American Idol Recap: Natural 'Born' Killers

Wednesday night, American Idol broke out the time-honored theme of “Songs From the Year You Were Born,” which is alternately known as “Excuses to Show Contestants’ Baby Photos” Week and also “Holy Crap, You Could Have Totally Changed That Singer’s Diaper!” Night. Song selections ranged from Nirvana to Whitney Houston (twice!), and from “I’m just gonna pretend that wasn’t the theme from Disney’s Pocahontas” to “Dude, Carrie and Allison sang it better, and as a matter of fact, so did Gina Glocksen.” And that was just the tip of the inscrutable iceberg.

Scotty McCreery’s mom outsang at least a quarter of the contestants (without even trying). Steven Tyler found some of Paula Abdul’s old crib notes stuck under the judges’ table and figured, “Why the f*** not?” And Jimmy Iovine essentially gave Haley Reinhart a photocopied “Season 10 Certificate of Participation” and a $25 iTunes gift certificate before asking her to put down her mic and go fetch lunch for Lauren Alaina. Oh, and Stefano Langone committed two crimes on the Idol stage — absolutely slaying “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” and stealing the night from his 11 fellow finalists in the process.

But let’s turn it over to the always eloquent Randy Jackson for his take on the proceedings: “We got a hot competition, bay-bee!” Ugh, on second thought, let’s hit the mute button on the dawg and recap tonight’s performances, starting with the four ladies I suspect will (but not necessarily should) be competing to make up Thursday night’s bottom three: Thia Megia, MySpace Contestant Karen Rodriguez, Haley Reinhart, and Naima Adedapo.

Thia Megia, “Colors of the Wind”: C-
Who else wanted to swaddle Thia in a warm Navajo blanket toward the end of her performance of Vanessa Williams’ Pocahontas ballad? Seriously, I couldn’t tell if the competition’s youngest contestant had broken out the excessive vibrato and slurry enunciation on purpose (perhaps as a way to bring to life the shivery presence of the titular zephyr?) or if she’d just developed a nasty chill right there on the Idol stage. (I shivered, too, to be honest, every time Thia uttered the words “blue corn moon.” I mean…)

But in all seriousness, I wasn’t the only one who picked up on the vaguely unpleasant tone Thia’s voice took on over the course of her performance. In one of her many constructive critiques Wednesday night (woohoo!), Jennifer Lopez said she simply couldn’t tell if Thia’s nerves were showing or if there’s something wonky about the quality of her vibrato. “Either way, I don’t want to think about that,” J.Lo said. Even Steven Tyler managed to ask a pertinent question: “Is that song who you think you are?” To which Thia weirdly responded, “Um, I thought it suited perfectly, you know, what’s going on in the world today, so I thought the lyrics suited very perfectly what the…you know, but it was 1995, I thought it was the best song out of all the choices I had.” So to sum it, either Thia really wants us to consider, in these troubled times, “how high does the sycamore grow,” or else Uncle Nigel gave her a list of four songs to choose from, and all of them were preposterous. Watch how you answer, kiddo, or Peggi Blu is going to DRAG YOU TO HELL.

Karen Rodriguez, “Love Will Lead You Back”: D+
Did you know that Karen auditioned for Idol from the comfort of her own home, via MySpace? Hey, don’t blame Ryan for bringing it up again: With the way Karen is performing, her Idol run is going to be like McDonald’s Shamrock Shake — for a limited time only. Sporting a beehive hairdo that made her head look like the number eight, Karen rocked a black and silver minidress that was one part Barbarella and one part Joanna Krupa’s “Future Paso” costume from Dancing With the Stars, not realizing that no single outfit would be able to drag Taylor Dayne’s dated ballad from its late-’80s perch. Karen seemed to be fighting from beginning to end to stay on pitch, and she finally lost the uncomfortable battle at the Dramatic Key Change/Switch Into Spanish. Is it possible I enjoyed this song better when Mikalah Gordon warbled it back in Season 4? I can’t really answer, on the grounds that I’d have to go back and listen to both performances again to reach my verdict. Either way, I appreciated J.Lo advising Karen not to reach for notes she’s not sure she can hit: It certainly beat Steven’s gobbledygook about Karen’s “ethnic what-it-is-ness” or Randy’s off-the-mark “welcome back!” If Karen lives to fight another week, she should probably thank her mom’s sweet/adorable interview package, which strictly followed Idol Editing Code No. 457: Parents With Accents Must Always Be Subtitled.

Haley Reinhart, “I’m Your Baby Tonight”: C+
If Karen’s mom managed to get out the vote, it could spell trouble for Haley, who flagrantly disobeyed an important Idol bylaw of her own: Never Cover a Midtempo Whitney Houston Track (also known as the “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” Statute). Now, look, I need to be fair here: All season long, I’ve struggled to understand Haley — both existentially and because of her marbles-in-mouth pronunciation — but I dare say she’s kind of growing on me. There were moments on “I’m Your Baby” where the kid’s signature growl actually worked, as did those jazzy riffs she inserted toward the end of the number. Plus, as usual, Haley stayed on pitch consistently from start to finish (even if she couldn’t quite match strides with Whitney’s rapid-fire wordplay). But J.Lo was right in pointing out the awkwardness of Haley’s body language. The way she repeatedly turns sideways, bends her knees, and dips her derriere toward the floor, Haley resembles an adolescent flightless bird shaking her tail feathers in some sort of botched mating ritual. The vaguely tragic vibe was not helped by the sight of Haley accidentally touching her mic to her severely painted lips, then subsequently leaving red, mic-patterned blotches on her cheek and chin. Or by Ryan using a handkerchief and his saliva-dabbed finger to wipe the offending smudges off Haley’s face. “It’s my first red-lipstick disaster!” Haley said delightedly, then later added this unfortunate bon mot to her collection: “I let my mouth go with the flow!”

Still, seeing how Haley was born on at 9 a.m. on 9/9/90, perhaps she’s destined for a ninth place finish (even if it’s not Season 9). Let’s be honest, with her loopy lack of polish, Haley is infinitely more entertaining than, say, Karen or Thia. But how to explain Jimmy Iovine’s “thanks for playing” comments? “This year there is gonna be a winner of American Idol, but there are gonna be other winners — ’cause of the kind of talent that is being shown that will go on and should have successful careers,” he said. “Everything you do is being watched and monitored both by the audience and by us. And work ethic is a big thing, you know?” Did Haley just get her commitment questioned on national television? Ouch. That said, while Haley has now covered contemporary R&B, country, and early ’90s pop, if she survives another week, I think she should zero in on Steven’s request that she shift her focus to blues rock.

Naima Adedapo, “What’s Love Got to Do With It”: C-
Note to Naima: You can be cool and likable and a good dancer, and you can add a thumping bass line to update your mid-’80s ditty, but if 90 percent of your notes are flatter than the average Kansas cornfield, then the Idoloonie Nation is going to be finished with you before Easter.

I’ve got to admit I about fell off my chair when, offering the first critique of the evening, Steven blathered that Naima had “a sorcerer’s grasp of melody” — if he’s correct, then I suggest we all try to achieve our OWLs in Defense Against the Dark Arts — but thank Ja Rule that J.Lo kept it real and called out the dreadlocked mama for being consistently pitchy.

Oh, but how come Our Lady of Gigli couldn’t point the same harsh-truth gun at Jacob Lusk or Casey Abrams? I’d label those gentlemen as the two contestants who ought to be at risk on Thursday night — or at the very least should have been led by the judges to believe they might be.

Jacob Lusk, “Alone”: D
Look, it’s almost impossible to consider an Idol performance of Heart’s classic slice of ’80s bombast without drawing comparisons to Carrie Underwood’s definitive season 4 performance, and then to Allison Iraheta’s “where did SHE come from?” breakout from the season 8 semifinals. But even on its own merits, Jacob’s performance was absolute butchery, the equivalent of using a pick axe instead of a bread knife on a fresh-baked baguette. Jacob wants to believe that the “Lusk stank” involves putting an over-the-top Gospel twist on a song, but what he’s really doing is spraying buckshot at the melody, hoping that somewhere in the blast of noise and side-eyes and glittering lip balm, he’ll hit the occasional note. I’d rail against all three judges praising this assault of a performance just because it came last — and you’re supposed to end the show on an upbeat note, I guess? — but repeating any of their words might somehow give them credence, and I can’t abide by that. (Hey, J.Lo, when a bum note makes you physically wince — yeah, the Fox camera guys caught that — shouldn’t you maybe mention it in your feedback?)

Casey Abrams, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”: C+
It’s not a good sign for a contestant’s long-range Idol plans when you rewind his performance not to hear his singing, but instead to relive his mom’s adorable use of “pedantic.” And while I’m not yet giving up on Casey — not while his magical Hollywood Week take on “Georgia on My Mind” is so fresh in my memory — I have to admit I’m concerned that the kid might be buying a little too heavily into his own hype. “Is it too big of a risk? I don’t care,” he told Jimmy Iovine of his decision to cover Nirvana’s 1991 classic.

But riddle me this: How is it any more “daring” to tackle Nirvana’s grunge-rock anthem than, say, a Donna Summer disco ditty, if all you’re going to do is cough up a karaoke cover? As J.Lo pointed out, Casey went “screamy-screechy” where Kurt Cobain maintained his grasp on the rhythm and melody, and even worse, I felt like he tried to substitute “maniacal” sideways facial expressions for real rock swagger. In Casey’s defense, I think it’s hard to be a rock star when you’re forced to stand alone at center stage — high-school talent-show style — while an anonymous band makes music somewhere to the side of the stage. But I also don’t think Casey has enough depth as a singer and a musician that he can just pell-mell pick from any genre and make it work. Time to cross hard rock off the list, dude. (And Randy, time to stop randomly name-checking Muse and Lykke Li just to convince us you can still hang with the youngsters.)

Anyhow, this brings me to three contestants this week who certainly did enough to get by, but are also going to have to really step up their games if they want to be viewed as serious contenders for Lee DeWyze’s crown and sash. I speak, of course, of Paul McDonald, James Durbin, and Lauren Alaina.

Paul McDonald, “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”: B-
Paul’s chirping, “I’ve got a bad cold” rasp and slightly lazy delivery bordered on Macy Gray-esque tonight, and as a major fan of the “Beauty in the World” singer, I can’t be too mad at him. Then again, on a night where contestants were allowed to bring their instruments — a Fox spokesperson confirmed this fact for me — why in the hell did the rubbery-limbed band man leave his guitar backstage? (Side note to Randy: If you don’t know what Steven meant by “cool dude, loose mood,” you might want to consult a dictionary before you blurt it out on national television. Thank you.)

James Durbin, “I’ll Be There for You”: B-
James reattached his tail thingy to his backside this week, and while it may have been a step forward for Na’vi lovers everywhere, I thought it was a vocal leap backwards for the guy who dazzled last week on “Maybe I’m Amazed.” Randy was the only judge to make mention of James’ intermittent pitch problems — dude’s “rocker wail” seemed really sharp this week — but even worse, I wasn’t seeing him throw his emotions completely into Bon Jovi’s late-’80s power ballad. Sure, James can sail through for the next month being merely competent, but if he’s gonna do that, then it’s maybe a tad premature to be planning his finale set list, no?

Lauren Alaina, “I’m the Only One”: B
Awww, widdle Wauwen’s got da fwuuu. (I kid! I kid!) But seriously, have we ever seen a pre-performance interview designed solely to remind the voting public that “This contestant is not a well woman!”? Not to my memory. Frankly, though, Idol‘s producers needn’t have bothered, as Lauren hit more than her fair share of notes and did a decent job of riffing on the melody. I just wish the kid’s delivery wasn’t so…lethargic? Casual? I’m not sure if I’m picking the right adjectives here, but I never fully feel like Lauren is living inside her songs; they’re more like costumes she pulls over head before she takes the stage, and they’ll end up crammed on hangers back in her princess-themed closet within the hour. Part of the problem might be the fact that for three weeks running, Lauren has gravitated toward songs that might be a few years too mature for her emotional range, but I suppose I’d rather see her stretch her boundaries than settle for “Colors of the Wind.”

And finally, we come to the three contestants who are looking like (as Randy might say) they’re “in it to win it!” — and I’m not just singling out these cats because on the latest Idoloonies (embedded below for your pleasure) I made the early prediction that Scotty McCreery, Pia Toscano, and Stefano Langone would crack Season 10’s Top 3.

Scotty McCreery, “Can I Trust You With My Heart”: B+
First things first: I know Scotty’s parents were just goofing off when gave us their best “Baby lock them doors,” but Mama McCreery’s got a lovely voice on her! As for her son, he scored high marks this week by covering a tender Travis Tritt ballad and putting a little more muscle into his delivery than he did last week on “The River.” There’s nothing flashy about Scotty’s style — he hits his notes, he soars when he’s meant to, he’s not interested in winning a vibrato-off with Thia — but the real question is, how will we feel about the kid staying in his lane for the next 11 weeks? Here’s hoping we never start looking at him like a John Deere tractor going 22 mph on a country road with a double yellow line. Know what I mean?

Pia Toscano, “Where Do Broken Hearts Go”: B+
Yes, evil Idol overlords, I have made a note in my Book of Idol Sins about the tiny pink hearts floating on the screen behind Pia while she turned a Whitney Houston power ballad into a light dance romp. (Really, there’s simply no excuse.)

Thankfully, Pia’s white shoulderless jumpsuit (borrowed from Judith Light’s Who’s the Boss collection) was enough distraction to get me past the heart-shaped horrors and allow me to concentrate on yet another sweet vocal that had plenty of boom-boom-pow, despite being a little 2000-and-late. Because, really, if you had muted the skittering synths and midtempo beat percolating behind Pia, she was essentially delivering “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” in standard Whitney fashion. To paraphrase Beyoncé, “Yes I like it but I want a little tempo on it, Pia!” Maybe next week she can tackle something a little less Falcon Crest and a little more Melrose Place, like, say Natalie Imbruglia or SWV or even N’Sync (if any of that makes any sense)!

Stefano Langone, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”: A-
Honestly, you can’t beat an Emotional Dad Package on Idol, and Papa Langone’s palpable pride was a nice segue into Stefano’s fantastic cover of “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” (Granted, the song choice was a bit of a cheat, having been originally recorded in 1972 by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, but Simply Red’s 1989 cover made it eligible under the SFTYYWB theme.) As Randy pointed out, Stefano went for a high degree of difficulty, and while his last big glory note was like a jaunty sparrow smacking into a giant picture window, the rest of the song was vocally and emotionally spot-on. Plus, I really dug the way the gray swatches on his pink dress shirt played against his charcoal jacket. The guy has the look and the sound — now if he’d just stop making fun of perfectly lovely songs like “Funky Cold Medina,” “Hangin’ Tough,” and “Girl You Know It’s True,” I might just be willing to hop on his bandwagon.

What did you think of this week’s Idol performances? Who was your favorite? Who’ll be the bottom three? Who will go home? And were there any surprises, positive or negative? Head down to the comments to share your thoughts and theories. Oh, and for all my Idol ridiculata, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!

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