The first signs of mutiny aboard the U.S.S. American Idol surfaced during Wednesday night’s Top 8 performance telecast, and not a moment too soon. As the Season 10 contestants tackled “Songs from the Movies,” James Durbin and Casey Abrams stood up and said “no” to Interscope chairman Jimmy Iovine and his wacky cartoon sidekick, choosing instead to forge their own imperfect paths in the competition. Whether or not their singular visions were successful, or whether they’ll lead to quick exits or carry them all the way to the Nokia at the end of May, is almost irrelevant at this point. Their passion — for musical self-expression; for independence from the tyranny of watered-down, test-marketed, Auto-Tuned production; for wanting to create the kind of “Idol Moment” that is always spontaneous and can never be manufactured or pre-planned — hopefully marked a turning point in a season that’s been long on talent but short on tears of joy and standing ovations from our living room couches.
Which isn’t to say that James or Casey — or any of their six competitors — produced jaw-droppingly exciting rearrangements in the vein of Blake Lewis’ “You Give Love a Bad Name” or Kris Allen’s “Heartless” or David Cook’s “Always Be My Baby.” Nor did any of them deliver the kind of gut-busting vocal interpretation of Fantasia’s “Summertime” or Adam Lambert’s “Mad World” or Brooke White’s “Let It Be.”
But after seven weeks of live performances, it’s clearly time for the Season 10 singers to break away from a team of “superstar producers” who’ve minimized the number of Sanjaya-level disasters, but who’ve also sandpapered down the rough and interesting edges that are often the hallmarks of great performers and performances.
And make no mistake: It’s not as if Team Interscope’s involvement has resulted in a massive uptick in quality among the weekly iTunes recordings. Takes Pia Toscano’s studio version “River Deep – Mountain High” from last week, where her absolutely fabulous vocal butts up against the plinkiest synthesizer and hollowest drums on record since the dawn of electronic music.
Then again, why am I surprised by this crime against Pia, when the Idol Machine seems hellbent on systematically crushing every woman in the competition — until Simon Fuller attempts to put the failure of From Justin to Kelly in the past, and forge ahead with his recently completed screenplay, Six Men and a Little Lauren. How else to explain the fact that Haley Reinhart was the lone contestant tonight to get any kind of constructive feedback from the judges’ panel? The other seven vocalists, according to Randy, J.Lo, and Steven, are apparently ready to start their sold-out arena tours. Tickets go on sale May 1! Somebody contact Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, and Daughtry and see if any of ’em might be interested in opening for Jacob Lusk this summer, okay? As for me, I’m gonna move on to discussing tonight’s very mixed bag of performances.
Paul McDonald: Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll”
“America, you just witnessed the first number at the Paul McDonald concert!” squealed Randy, and from the tone of his voice, it sounded like he meant it as a compliment. Surely the Dawg was kidding, in much the same way Will.I.Am was making a funny when he suggested Paul slide out onto the stage — Tom-Cruise-in-Risky–Business-style — to start his performance. Or the way Jimmy Iovine was trying to get a laugh when he suggested a beatboxing interlude (¡ai dios mio!) during an anthem that speaks directly to lovers of the classic-rock genre. Yeah, I know, Randy and the “helpful” mentors maintained straight faces when they made those remarks, but deep down, they had to be laughing, right?
Speaking of bottled-up feelings, I actually scribbled this exact note during Paul’s performance tonight: “Sickening feeling on the inside.” And I say this not as someone who wants to be overtly cruel, but as someone who has generally enjoyed Paul’s Idol oeuvre — and who has danced to “Old Time Rock and Roll” at a half-dozen Slezak Family weddings. But how else was I supposed to feel watching Paul up on the stage, dressed as “the Fourth Amigo” (to quote my Twitter follower @domlegaspi), hooting and staggering and playing his tambourine, his clipped and breathy vocal resembling something you might hear while the wedding band takes an intermission and Cousin Inebriated decides to have an unwanted turn at the mic? Idol pundits often dismiss Taylor Hicks as a joke for similar white-guy dancing and “Soul Patrol!” call-outs, but at least the Season 5 champ sang in tune.
Lauren Alaina: Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb”*
Breaking out the baseball terminology — I played one season of Little League, so I’m totes qualified — no one can say that Lauren struck out with her rendition of a Hannah Montana soundtrack ballad. But on the other hand, why did the judges stand up and cheer for what, in creative terms, was little more than a bunt? Sure, Lauren was in tune for most of the number (except for that botched glory note at the end), and yes, her song choice was age-appropriate for a change. But unlike her countrified take on “Candle in the Wind” two weeks back, Lauren brought nothing new or unexpected to “The Climb,” and even worse, didn’t imbue the track with any real sense of emotional commitment.
Instead of Jimmy and Will.I.Am spending their entire mentoring session embarrassing Lauren and turning two potential blocs of voters against her — Miley Cyrus and Pia Toscano fans, just remember it wasn’t Lauren who said she’s “a much better singer” than the multiplatinum former Disney queen or that she wanted to “steal” fans from last week’s shock evictee — I wish they’d had the wide-eyed teenager sit down and read the lyrics aloud, had her try to get in touch with the adversity and heartache central to the song. Without that, Lauren’s “uphill battle” seemed about as urgent as finishing an English essay on The Grapes of Wrath in time to watch Vampire Diaries on Thursday night. And that’s a shame. Because unlike, say, season 9 teens Katie Stevens or Aaron Kelly, I firmly believe Lauren has the pipes and the consistency to contend for the whole ball of wax. But without some carefully considered advice from Jimmy or the judges, how is she ever gonna move that proverbial mountain? (*”A great great song,” according to Randy Jackson. Ugh.)
Stefano Langone: Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road”
Poor Stefano has convinced himself that Jimmy Iovine’s steady stream of verbal abuse is a sign that the Interscope Records chairman cares about him. (Somebody needs to add J.Lo’s revenge fantasy Enough to his Netflix queue.) But everyone knows friends don’t let Idol contestant friends sing a song like “End of the Road,” which (apologies to all you Boyz II Men fans) is a giant slop bucket full of treacly sentimentality and vein-busting glory notes. Even worse, it’s got a title tailor-made for a tearful Idol exit performance.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Stefano’s inevitable ouster: The Little Wild Card Who Could got up on stage and gave his best performance since “I Need You Now.” Granted, it wasn’t perfect — Stefano essentially threw his entire bowl of vocal pasta against the wall, hoping something would stick with the voting public, and there were moments you could feel him pushing his voice to the point of being disagreeable. On the whole, however, the guy sounded pretty good, and decidedly passionate, on the kind of melisma-heavy ballad that’s not entirely my cup of vodka. I wish, though, that Randy or J.Lo had encouraged Stefano to try something upbeat next week, seeing how the dude has sung ballads for five consecutive weeks. Oh, and three other side notes: 1) Somehow, Stefano manages to look good in a white fedora; he might want to break one out on stage next week! 2) Could anyone else feel that eyeroll from Aretha Franklin when Randy name-checked “his boy” Wanya Morris of Boyz II Men as “one of the greatest singers in the known world.” 3) J.Lo’s advice to Stefano tonight (“stop singing to stay and start singing to win”) was very, very different — and not nearly as insightful — as what she said to him during Motown Week (“I don’t want [your] intensity to come from you wanting to do well. I want the intensity to come from because your heart is breaking.”) Is the Most Beautiful Woman in the World getting bad marching orders from Uncle Nigel, or is she determined to drive down her once-soaring stock as an Idol judge.
Scotty McCreery: George Strait’s ” I Cross My Heart”
Don’t get me wrong: Watching Idol wannabes decimate Jimmy Iovine’s massive ego is almost as funny as a one-two punch of Modern Family and Cougar Town. But Scotty was the one contestant this week who suffered from his decision to discard Jimmy’s advice and follow his own limited artistic path. I got more of a charge from those few seconds of Scotty practicing Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” than I did from his entire disconnected performance of George Strait’s “I Cross My Heart,” a mixed bag of nasal notes, overcooked twang, and trying to take the Idol cameras out behind the bleachers for a PG-13 good time. All I can say is the kid is lucky he had backup singers who didn’t mind lending a helping hand on the chorus.
This isn’t to say Scotty was terrible — not by any stretch of the imagination. And on some level, I understand Randy’s “if it ain’t broke, don’t even consider fixing it!” critique. After all, I think everybody knows Scotty is going to make a lot of money for the Team Idol before Dasher and Dancer gingerly make the rounds of our roofs in December. But isn’t it more than a little patronizing to tell the season’s sole country contender that artistic growth isn’t necessary? That country music fans don’t want anything deeper than a pleasingly deep voice and a Nice American Boy persona? That as a 17-year-old unsigned artist, he shouldn’t be pushing the outer edges of his comfort zone or attempting to surprise his fans with something new and unexpected?
Casey Abrams: Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy”
There’s no doubt in my mind that Casey’s will be the most polarizing performance of Movie Week. (My husband declared it best of the night, while my mom texted me to express her utter disdain for everything from Casey’s vocals to his facial tics.) But no matter what your stance is on the success or failure of “Nature Boy,” I think you have to give some credit to Casey for standing up to Jimmy Iovine and Will.I.Am, rejecting their strange choice of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” and choosing to live or die on his own creative decisions.
On the plus side, “Nature Boy” brought Casey back to the jazzy roots that made him a Hollywood Week standout. His beard meticulously groomed, his hair slicked into a side part, his clothes (including a cravat!) looking like they’d been dry-cleaned and ironed, not pulled pell-mell out of the hamper, Casey took the stage with his upright bass and presented a very intimate rendition of a song that’s older than he and Haley and Scotty combined. What’s more, Casey recognized the inherent flaw in Jimmy’s “if you whisper, no one will hear” argument: The greatest power you’ll ever know as a vocalist is when to hold back, when to make the audience lean in and hang on your every word, and when to blast them back into their seats with a power note. And it can’t be the latter all the damn time. Was “Nature Boy” a flawless performance, worthy of a Standing O from the judges? Probably not with a mid-verse phlegm-clearing, and those overly mannered exhalations. (Sorry, dude, “wise” doesn’t sound better when it’s pronounced “wyyy-zuh!”) And from a visual standpoint, Casey’s shameless mugging for the camera sometimes runs afoul of the message his voice is delivering. But whether or not you think he’s on the right path, at least it’s one that Casey chose for himself, and for that reason alone, I think he’s earned himself another week on the competition, if not the right to “educate” America about music.
Haley Reinhart: Blondie’s “Call Me”
“I don’t want any of the girls to go home!” whined J.Lo, after she and Steven and Randy finished piling moderate criticism on Haley’s scattered, uninventive cover of “Call Me.” [Thank goodness TVLine.com also has a seven-second delay, or the space between these two brackets would be filled with an all-caps display of obscenities.] My problem, of course, wasn’t that Haley deserved heaping portions of praise — her vocal merely colored in the lines of Debbie Harry’s original (using a sad, beige crayon) — but the fact that she apparently gave the only one of the evening’s eight performances about which the judges could find anything negative to say. I mean, if Paul’s sparrow-flying-into-plexiglass debacle showed that he’s “definitely an artist” (Randy) and proved that every week he’s a little more polished (J.Lo) then honestly, Haley’s performance should have ended with a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. And, hey, at least she gave the telecast a much-needed fashion jolt with her sequined “stained glass” minidress and thigh-high purple boots, right? Um, also, how come Jimmy was so passionate about steering certain contestants away from their original song choices, but didn’t even flinch when Haley picked a highly stylized ditty that was never going to showcase her impressive chops? You know things are dire when I’m theorizing that Uncle Nigel wants Haley booted so that either the show can ride another monstrous “Idol hates women” media cycle (to higher ratings? to deafening buzz? to hell?) or that it’ll make it easier for Lauren to sail to a glorious victory and make a million-bazillion dollars for the folks at the 19 Entertainment mothership.
Jacob Lusk: Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”
If Jacob ends up in the bottom three this week, it won’t be because he sang the song badly, it’ll be because America didn’t want to look into the troubled water and see their own reflections. Badum-bum! Okay, I’m maybe a little bit evil: But I was hoping that after Jimmy chastised Jacob for his obnoxious comments on Top 9 Performance Night — “you’re gonna preach to 24 million people when you haven’t put out a record yet?” — the contestant himself might find a way to apologize for his hubris. Instead, he sulked like a kid in the naughty corner, not at all sorry for his actions, just sorry for the fact that he got caught.
Okay, maybe I’m reading too much into Jacob’s body language, but after seven weeks of live performances, I’ve simply grown tired of his overwrought vocal affectations, the way every word and every note is drawn and quartered, doused in brandy and set on fire, slathered in five lbs. of makeup and two gallons of perfume, and shot out of a cannon with three tons of fireworks. The endless vibrato, the face-pulling, the complete lack of connection to the lyrics: It’s all 1-800-TOO-MUCH. And while “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was a study in merciful restraint compared to, say, “Alone” or “Man in the Mirror,” it was more remarkable for a series of sharp, unpleasant notes and a final, vicious run that was about as musical as a seal having its face torn off by a Great White shark. Naturally, Randy praised it as “perfect, perfect, perfect harmony.” Okay, Dawg, you win: I’M THE ONE HAVING MY FACE TORN OFF — BY JACOB’S GOD-LIKE AWESOMENESS. ARE YOU HAPPY NOW?
James Durbin: Sammy Hagar’s “Heavy Metal”
Forgive me for railing against Jacob’s arrogance and then praising James for exhibiting a similar brand of braggadocio this week, but there is an important distinction between the two: James wasn’t looking into the camera and telling us his rendition of “Heavy Metal” was going to be the greatest thing since the invention of the electric guitar, he was merely demanding that Jimmy give him the chance to show the Idoloonie Nation exactly the kind of artist he wants to be. “Give metal a chance,” James implored with boyish enthusiasm, before hitting the stage with guest guitarist Zakk Wylde and gleefully hitting every note of a raucous number that, in Jimmy’s defense, didn’t have much of a hook. That didn’t make James any less entertaining as he leapt up on the judges’ table and howled like a (very musical) banshee, or when he did his trademark back bend during Wylde’s extended guitar solo. I can’t say this track is going to land in my iPod’s Top 200 Most Played tracks, but I appreciate that James knows his genre and knows how to communicate that to the record-buying public, but isn’t so set in his ways that he’s not willing to take huge risks in an effort to win over new fans and challenge himself in the process. I’m not sure I needed Randy to lamely repeat “Durbin rocks!” four consecutive times as he completed his critique, but that doesn’t mean I disagreed with his core sentiment. Okay, James, I’ll give metal a chance — as long as you keep nailing the vocals, and maybe picking tracks with a wee bit more melody. Might I suggest some “Round and Round” or “Photograph” or “Youth Gone Wild” or “Paradise City.” Girl, you didn’t know your Idol recapper could get down like that, didja?
And now, onto the letter grades for Top 8 Performance Night:
James Durbin: A-
Casey Abrams: B+
Stefano Langone: B
Lauren Alaina: B-
Scotty McCreery: B-
Haley Reinhart: C+
Jacob Lusk: C-
Paul McDonald: D+
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!