American Idol Recap: 'Rising' and Shining

At the end of American Idol‘s Top 5 performance show, I wasn’t sure whether I should pick up my phone to text-message votes on behalf of Haley Reinhart or use it to dial 911. On one hand, I wanted to reward Haley for getting up on the Idol stage and delivering the single best musical moment of Season 10 — and a second performance that would probably rank only a few slots behind. Conversely, though, I had just witnessed the judges’ panel committing criminal acts of foolery, vandalism, and perjury — and I wanted them hurled headlong into Reality TV Prison to rot indefinitely alongside disgraced former cast members of Joe Millionaire, Flavor of LoveReal World-Road Rules Challenge.

I mean, seriously, we had Randy Jackson implying that Jacob Lusk is a better singer than Season 6 champ Jordin Sparks. (Sure, I can pause for a second while you contemplate that statement, then ram your fist through the wall a few times.) We had Jennifer Lopez discouraging Haley Reinhart from taking musical risks. And then we had to endure everybody ignoring James Durbin’s borderline disastrous twinset of performances because he’s got a wife and a child and tears in his eyes and, well, Nigel Lythgoe’s not about to let actual singing get in the way of a good story arc, now is he?

Yeah, I realize the judges tried to play a “Get Out of Jail Free” card with a last-minute Standing O for Haley’s second number, but even that bit of praise was defined more by what the judges didn’t say — no acknowledgment that her performance was among the season’s best, no indicator that Haley had positioned herself as a contestant with a chance to make the finale — than anything else.

What I resent most of all, though, is that the judges’ shoddy treatment of Haley almost ruined what was an otherwise solid night of music. It’s not my idea of a good time to develop a tension headache over the course of a 90-minute telecast that ends with me raging against the TV set with indignant questions like “HOW DARE YOU EVEN SPEAK TO HER?” and “WHAT IS YOUR ENDGAME, YOU EVIL #^@&*^%$#*@#S?” Oh, sure, I understand that for whatever reason, the endgame is a James-Lauren-Scotty final three, I just don’t understand how Nigel Lythgoe & Co. got the idea into their heads that we want to watch a confident, talented young woman get bandied about like a holiday piñata week after maddening week. At this rate, if Haley survives the cut and cracks the Top 4, Nigel should just be up front with his agenda and ship her to the set of ABC’s Wipeout for next week’s show. There, she can sing her guts out while a gigantic foam club brutally pelts her about the face and head before dumping her into a tank of water. Fun for the whole family!

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Okay, I digress too much — and probably too furiously. Let’s move forward like my therapist might suggest and review tonight’s performances — based on a “Now & Then” theme of one current track, and one track from the 1960s — shall we?

James Durbin: 30 Seconds to Mars’ “Closer to the Edge”
Over the last few weeks, I’ve slowly but surely begun to appreciate James’ talents as a vocalist and an energetic entertainer, even started thinking of him as a potentially viable Season 10 winner, but this particular performance was a hot, honeyed mess. On the opening verse, James’ voice disappeared like it had been wrapped in Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, and even when he reached his comfort zone of big, howling power notes, he still had problems singing in tune. (That glory note delivered with upside-down mic was particularly unpleasant.) And yet, the judges’ praise was so effusive, I started wondering if they were speaking in some kind of weird code. (Actually, if you roll tape, not a single member of the panel said anything about him delivering a great vocal, but instead spoke of James’ general awesomeness, as well as new-age niceties like grabbing it and wanting it and being in it to win it.) Perhaps the richest comment of the evening, though, came when Randy declared, “Dude, probably not everyone was understanding when you said you were gonna sing 30 Seconds to Mars…” So let’s get this straight: It’s okay for James to sing a song that a good chunk of the Idol audience might not know, but a completely different set of rules applies to Haley? As long as we all know where we stand, Dawg.

Jacob Lusk: Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown’s “No Air”
I’ll give Jacob this much: The guy was completely and indisputably believable tonight as he delivered the lines “Can’t breathe! No air!” (Badum bum.) In all seriousness, though, “No Air” was one of the worst performances we’ve seen on the Idol stage in 10 weeks of live shows. Clad in his Dalton Academy “away game” blazer, Jacob punctuated his off-pitch shriek-fest by grabbing at his crotch area and punching at the air like a malfunctioning robot attempting to recreate portions of Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” choreography. (He also clutched his mic in a way that one of his fingers was intermittently/uncomfortably pointed straight at his nostril — not that you probably wanted reminding.) Naturally, this catastrophic performance had J.Lo encouraging more of the same, praising Jacob as having one of the best voices to ever grace the Idol stage — let’s pause for fans of Fantasia, Kelly, Carrie, Adam, Kris, Allison, J.Hud, Clay, the Davids (Cook and Archie), and even Kendra Chantelle to take a quick profanity break — and yapping about some master plan to get him to the final three, perhaps even the final two. (If this happens, I’m going to buy a copy of J.Lo’s new Love? album and set it on fire during the Idoloonies season finale. It should be in the bargain bin by then, right?) When Randy disagreed that Jacob should attempt to swim in Chris Brown and Usher’s musical lane, the contestant himself responded with a typically self-important, “I think I’m an artist who appeals to everybody.”

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Lauren Alaina: Carrie Underwood’s “Flat on the Floor”
I wish Lauren had taken Sheryl Crow’s advice to just stand in a strong position on the stage and sing it, but at least she kept the movement to a minimum and explored the appealing outer edge of her pretty spectacular vocal range. True, the Kentucky Derby-fast pacing of Carrie’s original was maybe a touch too quick for our little pony, but this push past Lauren’s comfort zone had unexpectedly interesting side-effects. I loved how raspy Lauren got on the repetition of “till there ain’t no sun,” and even though she actually sounded flat-out winded when she hit the final “where the sky can’t rain on me anymore,” it brought a breathless break to her voice that was undeniably lovely. Would you judge me harshly if I also gave props to Lauren’s hardware-heavy halter top, metallic fringe belt, and black thigh-high boots? For whatever reason, though, Randy amended his standard-operating “IN IT TO WIN IT!” ridiculata and instead offered a critique that, on paper at least, is significantly less effusive: “Lauren is in it, yo!” Yes, by virtue of being one of the five singers left in the competition, Lauren is indeed “in it.” Excellent word choice from a judge who has a Ph.D. in the obvious.

Scotty McCreery: Montgomery Gentry’s “Gone”
Midway through Scotty’s performance, my husband turned to me and declared, “I’d like this a lot more if I could just turn off Scotty’s face.” And while I can’t disagree that Scotty’s eyebrows made like the mischievous neighborhood dog who gets off the leash and makes a mess in your yard, I appreciated the kid took a risk and tackled a song with twisty, tricky cadences and a bridge that’s a borderline rap — and didn’t really miss a note in the process. True, the “Come and Play With Us” backup duo threatened to drown him out on a couple of occasions, but with this performance, Scotty managed to successfully combine singing and pretty solid dancing — an accomplishment you won’t find on any other male contestant’s résumé this season. Steven actually made a salient point about the somewhat puritan teenager benefitting from a dance with the devil, a comment that left Randy so befuddled, Uncle Nigel had no choice but to hit the override button until the dawg started barking his 147th “in it to win it!” of the season.

Haley Reinhart: Lady Gaga’s “You and I”
I know a lot of Haley fans are going to direct their cries of “sabotage!” at Jimmy Iovine for suggesting (insisting?) Haley tackle an unreleased Lady Gaga ballad, but I thought the choice was as bold as it was brilliant. (After all, did non-country fans really know Scotty’s Montgomery Gentry track going into this week’s episode? And gun-to-head, how many of us could hum James’ 30 Seconds to Mars ditty at this very second?) I’m not ashamed to say that some of my all-time favorite Idol moments have involved songs I’d never before heard (Kelly Clarkson’s “Stuff Like That There”; Stefano Langone’s “I Need You Now”) or had only the slightest famliarity with (Adam Lambert’s “Mad World”; Michael Johns’ “It’s All Wrong But It’s All Right”). And in all seriousness, I’d put Haley’s “You and I” right up there on any Season 10 Top 10 list. The underdog growler painted Gaga’s portrait of an intense and overarching love with such passion and pitch perfection that I was actually moved to tears from the nosebleed seats of my couch. “Finally,” I thought to myself, “here’s a song that’s perfectly tailored to Haley’s blues-rock aesthetic, and something that can finally put to rest any criticisms that she couldn’t be relevant to modern radio.”

Which is why it stung me all the harder when J.Lo began her critique with a tentative “Hey, Haley! Hi, baby!” that was as loud and horrible as the sound of a freight train bearing down an unsuspecting bunny rabbit. I could go into the specifics — Jennifer blabbing that maybe Haley hadn’t gotten the best advice from Jimmy; Randy suggesting “You and I” might not be “that great of a song” (and then having the gall to suggest some Joss Freakin’ Stone as an alternative) — but I’ll just point out that none of the judges had much to say about Haley’s actual vocal performance. Did she sing beautifully, with shades of light and dark? Was her voice filled with emotion? Did she work the stage like a budding superstar — starting from a languid, lounging position on the Idol steps and ending with a playful call and response with her backup singers? On all of these subjects, our “esteemed” panelists were suspiciously mute. I’ll say this: As the judges spewed their nonsense, Haley had more expressiveness packed into her narrowed eyes and grimly set mouth than J.Lo has managed to pull off over the course of her last three movies.

I’ve got to be honest: After hearing the judges give Jacob and James respective top-two and “in it to win it” predictions for what were arguably their worst performances of the season, then completely slamming Haley for one of her best moments, I could barely hear any of the night’s remaining critiques over the sound of my own blood boiling. With that in mind, I’m not going to mention the words “J.Lo,” “Randy,” or “Steven” for the rest of this recap. (Why spend any more energy or effort on people who’ve tuned out of the reality in front of them and are simply reading their lines from a pre-determined script, right?)

Moving right along…

James Durbin: Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” Much like Jacob’s rendition of “Dance With My Father” from a few weeks back, James couldn’t get through his rehearsal or his performance of “Without You” without getting overcome by his emotions. And while I can appreciate that it’s got to be difficult to be separated from your girlfriend and your young son to work in the unforgiving boiler room of American Idol Inc., I don’t think James deserves a free pass for a vocal that had more flats than a coaster factory. Yes, the young dad has been pretty consistent for the last five or six weeks, so I’m certainly not suggesting he deserves to go home based on one tough night, but in the pantheon of “Without You” performances on Idol, dude ranks far behind Carly Smithson’s standard-bearer (seriously!) and Kelly Clarkson’s close runner-up. If we were judging the show based on hardscrabble backstory and dewiness of eye in extreme closeup, I’d say it was time to queue up the confetti shower. But since this is still a singing competition (I think?), James needs to be aware that there are only three weeks left to learn how to harness his feelings when he’s at the mic, and work on that wobbly lower register.

Jacob Lusk: Nazareth’s “Love Hurts” Don’t all fall over at once, but I actually enjoyed the opening 30 seconds or so of Jacob’s performance — when it was just him, a harp, and Sheryl Crow’s tender, muted template. And then, all of the sudden there was bucking and stomping and screaming, and James shouting “It hurts! It hurts!” and then making a sound like “Wooohwaaahwaalllahwaahwaahehhuhhhgggblughibuhwahhh” (exactly the same noise I made when J.Lo critiqued Haley’s Gaga song). I know I said I wasn’t going to mention the judges, but since the sensationally awful Randy Jackson has spent 10 consecutive seasons on the panel, I must call him out for crediting Jacob with the highest note ever sung on the Idol stage. Has he truly forgotten Kelly Clarkson’s “You Make Me Feel Like (A Natural Woman)“? In fact, maybe dawg should be sent to detention to watch this YouTube compilation of Idol high notes starring Kelly, Adam Lambert, and Siobhan Magnus.

Lauren Alaina: Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody”
Lauren hit pretty much every note of Simon Cowell’s favorite song, and I’m not sure she’s ever looked prettier than she did in that light blue and white halter dress (and oversized “starfish” ring), but it was telling that there was a truncated sound bite from Sheryl Crow in her intro package noting how the song requires “a lot of emotional maturity.” Like a potato chip without the salt, or an apple sauce without the cinnamon, Lauren’s “Unchained Melody” was missing the crucial ingredient of deep and unrequited sense of longing. Which, to my mind, should make all the difference between finishing fourth on Idol or winning the whole kit and kaboodle.

Scotty McCreery: Elvis Presley’s “Always on My Mind”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as Jimmy mentored Scotty about how stretching one’s artistry is a contradiction of staying true to one’s self. (Yes, because once a singer creates his first hit record, he should cease to explore any new musical or emotional territory, try to flash-freeze the magic of what made said hit, and then reproduce it with slight variations for ever and ever, or until he finally gets dropped from the roster of his soulless major-label conglomerate.) With advice like that, it’s a wonder Scotty managed to bring to life some of the regret and sadness essential to making this old chestnut hum. Scotty’s rendition didn’t quite match the gut-busting rawness of Fantasia’s, or the technical proficiency of Anoop Desai’s, but combined with his uptempo “Gone,” it was exactly the kind of showing that should take him one step closer to his confetti shower at the Nokia.

Haley Reinhart: The Animals’ “The House of the Rising Sun”
Thank you, Sheryl Crow, for suggesting an a capella intro to Haley’s “The House of the Rising Sun,” a move that may have stunned the awful, awful judges into taking a moment and contemplating the awesomeness of what was about to go down in front of them. I loved all the unexpected little choices Haley made in delivering the hands-down, absolute best performance of this Idol season: The hazy, morose delivery of the opening verse, which was infused with a hint of yodel; the way she dialed it all the way back on “oh mother, well, tell you children” when I was expecting her to power through with that big, belty growl; the gorgeous scatting high notes on “not to do what I have done.” Uff da, I could go on and list another half-dozen little things I loved about Haley tonight, but instead I’ll applaud her for standing tall in the face of harsh criticism, maintaining her confidence in her own abilities, and shutting up a panel of irrelevant judges with a performance mosty of us will remember for many Idol seasons to come. And as much as I realize Uncle Nigel is never gonna let Haley win this thing, her one-two punch of “You and I” and “House of the Rising Sun” was a victory in and of itself.

And now, it’s time to post some grades…

Tonight’s Letter Grades
Haley Reinhart’s “The House of the Rising Sun”: A+
Haley Reinhart’s “You and I”: A
Lauren Alaina’s “Flat on the Floor”: A-
Scotty McCreery’s “Gone”: A-
Scotty McCreery’s “Always on My Mind”: B
Lauren Alaina’s “Unchained Melody”: B
James Durbin’s “Without You”: B-
Jacob Lusk’s “Love Hurts”: C-
James Durbin’s “Closer to the Edge”: D+
Jacob Lusk’s “No Air”: F

What did you think of American Idol Top 5 performance night? What did you think of the judges? Who do you think is headed home? Sound off in our polls about tonight’s best and worst performances, head down to the comments to expound on said opinions, then scroll down for the latest three-part episode of the most important series on the Internet right now, Idoloonies. And for all my Idol news and commentary, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!

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