American Idol Recap: Barenaked '80s

It’s a tough week to predict who’s going home on American Idol — unless, of course, you’re Randy Jackson. Asked by Ryan Seacrest at the close of Top 8 performance night who was worthy of viewer votes, the “third judge” rattled off the names of Skylar, DeAndre, Phillip, Joshua, Jessica, and Colton — in other words, everyone except Elise and Hollie.

But I can’t be too upset with Randy. It’s not like he pulled a basket of rotting rutabagas out from under the judges’ table and began hurling them at the competition’s two remaining blonde gals. And what’s more, after 11 seasons on the Idol panel, it’s pretty clear Randy thinks about his words as much as you or I contemplate the individual flakes in a bowl of cereal. This is a man who referred to Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” as “one of the greatest songs ever written,” who thinks “turn the other cheek” means to change up one’s performance style, whose attempts at coining catchphrases are as carefully considered (and successful) as a gasoline fondue. I mean, come on: Yelling “She’s gotta have it!” at the end of a performance by sweet-faced 16-year-old Jessica Sanchez? Forgive him, Lord, for his grasp of the English language is tenuous.

I could devote another paragraph to the parallel horrors of the Dawg’s clothing choices — this week’s red polkadot shirt and white tie represented a new touchstone in hideousness — but instead I’ll “turn the other cheek” and jump right to this week’s performances:

Deandre Brackensick: DeBarge’s “I Like It”
It’s pretty clear Jimmy Iovine isn’t eager to spend Interscope’s money on deep conditioning products for DeAndre’s mane, given how he managed to predict a Bottom 3 showing for the kid before he even took the stage. Ouchies! (That’s the opposite of “goosies,” right?) But that damning pre-performance message didn’t seem to have much effect on DeAndre this week, as he appeared more confident and relaxed than ever on a song that accentuated everything that’s good and right about his voice. Yeah, it was a little cheesy the way DeAndre kicked things off sitting in the audience amongst the lay-dees, and no, “I Like It” isn’t a particularly noteworthy composition. But I loved the grit in DeAndre’s voice on the “stylish clothes you wear” bridge — especially with the way the band cranked up the bass the second time around, and he used his falsetto. In other words, “Funky” DeAndre > “Sensitive” DeAndre, yes?

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Elise Testone: Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is”
I’m not sure if it was the enormous draped sleeve on her one-shoulder pirate shirt, or the weight of her recent ascent to front-runner status, but Elise’s performance this week felt downright labored. Randy was right (my conscience: “How dare you!”) that Elise seemed to be just under the melody from start to finish, and that by trying to take little liberties with every word and phrase, she never really settled into the melody. Part of the problem might be that Elise — with her gruff, organic style — isn’t really a good match for a lighters-in-the-air, gospel-choir-assisted, bombastic ballad. (Of all the songs released in the ’80s, the best she could come up with was this or the done-to-death-on-singing-competitions “Hallelujah”?) But I fear that at the exact moment when I started thinking she was a lock for a Top 5 slot, Elise is going to have to pay another visit to the Silver Stools of Doom on Thursday night.

Skylar Laine & Colton Dixon: “Islands in the Stream”
Like a little patch of flowers you pass on a hike through the woods — ugh, that ridiculous babbling brook backdrop clearly made its way into my brain — this performance probably won’t be at the forefront of your Season 11 memories, but that doesn’t make it any less purdy, does it? Bonus points for super-sweet harmonies and extracting the “makin’ love with each other” refrain. I like these two when they just “rely on each other,” if you know what I mean.

Phillip Phillips: Genesis’ “That’s All”
Thank heavens for J.Lo (not to worry, I’ll hit myself in a minute for typing that), who at least had the cojones to note that there were pitch problems at the beginning Phillip’s second Phil Collins cover in the last few weeks. (Steven and Randy, detecting the presence of a Y chromosome, had no criticisms whatsoever.) From my living room couch, though, those pitch problems extended all the way through a performance that also lacked any sense of dynamics or nuance. Not every ditty requires the strain of carrying an anvil to a fifth-floor walkup, or the popping of one’s forehead vein, y’know? On the plus side, though, it was cute seeing Phillip break out in a wide grin when he caught the sight of his brother-in-law jamming out stage right, which will probably be enough to keep him out of the Bottom 3 this week.

Hollie Cavanagh & DeAndre Brackensick: “I’m So Excited”
Yep, this is exactly the kind of boppy uptempo fare Hollie should be covering for her solo performances, and yet, inexplicably, is not. With her muscular vocal and sparkly pants, I barely noticed this was a duet with DeAndre, to be honest.

Joshua Ledet: Simply Red’s version of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”
Look, at some point (aka next week), Joshua is going to have to break out of the Big Soulful Ballad shackles, and remind us that he can do more than swoop and wail and hollerate as a Gospel choir lifts him higher, higer, higher, HIGH-ER! (Yes, that was my typed-out impression of Fantasia’s performance-finale “I Believe.”) But as a stand-alone performance, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” was exquisite in its emotional ferocity. Joshua might claim that at 19, he doesn’t know much about heartbreak, but somehow — through empathy, or unrequited/unacknowledged love, or possession by the spirits of soul singers past — he brings it palpably to life. And when he lifts his knee for emphasis, it’s a warning to lean back and prepare for a blast of pure, unadulterated soul. In this case, I can’t quibble too much with the Standing O from the judges.

Jessica Sanchez: Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know”
Look, at some point (aka next week), Jessica is going to not only prove she can color outside the lines, she’s going to need to throw away the entire coloring book, grab a pencil and sketchpad, and prove that she’s an artist in her own right. But as a stand-alone performance, her straightforward cover of “How Will I Know” was as clean and refreshing as a Neutrogena ad. There was such effortlessness in the way Jessica owned every note of the song, such a breeziness in her body language, that it was easy to forget about the degree of difficulty required in matching an at-her-prime Whitney. Plus, let’s give the girl some credit for frequently switching it up in terms of tempo and mood — even if I wish her mentors would steer her to more unexpected song choices. With a voice like hers, she could certainly handle it, no?

Elise Testone & Phillip Phillips: “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”
I’ve enjoyed most of Phillip’s performances this season, and maybe it was residual exhaustion from “That’s All,” but I felt like once again his vocal here was strained to the point of the unpleasant. Elise, meanwhile, got to beautifully channel her inner Stevie Nicks for the second straight week — but once again not as her primary solo performance. I guess I’m okay with the withholding, as long as all this is leading up to an Elise-Stevie collaboration at the Season 11 finale.

Hollie Cavanagh: Irene Cara’s “Flashdance…What a Feeling”
I have to admit I was pretty optimistic when Ryan announced Hollie would be covering “What a Feeling,” until I realized that feeling was one of confusion, bewilderment, disappointment, and terror. Hollie zipped around the stage as if there was a stern British GPS lady barking orders in her ear — turn left here, now go 20 paces forward, now shimmy in front of the judges table, now turn right, now jump through a flaming hoop: I SAID JUMP THROUGH A FLAMING HOOP! — and it left her vocal performance void of any real passion (which, alas, she was then unable to take, and make happen). She also ended on “take your passion” when I’m pretty sure she wanted to conclude with “what a feeling.” Yikes. J.Lo had a point that as much as Hollie needs to process the advice of her mentors, she also needs to let it all go and free-fall when she takes the stage, but Hollie’s face reacted as if Prof. Lopez was describing an inscrutable calculus problem. On a week where she needed to be stellar, Hollie was only average, and it could spell the end of her Idol journey.

Jessica Sanchez & Joshua Ledet: “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me”
The only way I could’ve loved this frenzied eruption of soul any more was if it had been a duet between Jennifer Hudson and Fantasia, or maybe Fantasia and Patti LaBelle. Also: I covet Joshua’s beige suit. That’s all.

Colton Dixon: Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”
Let me weigh in on Colton’s performance to the tunr of “Time After Time,” if that’s all right with you…
Sitting on my couch I hear a nasal voice,
And think “Who?”
Hey there it’s Colton, confusion
Is this tone new?
Flashback. Hairdo.
Whoa he’s super blonde!
Foil or one-step?
Time after–

Sometimes I like this guy
At least he’s not boring me
Flips his arrangements, of that much
We’re guaranteed
Credits Quickdrive
Oh and that took class
The guy is no jackass

Well he’s no David Cook, but he’s fine by me
That’s Colton D.
If he’s fourth that’s okay, maybe not Top 3
Oh Colton D.

Skylar Laine: Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings”
I’m not sure I needed to know that Skylar spent her enite mentoring session believing some cruel producer who told her that the Gwen Stefani-looking chick was a member of Shalamar. (Also: Go to YouTube and get hip to Shalamar, girl!) And I’m not sure I needed the literal image of an internally lit eagle swooping across the backdrop and exploding into solid gold (probably Jimmy Iovine’s fantasy of signing Skylar to a deal and watching money rain from the heavens). But damn, this was an incredible performance, one that was worthy of a standing O, and one that proved Skylar is a vocal match for any of her seven competitors, not just a gun-slingin’ gal whose bouncy antics are merely a warmup act for the main event. I liked the growl and conviction Skylar brough to the tune, too, because honestly, if you’re not going to truly feel a lyric like “you are the wind beneath my wings,” then it’s just going to come off as comical and cheesy. And the tears that welled up in my eyes as she finished the performance (yeah, I know, I’m really too earnest to be a proper TV recapper) told the tale: Skylar was feeling it, and so was I. How about you?

Letter Grades for This Week’s Performances
Jessica & Joshua: A
Skylar: A
Joshua: A-
DeAndre: B+
Jessica: B+
Skylar & Colton: B+
Colton: B
Elise & Phillip: B
Hollie & DeAndre: B-
Elise: C+
Hollie: C
Phillip: D

Who were your favorites from Season 11 Top 8 night? Vote in the poll below, then explain your picks in the comments!