American Idol Recap: Kings of King

A sudden rush of panic filled my chest at the start of American Idol‘s Top 6 performance episode Wednesday night. All season long, I’ve been craving genuine musical and emotional moments from the contestants (and to a lesser extent, the judges), and what’s the first thing I see? Costumes! Jennifer Lopez dressed as a tasteful figure skater. Randy Jackson imitating a dandy school boy. And Jacob Lusk channeling a pre-makeup Fizbo the Clown.

Even more disconcerting, though, was host Ryan Seacrest — the carnivorous breath of Carson Daly and NBC’s buzzy singing competition The Voice hot on the back of his neck — frantically trying to pump up the volume of the live studio audience. “We need that energy!” he panicked, acting like a guy trying to move a table full of knockoff watches and not realizing he’s loaded with genuine Rolexes.

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But just like you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, you shouldn’t make assumptions about the quality of an Idol episode based on the vagaries of the show’s wardrobe department or the momentary desperation in its host’s voice. Because at the end of the 90-minute telecast — buoyed by the melodies of the Carole King songbook and the low-key mentoring of Babyface (aka “A Fine Choice to Replace the Judge on the Far Left or the Judge on the Far Right in Season 11”) — two contestants managed to come as close to having “Idol Moments” as anything we’ve seen in weeks, and better still, not a single solo performance had the hand-in-the-trash-compactor factor of Jamie Foxx and will.i.am squawking a soundtrack cut from an animated bird movie. Yeah, Randy Jackson revealed he doesn’t know the meaning of the words “turned the other cheek,” but after 10 seasons of foolery, it’s pretty clear dude doesn’t know the meaning of anything, right?

[Side note: Was Randy’s low-rise soul patch a new development this week, or have I been too stupefied by his endless stream of drivel to notice his facial-hair patterns these last four months? No matter, let’s dive into the performances — solo first, followed by duets.]

Jacob Lusk: “Oh No Not My Baby”
I could make a joke here about the appropriateness of Jacob choosing a song with the words “Oh No” at the start of the title, but that would be far too easy, and perhaps just a bit too cruel. And anyhow, Jacob had enough problems with Jimmy Iovine offering this final pre-performance assessment of his chances: “He’s an incredible singer, but I think he’s in the most trouble.” Translation: This young man is 24 hours away from starring in the Lifetime original movie Whatever Will I Sing for My Exit Performance?: The Jacob Lusk Story. To be honest, Jacob could do far worse than giving an encore of his Carol King cover, which had a lightness to the delivery that’s often been missing in most of his performances, and riffing that at least stayed in the general vicinity of the song’s melodic structure. On the downside, though, several of the big glory notes on “Oh No Not My Baby” were noticeably sharp, and the outfit — blue and white plaid jacket, yellow shirt, turquoise cardigan sweater, yellow sneakers, and purple bowtie — was busier than a Sandra Lee tablescape. The most troubling part of Jacob’s on-screen time, though, was enduring all three judges praising Jacob’s utterly hokey dancing — which was slightly better than the modern dance recital I attended last weekend (in which a creepy man spit a whole hard-boiled egg out of his mouth), but slightly less ready for prime time than Stefano Langone’s tentative hoofing during “Closer” last week. How J.Lo, a former professional dancer, could say that Jacob “killed it” on the performance aspect of the number has me completely flummoxed. Does she really believe that all dance is created equal? Oh, and what about Randy’s critique: “Hopefully, America gives you some votes and you stick around”? I mean, if The Dawg wants Jacob to crack the Season 10 Top 5, then who exactly does he want to be eliminated on Thursday? (We’ll get to that answer in a moment.)

Lauren Alaina: “Where You Lead”
I’ve got to admit I’m endlessly frustrated (and mildly fascinated) by Lauren’s trajectory in this competition. To be fair, her rehearsal footage this week once again proved she’s got an enviable vocal power and a lovely tone, but it also made me feel like her entire artistic persona is a construct she builds each week in direct response to feedback from Jimmy and the judges. Last week they all harped on about Lauren’s crisis of confidence, so this week she dove deeper into the ridiculous idea that she’s afraid of stretching her voice. (Next week, maybe she’ll fetch the newspaper!) I loved how Babyface asked Lauren if she’d ever gone for a note and missed it, and managed to draw out the obvious truth (nope, she hasn’t) and a coy little giggle.

The problem is, with so much time focused on answering the question “Who is Little Lauren?” the big-voiced teenager seems to be giving short shrift to song selection and emotional connection. I’m hardly one to advocate a big diva ballad every single week, but someone needs to sharpen Lauren’s instincts and stop her from choosing drab midtempo ditties that decrease the chances of her having a breakthrough moment. “Where You Lead” was a particularly colorless effort, as Lauren mechanically hit her marks — perform brief shimmying dance, wave arm toward crowd, pop up between animatronic backup singers, head to steps, select pre-screened “cute guy” from audience as prop — while the light in her eyes dimmed enough to reduce her family’s monthly energy bill by 20 percent. Please tell me I’m the only one who was overcome with an urge to look away fro m the TV when Lauren snuggled up next to 19-year-old Drew to finish the performance. Despite the judges’ praise — “Clap! Clap!” demanded J.Lo, while Steven insisted she had “manifested the light” or some such gobbledygook — I wonder if Lauren might make her initial trip to the Bottom Three this week.

Scotty McCreery: “You’ve Got a Friend”
And the award for best mentor comment of the season goes to…drum roll please…no, Jimmy, sit down, we’re not handing out a trophy for your erroneous opinion that “You’ve Got a Friend” is the “most romantic song [Scotty has] tried to sing yet.” Instead, the prize goes to Babyface, for suggesting Scotty go “airy” on the opening verse, the better to pump up the contrast when he brings the Full McCreery to the chorus. Yes, Jimmy, I know you had a similar comment, but Babyface’s was more clear and succinct. Seriously, dude, sit down.

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In all seriousness, though, in this, the ninth week of live performances, we may have finally witnessed a genuine Idol Moment for the likeliest Season 10 winner, and it came just seven days after getting his first solid, actionable dose of constructive criticism from the judges. (Ahh…the magic that can happen when the judges stop handing out gold stars and actually focus on doing their jobs.) And it wasn’t just the restraint on the chorus, but also the intensity with which Scotty tore into lines like “take your soul if you let them — but don’t you let ’em” and that closing run of “I’ll be there, and I’ll be there, and I’ll be there.” With apologies to Thia Megia, this was Scotty painting with all the colors of the wind. Sure, I’d have been happier if those colors hadn’t contained Scotty’s grotesque blue-leather jacket — would we allow the kid to don just jeans and a simple Henley or t-shirt one week? — but if you can’t always get what you want, and sometimes you have to settle for getting what you need. (Look at me making a reference to Season 9’s Crystal Bowersox, who’ll perform on Thursday night’s results telecast!)

James Durbin: “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”
Speaking of Idol Moments…how hauntingly beautiful was James’ nearly a capella opening verse on “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”? As he stood there bathed in a single spotlight, his voice shattering the silence of the auditorium, James brought back memories of Bo Bice’s transcendent “In a Dream” from Season 4 (which happens to be an entrant in our ongoing American Idol All-Time Greatest Performance Bracket Tournament) not to mention the male Idol innovators who’ve had unexpected breakthrough moments tackling tender material penned by female artists (see David Cook’s “Always Be My Baby,” Michael Johns’ “It’s All Wrong But It’s All Right,” etc). Heck, James was so good tonight, he almost drew a salient comment from Steven Tyler, who noted folks might download James’ iTunes recording just to save a piece of the a capella goodness. I won’t lie: I experienced a slight pang of disappointment when the drums and jangly guitars kicked in on the chorus — oh how I miss the intimate Idol moments that Jimmy and his team have poached to the point of extinction — but by the time James brought home the final chorus, he’d given the ditty a bittersweet urgency that deserved every accolade it received, except perhaps for this piece of mangled English from Randy: “What I loved tonight is you turned the other cheek, because tonight, you weren’t just a great rock singer, tonight you proved that you’re a great singer, and that’s the most important thing. The most important thing is that you’re a great singer, dude.” Um, getting past the Dawg’s three uses of “tonight” in the same sentence and the unnecessary repetition of  his concept of “the most important thing,” I have to ask: Is Randy aware that “turn the other cheek” doesn’t mean “change up your performance style,” but is actually a Biblical reference that refers to the act of not seeking revenge, of not responding to aggression with more aggression? I could chalk it up to a simple slip of the tongue, but Randy used the same term this week to describe how Scotty used the judges’ critiques to improve his performance (closer, but still not quite there, Dawg). All I can say is forgive him Lord, for he knows not what he’s blathering.

Casey Abrams: “Hi-De-Ho That Old Sweet Roll”
I could go all Paula Abdul and say that Casey looked beautiful tonight — and truly, it was nice to see him in a tailored black suit, chartreuse tie, and black fedora, instead of one of his typical laundry-pile ensembles (or those orange plaid shorts he wears to rehearsal every single week). Or I could excuse his catastrophe of a vocal by quoting Jimmy Iovine: “Casey’s the type of artist who thrives living on the edge of creativity.” But that would be completely ignoring the fact that 45 seconds into the number — after strolling across the stage, interacting with “his band,” and smoothly delivering the verse — Casey abandoned his musicality like it was forged from pure asbestos, and retreated into a series of scowls and growls and grunts that covered up his unwillingness (or perhaps his inability) to sing in tune. On his final run in particular, which Casey gleefully delivered surrounded by a semicircle of musicians, you could hear him start to reach for a note on the word “ho,” miss the mark entirely, and turn it into a growled “oh yeah,” followed by a short burst of falsetto scat, and then a final ugly grunt. Oh, did I leave out the self-satisfied smile? Yes, Casey, give yourself a round of applause: You’ve gone back to exactly the type of performance that lost you your initial fan base and prompted the use of the season 10 judges’ save. And all the judges can do is ramble onabout how their scalps itch, or how you’re in your element, or how you’re “different and entertaining.” Yeah, okay, Randy did blurt out the words “less growl” after the audience started applauding and the cameras were cutting away from him — but I think I may have only noticed because I’m paid specifically to listen to every second of the telecast. I hope and suspect the rest of the nation had already turned to the fast-forward or mute function at that point.

Haley Reinhart: “Beautiful”
While Haley gave my third-favorite performance of the evening, I can’t help but wonder if she’d have been able to complete a trifecta of genuine Idol Moments (along with James and Scotty) had she not suffered ear-monitor issues seconds before the start of her number — note her tentative “yeah?” when Ryan asked if she could hear herself — and had the sound mix not sounded like Haley’s vocal was being run through a 1970s tape recorder, with the band and backup singers cranked up to provide direct competition, instead of harmonious accompaniment. I loved that we got to hear the peaks and valleys in Haley’s vocals — the lilting beauty of her upper register, the whiskey-soaked rawness of her trademark growl — and on the chorus, I definitely felt the spirit of Carole King’s empowerment anthem shine through. (And oh how I love a good empowerment anthem on the treadmill.) That said, Haley sometimes seemed to struggle just a bit with the song’s sudden shift in tempo and intensity. And seeing how she’s been in the bottom three for four out of the seven weeks the Season 10 finals — and seeing how Randy threw his verbal dung at Haley when it came time for critique — I am going to spend the entire day stressing out that anything less than total awesomeness could cost her a shot at cracking the Top 5. Well, hey, as a consolation prize, at least J.Lo finally acknowledged that Haley has one of the best voices in the competition. #TeamHaley has to take its positives anywhere the production drops ’em.

As for the week’s trio of duets, it pains me to say they felt like something of an afterthought, little cups of sad cole-slaw that fill out your deli platters.

* Casey and Haley’s “I Feel the Earth Move” was far and away the best of the bunch, with lovely harmonies, some nifty phrasing by Casey (loved his “d-d-d-down”), and a couple of potent riffs for Haley.
* Lauren and Scotty’s “Up on the Roof” ranked a distant second. I thought Lauren actually sounded amazing on the wistful ballad — oh how I wish this had been her solo selection — but Scotty’s way-off-the-mark harmonies sat in the soup like a clump of hair.
* And would you believe me if I told you I’ve tried three times now to watch Jacob and James’ “I’m Into Something Good,” and I keep blacking out. The details are blurry: J.Lo adjusting her skirt, off-key screeches clanging against each other like Game of Thrones swords, and…were those sailor outfits on the boys? I always find myself waking up as Steven Tyler says something like, “I wasn’t sure it was the most award-winning performance,” and then I know I’m dreaming, because the Aerosmith frontman hasn’t said anything of any value since the live performances began and the Idol editing team couldn’t mask his particular brand of nonsense.

And now, on to the letter grades for tonight’s performances…

Tonight’s Letter Grades

James Durbin’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”: A-
Scotty McCreery’s “You’ve Got a Friend”: A-
Haley Reinhart’s “Beautiful”: B+
Casey Abrams and Haley Reinhart’s “I Feel the Earth Move”: B+
Lauren Alaina’s “Where You Lead”: B-
Lauren Alaina and Scoty McCreery’s “Up on the Roof”: B-
Jacob Lusk’s “Oh No Not My Baby”: C+
Casey Abrams’s “Hi-De-Ho That Old Sweet Roll”: C
Jacob Lusk and James Durbin’s “I’m Into Something Good”: D

What did you think of this week’s show? Who was your favorite? Who deserves to go home? Sound off in our polls, then hit the comments to justify your votes. And for all my Idol news and commentary, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!

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