You can’t teach an old Dawg new vocabulary words, but pretty much everything else on American Idol‘s daft, delightful tenth season is subject to frequent, sometimes thrilling change. On Wednesday night’s Elton John-themed performance telecast, Naima Adedapo and Stefano Langone adopted unexpected and unusual accents. Ryan Seacrest got a daring (unfortunate?) new ‘do, and one contestant was allowed to utter the phrase “hardcore bangage” without so much as a bleep. Heck, even Nigel Lythgoe embraced the mood, putting his favorite punching bag Haley Reinhart in the pimp spot and not dousing her with a bucket of pig’s blood during her show-stopping cover of “Bennie and the Jets.”
Okay, to be fair, there were still some constants on Wednesday night. Pia Toscano performed yet another ballad with power and pitch perfection. Scotty McCreery got his twang on. Steven Tyler said almost nothing of any consequence. And also, Thia Megia was there.
But it was perhaps the biggest change of all — that not just one, but two contestants will walk the Idol plank on Thursday night, without the safety net of the Judges’ Save — that seemed to light fires (mostly figurative, though in one instance literal) under the current crop of performers, resulting in a memorable 120 minutes of music that didn’t contain a single “John Stevens does ‘Crocodile Rock'” debacle. And that fact, of course, will make “goodbye” the hardest word for the Idoloonie Nation to hear on two separate occasions during Thursday’s results-show telecast.
I’m going to go out on a limb and predict we’ll see gender parity in the eliminations. And while there’s not much that would shock me in a season where no clear front-runner has emerged, and even the strongest finalists keep lifting their hems and pointing to their Achilles’ heels, I’m guessing that our two evictees will come from a four-person pool that includes Stefano Langone, Jacob Lusk, Thia Megia, and Naima Adedapo. So let’s make a closer inspection of all 11 performances, focusing on why the aforementioned foursome might be at risk, how a trio of ladies stepped up to dominate the proceedings, and which young man should be thankful he came into the week with a nice big fan base. “Kieran, lock them doors and dim the lights down low…”
Stefano Langone, “Tiny Dancer”: Motown Week was pretty brutal for Stefano, what with his “Hello” disaster, his trip to the bottom two on results night, and the grotesque Gordon Ramsay insulting his mother’s cooking. Unfortunately, Elton John Week could turn out even worse. Because while there’s no denying the guy has got a lovely tone to his voice, and the ability to sing mostly in tune, he’s also developed a strange cadence and accent in his singing that makes it seem like he’s trying to do an impression of Katharine Hepburn, or maybe Billy Crystal saying “waiter, there is too much pepper on my paprikash” in When Harry Met Sally. Seriously, listen back to the performance, the way Stefano pronounces “ballerina” as “ballerinum” (what is that, exactly? a foot bone? a chemical compound?) or “sheets of linen” as “she’s of linen.” Even worse, as Stefano ended his performance with the line “tiny dancer in my hand,” he ambled directly toward the judges’ table and outstretched his own paw toward Jennifer Lopez, a move that is pretty much the musical equivalent of taking a filet mignon (be honest: “Tiny Dancer” is probably Elton’s finest cut of music) and smothering it with a pint of liquid Velveeta. It also doesn’t help that condensing “Tiny Dancer” to 90 seconds robs the song of its delicious slow build, or that Jimmy Iovine acts like he’d love nothing more than to send Stefano out to fetch his coffee, then scream at him mercilessly for screwing up the ratio of cream to sugar. Of course, if Stefano’s fan base hangs on to fond memories of “I Need You Now” and “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” it could spell trouble for…
Jacob Lusk, “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”: True, Jacob has yet to make a bottom-three appearance. But seeing how it’s pretty early in the season, I don’t think it’s crazy for me to wonder just how many members of the Idoloonie Nation want to endure another eight weeks of the man’s face-pulling, octave-scaling melodrama. I had to laugh when Jimmy Iovine warned that the former spa concierge’s performances can occasionally veer into being “overdramatized,” as if “overdramatized” was just a place Jacob visits from time to time and not his permanent address. To his credit, Jacob managed some moderate restraint for the opening half of his ballad, but as sure as Jennifer Hudson’s week-old fog was rolling across the stage, so too did this number devolve into an all-too-familiar Luskian car crash of key changes and caterwauling and overly rehearsed “crying faces.” Things got so heightened with Jacob’s fluttering eyes and trembling lips and downturned mouth that he might just as well have performed in full “sad clown” makeup and costume.
The judges, for their part, refused to utter the words “indulgent” or “oversinging” or “oh. my. God. no.” Like a baby robin peeking out of its nest for the first time, Steven Tyler almost managed some constructive criticism. “The first half blew me away; the second half was, was,” said the Aerosmith frontman, suddenly noticing the terrifying distance from treetop to ground, “equalled for me.” (Cue sad trombone sound.) Randy sputtered something about racehorses and gas and wanting Jacob to give him one spot where he really goes all the way (forgetting he was the one who told Jacob in Hollywood week to always put the pedal to the metal). At least J.Lo had the decency to give a shout-out to Robbie Rosen (remember him?), who gave a far more genuine rendition of “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” during the Wild Card portion of the semifinals.
Still, since it seems unlikely Idol will send home two guys on the same night — I sometimes have nightmares that Uncle Nigel has a whole slew of fresh male recruits (Jerome Bell and Caleb Hawley and John Wayne Schulz) ready to sweep in and pinch-hit for the final three ladies — we’ve got to expect at least one woman is going to be sobbing to the tune of David Cook’s “Don’t You Forget About Me” on Thursday. My top prediction for the role…
Thia Megia, “Daniel”: Finally this week, our “world-class” mentor — hang on, I’ll pause so you can stop giggling — gave Thia some good advice: Crush all the terrible habits she picked up as a little girl, and connect to a song and its lyrics on a visceral level. Unfortunately, in Thia’s 16-year-old mind, this meant literally forcing her square-peg experience of having her older brother move away from home when she was just a wee lass into the circular shape of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s haunting ballad of loss and remembrance. I’d be lying if I said Thia’s vocal wasn’t pretty or on pitch, but there was nonetheless a vacancy when she delivered lines like “your eyes have died, but you see more than I” that made me wonder what — if anything — was going through her mind as she sang.
Side note: Anyone else notice that Entertainment Weekly’s fashion-shoot photographer has something to say about 10 out of the 11 finalists, excluding only Thia? Of course, if voters are a little more cognizant of her existence than that fine gentleman, it could spell doom for season 10’s most (pick an adjective: intriguing/exciting/confusing/maddening) contestant…
Naima Adedapo, “I’m Still Standing”: Color me shocked that zero out of three judges managed to hone in on precisely what was wrong with Naima’s reggae interpretation of one of the evening’s few uptempo ditties: The fact that she sang it in a phony Jamaican accent, mon! I mean, otherwise, The Lady Adedapo’s personal twist on a played-out ’80s jam was actually kind of genius, and sung decently enough that it should’ve helped her to easily sail through to the Top Nine. There’s a reason the “yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah” breakdown worked especially well — because it’s hard to put a forced Jah-Rasta pronunciation on it. I’d be making my “J.Lo for President” buttons right this second if La Lopez had looked at Naima and said, “Girrrrrrl, you from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, not Kingston, Jamaica!” And don’t get me started on why Jimmy Freakin’ Iovine didn’t put the kibosh on the Miss Cleo ridiculata. That said, we’ve got to give props to Ryan for making fun of Randy’s “for me, for you” critiques. Respeck, Seacrest. And booyakasha to ya.
Of course on this strange season of Idol, I don’t think there’s a single contestant who should head into Thursday’s results feeling entirely at ease. And if viewers reward Naima for succeeding in concept if not in execution, and if they buy the judges’ love for Jacob or rally for Stefano due to his brush with elimination last week, there are two other singers who have the potential to wind up as shockers on the Silver Stools of Doom on Thursday.
Scotty McCreery, “Country Comfort”: On the surface, there was absolutely nothing wrong with Scotty’s fine Elton John cover. Sure, he tended to drop the ends of certain phrases (as he’s done all season). And, yeah, his awkward crouch-and-lean stance was still somewhat visible despite the merciful addition of his acoustic guitar, Scarlett. Plus, I kinda sorta wish that Scotty had gotten a little more creative in his song selection, maybe picked an Elton track he felt could’ve benefitted from a little torch and twang tinkering instead of simply scanning for a title containing the word “country.” But the kid did give a shout-out to his grandma. And he was in tune almost all the way through (except maybe that last wobbly low note). And Randy had a point that “Country Comfort” could easily be on Scotty’s self-titled debut album, due out around Thanksgiving, on 19 Recordings; pre-orders begin on iTunes on May 26. Ahh… I can hear those holiday cash registers ka-chinging. Clearly I’m out of my gourd for suggesting a “Scotty in Peril” scenario, so let’s move right along to…
Paul McDonald, “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time)”: Color me crazy, but I kind of knew where Steven Tyler was coming from when he said Paul is the type of singer where it doesn’t matter if he hits a note or doesn’t. And to be honest, I couldn’t tell (and didn’t care) if Paul was in tune or not as he croaked his way through Elton’s killer chorus. Dude sounded amazing on the verse, phrasing the words in an intimate, conversational way that really drove home the longing and isolation of the story’s protagonist. Unfortunately, Paul closed the performance with a carelessly whispered “long, long time” that was accompanied by an earnest/creepy/comical eyebrow raise, and I worry that final impression could cost him votes.
That leaves us with five singers who I’m 99.9% certain will survive into Top Nine Week, four of them on account of being pretty darn spectacular on Wednesday, and one of them based on prior reputation and a free pass from the judges. Let’s start with the positives.
Lauren Alaina, “Candle in the Wind”: I won’t lie and pretend I’ve ever really been aboard the Lauren Alaina Is The Chosen One Express, but tonight, as she delivered a twangy, restrained vocal on what Randy ridiculously called “one of the greatest songs ever written,” I actually started to get the hype — both for the singer and the ballad she was delivering. It takes a pretty special vocal to make you hear an overplayed, overbaked track with new ears, but that’s exactly what Lauren did for me, especially the way she chose to zig on notes where I expected her to zag, like when she switched up the melody on that first pass at the words “your legend ever did.” Yep, I’ll admit it: Lauren was pretty much perfection tonight, or as Randy might put it, “She’s in it to win it! What? Yo! Yo!” (Ugh.)
Casey Abrams, “Your Song”: Also getting the Full Dawg is the recipient of last week’s Judges’ Save. But before I praise Casey’s tender interpretation of Elton John’s prettiest melody, can I just take a moment and thank producer Rodney Jerkins for encouraging Casey to tame his manky beard? I’m always shocked how seldom struggling contestants use a physical or fashion reboot to signify a new beginning in the competition, but Casey’s less bedraggled look perfectly suited his new musical mood. “Your Song” was both tuneful and artfully interpreted, with a closing bit of growl that conveyed real passion, not forced stage shtick. I think Steven Tyler may have tried to point out that Casey’s last two notes got away from him, but then he tried to turn his constructive criticism into an empty platitude, and I remembered why he’s been dead to me since the live performance rounds began. But anyway, welcome back, Casey! Next week please break out the upright bass. Thank you.
Pia Toscano, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”: Pia’s entire Idol run is turning into a case of “How can something so wrong be so beautifully, addictively right?” I mean, earlier this week, I wrote an item called “American Idol: What Should the Top 11 Sing for Elton John Week?” in which I stated that “Cecile Frot-Coutaz ought to secretly deduct 250,000 votes from whichever finalist dares to” tackle “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” seeing as how it’s been DONE TO DEATH (sorry, ALL CAPS necessary to reduce my blood pressure) on the Idol stage. I mean, after hearing such standout finalists as Bo Bice, David Archuleta, Justin Guarini, Jorge Nuñez, Clay Aiken and Jasmine Trias (well, four out of six ain’t bad) tackle the tune over the course of the past nine seasons, did Pia really think there was anything new to add to it, especially while wearing a hideous nude-and-metallic-shards figure-skating costume? And yet add she did! Pia took out her vocal machete and she slayed this beast in the best possible way! Not only was every note perfectly rendered, but Pia dug down into the water table and squeezed new juice out of this dry husk of a ballad (how’s that for mixed metaphors). And what’s more, she’s already promising “River Deep Mountain High” if she cracks the Top 9. (Frankly, if she’s determined to do Tina Turner, though, I’d prefer “Steamy Windows” or “Nutbush City Limits” or even “Better Be Good to Me” — none of which, to my knowledge, have gotten the Celine Dion treatment).
And now, before we get to my favorite performance of the night (and Randy’s, too), I need to call b.s. on all the praise the judges heaped on the steaming pile of karaoke that was James Durbin’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” Honestly, have Steven, Randy, and Jennifer never seen a performer start a song from up in the rafters or jump up on top of a piano or hurl the mic stand across the stage? Have they never seen a bit of on-stage pyrotechnics? Does Randy honestly believe that “having a good time” is the most important aspect of a vocal performance? Because all those layers of nonsense (and James’ ill-fitting “rocker” outfit) couldn’t cover up the fact that the guy’s vocal was a total “color by numbers” hack job. I wouldn’t be quite so scathing to a guy who’s consistently been near the top of the season 10 pack, but the dude is capable of better, and someone needs to say it out loud.
And now…speaking of things that need to be verbalized (and things that happened on top of a piano), can we get a slow clap in the house? HAY-LEE! HAY-LEE! HAY-LEE! That’s right everyone, it’s time to discuss The Emancipation of Haley Reinhart, by virtue of her robust, loose, growling, bluesy, absolutely delightful take on “Bennie and the Jets.” Haley kicked things off Michelle Pfeiffer-in-Fabulous Baker Boys style, sprawled across a red piano, and giving the number a gin-soaked, late-night lounge vibe. Midway through the song, though, Haley tore into the melody like a lioness into a baby impala’s leg, and while it wasn’t always graceful — Haley clumsily scooching herself off the piano was the opposite of sophisticated and sexy — it was most indubitably enjoyable. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a real Idol underdog literally come into his or her own in the middle of an actual performance, but that’s exactly what Haley did with “Bennie.” Maybe her choices could’ve been more nuanced, maybe her crouch-and-wave antics were a little less than polished, but sometimes you have to stop nitpicking, remember that we’re on the hunt for the next undiscovered, inexperienced potential superstar, and simply enjoy the delicious taste of unbridled grit mixed with undeniable vocal horsepower. Have I said too much? Have I gone way over the top? Well, sometimes “hardcore bangage” trumps tasteful restraint.
And now, onto tonight’s grades…
Haley Reinhart: A-
Lauren Alaina: A-
Pia Toscano: A-
Casey Abrams: B+
Scotty McCreery: B
Paul McDonald: B (downgraded from B+ on account of that damn whisper)
Naima Adedapo: B- (downgraded from B+ on account of that damn accent)
Stefano Langone: B-
Thia Megia: C+
James Durbin: C
Jacob Lusk: C
What did you think of tonight’s performances? Who was your favorite? Who’ll be in the bottom three, and who will go home? Sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol news and commentary, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!