There was magic in the air Wednesday night at American Idol. The judges waved their hyperbole-filled wands and turned “good/decent/atrocious” into “amazing,” “revolutionary,” and “perfect in every way.” Nigel Lythgoe reached into his hat and pulled out a gaggle of screaming groupies for Scotty McCreery. And Gwen Stefani used some dark-sided voodoo (aka her L.A.M.B. “fashion” line) to transform the gorgeous Pia Toscano into a bowl of lumpy mashed potatoes.
But let’s not dwell on the judges; if they’re determined to be the beige eggshell paint of season 10, then by all means, they can fade into the background! (Hey, look, Steven Tyler is actually asleep!) While we’re at it, let’s forgive Uncle Nigel his silly contrivances; after all, we owe him a debt of gratitude for killing off the SwayBots. And as for the ladies’ outfits, let us never again speak of the crimes committed against Lauren Alaina — forced into diaper-wearing servitude to help line the pocketbooks of a multi-millionaire pop star/clothing entrepreneur. (Did Idol‘s check bounce after Gwen’s season-six mentoring stint or something?)
Instead, let’s focus on this week’s nine musical performances, trying to sort out who actually rocked on “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Night,” who at least managed to survive the foolery of guest mentor will.i.am (not sure if I “spelled” his name correctly, but don’t respect him enough to Google it), and who paraded down the street in a preposterous display of nudity, only to be applauded for wearing a one-of-a-kind Vivienne Westwood catsuit. Let’s break it all the way down, in chronological order…
Jacob Lusk: Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror”
This just in: The “Lusky Stank” is not just a singing style anymore, it’s now a full-blown attitude problem. That’s right, if Jacob ends up in the bottom three this week, “it won’t be because I sang the song bad, it won’t be because I sang the song wrong, it will be because everybody in America wasn’t ready to look at themselves in the mirror,” insisted the singer who apparently didn’t bother checking his own reflecting glass before hitting the stage in a blindingly unflattering combo of white vest, white shirt, and white trousers. Even worse, Jacob proceeded to hit at least a dozen bum notes on the opening verse alone, whipped his angry pelvis back and forth (in the general direction of songwriter /guest backing vocalist Siedah Garrett), then complete the performance with all the emotional gravitas and musicality of a screaming seal. If Jennifer Lopez really thought Jacob’s rendition was “perfect in every way,” then I am utterly shocked she was not hospitalized after witnessing Kris Allen’s vastly superior “Man in the Mirror” from the season 8 semifinals. I can confidently type the following after spending five minutes looking at myself in the mirror (where I observed a receding hairline, two days’ worth of patchy stubble, and grim evidence of poor sleep habits): Jacob is so going to have to park his overconfident behind on the Silver Stools of Doom on Thursday.
Haley Reinhart: Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart”
As a huge, huge fan of Janis Joplin, and as a rapidly budding fan of Haley’s, it pains me to say I wish that the plucky Idol underdog had chosen something a little more unexpected, and performed it a little more unexpectedly, to follow up last week’s breakout “Bennie and the Jets.” I mean, yes, Haley hit darn near every note of her song tonight, but I felt like she chose only one crayon (Growly Mama) to color carefully inside the lines that Janis drew back in 1968. Granted, I’d still put Haley in the upper half of this week’s performances. And, yes, Randy was right that she hit a nifty little run toward the end of the number. But just like perfume has to be sprayed on a few key areas of the body — not poured into a bathtub by the gallon and splashed around in — so too should Haley’s trademark roar be used when and where it counts. Seeing how The Lady Reinhart spent the first two weeks of the Season 10 finals in the bottom three, she needs to put on her headphones and play a little Janis, a little Aretha, a little Bonnie Raitt, and remember that great singing is just as much about holding back as it is unleashing the beast.
Casey Abrams: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”
Can I confess something kind of embarrassing? As I was writing this very column, I had to go back and check my notes to remember what exactly Casey sang this week. Yeah, I remembered there was some groovy upright bass-playing involved. And alas, I recalled a few too many “do ya think I’m sexy?” grins into the camera. But the actual singing left my mind “for a minute,” and that troubles me. There’s no denying Casey knows how to phrase a song and imbue it with genuine emotion, but it’s becoming pretty clear that whenever his voice starts to stray off pitch, he breaks out the crutches of grunts, growls, and cries of “oh baby” — all of which have the undesired effect of pulling me out of the performance and making me focus on random questions including (but not limited to): “How come the Idol styling squad forsaken this dude? Seriously, did they pull that rumpled gray shirt with the badly creased white collar out of Ryan Seacrest’s laundry pile (circa 1992)?” “Why didn’t the dude groom his beard?” “And for the love of all that’s holy, why the hell is Randy Jackson using the word ‘revolutionary’ to describe Casey’s use of the upright bass?” Please tell me I’m not alone in these perplexing thoughts!
Lauren Alaina: Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”
It’s all well and good that Jimmy Iovine and the Black Eyed Peas dude who must have an entire dossier of incriminating info about Uncle Nigel talked to Lauren about the marriage of country and soul (“countroul,” as the latter gentleman so lamely called it). But how come they did absolutely zilch to put a little torch and twang into the arrangement of a song that’s been known to sound rather folksy in the hands of writer Carole King? At least that might’ve helped Lauren differentiate her rendition from sounding like nine-year-old leftovers of Kelly Clarkson’s glorious Season 1 cover. (Seriously, click that link; it’ll make your Thursday.) Then again, who am I kidding? Sixteen-year-old Lauren Alaina barely has any business singing Britney Spears’ “I’m Not a Girl (Not Yet a Woman),” let alone tackling the very adult concept of being made to feel like — actually, I’m not even going to finish that sentence. Let’s just say I actually felt kind of bad for Lauren tonight, awkwardly shifting side to side at center stage in her (Screaming of the) L.A.M.B.(s) attire, never quite finding the song’s vocal or emotional groove, and pretty much hitting that key change like a compulsory figure-eight rather than the quadruple-axel climax of a memorable short program. (How’s that for a hot honeyed wreck of a metaphor?)
James Durbin: George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
Look, let’s just be honest for a second: Switching up your performances between “full-on rocker hysteria” and “back-lit sensitive gentleman on a stool” isn’t really artistic bravery, it’s smart Idol strategy — most recently/most effectively employed by Season 8 runner-up Adam Lambert. And while it was pretty clear from James’ tears that he was feeling the music pretty deeply tonight, there’s no way you can achieve a “Mad World”-esque performance when half the notes of your lower register are flatter than the surface of a skipping stone. It’s weird: While James’ personality has grown on me over the last few weeks — it’s hard not to root for the guy when he talks about how much he’s missing his family — I’m increasingly troubled by his inability to maintain vocal control when he’s not in full-on belting mode. Note that while the judges gave effusive praise to James’ emotional connection to the song, they never once praised him for delivering a first-rate vocal. (Side note: Why didn’t Ryan ask a followup question to this inscrutable statement from James: “It’s a song I’ve worked on for five years and written my own version — and that’s mine, that’s my accomplishment. It just shows my struggles and everything that I’m shootin’ for.” I honestly have no idea what the Durbs was talking about!)
Scotty McCreery: Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right Mama”
Yeah, I know, if Scotty were a building, he’d be the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D. (I’ve been there! It’s literally a palace covered in corn! And it’s kind of amazing!) And while I can sit here and wish out loud that maybe the Idol stylists could try to upgrade Scotty from a denim workshirt into something a little more stylish (how about a jaunty plaid!) or that he would stop heeding Beyoncé’s advice and holding his mic “to the left, to the left,” that would just be stalling my honest opinion that the kid gave the performance of the night. I loved the way the grit suddenly kicked up in Scotty’s voice, like dust spraying up off an old country road. I loved the way Scotty worked the stage with energy and enthusiasm, but never lost control of his pitch. Yeah, J.Lo was right that the Contestant Most Likely to Pump Up Simon Fuller’s Bank Account should probably dial back on the “hip-hop hooray!” hand gestures, but like a second handful of Pringles or the siren call of a Powerball vendor (don’t worry, if I win, I’ll still do Idoloonies!), it is useless to resist him!
Pia Toscano: Tina Turner’s “River Deep Mountain High”
Here’s a bit of constructive advice for Pia: If you want to be able to work the stage with abandon, you might want to reconsider wearing heels so treacherous it makes Man on Wire look like child’s play. But here’s the thing: I’m not sure Pia wants to work the stage with abandon. And that raises the larger question for the Idoloonie Nation: Are we okay with that? Are we still willing to travel the Pia Toscano Express if she’s never going to be willing to pull a Fantasia Barrino and “get ugly” with her vocals? Because Jimmy Iovine made one good point tonight: That Tina Turner sang the original “River Deep Mountain High” like she was out-of-her-freakin’-mind obsessed with the object of her affection. And while Pia was hitting some mountain-high notes with the precision of a Marine Corps sniper, I never sensed from her the complete and utter desperation of a woman gone crazy in love. The way I see it, it’s perfectly fine if Pia isn’t that kind of singer — the hit you with a musical two-by-four, leave you gasping for air soulstress cut from the Patti/Tina/even Wineouse cloth. But if that’s the case, she shouldn’t be handling musical explosives. Because the best singers aren’t only aware of the boundaries of their vocal range, but their emotional scope as well. And that’s all I’m going to say about Pia for now, because my feelings are, as they say, developing…
Stefano Langone: Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman”
I was worried for Stefano from the moment he ended his intro package by saying he felt like he was going to have a huge week, then looked downward with an expression of abject befuddlement. And sure enough, the falsetto opening of “When a Man Loves a Woman” was like the strangled last gasps of an Idol dream that I once believed could sail all the way to the Top 3. All of my antennae say that a man will finish ninth on Idol‘s tenth season, and that man will either be Stefano or Jacob. So while I could point out the inherent flatness of Stefano’s final glory note (the one he tried to hold about six seconds too long) or the fact that if Pia has to take criticism for her ’90s-era balladeer style, then so should he, I fear that by Friday morning, the little Wild Card that could will be too busy preparing for a whirlwind string of exit interviews to have time for constructive advice.
Paul McDonald: Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”
The good news for Paul was that he chose far and away the night’s best — and rockin’-est — composition (well, tied with “Piece of My Heart,” anyhow). And coming at the end of the night, it was a treat to see him jamming out while flanked by two fellow musicians (a feeling of musical camaraderie that’s often missing as our singers traverse the cavernous stage alone). Still, I have to admit it was jarring to watch Paul adopt a gigantic grin to deliver lines like “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” and “when I hear that whistle blowin’, I hang my head and cry.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know Paul’s whole tone and tenor was something of a country-time jamboree, but even so, I couldn’t help but feel like the hippest little rooster in the competition forgot the mournful “Blues” of the song’s title. Plus, there were moments on the verse where it felt like Toothy McScruffypants reduced the melody to a range of two or three notes, tops. But while I have to vehemently disagree with J.Lo that Paul did an “amazingly good job,” I wouldn’t say his performance was the reason God invented the remote control, either. And with that, let’s get to tonight’s letter grades!
Scotty McCreery: A
Pia Toscano: B
Haley Reinhart: B
Paul McDonald: B
Casey Abrams: B-
Lauren Alaina: B-
James Durbin: C+
Jacob Lusk: C
Stefano Langone: C-
What did you think of tonight’s performances? Who was your favorite? Who’ll be in the bottom three, and who will go home? Sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol news and commentary, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!