American Idol Recap: Precious Mettle

No matter which contestant ended up going home, Thursday night’s American Idol Top 4 results show was destined to be a tough one. Not since Season 5 — when Taylor Hicks, Katharine McPhee, Elliott Yamin, and Chris Daughtry were the last singers standing — has an Idol competition boiled down to such a closely matched quartet. And that’s why there’s no shame in James Durbin’s somewhat surprising exit, especially considering Idol tallied some 72 million votes this week — a record for a Top 4 telecast.

Yes, to quote the Journey hit he performed on Wednesday’s performance show, “some will win, some will lose.” And yet, even those words don’t necessarily apply to James. Because as Daughtry’s career has shown us, it’s not where you finish that counts as much as what kind of music you make once you get out from under Idol‘s protective umbrella. (Now, the question becomes, will Jimmy Iovine and his team exercise their option to sign James to the Universal imprint? And more generally, aside from the automatic contracts for the Top 2, who else is likely to get a major-label deal? Pia? James? Casey?)

Anyhow, despite the tears that streaked his face after he got the bad news, James managed to maintain a positive outlook. “I did what I came here to do: Give metal a chance,” said the season’s resident rocker, who can look back with pride on a number of fine performances over the last few months: “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Uprising,” “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming,” “Heavy Metal,” and “Maybe I’m Amazed” (which, incidentally, also served as James’ exit performance). Now here’s hoping he gets a duet with Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler for the season 10 finale. Might I humbly suggest “Dream On,” a song that could use a little Idol TLC after getting thrown down the pit with Precious back in Season 8? I just wish J.Lo and Randy had been more willing to give constructive criticism to James about his weaker performances (“Without You,” “Closer to the Edge,” “Don’t Stop Believin'”); who knows how much more he could have grown as an artist over the last eleven weeks?

Whatever the case may be, James’ exit leaves us with three contestants — Lauren Alaina, Haley Reinhart, and Scotty McCreery — heading into hometown visits. On results night, Ryan Seacrest started things off by announcing Lauren’s safety, a blow to members of the Save the Growler movement, many of whom fretted that only one woman could possibly advance to the final three. But then, with about 10 minutes to spare, Ryan started commenting about how media buzz this season had focused on the strength of the show’s male contestants, and I realized he was faking me out to reveal that Haley — who’s spent the last three weeks singing gorgeously while simultaneously serving as the guinea pig on which J.Lo and Randy have tested out their “douchebag judge” personas — had survived another cut. Suddenly, my living room ceiling opened up and a torrent of gold confetti came raining down onto my head. Shall we cue up the music to Jordin Sparks’ Season 6 victory anthem?

This is her now
And Haley’s on her way to hometowns
As I look around
I see Randy in a state of “Wow!”
A win for longshots,
J.Lo can only ask “How?”
Haley’s in
And this is her now

And with that out of the way, let’s review the evening’s musical performances, not counting Steve Tyler’s (strangely forgettable) music video, or Lady Gaga’s (admittedly fantastic) concert footage. (Hey, if it’s not happening live (or live-ish) on the Idol stage, it’s not really reviewable, is my motto):

Musical Performances
Scotty McCreery & James Durbin: “Start a Band”
More of an afterthought than a fully realized performance. The opening verse was pitched too low for James’ register, and the “walking through the audience” sequence felt interminable. I liked it better when the guys finally got to the stage and played their guitars side-by-side while also offering up some lovely harmonies. Grade: C

Haley Reinhart & Lauren Alaina: “Gunpowder and Lead”
It was all about the ladies this week, and the duets were no exception. Lauren’s black leather-fringe scarf thingamawhatsit was pretty spectacular, and fit her vibe well despite looking like something borrowed from James’ closet. Better yet, Haley and Lauren’s voices blended beautifully here, and while I wasn’t 100 percent certain about turning Miranda Lambert’s ode to fighting back against domestic violence into a duet, the hair-tossing, soul-igniting delivery was hard to deny. Grade: B+

Enrique Iglesias: “Dirty Dancer”/”I Like It”
Look, it’s Enrique dueting with Usher’s giant disembodied head! Now there he is surrounded by “ladies” and hitting falsetto notes that make him sound like a character on a PBS Kids’ special! Please, can anyone tell me why I’m suddenly nostalgic for Stefano Langone and Jovany Barreto (though still not Jordan Dorsey)?  Maybe because those dudes can actually sing live? Grade: C

Jordin Sparks: “I Am Woman”
Wait a second here. Season 6’s bright-eyed ingenue is shaking her moneymaker while wearing the kind of silver trench coat that’s just made for doffing? Well, just as I can’t prevent the backward retreat of my hairline, I guess we also can’t prevent Little Miss Sparks from growing up. It’s always tough performing a modern dance track on the live Idol stage — the music inevitably sound small and tinny, the backing tracks make people think “Is girlfriend lipsynching?” — but she performed it with the confidence, poise, and gams of a Beyoncé Jr. And the song is kinda hot. Grade: B

And now, on to our awards ceremony for the evening!

The Haley Has No Friends or Family Plan
How come Ms. Reinhart was almost entirely absent during the Windows 7 video chat segment featuring the contestants chatting with their loved ones? We got to see Lauren playing one of her tracks for her brother, James doing ABCs with his son, and Haley…blowing a kiss to her parents? We see you, producers, and we know what you’re up to!

The Voldemort Prize for Things That Should Never Come Out of Your Mouth on the Idol Stage
“I wanna go home!” –Lauren Alaina, not giving up on the competition, but rather talking about hometown visits

The Swaybots in Training Program?
What was up with those tiny tots sitting on the side of the stage during “Start a Band.”

The “Hey! Don’t Say That During the Family Hour!” Lyric Award
“No need to study! Start a band!”

Ugliest Stage Furnishings Prize
Could the Golden Stools of Advancement have been any cheaper?

Next Week’s Theme
Three songs – one selected by the judges, one selected by in-house mentor Jimmy Iovine, and one individual choice.

And now that you’ve got the scoop, I turn things over to you. How are you feeling about James’s ouster? What kind of future do you see him having? Can you imagine buying his post-Idol music? Sound off in our poll below, then hit the comments; and for all my Idol news and commentary, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!

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