday night, we’re only six weeks away from the season – excuse me, the series – finale. After all these years of watching “Idol” -- and writing about it -- that thought gives me Jennifer Lopez-esque goosies. Wild.

And, so, the top 10 performance? Here’s how those went down:

Olivia Rox gave a strong performance of Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally,” impressing the judges with her control and artistry. Urban suggested she work on “loosening up and relaxing.” Clarkson called the performance “tasteful” and compared Rox to a “little Mariah.”

Gianna Isabella was less successful with Beyonce’s “Listen,” an ambitious choice she didn’t seem to quite have what it takes to deliver, veering off pitch in places. Lopez called the performance “very shaky” and urged the young singer to “refocus” and to select songs that showed off her strengths. Clarkson attribute Isabella’s shortcomings to her tender age. “You’re 15,” she pointed out, saying that at that age, she “would be pitchy too.”

Lee Jean turned in an adequate, but not exciting performance of Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love.” Clarkson said she admired the way Jean had found his thing, which she described as “easy” and “chill,” and stuck to it. Urban complimented Jean on his ability to “tell a story.” And Lopez said his success would come down to choosing songs that meant something to him, personally, and to making his performances “more impactful every single time.”

Avalon Young, deemed “cool” by Clarkson, got better as she went along on Shawn Mendes’ “Stitches.” While the trio of regular “Idol” judges weren’t too impressed – Connick said the song fell “flat” for him – Clarkson was. “You are so captivating. There’s something so special about you,” the “Idol” veteran told the “Idol” hopeful, boldly adding that she didn’t “generally like the songs” Young sang, but she loved them when Young sang them. “You make me love anything you sing,” Clarkson said. “That is so special.”

Dalton Rapattoni brought his usual confident swagger to “Hey There Delilah” by the Plain White T’s. Lopez said he was “really cool” and “cute” but also had a “lot of heart.” Clarkson commended him on his comfort onstage and his “artistry.” Connick told Rapattoni he was “batting 1,000.”

Tristan McIntosh seemed to get sort of run over by Dan + Shay’s “Nothin’ Like You.” Lopez delicately told her she “didn’t think that was the strongest performance you could have given.” Connick and Urban both noted that her pitch had been a bit unsteady. Clarkson said, again, that McIntosh’s vocal issues might stem from youth and inexperience and suggested she tackle a Trisha Yearwood song. “I think you would really nail it,” she said.

MacKenzie Bourg got the crowd and Clarkson’s “little man” fired up with his take on Ed Sheeran’s “I See Fire.” Connick called him “very compelling.” Clarkson credited Bourg with knowing who he was, what he was about and where he wanted to head and told him she was “very excited to hear what you’re going to do in the future.”

In a vocally and emotionally sparkling, show-stopping turn onstage, La’Porsha Renae performed Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” earning a standing ovation from Urban, Lopez and Clarkson. In fact, Clarkson could hardly sit down and barely contain herself. “It is not my turn to speak, but I don’t care,” she said, adding that if she were Renae “every time I opened my mouth to sing, I’d just be like, you’re welcome.” Clarkson said Renae was “such a talent” that she was bound to win. “If you don’t win, I don’t understand,” she said. Urban said Renae had given “pure humanity,” and that it had been “beautiful.”

Sonika Vaid, not to be outdone, finally seemed to wake up inside and show signs of life with Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life.” Urban called her performance “terrific” and said “all that drama” had played to Vaid’s strengths. Clarkson commended her on her consistent grip on pitch and fighting spirit. Lopez called Vaid “dangerous.” “If you wake up in this competition,” Lopez said, “we have a real, real competition on our hands this year.”

Trent Harmon also came out fighting, showing off his intensity and range on Sam Smith’s “Like I Can.” Clarkson said he had a “natural gift.” Lopez cooed that Harmon’s voice was “unique” and “different” and that he did “such exciting things with it.” “I really feel like we have one of the best competitions ever on ‘Idol’ this year,” Lopez said. “Now that we’ve gotten to the top 10, it is really phenomenal.”

Lopez, like everyone on “Idol,” is given to hyperbole, but there is definitely some impressive talent in the top 10.

Which will shrink to the top eight after next week’s double elimination. Also next week, “Idol” rolls back to a one-night-per-week schedule: Thursdays, two hours. Stay tuned …

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