American Idol Recap: For Whom the Billy Tolls

elise testone viennaThis week’s American Idol was built around two distinct themes: Paying tribute to the Billy Joel songbook and paying absolutely no mind to the advice of the show’s new/official style guru, Tommy Hilfiger.

As Steven Tyler so direly warned at the top of the show, “If you can’t sing Billy Joel, you can’t sing at all.” (This seems to be the total reverse of Randy’s oft-stated “If you can sing, you can sing anything” philosophy.)

And while the undeniably talented Top 10 fared pretty well with the Piano Man’s tunes — at least five contestants hit something close to their personal best — I wouldn’t be surprised to hear Ryan Seacrest tell Mr. Hilfiger that his journey has come to an end after Kieran dims the lights on Thursday’s results-show telecast.

Seriously, it was undeniably comical the way the contestants seemed to do the opposite of what Tommy wanted. “Hey, Elise, we’re going to put you in a pair of high-waisted bell bottoms!” Cut to Elise tossing said bell bottoms into a dumpster and emerging in a flowing violet gown with leather-and-tulle vest-cape-thingie. “Hey, Phillip, gray is the worst color you could ever wear on stage!” Cut to Phillip in gray pants, gray Henley, and dran-stiped shirt. “Skylar, let’s color-match some boots to go with your weird snakeskin-print kitchen-curtains dress!” Cut to Skylar in black stilettos — her stated obsession with boots apparently buried along with Shannon Magrane’s Idol dreams. (Sad funeral they held for her Idol journey, no?)

Anyway, enough about the fashion that wasn’t; let’s talk about the music that was:

DeAndre Brackensick: “Only the Good Die Young”
It was pretty clear DeAndre was in trouble from the opening moments of his mentoring session, his eyes darting right, then left, like an injured gazelle cornered by a pair of hungry hyenas. I just wish one of those hyenas had explicitly spelled out what the lyrics to “Only the Good Die Young” are actually about. I can almost hear it in my head: “No, DeAndre, this isn’t about Catholic girls starting much too late on their SAT prep, this is about a bad boy trying to get into a good girl’s pants.” “No, no, no…he’s not trying to borrow her pants. He wants to do the horizontal mambo, if you catch my drift.” “Ugh! The Horizontal Mambo is not something you saw Gladys Knight and Tristan MacManus do on Dancing With the Stars on Monday. Jesus, kid, the song is about sex. S-E-X!” “Are you sure you don’t want to sing ‘Uptown Girl’?” As it was, though, Jimmy mostly used the mentoring session to make repressed Catholic jokes, leaving DeAndre offering up a boppy, clumsy, and utterly chaste take on one of Billy Joel’s most raucous, blasphemous hits. When it was all said and done, Steven wondered if the whole thing wasn’t maybe “a little too happy,” but he stopped short of having “the talk” on national television. That seems like a job for DeAndre’s parents, after all, and I have a bad feeling Mr. and Mrs. Brackensick will have plenty of free time with their son after Thursday night’s results show.

Erika Van Pelt: “New York State of Mind”
Look, I’m not going to blather incessantly about the power of Idology (embedded below, for those of you who are new to the party), but I’ll just say we’ve been advocating Erika go brunette for several weeks now. Of course, if America does something stupid and sends her home this week, don’t blame me — and don’t blame that Joan Jett-black hair — blame the judges for their confusing feedback on a performance that was relaxed, restrained, and absolutely sublime. Seriously, the way Erika went from the lowest part of her range to an ethereal falsetto on the line “I left them all behind” was the essence of an Idol moment, and her smile on “takin’ a Greyhound on the Hudson River line” was as genuine an emotion as we’ve seen on the Idol stage this year. So how come Randy had to advocate that she “wear us out” with vocal histrionics? Why did J.Lo give her the “beautiful vocal, but…” treatment? And what the heck was with Steven telling her she “could’ve put more character” into her vocal, but that she put “a lot of personality” into it? Girlfriend is the Rodney Dangerfield of Season 11: She can’t get no respect!

Joshua Ledet: “She’s Got a Way”
I hate to verbalize this fear, but I’m worried about Joshua’s Thursday-night fortunes as much as I am about DeAndre’s. Maybe his well of deep-rootsy soul was still dry after last week’s ragingly beautiful “When a Man Loves a Woman,” because if I’m being honest, “She’s Got a Way” felt as empty as a Red Bull can in the Jersey Shore house. J.Lo was absolutely right that Joshua seemed disconnected from the song’s lyrics, as if the words were just resting places for the notes, rather than a carefully arranged series spelling out an entire message. By the time the Gospel choir emereged from the backdrop (which weirdly focused on the piano player’s hands), I wondered what exactly we were supposed to celebrating, and you could see in Joshua’s eyes that he was equally bewildered. Here’s hoping the memory of his Percy Sledge cover — and the way he works a Size 38 jacket on his 40 frame — is enough to get him at least as far as Season 10’s Pia Toscano.

Skylar Laine: “Shameless”
Kudos to Skylar for actually copping to the pitch problems she experienced on the opening verse of “Shameless” instead of offering a rote “but I had fun” or a clueless “I thought I did great!” And yet while Randy was correct in pointing out that verse was pitched too low for Skylar’s comfort zone — and I don’t think the awkward staging next to Random Kid in Trucker Hat helped, either — she sure did sound purdy once she got to the chorus. What’s more, Skylar somehow managed to point out to Randy that it was Garth Brooks, not Brad Paisley, who had a hit with the Billy Joel ditty — without coming across as smug or petulant. I’d have been just as happy with a “Suck it, Third Judge!” but I’m not sure that would’ve played as well with a nation of speed-dialing families.

Elise Testone: “Vienna”
If you tried condensing Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks into 90 seconds, or a Marcus Samuelsson seven-course meal onto one plate, the results would undoubtedly be disastrous. Which makes it all the more impressive that Elise managed to show off every trick in her vocal arsenal, every color of her rich and seductive voice, in an abridged rendition of a song Jimmy Iovine worried that “no one knows.” (Everyone actually knows “Vienna,” though, don’t they?) To me, this was more than Elise finally putting to rest the idea that she’s a desperate underdog who’s fated to go home in the next few weeks, this was her delivering what was arguably the season’s finest vocal performance. Sure, Skylar’s “Stay With Me” was more fun, and Joshua’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” more combustible, but note for note, Elise’s performance sat at the intersection of Flawless Street and Mind-Blowing Blvd, getting whistles and catcalls from everyone who drove past. That growl on “kick it off,” that crazy jazzy run on the final “waits,” had me wanting to get in line behind J.Lo and give the Lady Testone a good violent shaking (in the best possible way).

Phillip Phillips: “Movin’ Out”
Look, Phillip enjoys delivering a song’s original melody about as much as he’d like trying on a Tommy Hilfiger ascot and seersucker pants. With the exception of last week’s “Hard to Handle,” he’s treated every composition he’s covered like a balloon artist twisting and knotting and contorting his raw musical material into different (occasionally uncomfortable) shapes and configurations. But the underlying tension in Phillip’s delivery absolutely fit the mood of “Movin’ Out,” a tale of working-class life and the questionable virtues of upward mobility. J.Lo was right that Phillip seemed to be working out some aggression toward guest mentor Diddy — although I did miss the rapid fire “heart attack-ack-ack-ack line” — and why not? Here’s a kid from a pawn shop that specializes in alligator heads and babies (funny joke, I think?), and Diddy cluelessly thinks that making him sing to a gaggle of random chicks is going to bring out the best in his vocal? Phillips understated response to the bizarre interlude — “I wasn’t really about all that” — might have been my favorite non-musical moment of the season. But if this self-described “simple kind of guy” wants to make it to the Nokia in May, he’s going to have to explore some different moods in the weeks to come. Perhaps P2 could adopt an upbeat party-starter person, or get back in touch with the lecherous loverboy who sang “Nice & Slow” in Vegas?

Hollie Cavanagh: “Honesty”
Speaking of contestants who need to shake up the mood, is Hollie planning to treat every theme week as an opportunity to channel her inner Celine Dion? And if so, is she aware that even Celine herself has some uptempo and midtempo tracks in her repertoire? (Plus, as the judges pointed out, Celine pretty much nails every last note…kinda crucial in a Big Diva Career.) Hollie’s samey-samey-ness, in fact, has inspired me to write a little ditty to the tune of “Honesty.”

If you search Idol history
It isn’t hard to find
It’s all right there if you look it up on Wiki.
A winning journey’s no mystery
If you’re creatively inclined
And if your taste in songs, it isn’t icky

Variety is such a crucial word
Give us something more than power
Variety it’s not so absurd
If you seek confetti showers

Heejun Han: “My Life”
I’ll admit, I chuckled a little when Heejun told Tommy that his style icons were Jessica Sanchez, Madonna, and Michael Bolton. (“I think Heejun was testing me,” said Mr. Hilfiger, thoroughly flummoxed.) But the trouble with Heejun is that he has yet to translate his clueless-dude comedy bits into an entertaining musical performance. His interruption of the smooth piano intro — “That’s much too slow for me. I wanna dance.” — was delivered more clumsily than Lindsay Lohan struggling to read an SNL cue card, and once Heejun tore off his hacket and revealed a multi-colored t-shirt, his bag of tricks was empty, save for a passable karaoke-bar performance complete with flat notes, breathiness, and decent mimicry of Billy Joel’s snarl. “Are you happy that you took the piss out of that song?” asked a not-entirely-amused Steven, and I wonder if, in hindsight, how Heejun would actually answer the question.

Jessica Sanchez: “Everybody Has a Dream”
One of Diddy’s few astute mentoring moments was stopping Jessica and telling her he didn’t believe what she was singing in rehearsal, that she needed to pull back on the vocal acrobatics and learn that sometimes, less can be more. Because Jessica’s been performing since J.Lo could actually open a movie, and yet because she’s still so young (and perhaps in need of a few more good heartbreaks), there’s occasionally the slightest emotional disconnect to her performances, a looming question of “Has she created a fantastic work of art, or was that simply the most accurate execution of a paint-by-numbers kit in the history of ever?” In this intstance, though, Jessica managed to perfectly blend her pitch perfection, her vocal bombast, and a genuine sentiment while bathed in a series of golden floodlights and a Standing O from the judges. It’s a testament to Jessica’s power that I barely noticed the chorus of backup singers that emerged from the shadows midway through her performance: When this kid sings, everybody else ceases to exist — which isn’t great news for the competition.

Colton Dixon: “Piano Man”
Speaking of bathed in floodlights, how about the image of Colton at a red piano, his own image projected on the screen behind him, beams of light cutting the stage into a moody grid? The message from Uncle Nigel was clear: This is the Pimp Slot, this boy has incredible hair, and you are about to witness an Idol Moment (TM), because this is Season 11’s mysterious “third horse.” Except I’m only maybe 65 percent on board with the pimperie. Look, I love that Colton kept the early part of the arrangement as sparse as a Kardashian’s book shelf. And I liked that he erased some of the poppier edges of the melody — otherwise it might’ve felt like the whole thing was a setup for a piano-bar singalong. But uff da, that little hiccupy hitch in his voice that kept popping up throughout the performance, it bordered on unpleasant, and by the time he hit the final chorus, Colton seemed to be taking the song into anthemic territory — “You’ve got us feelin’ all right!” — which, in my mind, missed the whole melancholy point of the song. Okay, yeah, maybe there’s no way to get to the melancholy point of the song — desperate folks sharing a drink they call loneliness — when you boil it down to 90 seconds, but then maybe he shouldn’t have picked the song in the first place, y’know? That said, I loved seeing a little more of Colton’s humor — calling his hair his “baby” — and his acknowledgement that fashion is indeed important. (See Phillip and Heejun, real men can spend a little time staring into the closet.) (No, that was not a euphemism.)

Letter grades:
Elise Testone: A
Jessica Sanchez: A-
Erika Van Pelt: A-
Phillip Phillips: A-
Colton Dixon: B+
Skylar Laine: B
Hollie Cavanagh: B-
Joshua Ledet: C+
DeAndre Brackensick: D
Heejun Han: D

What did you think of Billy Joel night? How about our Tommy Hilfiger interludes? Anyone hoping that’ll be a one-time-only deal? Hit the comments with your thoughts!