American Idol Recap Top 7 Redux Performance Recap: Don't Trust the D-- in Seat No. 3

American Idol judge Randy Jackson is quite possibly the most ridiculous person on television today, but I’m not sure I have any vitriol left for the man who is affectionately/ragefully known by the Idoloonie Nation as “The Dawg.” (Yes, folks, that’s the ‘D–‘ I was referring to in my headline.)

I mean, imagine an Idol without Randy: Who else would use his position on the panel to wear offensive orchid blazers and try to launch a line of hideous hand-beaded pins. (That has to be the reason for those pins, right?) Who else could proudly blab about “Let’s Get It On” being an Al Green song, then stammer and “uhhh” until a merciful audience member (certainly not J.Lo) comes to his aid with a shouted “Marvin Gaye”? Who else could deliver a catastrophic critique like this to sweet-faced teenage contestant Jessica Sanchez: “The girl blew the box out of the song!” (Sir, is that even possible?) Who else is advocating that Idol expand its offerings to include the Lil Wayne songbook.

American Idol: 10 Dream Theme Nights!

To err is human, and to constantly bring the unintentional LOLs is to be Randy Jackson. Let’s just be thankful he didn’t grab the mic after Wednesday night’s absurd “Jessica in peril”/”The end is the beginning” intro and shout: “I worked with T.S. Eliot on ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’!”

So let’s raise a Coke cup to the Dawg, and get into this week’s performances.

Now (Songs from 2000-2010)
Hollie Cavanagh: “Rolling in The Deep” by Adele
First, the good news: Hollie’s mentoring session with Jimmy Iovine did not include the threat of a frontal lobotomy — “It’s the only way to get you to stop overthinking your performances!” — and yet somehow managed to get the likable teenager in a relaxed, un-robotic state of mind for the evening’s opening number. Flanked by dramatic drummers and standing on a raised platform, Hollie began her performance in daring a capella fashion, showing off a strength and clarity in her voice that we haven’t heard in weeks. And in a competition where embellishments are as predictable as scarves on Steven Tyler, there’s something refreshing about Hollie’s clean, straightforward vocal approach — kind of like finding a slice of organic mango in a refrigerator full of rich, ornate desserts. That said, I wish Jimmy had steered Hollie to a different tune. “Rolling in the Deep” is to Adele what a peanut-butter cup is to Reese’s: The original is so hauntingly perfect — the “you had my heart inside of your hand” line so ferociously raw — that Hollie’s cover came off as very pretty but a wee bit superfluous by comparison.

Colton Dixon: “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga
Yes, yes, the judges had a point that Colton pitched his verses too low so that he could deliver Gaga’s dramatic chorus without having his voice break, but of the 14 performances we saw this week, I thought Colton’s was the most successful in terms of creating and executing a compelling TV spectacle. I’ve never really boarded this guy’s bandwagon, but I have to admit I was delighted by the way Colton had his band dressed like orderlies in a goth insane asylum and the fact that he cranked up the guitars to infuse Gaga’s drama-oh-ma-ma melody with a rock-hard edge. Let’s be honest: With a season that includes 13 weeks of live performances, it’s nice to have a contestant who wants to “expand his box every week” — even if his choice of words could’ve been a little more eloquent.

Elise Testone: “No One” by Alicia Keys
Elise really can’t win anymore — and I mean that in both a micro and a macro sense. “No One” was arguably the evening’s strongest, most emotionally gripping performance, and her feedback includes Scary, J.Lo, and Surly telling her: 1) The song didn’t have enough melody. 2) Smile more! 3) Thank God you stuck with the melody for a change. And to top it off, Ryan Seacrest is all “Let’s try to win you some votes by making you cry about your possibly terminally ill dog! Come on, face the camera! When you cry, everyone wins! Cry, dammit, cry! How come this is so much easier with the Kardashians?” Whatever. When Elise swung low on the first refrain of “get in the way of what I’m feelin,” when she roared the ferocity of her emotions on “till the end of time,” a chill ran right up my arm and down my back, which is probably the same sensation J.Lo gets when her masseuse rubs her down with liquified $100 bills. If America sends her on another trip to her “vacation home in the Bottom 3” (as Jimmy likes to call it), I hope it doesn’t cause her to second-guess this lovely performance.

Phillip Phillips: “U Got It Bad” by Usher
For weeks, I’ve been advocating that Phillip surprise the audience by doing his sexy guitar tricks with an unexpected song choice — in the vein of his Vegas week cover of Usher’s “Nice and Slow.” So, yeah, I might’ve squeed a little when Ryan revealed P2 was tackling Usher’s “U Got It Bad.” Unfortunately, to my ears anyway, Phillip not only tackled the track, but he smothered it with his increasingly predictable brand of vocal aggression. “U Got It Bad” requires a certain amount of finesse and suaveness — a sexuality, even — that Phillip seems almost embarrassed to explore on stage. Instead, he focused solely on the growly angst of the lyric (“when you’re out with someone but you keep thinkin’ about somebody else”) at the expense of the joy and sensuality that are also a part of the track. Plus, I felt like he compressed the melody to a two-, maybe three-note range. My jaw dropped like J.Lo’s backside in a music video when Steven Tyler declared that he never knows where Phillip is going to go musically. Because let’s be honest, if we were charting the guy’s musical progress on MapQuest, he really hasn’t travelled more than a block or two over the last seven or eight weeks.

Jessica Sanchez: “Fallin'” by Alicia Keys
I’m not sure about the tumbling red-umbrella graphics — I guess we just have to accept that thuddingly literal backdrops are the new SwayBots — but from an emotional standpoint, this had to be Jessica’s most powerful performance since Vegas week. Granted, I’m still waiting for the Little Monster Truck That Could to be a little more unpredictable with her source material — four weeks running, she’s chosen music from powerhouse R&B divas — but if we had to chart the vocal on a Resusci Annie doll, it was definitely coming from a place closer to the gut than it was to the head. In other words, I was making a stank face and raising a hand about halfway in the air for the duration of the performance, despite a slightly abrupt ending.

Skylar Laine: “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga
I don’t really like to cross-pollinate my Idol recaps with The Voice, but to me, Skylar’s “Born This Way” was everything terrifying Toddlers & Tiaras-bot RaeLynn’s “I’m Country” was trying to be back on Monday night, and everything Gaga failed to capture when she gave “Born This Way” a cornball twist: Genuinely felt, explosively delivered, with a sense of place and purpose, and never losing its grip on pitch. I liked Skylar’s interplay with Hot Fiddle Dude (and, yeah, I liked Hot Fiddle Dude, too), and the way she worked the stage with an unstudied ease that took me out of the mindset that I was watching a reality competition series. Somehow, the song became a celebration of Skylar’s gun-totin, four-wheeler-ridin’, corner-store-hash-slingin’ lifestyle, while still flying the flag for everyone and anyone who dares to be different. She’s country, and she’s pretty fabulous, too.

Joshua Ledet: “I Believe” by Fantasia
I’m not sure I’ve ever cried harder during an Idol performance than when Fantasia first performed “I Believe” during the Season 3 performance finale, and so in my mind anyway, any attempt to cover it is as potentially blashphemous, as, say, attempting “Mad World” or “Heartless” or “Bennie and the Jets.” And so it’s a testament to Joshua, then, that tears welled up in my eyes about 15-20 seconds in to his rendition of the beautifully cheesy Idol victory anthem. I almost wished he’d ditched the Gospel chorus and let us focus solely on the raw emotion that was lifting him higher (higher higher), and I was a little surprised when he lost his place at the end of the song, forcing him to ad-lib a fairly unsatisfying ending “dreamt a hundred thousand dreams before/ now I finally realize/ you see I waited all my…” [Whoops! The end.] But in spite of all that, the judges rushed into (another) standing ovation, and I had visions of (probably crying again during) Joshua’s hometown visit, as well as a pang of jealousy that the guy can rock the “I don’t know what” (trademark: Randy) out of a red velvet jacket with black satin lapels.

Then (“Classic Soul” Music)
Hollie Cavanagh: “Son of a Preacher Man” by Dusty Springfield
Here’s the thing: Hollie hit the notes of this randy midtempo classic just fine, but that little pink dress (great for the office and for after-hours cocktails) and the emotional connection (in which Hollie and the good reverend’s son share a refreshing glass of lemonade and interlock their pinkie fingers) was excruciatingly wrong. At its heart, “Son of a Preacher Man” is about a grown woman looking back at her first sexual encounters — yes, judges, that’s what Dusty meant by “reach” and “teach” — and at this stage in her artistic development, Hollie falls closer to the Little Mermaid than she does to a full-blown Siren. All I can do is look skyward and wonder when Uncle Nigel will permanently retire this song from Idol ouevre — or at least ban teenage girls from singing it.

Colton Dixon: “September” by Earth Wind & Fire
Imagine rearranging your furniture so that your armoire was directly in front of the window, and then your bed was directly in front of the armoire door, and your nightstand was on top of the armoire. That’s pretty much what Colton did with his hideous emo scrambling of “September.” Sure, sure, it was totally different hearing the melody slowed down and dragged into a plaintive minor key, but it most certainly wasn’t better. Add copious pitch problems and a mood of zombified dread at the judges’ table, and Colton may be making his first Bottom 3 appearance of the season this week.

Elise Testone: “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye
Elise’s version of “Let’s Get It On” would be like ABC’s The Bachelorette offering an invitation to one of the her (white) suitors to spend an intimate evening in the Overnight Fantasy Suite, and having said dude be like, “Nah, I think I’m gonna go back to my room and watch SportsCenter.” In other words, everything about it was “look away from the television” awkard and inauthentic: From the “sexytimes” white couch, to the insane yelping and growling Elise brought to the melody, to the image of rising cigarette smoke on the backdrop as the performance came to an end. I don’t know if Elise chose this song herself — if so: WHY? — or if it was foisted on her by a sadistic producer, but it would be pretty sad for a promising contestant like Ms. Testone end her Idol run on such a dubious note.

Phillip Phillips: “In The Midnight Hour” by Wilson Pickett
Another underwhelming Phillip moment, another set of rave reviews from the judges. I dunno, am I missing something? I liked our growlyfaced rocker earlier in the season, but despite Phillip’s intermittent conspiratorial grin, I felt like “In the Midnight Hour” lacked a needed sense of flirtatiousness for a guy who’s essentially lyrically seducing his lady. Even without his guitar, and surrounded by a wall of brass players, Phillip’s delivery was all “raise club! drag woman back to cave!” and not “hey there, mama, let me buy you a drink.” Once again, the performance was not helped by the backdrop — neon diner signs dancing in the dark? what? — nor by a final note that was like a waved white flag in the war to stay on pitch. “Be who you are!” exclaimed Randy. To which I say, “NO! Be the guy who used only an acoustic guitar and a sly sense of rhythm to make his audition-round ‘Thriller’ one of Season 11’s finest moments!”

Jessica Sanchez: “Try a Little Tenderness” by Otis Redding
Like Sisyphus trying to roll a boulder up a hill, Jessica grunted and growled and yowled her way through Otis Redding’s soul classic in a way that was thoroughly exhausting but ultimately not very rewarding. Look, I know the judges have been on this “GIVE US MORE!” soapbox for weeks — at least with the Season 11 women — but the more I play this performance back on repeat, the weirder it gets. One problem was the strange lounge-y bossa nova arrangement, which signaled something closer to cruise ship than blues club: Maybe Jessica resorted to shouting her lyrics just to drown out the Casio that was sucking the soul out of the room. And then there was Jessica’s stilted stage movement — something J.Lo took so long describing that I’m not sure Jessica really understood her in the end. Here’s hoping next week — assuming there is a next week — that Jessica lets herself fly again, and leaves the rock to roll toward Randy’s chair at the judges’ table.

Skylar Laine: “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye
Like I said in my post-show instant react, on a scale of Kris Allen’s “Heartless” to Kristy Lee Cook’s “Eight Days a Week,” this fell a little closer to the former than the latter. And while, if I’m being honest, I probably liked Skylar’s energy and the ballsiness of the arrangement more than the actual vocal (which got a little bit unruly in places), that doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy it immensely if/when it shows up on a future episode of ABC’s GCB. Go back and listen to that ad-libbed “just about, just about, just about to looooose my mind” and tell me you disagree, yo!

Joshua Ledet: “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke
This was a decent effort by Joshua, but where the judges felt restraint through the opening half, I felt a little bit of…exhaustion? Ennui? I don’t know, really. I mean, I loved the way Joshua delivered certain words and phrases (the punch on “Sometimes-uh!” delighted me in particular) but I don’t think the sum of those moments added up to anything worthy of a Standing O. I agree with J.Lo: America should not send this kid home anytime soon. But I also have to say I could amend that statement if he ever again awkwardly references J.Lo’s abs in a post-performance critique.

Letter Grades for the Week’s Performances
Elise Testone (Now): A-
Joshua Ledet (Now): A-
Skylar Laine (Now): A-
Colton Dixon (Now): A-
Jessica Sanchez (Now): B+
Hollie Cavanagh (Now): B+
Joshua Ledet (Then): B+
Phillip Phillips (Now):B
Skylar Laine (Then): B
Jessica Sanchez (Then): C+
Phillip Phillips (Then): C+
Hollie Cavanagh (Then): C
Elise Testone (Then): C-
Colton Dixon (Then): C-

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