American Idol Recap: We Gonna Party Like It's Your Birth Year

joshua ledetWednesday’s installment of American Idol was supposed to focus on Songs From the Year the Contestants Were Born, but in some cases, it felt more like Opposites Day: Steven Tyler woke up from a very long nap and started doling out crotchety critiques. Jennifer Lopez tried to give songwriting lessons (¡ay dios mio!) to Bonnie Raitt. And more than half of this week’s contestants picked songs that were not intially released in the years of their birth. Why the face?

In other news, Ryan Seacrest tried to make a pun about dreadlocks, while failing to recognize that’s not a word that you’d use to describe DeAndre’s hair. (Oh Ryan, so white!) Randy Jackson worked overtime to replace “Season One One” with “Sing the ‘I don’t know what’ out of that” as his official Season 11 catchphrase. (It’s not going to take root with America, either, I’m afraid). And somebody got booted for trying to channel Fievel the Mouse. (Not really.) Let’s review the night’s performances:

Phillip Phillips: Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” (covered by the Black Crows the year Phillip was born)
Given that Lauren Alaina received the whole “doctor in scrubs answering questions about her vocal cords” treatment when she fell ill before the Season 10 finale, I’m surprised producers didn’t slap surgical masks and scrubs on Jimmy Iovine and guest mentor Will.i.Am and have Phillip rehearse for them in the midst of whatever surgery he underwent last Thursday. (Opportunity for dramatic footage missed, Uncle Nigel!) In all seriousness, though, the fact that Phillip had another human being cut into his body with a scalpel less than a week before his cover of “Hard to Handle” made the end result all the more impressive. Dude didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel with his straight-up-the-middle cover, but he proved he was more than capable of handling the song’s tricky cadences — even without his guitar/safety blanket at the ready. I’m not sure how Randy could say a voice like Phillip’s makes him a “fish out of water” — not when Idol‘s second-to-last winner was a similarly growly acoustic dude — but then again, I don’t expect Randy to remember what happened last week on Idol, let alone two seasons ago. Also, given that Randy thinks “turn the other cheek” means “try out a new tempo,” it’s possible he thinks “fish out of water” is a medical term or something.

Jessica Sanchez: Vicki Sue Robinson’s “Turn the Beat Around” (covered by Gloria Estefan the year Jessica was born)
I kind of understood Jennifer Lopez’s critique that Jessica’s reliance on vibrato stopped her from nailing the syncopated rhythms (with a rat-tat-tat-tat…) of a disco classic that’s been covered far too many times on the Idol stage. But on the other hand, the juxtaposition of Jessica’s heavy delivery against the song’s skittering tempo elevated it from mere karaoke into something that was at the very least interesting, if not entirely successful. And I guess that’s why I was a little perturbed to see all three judges come down so hard on the Season 11 front-runner, rather than applaud her for taking a risk and trying to prove she’s as versatile as any of her competitors. Particularly infuriating was Steven’s suggestion that Jessica stick with ballads for the rest of the season, when that’s exactly the strategy that led to Pia Toscano’s early exit in Season 10. Oh, and Randy, no one says you shouldn’t give contestants some constructive criticism, but that doesn’t mean the biggest, steadiest vocalists should be held to a different standard than their less endowed rivals.

Heejun Han: Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting”
If you’ll allow me a Paula Abdul “compliment the clothing when there’s not much else positive to say” moment, who else was living for Heejun’s pink shirt, plaid bowtie, and charcoal suit (from the Nolan on Revenge Collection)? Alas, though, Heejun’s vocal performance was about as fun as trying to take a bath in a tub with a leaky drain. Dude was pouring everything he had into the maudlin ’80s ballad, but the end result was a shallow, lukewarm disaster. Steven and Randy accurately noted (¡ay dios mio! again) that Heejun was running out of breath from start to finish, but at least his inquiry bout Fergie’s phone number gave Jimmy and Will an excuse to try out a “comedy bit” that upgrades I Hate My Teenage Daughter to the second least-funny thing to air on Fox in 2012. In other news, J.Lo said she loved it, but she lied. (Yes, that was a Michael Bolton reference.)

Elise Testone: Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” (covered by Tina Turner the year Elise was born)
Add another checkmark to the “Elise is a glum old lady!” box courtesy of Will asking her to smile for cryin’ out loud at the end of her baby-makin’ ballad. Sigh. In happier news, though, Elise really sounded terrific on the first half of the Al Green classic, sitting on the piano and using her gentle rasp to set the romantic mood. When the band kicked in on the chorus, I felt like Elise maybe tried a little too hard to impress with the vocal acrobatics, but at least she did it in tune. Oh, go ahead already, Randy. “America, Elise is back!” (Why is that guy even more annoying when I agree with him?)

DeAndre Brackensick: Lionel Richie and Diana Ross’ “Endless Love” (covered by Mariah Carey and Luther Vandross the year DeAndre was born)
Lesson to Season 11 finalists: Don’t let Jimmy Iovine railroad you into changing your song choice, since that will almost surely result in the judges complaining bitterly about, you guessed it, your song choice, and J.Lo starting her critique with the dreaded “hi, baby.” I actually felt like DeAndre’s vocal was solid and heartfelt on the ’70s-era ballad, but it was his body language and facial expression that got in the way of his success. Maybe DeAndre was still a little embarrassed by an intro package that found him in full marching-nand regalia as a child, dancing to “76 Trombones”? Or maybe he was flummoxed by Will.i.Am’s painful “freestyle” rehearsal critique about DeAndre being “the master that blasts through the competition.”

Shannon Magrane: Mariah Carey & Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day”
Actually, scratch what I said at the start of the previous paragraph. Because surely, Jimmy was right that Shannon’s decent-but-by-no-means-enormous voice would’ve been much better suited to a No Doubt cover than tackling the histrionic-to-the-point-of-hysteria “One Sweet Day” (even if he only suggested a change as a way of promoting some AT&T device). Yeah, the kid hit most of her notes, and the animated-butterflies backdrop was appropriate, but the verses sounded small and tinny, and the growl on the chorus came off as a desperate substitute for soul. (Plus, the silver hotpants and cream colored blouse with black sequined trim were the worst articles of clothing on Idol since Gwen Stefani forced the Season 10 women into Slaughtered LAMB catastrophes.) On the positive side, when Shannon hit the final “see you in heaven” at the very end of the performance, it revealed a really lovely tone and ease that had been absent from the rest of the performance, so maybe she’s trying too hard most of the time? In any event, the judges lavished the Pride of Tampa with more praise than she deserved, so get ready to endure her diva-ballad repertoire on the Idol Summer Tour!

Colton Dixon: White Lion’s “Broken Heart”
Can I get a slow clap, everyone? Col-ton! Col-ton! Col-ton! No, I’m not saying the skunky/funky-haired rocker gave my favorite performance of the night, but I feel he at least deserves some effusive praise for rejecting the 11 songs that you know Uncle Nigel & Co. pre-cleared from the year of his birth, and instead choosing something completely and totally obscure, something that maybe showcased the type of music he’ll produce should he get the opportunity to put out a record. And honestly, at this point in Idol’s history, wouldn’t you rather be introduced to a mediocre new song than hear yet another rendition of “I Have Nothing” or “Against All Odds”? Just as important, Colton delivered “Broken Heart” with conviction and pitch-perfection, and so even if it wasn’t as “hard rock” as he’d promised and even if his floppy leather vest was atroshe, I don’t think Steven Tyler’s critique that “it was the wrong song for your voice and your passion” holds up to scrutiny. Maybe J.Lo will have something more relevant to say? “You look pretty when you sing!” Um, Randy? “I could care less about the song.” Sorry, dawg, you mean “couldn’t care less.” Let’s try one more. Will.i.Am? “He ain’t goin anywhere/ Slam dunk like Vladimir!” Oh for the love of &*%$! Why do I get my hopes up?

Erika Van Pelt: Bryan Adams’ “Heaven”
(A little ditty for you, to the tune of “Heaven”)

Oh thinkin’ about Erika this week
There were promises she’d rock out
A dramatic break before she’d shout
Then Steven lashed out with a tough critique
Said she sounded too busy
And that jerk drummer
He committed mutiny

Oh Erika’s tone is so sweet
When she’s rehearsin’ with Iovine
I’m findin’ it hard to believe
She could go home
Confidence is all that she needs
When she gets up there on the stage
But it’s not all that hard to believe
She could go home

Skylar Laine: Bonnie Raitt’s “Love Sneakin’ Up On You”
Mad props to Skylar, who flat-out rejected Will.i.Am’s poorly scripted “ghetto-country” blather and everything Jimmy suggested after he referred to “Piece of My Heart” as a Faith Hill song. (Blasphemy!) And in any event, Skylar is one teenager who has a pretty solid grasp of the type of artist she wants to be: A delicious blend that’s two parts country, one part blues, and one part rock-and-roll. Granted, the Idol band didn’t seem to follow Skylar’s musical recipe — yowza, that arrangement was a plunky, dated mess! — but her vocal was so lively and on pitch, her understanding of the lyrics so complete, and her confidence and joy so palpable, that she continued to solidify herself as the one contestant this season who’ll easily make the translation to the Billboard charts and big concert stadiums.

Joshua Ledet: Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” (covered by Michael Bolton the year Joshua was born)
Honestly, when Joshua took off his stylish white tuxedo jacket, and threw his heart and soul on the stage, I almost held my arms out in front of me and screeched “Goosies!” (Don’t worry, I’d have slapped myself in the face if I’d actually done this.) But in all seriousness, the Season 11 Gospel guy’s performance was so committed, so fervent, so free of self-consciousness and artifice and worries about an 866-number, that I couldn’t even get irritated by the way the cameras kept cutting to the judges — as though they knew the mid-performance standing ovation was coming. Joshua came thisclose to a siezure when he reached the final refrain, and you could actually feel the energy pulsating through the TV screen. Incredible. I can’t say I’d go as far as J.Lo’s “best thing I’ve ever seen on American Idol” feedback, but it’s certainly in the Top 20.

Hollie Cavanagh: Jennifer Rush’s “The Power of Love” (covered by Celine Dion the year Hollie was born)
It had to be a little intimidating to follow Joshua’s epic performance, but Hollie looked far more relaxed and confident this week than she has at any other point this season. And while I could quibble about the kid’s somewhat dated taste in Big Diva Ballads, or complain that the final glory note quivered like a cube of Jell-O poked with a spoon, or point out the fact that she really needs to take her foot off the accelerator and just relax into the verses every now and then, that would be the kind of nitpicking that J.Lo warned would be silly at the end of such a display of raw vocal horsepower. Honestly, like I said in my post-show blog, Hollie is a Mini Cooper with a NASCAR engine — a fascinating hybrid who in some ways makes me think of Kelly Clarkson more than any Idol contestant over the past 10 seasons. The question is whether she’ll learn to temper her displays of power with nuance and vulnerability. If she does, that coveted confetti shower could be hers.

Oh, and before I turn things over to you, what about that uncomfortable, sad, anticlimactic footage of Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick disqualifying Jermaine Jones from the competition for failing to disclose that there were outstanding warrants for his arrest? I’ll admit I felt bad for the guy as rehearsal footage of him covering “Somewhere Out There” played in the background, and he was driven away in a white van, much like a rejected suitor on The Bachelorette. Except they never have black men on The Bachelorette. And, well, to be honest, Jermaine was the weakest contestant left in the competition. It’s just no fun to see someone go out like that, whether or not he was worthy of his “Gentle Giant” nickname. Anyhow, moving on…

Letter Grades for the Night’s Performances
Joshua: A
Skylar: A-
Hollie: A-
Phillip: B+
Colton: B+
Jessica: B
Elise: B
Erika: B-
DeAndre: B-
Shannon: C
Heejun: C-

What did you think of “Songs From the Year You Were Born” night? Sound off in the comments!