There are two key ways to determine the “winners” and “losers” of Wednesday night’s American Idol “Songs From the 21st Century” telecast: Focus entirely on the singing — an antiquated approach that would have Nigel Lythgoe snickering into his post-show tea and crumpets (because you know that’s exactly how he gets his snack on). Or, instead, obsess over the extraneous details of the 90-minute episode, like the hidden subtext of the judges’ critiques, the crafty editing of contestants’ pre-performance interview packages, and other miscellaneous details (i.e. Scotty McCreery’s unfortunate wardrobe choices; or the lack of restraining order commanding Casey Abrams to keep at least 50 yards away from Jennifer Lopez for the remainder of Season 10).
If you’re like me, there’s more than enough drama in the musical performances, and more than enough excitement in backing a horse or two in the race to find the nation’s next viable hitmaker. But that doesn’t mean it’s not infinitely fascinating to examine the evil/manipulative genius of the Idol Machinery. Look at the portraits painted tonight of the remaining seven contestants: Lauren Alaina is just a girl, standing in front of a bedroom mirror (and using her hairbrush as a microphone), asking America to love her. Stefano Langone, meanwhile, is ready to skip the Idol summer tour for a stint on ABC’s Bachelor Pad. Haley is “good, but…”, while Casey is Mark Ballas’ favorite contestant, has lips soft enough to be welcomed into the court of J.Lo’s glistening visage, and has achieved a “cult hero” status that makes Steven Tyler shoot f-bombs from his mouth cannon.
Actually, you know what? I just can’t deal with the Aerosmith frontman and his babbling brand of non-critique anymore. And so for the remainder of this recap — and, who knows, maybe for the remainder of the season — I’m not going to make another mention of him. In fact, let’s fast-forward past all the unseemly ridiculata — Jimmy Iovine in a tiny, red leather jacket; Season 10’s booted finalists dueling to the vocal death on “So What?” (spoiler alert: Only Pia survived); some wardrobe-department prankster dressing up Little Lauren to resemble style-challenged season 8 semifinalist Kristen McNamara (during her Idol mansion sing-off against Jenn Korbee) — and get right to what counts. No, Uncle Nigel, not this week’s Ford Music Video! I’m talking about the actual music.
Scotty McCreery: LeAnn Rimes’ “Swingin'”
Well, whaddaya know, Scotty’s as aware of his roguish eyebrows and his flute-loopy mic technique as J.Lo and Randy are of the season 10 front-runner’s need to push beyond good and go for greatness. Alas, though, the winking trifle of a ditty called “Swingin'” was not the vehicle to take him there. I will say that I appreciated Scotty switching up the tone and tempo of his performance, but the real problem beyond the song’s utter slightness — J.Lo was right, with a full decade of hits to choose from, the kid really could’ve dug deeper — was the fact that the charming teenager’s vocal frequently faded into the background (well, that and his stunningly hein tan collarless leather jacket.) As Idol missteps go, this probably won’t be enough to send Scotty to the Silver Stools of Doom, but here’s hoping that after a couple months’ worth of non-critique, this first hint of negative feedback will spur Lee DeWyze’s likeliest successor to create a true Idol Moment before he hits the Nokia in late May.
James Durbin: Muse’s “Uprising”
Uff da. As if James doesn’t already get enough “he’s trying to be Adam Lambert!” complaints, he goes and covers Muse — a band that a certain glittery season 8 finalist tackled during his stint on the Idol summer tour. But look, it has to be said that sometimes, comparisons can be a kind of lazy shorthand — a way to quickly and easily define a musical newcomer without having to dig beneath the surface. And on its own merits, James’ “Uprising” was one of the night’s most exciting performances. Yeah, the opening verse was a wee bit wispy, and there were moments when the dude’s rocker wail wound up at the intersection of Passionate and Screechy, but there was also a sense of drama that informed the number, and not just because a lineup of enthusiastic drummers stood behind the judges like sentries waiting to escort them all to the guillotine. True, James might not yet have the artistic chops to pull off a “post-apocalyptic protest” concept — or those awful, awful pants (which vaguely resembled one of Andy South‘s worst Project Runway Season 8 misfires) — but I’d be lying if I said that his sheer joy in being up there on the stage, his “look, ma! I’m on Idol!” effervescence, isn’t kind of infectious. How exactly Randy knew that Muse frontman Matt Bellamy had emailed James and challenged him to go up an octave on the final chorus, I’m not sure, but it certainly gave the kid a boost in the street-cred department.
[We interrupt this recap to inform you that Muse is one of Randy Jackson’s “favorite bands.”]
Haley Reinhart: Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”
Look, it’s time to accept that the Idol judges aren’t ever again going to show genuine enthusiasm for a Haley Reinhart performance — even if her minor sins (which this week, included two or three noticeably flat notes) are far less egregious than a number of her over-praised male competitors. So let’s ignore J.Lo and Randy’s tepid applause and give credit to Haley for tackling something truly (and perhaps dangerously) current, and for infusing the melody with several vocal flourishes (the daring run of crazy high notes on “sow,” a couple of forays into jazzy scatting). If I ruled the Idolverse, I’d probably have picked a track a little less ubiquitous in viewers’ minds — really, nobody’s about to infuse an Adele song with more passion than Adele — but note for note, I probably enjoyed “Rolling in the Deep” as much or more than any other performance this evening.
Jacob Lusk: Luther Vandross’ “Dance With My Father”
Whether you found it cynical or touching that Jacob dedicated his performance to his late father, and to everyone who’s lost their father, or doesn’t know where their father is, or doesn’t feel like they truly have a father, the trouble is — as J.Lo kinda sorta pointed out — Jacob doesn’t have full control of his 18-wheeler of an instrument. And sometimes that leads to carnage on the highway — with innocent notes, and sometimes entire chunks of melody piled up like roadkill on the shoulder of the stage. So while the good news is there was a tenderness and restraint to the opening third of “Dance With My Father,” the bad news is that my index finger experienced a magnet-like pull toward the mute button of my remote the moment the Lusky Stank went into effect on the key change. Unless he’s playing at some twisted, season-long practical joke, I don’t understand why Randy keeps encouraging Jacob to “go through the roof” when he’s just performed the vocal equivalent of using the house as a fiery space-shuttle launching pad. Granted, Jacob had a weird moment with his ear monitor at the start of the performance — I swear I thought I heard a hint of “Rolling in the Deep,” but when I played it back on my DVR a second and third time, I couldn’t detect anything — but I don’t see how a kid with this little sense of what to do with his voice has any hope of surviving more than a week or two longer in the competition.
[We interrupt this recap with Randy Jackson’s Quote of the Night: “Critique really helps everyone.” UM, THEN WHY IN THE BLOODY &$#@*%* HELL HAVE YOU BEEN MIRED IN “GREAT, GREAT, “IN IT TO WIN IT!” NONSENSE FOR THE LAST THREE WEEKS, YOU INSUFFERABLE TOOL?]
Casey Abrams: Maroon 5’s “Harder to Breathe”
Speaking of insufferable, how come J.Lo warned Casey against his Growly McScrunchyface antics the night of the Judges’ Save, but now suddenly she’s lovingly describing said traits as “Casey-isms”? I swear, every time Jennifer contradicts her prior advice on the Idol stage, Fox should be obligated by law to cut away from the highly paid singer-actress-dancer and play a particularly unflattering clip from Gigli. That’ll keep our gal on the right path.
And if I sound full of vitriol, it’s because “Harder to Breathe” was far and away the evening’s most infuriating performance — on several levels. For starters, it didn’t start off half-bad, until Casey stepped away from the mic stand and, flanked by two guitarists, began a menacing march toward the audience — where aggressive slaps took the place of classic high-fives, and his vocal devolved into a guttural scream. Secondly, compared to last week’s lovely and authentic (albeit imperfect) “Nature Boy,” this week’s “I’m a rocker now!” shtick felt like an unfunny practical joke. I won’t even get started on the from-the-hamper wardrobe or the fact that choosing from the spurned-and-pissed lyrical genre had the unfortunate side effect of transforming Casey’s least pleasing tics from “angry young man” mode to “possibly armed and most decidedly dangerous.” But worst of all was that twee ending — with Casey gingerly approaching J.Lo, planting a kiss on her cheek, and gasping out the final lyrics in a coy whisper. Um, weren’t we just making fun of Stefano for that “touching the judge” closing gesture on “Tiny Dancer”? And yet Casey drew praise from J.Lo for a “really, really great” performance and from Randy for the element of “surprise surprise surprise.” Here’s a fourth surprise: I’m predicting a bottom-three placement for Casey during Thursday’s results show.
[We break for this report from the office of TVLine DVR Playback: While Randy suggested tonight that he had serious issues with Casey’s Songs from Your Birth Year performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the court transcript shows otherwise. Let’s roll tape on Randy’s critique from that not-so-distant evening: “Listen, me being a musician, and me being a producer-writer, all the stuff that I do, right? What I’m most impressed with and what I love about you is that you represent, like great other bands — Radiohead, Muse, Lykke Li, whatever you, whoever — you love taking risks, and I love that you’re putting art first, and then thinking about commerce. It wasn’t your best performance or the best vocal or anything, but I like that you’re fearless! That’s what we need! Fearlessness! Come on break the mold!”]
Stefano Langone: Ne-Yo’s “Closer”
Oh Stefano! When Jimmy said “f*** that!” about your rehearsal, he meant he didn’t like how you were singing, not that he wanted you to make love to all of America using your eyebrows. As your fellow finalists pointed out, you’re a good-looking guy with a sweet, marketable voice — but in picking a song like “Closer,” where the last two-thirds find you passing the hook to the backup singers while you riff right to the outer edge of an aneurysm, you proved you’ve got no clue what to do with your gifts. You had the right idea to throw in some dance moves, but you performed them so tentatively, they came off as almost accidental. When you did that little move where you rubbed your own leg, I wasn’t sure of you had a cramp, or you were trying to add a Y-chromosome to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” routine. By the time you were done singing, I’m sad to say my notebook contained the following eight words: “They should’ve saved Kendra Chantelle at the Wild Card.” No, Stefano, I don’t think you gave the evening’s worst performance, but as a perpetual resident of the Bottom Three, I don’t think you did enough with your 21st Century opportunity to crack the Top 6.
Lauren Alaina: Sara Evans’ “Born to Fly”
I loved Jimmy’s revisionist history that he was really doing Lauren a kindness last week by announcing to America that she was a better singer than the hugely popular Miley Cyrus, before playing back said clip for an audience of 25 million again this week. Hey, here’s an idea, let’s cue up that footage of Lauren falling down the stairs, too! Ugh. The weird thing is, I think Nigel and Jimmy and everyone in the Idol/Fremantle/19 universe is trying to create a story arc here of plucky small-town girl with big dreams and an even bigger voice who overcomes her insecurities and blooms into a powerful Carrie Underwood-Kelly Clarkson hybrid that saves the music industry. Or some similar “triumph of the human spirit” scenario. But Lauren keeps thwarting their sold-out-arena wishes and cash-register dreams with her uninspired song choices and not-fully-committed performances. J.Lo is right that Lauren possesses a “special voice with so much color,” but right now it’s buried under 20 lbs of makeup, a whole host of teenage insecurities, and some deeply confusing advice from the judges’ panel. “Challenge yourself, Lauren!” screamed Randy, acting as if he’d said anything of that nature in the previous seven weeks of competition. J.Lo wants her to stand in a closet or a shower and scream and belt and go for the big notes. Wait, didn’t they tell her she hit a whole bunch of them on “The Climb” and “Candle in the Wind” and “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”? That’s the problem with this season’s wildly inconsistent judging: young as she is, Lauren has been in desperate need of constructive feedback to help her achieve her potential. But with only five performance episodes left in the season, I’m worried that even if, in fact, she’s “born to fly,” she might not have time to get off the ground.
James Durbin: B+
Haley Reinhart: B+
Scotty McCreery: B-
Stefano Langone: C+
Lauren Alaina: C+
Jacob Lusk: C-
Casey Abrams: D
What did you think of tonight’s performances? How would you rate the judges? What about that insane group performance, with Ashthon’s baby-voiced solo, Karen’s hilarious cry of “check my flow” (oh NO!), Pia’s mic problems (oh HELL NO!), Naima’s wacky leaping, and Paul’s utter disengagment from the whole sordid affair? Oh, and what about Pia’s insanely sexy, back-tying, fringe-tastic tank? As my Twitter follower @Lolailos points out: “If Pia had been wearing what she wore tonight instead of that stupid jumpsuit from Gwen Stefani, she’d still be here!” Sound off in the comments on all these topics and more, and for all my Idol news and commentary, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!