American Idol Top 7 Performance Recap: Swimming With the Current

joshua ledetVideo killed the radio star, as everybody knows. And then Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew suffocated the video star with a plastic bag (as part of a VH1 special presentation) in the spring of 2008.

Which is one of several reasons that this week’s American Idol theme — Music from the Current Decade (2010-2012) — made me a little skittish. Would I be forced to spend the entire night Googling snippets of lyrics in order to properly identify the contestants’ song choices? Would the beloved Top 7 suddenly start sounding like the love children of an immersion blender and an Xbox 360? And would Ke$ha do a reverse dumpster dive onto the Idol stage, slap some kind of gnarly headdress on Jessica Sanchez or Hollie Cavanagh, and vomit Jägermeister into the Swaybot pit?

Thankfully, the answer is “none of the above.” Quite the opposite, in fact. Because not only did the Season 11 Top 7 deliver a truly terrific night of music, but to my complete surprise, I actually was quite familiar with seven of the 10 tracks covered in the course of the two-hour telecast. Who knows, maybe one day one of these crazy kids will make a music video, and somebody somewhere will play it on the tee-vee? Until they do, though, let’s take a deep dive into the evening’s performances!

Skylar Laine: Kellie Pickler’s “Didn’t You Know How Much I Loved You”
I may take some heat for saying this — speaking of heat, wouldn’t those peculiar bonfire barrels have been more fitting for a performance of “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless)” or “Another Day in Paradise” — but I’m going to go out on a limb and call Skylar’s “Didn’t You Know How Much I Love You” the most emotionally wrenching performance of the season. It’s funny that the girl who’s too innocent to get within 10-feet of Akon’s f-bomb — “your voice is f****** stupid,” he said to her (as a compliment) — was nevertheless able to bring to life a very adult song about a guy who loved her and left her. (I won’t say I got goosies on “I gave you everything, every part of me,” but there was a certain tingling sensation on my arms when that line was delivered.) Better still, Skylar ignored Jimmy’s advice and proved she can achieve pitch perfection while strumming her guitar. “It’s not about ‘how many tricks can this girl do?'” argued her mentor, but considering the last four Idol winners — and six of the last eight members of the final two — have played instruments during the live shows, Skylar’s reminder that she’s a well-rounded musician seemed like smart strategy, no?

Colton Dixon: Skylar Gray’s “Love the Way You Lie”
Speaking of strategy, is there a contestant this season playing a smarter Idol game than Colton? Dude has tackled three songs made famous by female artists (and gender-flipping is always a smart way to “make it your own”); mixed uptempo, midtempo, and ballads; tackled lyrical themes from religion to relationships to third-person storytelling; and hasn’t ever once worried that taking some fashion risks makes him less of a man. To my ears, though, “Love the Way You Lie” was the crowning achievement of Colton’s Idol run thus far. I loved the way he took his time with every word of the song, how he mostly banished his hiccup-y vocal tic and sometimes affected pronunciations, how he transitioned from a gorgeous falsetto to a serious flexing of his vocal firepower on the bridge. The staging — big white piano, ominous barbed-wire backdrop, tons of dry ice — only added to the moody, tortured vibe of the track. If Jimmy is right that Phillip and Colton are an either/or proposition, this might’ve been the week the latter rocker guy began to pull ahead. And yes, I’m overlooking the fact that J.Lo oddly remarked that she wished Skylar LaineGray’s ballad “was more of a song” — oh grrrl, do you think we’ve already forgotten about last week’s premiere of “Dance Again,” which is little more than some electronic blips and Auto-Tuned purring? — and even though Colton’s final gaze into the camera had me calling 866-HAM-N-CHEESY.

Elise & Phillip: Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”
What was with the not-very-funny pre-performance package accusing Elise of physically battering Phillip into a song he didn’t really dig? I mean, it’s not like Elise was pushing for LMFAO, and Gotye doesn’t seem all that far from the kind of music Phillip will probably make in his post-Idol career, does it? Whatever the case may be, I enjoyed the duo’s harmonies, and the chalk outline of the thin line between love and hate that informed the number. I wish Ryan hadn’t tried to swap the ‘t’ in duet and replace it with an ‘l’ by asking the judges who “won,” but I can’t entirely disagree with Phillip’s own sweet, self-deprecating verdict: “She’s just a better singer than I am”

Jessica Sanchez: Jazmine Sullivan’s “Stuttering”
I kinda, sorta understood J.Lo’s comment about wanting Jessica to take the Idol audience on a crazy ride — “Stuttering” was just one of several of Jessica’s song choices this season that maybe didn’t get to the bottom of her reserves of soul — and yet at the same time it annoyed me. At the end of the day, shouldn’t we be applauding this kid for having total confidence in choosing a track most Idol viewers have never heard? Isn’t there artistry in throwing out the Idol playbook and gambling that viewers will accept and delight in the discovery of a new composition? And honestly, Jessica performs with such ridiculous vocal control and such relaxed body language, that you can see how Steven Tyler forgets where he is when she sings. “Stuttering” may not be the hookiest ditty in the modern songbook, but I liked the way the “mah mah my my!” recalled Jessica’s unspeakably awesome Vegas group rendition of “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.” And an additional 10 points for going full diva in that silver and white jacket with alien shoulders and runway-ready collar — even if the deadly heels almost caused Bebe Chez to take a tumble when she went to sit back down on the piano at the end of her number. (p.s. to Randy Jackson: A whale is a mammal, not a fish. Click. Dialtone. Goodbye.)

Joshua Ledet: Bruno Mars’ “Runaway Baby”
I’m not quite sure I understood — or wanted to understand — the whole mentoring session where Jimmy was grilling Akon about Joshua’s “urban”-ness. Thankfully, every exquisite moment of Joshua’s “Runaway Baby” cover quickly eclipsed the most uncomfortable thing to happen in a mentoring session since Diddy foisted his harem on an unsuspecting Phillip Phillips. From Joshua’s threads (hot pink socks and shirt with black trim and “Reverse Dalton Academy” blazer), to his killer dance moves, to his lion-in-mating-season roar, this was another Idol moment for the humble Louisiana fella. What fascinates me is that a lyric like “there’s only one carrot and they all gotta share it” really shouldn’t be plausible coming from the mouth of Hollie Cavanagh’s goofy BFF, and yet the guy manages to amp up whatever portion of his persona is required to correctly interpret, or rather inhabit, a song. However he manages to pull off such tricks, is it too much for me to hope that someday, somehow he’ll cut a duet with Season 3 legend Fantasia? Girlfriend’s already sent him a “Happy 20th Bday” video, so it’s not inconceivable, right?

Skylar & Colton: Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson’s “Don’t You Wanna Stay”
Randy was correct — cut to me sticking lit matches under my fingernails for typing such foolery — that Skylar’s pitch wasn’t wobbly here, while Colton faded into the backdrop like it was a montage of bleach-blonde mops. (J.Lo calling those harmonies “beautiful” was less believable than her performance in Enough.) Of course, even if the duo’s feet didn’t quite fill out Kelly Clarkson and Jason Aldean’s missing slippers, we’ll always have this poetic critique from Steven Tyler: “You just made love singing to each other.”

Hollie Cavanagh: Pink’s “Perfect”
By far, my favorite part of Hollie’s segment was when she introduced her song title in that Britain-by-way-of-Texas accent: “Pear-fec.” (Pearfec, no?) And yet while I’ve been waiting all season long for a breakout moment from Hollie, I’ve got to be impartial enough to admit: This wasn’t it. From the Icecapadian minidress to the drowsy-on-cough-syrup phrasing, the entire performance was just slightly askew, like a really beautiful picture in a museum that’s hung just a tiny bit crookedly. The pitch was mostly there, and the emotional connection far surpassed Hollie’s last few performances, but in spite of all the good, you kind of just wanted someone to take it down from the wall, get out a level and a hammer, and try to mount it fresh from the beginning. Was there ever a more subtly damning critique than J.Lo’s “we’ll see how it all pans out”? Goosies (of fear)!

Phillip Phillips: Maroon 5’s “Give a Little More”
I’m not sure there’s a subject Phillip would be less comfortable discussing than his appeal with female voters vs. that of Colton. (“He’s a good-looking guy,” noted Phillip, trying to bring the conversation to an end.) But look, if dude wasn’t a stone-cold hottie — a Steve McQueen-Johnny Cash hybrid, as Steven Tyler puts it — then I would bet we’d see him in the Bottom 2 this week alongside Hollie, and possibly even watching his Idol highlight reel as a Scotty McCreery ballad played in the background. That’s not to say Phillip isn’t talented: “Movin’ Out,” “Hard to Handle,” “Still Rainin'” and his audition-round “Thriller” represent a really strong body of work. But “Give a Little More” found the guy upstaged by his sexy saxophonist, channeling the Maroon 5 melody with a roteness that may have indicated a guy growing weary of the Idol Machine after seven weeks of live performances. Like J.Lo noted, we’ve seen this performance before, and better. I’d love to see Phillip stripped down — hey, get your mind out of the gutter! — taking the stage with just his acoustic guitar and putting a folksy twist on an R&B classic like he did with “Nice and Slow” in Vegas. In other words, he needs to “give a litle more” to achieve a “thriller night.” (And no, you’re not the only one who hates that last sentence.) (Side note: Anyone notice the way Phillip often breaks into a smile mid-performance, like he’s enjoying a private joke with a couple of close friends?)

Hollie, Joshua & Jessica: Kelly Clarkson’s “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger)”
Don’t get me wrong: I’m a huge fan of all three of these cats, but from a musical standpoint, this performance made as much sense as trying to get an icepick out of one’s hand by thrusting it into a blender. And it kind of sounded a little like that scenario, too.

Elise Testone: Lady Gaga’s “You and I”
Don’t all collectively swoon from shock, but I think I need to discuss Elise’s “You and I” without referencing Haley Reinhart’s landmark version from Season 10. (Although I must admit to marveling at the hypocricy of Randy and J.Lo loving the Gaga track this year, but having poo-poohed it before its radio release/in the hands of the Growler just a year ago.) First and foremost, Akon earned whatever appearance fee he received just for talking Elise out of her “road to destruction” beginning the performance at the drums. (Memories of Reed Grimm are still too raw and nasty.) And secondly, Elise definitely improved off last week’s Foreigner debacle: She was on pitch throughout, and when she kicked things off behind the piano, her luscious growl was in absolute peak form. And yet once she stood up and began to stalk the stage, there were a few key moments that bothered me: The clipped phrasing on the first mention of “You and I” on the chorus. The peculiar barked “yeah!” a few seconds later. And the way the final runs and riffs seemed a little too overwrought, even with the swelling strings and guitars behind ’em. A part of me just felt like, on the heels of Elise’s near elimination last week, she tried just a little too hard to remind the audience of her skill set, instead of truly falling down the rabbit hole and taking residence in the sweet melody and quirky rhythms of the song. I’m hoping she’ll survive to the Top 6, but it just wouldn’t shock me if she’ll require a Judges’ Save to get there.

Tonight’s Letter Grades
Joshua: A
Skylar: A-
Colton: A-
Jessica: A-
Elise & Phillip: B+
Elise: B
Phillip: B-
Hollie: B-
Skylar & Colton: B-
Jessica, Hollie, and Joshua: C-

What did you think of Season 11 Top 7 night? Who’s at risk of going home? And who was your favorite? Sound off in the comments! And for all my Idol news, interviews, and recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!