Up until this week, Zoanette Johnson’s role has been to provide the comic relief on the “American Idol” audition and Hollywood clip shows. She looked like the traditional contestant who is brought along for drama in the early stages, then quickly hustled out the door before she actually gets a chance to make the live rounds.
Wednesday night was her first night to perform unfiltered, without having her work sliced and diced by the producers and editors. And while it’s still hard to see her being anything other than the “Vote for the Worst” candidate for season 12, she at least showed a bit of what the judges see in her -- that is, if you’re not too cynical to think they actually see anything besides an oversized personality with a big, but perhaps uncontrollable, voice who gets people talking.
Johnson received the much-coveted spot at the end of the show, and her song choice was brilliant. Her version of “Circle of Life,” complete with the animal-print outfit, got three out of four judges out of their seats for a standing ovation, and the platitudes seemed to go on forever.
“Zoanette! Zoanette! Zoanette! Good Lord!” Keith Urban said. “I love that I have no clue what you’re gonna do. I sometimes wonder if you do too.”
Nicki Minaj got teary. “The reason that you make me so emotional is that when I think of you coming from Liberia … I am so proud of you. I don’t care what people say about you. You’re the person that we’re going to remember after tonight! You’re unforgettable! You’re a superstar! That song was such a smart choice, because it matches who you are, where you’re about to be, where you’re from.”
“I’m proud that this place right here gives people like you and me that came from absolutely nothing, from a country that we probably didn’t think we’d make it out alive -- it gives us a shot,” Minaj added.
Point of fact: Minaj was actually a pretty big deal in the music business before signing up to be a judge, so she didn’t need “Idol” to get her shot. But let’s continue.
“I know a lot of people out there were wondering what the judges were thinking, what Zoanette was doing out there,” Randy Jackson said. “That was the reason she’s here. That spirit that you have is the spirit of the lion, the champion. That’s what it’s about.”
There were indeed a lot of people wondering what the judges were thinking – but perhaps not as many who were wondering what Randy himself was saying Wednesday. It just wasn’t his night for useful or memorable commentary, and part of the effect of the hipper panel of judges is that it accentuates how passé and predictable he can be.
Mariah Carey completed the love fest. “I’m so proud and happy for you. It’s almost like your spirit is too big to be contained, and that’s what you wanted to give tonight,” she said.
That’s was the closest to the truth. Johnson is over-the-top in every respect, and how she was portrayed over the first two months was designed to make her seem like a lovable loon rather than a serious singer. That changed on Wednesday -- sort of.
It’s indisputable that she’s the one who made Wednesday’s show memorable, and the judges in their loud praise gave people a reason to root for her, always important in a popularity contest. It’s also indisputable that if she had a quieter personality, she never would have made it this far.
Part of the problem that “Idol” women have had over the past five seasons has been their tendenency to be solid but boring, easily cast aside in favor of the men. Nobody’s ever going to call Zoanette Johnson boring, and that’s a big reason she’s still here.
In other news, Janelle Arthur, Aubrey Cleland, Breanna Steer and Candice Glover also advanced. Arthur had to survive a surprisingly average performance to win the last spot, while Juliana Chahayed has to be cursing the fates that had her singing this week instead of last week. Her toned down “Skyscraper” was excellent, but the 15-year-old showed just enough nerves that she missed the cut. Melinda Ademi was also good enough to advance on a different day, but not amongst this group.
Based on their performances since January, Arthur and Glover are both stronger candidates to win than Johnson. But based on how much the judges seem to love her, Johnson could last a lot longer than people think.
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