American Idol Recap: Unlucky 13

Eighty-four years from now, Thia Megia will celebrate her 99th birthday, the last “Charlie Chapman” movie in existence will crumble into dust, and the University of Reality Television at Seaside Heights, NJ, will replace Harvard as the nation’s most prestigious house of higher education. When students at said institution open their History of American Idol: Season 10 textbooks to the chapter on Top 13 Performance Night, they may be surprised to find only murky recollections of the actual musical numbers.

Oh sure, they’ll read about Lauren Alaina pouting, Thia Megia crying, Haley Reinhart yodeling, and Jacob Lusk howling like a Muggle getting hit with the Cruciatus Curse. There’ll be photos of Paul McDonald shuffling along like a chain-gang worker trying to break into the “Electric Slide.” There may even be a fold-out diagram devoted to the unfortunate black-sequin harness “designed” by Karen Rodriguez. But the music? That’ll probably just end up as a footnote to what I nonetheless refuse to believe is going to be anything less than a resurgent/stellar season of Fox’s pop-cultural juggernaut.

You see, while I’d argue that more than half of the season 10 finalists are legitimately talented vocalists, Wednesday night’s performance episode (which, incidentally, was taped on Tuesday) found them struggling with dreary song choices and baffling arrangements, problems with pitch and lulls in energy. And coming off a results show last Thursday that was elevated by six kids throwing their hearts and souls onto the stage with the unbridled desire to score one of three Wild Card berths (Kendraaaaaa!), Week One of the Season 10 finals could only be described as a letdown.

I’d group our 13 finalists into six different categories, as follows:

Should Be in Serious Trouble, But Probably Won’t Be: Paul McDonald, Thia Megia
Much like every physician vows to “First, do no harm,” so too should every Idol contestant take this oath: “First, hit my notes.” Because honestly, it’s all well and good that Paul picked something “cool” and “unexpected” for the Idol stage, but that just made it all the more imperative that he perfectly capture the melody, that he deliver a vocal passionate enough to sell an unfamiliar song to the average couch potato (kind of like Stefano did last week on “I Need You Now”). Instead, Paul skittered around on the stage like a wounded bird trying to outmaneuver a hungry barn cat, his grainy voice evaporating into nothingness in his lower register and falling flat on the chorus. Steven gave one of his few semi-relevant notes of the night — “find a song where the chorus is in your key” — but J.Lo and Randy seemed to be critiquing Paul on his past glories (“So unique!” “I love who Paul is!”) rather than on the performance he’d just coughed up. Dude is lucky his prior body of work has been solid enough to give him a built-in voting bloc, but seeing him falter this early in the competition is deeply disconcerting.

Thia, meanwhile, has an appointment at The Hague to answer for what she did to “Smile.” Bad enough that her delivery was as empty as a plastic bag floating over a grocery-store parking lot, that half her notes were as flat as a row of pennies on a railroad track, but how to justify the addition of that incongruous “Bell Biv DeVoe-lite” beat? Yeah, I know, producer Ron Fair has to take at least some of the responsibility for the arrangement, but the problem is that even if young Thia had the good taste to know better, she doesn’t seem like she’d have the gumption to raise an objection. How depressing was that whole exchange in which Thia discovered that “Smile” was a Charlie Chaplin number, not a Michael Jackson original, then later offered that she was singing “Charlie Chapman”? The fact that Randy Jackson managed to name-check Adele in his critique is a mystery worthy of The Mentalist, but I’m guessing Thia’s post-commercial, backstage tears will be worth enough sympathy votes for her to crack the top 12.

Should Be in Serious Trouble, And Very Well Could Be: Ashthon Jones, Karen Rodriguez, Jacob Lusk
Poor Ashthon must have misunderstood the chapter in her American Idol instruction manual about how to avoid being the first contestant voted out of the finals. She picked one of the night’s least recognizable numbers (of all the Diana Ross ditties in the world, Ashthon goes with “When You Tell Me That You Love Me”?), embellished it with mid-’80s telethon-schmaltz stylings, and yet didn’t quite butcher the number enough to dredge up a healthy number of sympathy votes. And she was third in the setlist! J.Lo was correct that Ashthon kept her composure and rescued a few notes that had started to wander off into the Forbidden Forest, but I’m guessing Berry Gordy isn’t quite sure why he got out of his cozies and left the comfort of his couch for this performance.

If Ashthon isn’t the season’s first evictee, that could spell d-o-o-m for MySpace Contestant Karen Rodriguez, who performed Selena’s “I Could Fall in Love” with all the joy of a punctured inner tube slowly sinking to the bottom of a swimming pool. The number started in a key way too low for the singer’s comfort zone, and I had to distract myself by looking at Karen’s oversize bangles and sparkly earrings to distract myself from the growing dread in her eyes. J.Lo’s feedback mostly focused on how good Karen’s vocals have been in the past, while Randy reached into his “negative” bag and randomly pulled out the “a little sleepy” paddle. Whatever, dawg. (Side note to Karen: Whoever designed your lumpy, sequined pantsuit should be fired! Oh, wait, you designed it yourself? Um, maybe next week, if you’re still around, you can focus more on your singing and just choose a classy ensemble from the Ryan Starr collection.)

And then we come to Jacob, my pick for “surprise bottom three” contestant this week. Look, I applaud the guy for singing an original composition from his self-penned rock opera Slaughterhouse Symphony, but I’m not sure Idol was the right forum for the experimental/atonal ballad “Sheep’s Dying Moments.” Hold on. Come again? Jacob was actually singing R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly”? So that explains the “How did this bitch crack the top 13?” look on the face of that one chick in the Gospel chorus behind Jacob, as well as the very apt lyric about life being like “an awful song.”

In all seriousness, though, what happened to Jimmy Iovine’s Vegas-week note to Jacob that the worst thing a vocalist can do is to oversing? Halfway through his number, Jacob tossed aside the melody as casually as the lid on a yogurt container, and assaulted the audience with a series of cacophonous screeches, ending with an improvised “you can, you can fly” at the precise moment that the song completed its arduous nosedive and crashed into the ground. Steven and J.Lo muttered something about how Jacob transcends critique, and I almost have to agree. There truly are no words…

Should Be Thankful for Their Competitors’ Stumbles: Lauren Alaina, Haley Reinhart
Wednesday night’s telecast was hawd foh Wittle Wauren. She hads to go first instead of last, and that was tewwible for huh. She was just twying to have a good time with Shania’s “Any Man of Mine.” She could have done a bawwad like [get ready for a subtle dig at the competition] five of the other girls, but she wanted the night to start off more like “last call” at the karaoke bar! Why do those mean judges say mean things? It’s not vewwy nice. Wauren is going to make a stank-eye at Steven. And there’s one for you, J.Lo! Now Wauren is going to stamp her feet and refuse to go to bed! That’ll show you, you meanies!

As for Haley, well, let’s start with a positive. There really weren’t any missed notes on her rendition of LeAnn Rimes’ “Blue,” and her country yodel — while incongruous with everything we’ve heard from the buxom blonde all season — wasn’t out of place on this ditty. Now if she could just stop believing that every song needs to be delivered with the come-hitherness of Michelle Pfeiffer writhing on a piano top in The Fabulous Baker Boys. If there’s a “shock boot” on Thursday, it would probably be Haley, since whatever fan base she has may erroneously assume she’s safe and not speed-dial accordingly.

Should Be Commended for Not Being Boring: Naima Adedapo, Casey Abrams
Let’s start by pointing out Naima’s much-maligned pitch problems on “Umbrella” were still vastly superior to 90 percent of televised performances I’ve seen by Rihanna during her career. Which is why J.Lo’s “you do it like the stars do it” critique was both apt and depressing. If Naima breaks into the “elite” territory of Katy Perry, Ke$ha, and La Lopez herself, she won’t need to worry about any stinkin’ breath support! Yet on the other hand, while Naima’s pitch was far from perfect, I actually liked that she soldiered onward, that she kept fighting to deliver the melody instead of devolving into a howl or a grunt that might cover up her weaknesses. I appreciated Naima’s showmanship — the fact that she shook her groove thing and didn’t look like somebody’s drunk uncle at a wedding. (Wait a second: I just realized I am the drunk uncle at a wedding! But I digress…) But best of all, the Reggae breakdown in the middle of the performance felt like the most authentic and relevant rearrangement of the night. If girlfriend keeps taking risks and raise her vocal game, we might be looking at a second straight year of having a tattooed, dreadlocked mama in the Idol finale!

Casey, meanwhile, was his typically entertaining self on Joe Cocker’s “With A Little Help From My Friends” (originally recorded by The Beatles), but I’m not sure how in the heck it prompted Randy’s critique of “you hit all the notes always!” Honestly, there were a few moments you could hear Casey losing his musical way, then quickly digging himself out of the trenches with a hoot or a howl or a “look at me being charming!” smile. I’m just hoping that after two weeks of soul-infused holleration, next week will find Casey dialing it back a bit and proving he can bring to the big stage the stellar chops he showcased on his Hollywood Week cover of “Georgia on My Mind.”

Should Sail to Safety Without Winning Over New Fans: Stefano Langone, Scotty McCreery
Here was a study in opposites: Producer Don Was kept Scotty precisely in his lane with a straightforward country rendition of Garth Brooks’ “The River,” but the vocal itself was solid, not spectacular. Scotty’s tone and pitch are all there, but he has a tendency to rush through his verses, and he frequently fails to support his notes, trailing off at the ends of lines while Bandzilla continues to blast away. Stefano, on the other hand, threw everything into his vocal on Stevie Wonder’s “Lately,” but producer Polow Da Don saddled him with a completely absurd arrangement of stuttery beats and random tempo changes that sucked all the beauty out of the competition in question. One of the problems for the judges this season is that — with Jimmy Iovine and his team so heavily in the mix — they’re not just critiquing the contestants, but also the industry veterans who they may potentially cross paths with during their off-Idol hours.

Best in Show: Pia Toscano, James Durbin
Two weeks running, Pia has delivered a Big Diva Vocal that’s hovered over her opponents like that gigantic spacecraft in the posters for 1996’s blockbuster Independence Day. Granted, Eric Carmen’s utterly depressing ballad has been done to death (and frequently attributed to Celine Dion) on the Idol stage, but Pia brings such effortlessness to even the most ostentatious moments — the big key change! the final glory note! — that I often find myself inadvertently raising a Gospel hand and nodding my head in approval. Yeah, so maybe the girl hit one or two slightly wonky notes in the midst of the repetitive chorus, but if “All By Myself” is a dragon of a ballad, Pia ended her performance by lopping off its head and raising her bloodied sword in the air. Jennifer’s “SMDH” response was spot-on. Pia’s got it! [Side note: While we’re on the theme of 1996, it’s worth pointing out that was the year Celine released her “All By Myself” cover. And while I do have a little concern about Pia’s radio relevancy in 2011, let’s not forget she was pretty rock solid on the au courant “Grenade” during Hollywood group rounds.]

Still, the performance of the night goes to James Durbin, a contestant whose Hollywood Week screeching made me predisposed to dislike, but who has been blooming into a damn fine performer since Idol reached the big stage this season. James missed barely a note of “Maybe I’m Amazed,” didn’t overdo it with the vocal acrobatics, and moreso than any other singer tonight, interpreted his lyrics in a haunting and intimate way; I got the impression James sat down and read Paul McCartney’s words a good number of times before he ever picked up a mic and started singing ’em. As Steven pointed out, James took everything he’s ever felt and put it into a song, and the slightly Ryan Tedder-y mix put together  by Jim Jonsin added a radio-ready twist to the number. Maybe it was the haircut. Maybe it was the shunting of the unfortunate Na’vi tail. Or maybe I’m a man who’s in the middle of becoming a James Durbin fan. Color me amazed.

And now let’s get the grades for tonight’s performances.

James Durbin: A-
Pia Toscano: A-
Casey Abrams: B
Naima Adedapo: B
Scotty McCreery: B
Lauren Alaina: B-
Stefano Langone: B-
Haley Reinhart: B-
Ashthon Jones: C
Paul McDonald: C-
Thia Megia: D
Karen Rodriguez: D
Jacob Lusk: D-

What did you think of the Wednesday night performance show? Which contestants were your favorites? Which disappointed you most? Sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol coverage, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV.