American Idol Recap: 'Nothing' Ventured, Nothing Gained

Imagine watching a boxing match where a fighter gets bound tightly to the corner post, then relentlessly pummeled by his foe. Or a race where one horse is led to the starting gate, only to be pointed in the opposite direction of the remaining runners. Or a figure-skating competition where everyone performs on ice, except for one girl who gets violently hurled into a lake and told by the judges, “Hey, it’s not our fault you couldn’t get the water to freeze!” That’s kind of what Wednesday night’s edition of American Idol felt like, with Haley Reinhart getting the proverbial slushie to the face from “judges” Randy Jackson and Jennifer Lopez, while her three competitors received nary a word of criticism despite experiencing pitch problems, facial malfunctions, and a general lack of believability.

I know, I know…I’ve been standing on my soapbox on the corner of Outraged Avenue and Fanboy Lane for three weeks now, and I’m starting to wonder if I’ve become the guy in the tattered cape and tinfoil hat, the one who can spot a conspiracy theory in everything from his favorite TV show to the contents of his refrigerator. (Sorry, I just tried something called “Siggi’s Icelandic-style skyr strained non-fat strawberry yogurt” and I’m not sure that’s what it was supposed to taste like. Could Cecile Frot-Coutaz be to blame?) I mean, is it possible that four months and 34 episodes in to Idol‘s tenth season, I’m as married to my personal narrative (the bus is coming for Haley!) as Nigel Lythgoe is to his (there is no finale without Lauren Alaina)?

Maybe so. But here’s the thing: I’ve never once said that Haley should be above criticism. In fact, I’m more than willing to concede that her rendition of “Earth Song” this week was flawed, and probably her least effective vocal since she stumbled her way through “Call Me” during Top 8 week.

What’s got my blood boiling, then? For starters, hearing J.Lo act as if Haley’s vocal was subpar in comparison to James Durbin’s listless, uninventive “Don’t Stop Believin'” by declaring “James comes out — he sets the bar.” (Lady, that’s not setting the bar, that’s dropping a piece of pipe on the floor. ) Or how about having Randy once again cast aspersions on Haley’s artistic identity, then act as if Scotty McCreery’s intensely hokey “Young Blood” cover was the stuff of sold-out concert venues. Or listening to J.Lo give a free pass to Lauren Alaina’s junior-miss pageant rendition of “Trouble,” but tell Haley that she and her fellow panelists will “never” go easy on her.

Oh, and on the off chance you didn’t realize how much the judges hated Haley and her rendition of “Earth Song” (or the fact that you were supposed to hate it, too), they had Ryan Seacrest call all four singers back up to the stage at the halfway point of the telecast so Randy could declare Round One a three-way tie between James, Scotty, and Lauren, and J.Lo could not-so-subtly suggest Haley as unfit for Top 3 duty — reducing this confident young woman to the brink of tears just moments before her second performance.

The irony of the situation is that the lack of tough feedback for Lauren, Scotty, and James has resulted in the chosen trio beginning to flatline as the season finale approaches, while the vicious campaign against Haley by the “judges” has probably played some part in her sure and steady growth from early-round cannon fodder into the kind of potential artist that has Lady Gaga squealing, “You’re going to kick so much ass, little pony!”

But even if you’re willing to entertain the idea that the “judges” have played a role in Haley’s growth these past 11 weeks, Idol also has to succeed on a different level — as an enjoyable piece of reality television. And frankly, it’s no fun to watch a panel of overpaid celebrities tell you that the sky is chartreuse, the grass is fuchsia, the water is tangerine, and that Haley is a piñata filled with delicious candy. (You just have to hit her with a stick a few more times to get your pack of Rolos. HIT HER! AGAIN! AGAIN! AGAIN!)

But enough about the “judges.” Because American Idol is not, nor will it ever be, about the “judges.” Instead, let’s focus on the Season 10 Top 4 and their varied performances from the “Songs That Inspire” theme and the Leiber and Stoller Songbook.

James Durbin: Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”
I always get a little skittish when an Idol contestant feels the need to start a performance by demanding more energy from the crowd — dude, I’ll get on my feet if you give me a reason — but James’ opening mantra here actually made me groan: “Come on Randy, I know you know the words!” (Uff da. I had to groan again after typing that, too.) Yes, as every Idol fan knows, Randy once played bass with Journey*, and with this performance, James proved that, um, he could maybe be the frontman for a third-rate Journey cover band? If he didn’t quit his day job? Harsh, I know, but James’ performance was peppered with flat notes, and was surprisingly short on energy. Even worse, he delivered the verses in a loose and languid way — without any punch or attack — that drained the anthemic ballad of its inherent drama. (*still doesn’t make him relevant)

Oh, and a quick side note: I loved the revisionist history in the banter between James and Ryan that suggested the judges were tough on him last week, when in fact, J.Lo, Randy, and Steven had nothing but praise for James’ renditions of “Closer to the Edge” and “Without You.” “It’s time to get back in the game,” said the contestant, as Ryan nodded his head and added, “and apparently James is back.”

Haley Reinhart: Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song”
On paper, Michael Jackson’s sweeping ballad was a bold and unexpected choice — certainly one of the better “inspirational songs” ever chosen for the Idol stage. But in reality, there were two problems with the performance. For starters, the opening verse didn’t sit very well in Haley’s register: Where MJ’s original is practically a cry, Haley’s wobbled out as unsteadily as a Fleet Week sailor exiting a Times Square saloon. The other issue is that “Earth Song” is supposed to be a slow and steady build, but a lot of its epic scope got lost in paring the track down to a two-minute Idol performance. That said, in Haley’s defense, I couldn’t get my head around the idiocy of Randy’s complaint about the chorus being shouty, considering it contains lines like “What about children dying? Can’t you hear them cry?” The whole point of “Earth Song” is a call to action, and it’s filled with outrage over the state of our planet and its inhabitants. You don’t ask for help by politely raising your hand, you grab a megaphone and you belt it out. I could get into Haley’s back and forth with the judges — I won’t lie, I loved how she gave a “Can you believe this b****?” look directly into the camera during J.Lo’s long-winded critique — but instead, I’ll turn it over to Steven for a change. (Quick! Look! He’s awake!) “They’re both wrong,” he said of his fellow panelists. “The audience heard it, and America heard it. Don’t believe them!”

Scotty McCreery: Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”
It would be easy to say Scotty’s choice of Alan Jackson’s anthem about September 11 was a cynical move, particularly a week after the death of Osama bin Laden. (UGH. There’s a name I never wanted to write during an Idol recap). But Scotty is a kid who’s ready to kiss the grass, eat fried chicken, and drink sweet tea if he makes it to his hometown visit next week, so is it really a stretch to think “Where Were You…” — with its homespun point-of-view and its emphasis on faith, hope, and God — might actually be a source of inspiration to him? My real problem with the performance was the way Scotty reverted to some of his lazier habits, dropping the ends of phrases and allowing his voice to get swallowed up by the band and its backing vocalists. This would’ve been a perfectly fine performance — if we weren’t down to the final four, armed with the knowledge that stellar former Idols like Tamyra Gray, Chris Daughtry, La Toya London, Jason Castro, and Allison Iraheta all went home in fourth place.

(Side note to Ryan Seacrest: Stop trying to make “Scotty the Body” happen, okay? None of us are going to call him that, and it’s starting to make you look creepy. That is all.)

Lauren Alaina: Martina McBride’s “Anyway”
Aside from Haley’s “I (Who Have Nothing),” Lauren’s “Anyway” was the performance of the night — in spite of a gown that looked like it was made from J.C. Penny’s French brothel curtain collection and a song taken from Kristy Lee Cook’s Idol collection. There was a real magic in the way Lauren scooped her big notes and soared to impressive heights with the ease of someone just turning a few knobs on a dial, and for once, I felt like she was actually as focused on the lyrics as she was on the vocal performance. For once, Randy’s “America, Lauren is back in it to win it!” seemed like a spontaneous critique rather than a series of words the Dawg was reading off Uncle Nigel’s cue cards.

(Side note to Lauren: Stop trying to make “Peaches” happen, okay? None of us are going to call him that, and it’s starting to make you look creepy. That is all.)

Haley Reinhart: Shirley Bassey’s “I (Who Have Nothing)”
I loved that this week’s mentor Lady Gaga (who kind of looked like she’d filmed her segments in front of a green screen, then had a sparkling white room superimposed behind her) encouraged Haley to go “a little psycho” this week, which is exactly what she needed to differentiate her performance from Jordin Sparks’ iconic Season 6 cover of the same song. Whereas Jordin was the jilted ingenue, longing to walk alongside her unrequited lover, Haley sang from the point of view of a woman so unhinged that the object of her affection should probably seek a restraining order. When she dug into the line, “I can only watch you with, my nose pressed up against the window pane,” you could practically see our protagonist skulking outside a restaurant window, waiting for her chance to confront her man and try to win him back. Okay, okay…I’m getting a little carried away with the theatricality of it all — Haley + Gaga can do that to a gay — but honestly, this was yet another Idol Moment for The Lady Reinhart, and combined with “Benny and the Jets,” “You and I,” “House of the Rising Sun,” and “Rolling in the Deep,” it’s hard to fathom a Top 3 without her. Hopefully, Steven was right that Haley “Reinharted [herself] into the middle of next week.”

Scotty McCreery: The Coasters’ “Young Blood”
Honestly, Scotty couldn’t have been any cornier with this performance if he’d put on a black turtleneck and white facepaint, and put on a full-fledged mime act as he day-lee-vurrrd his cawn-tray dee-ih-tay. Everything that was cool and cheeky about last week’s cover of “Gone” was force fed five meals a day of Muscle Milk until the seams burst and the emperor was left entirely naked. Nice of J.Lo to absolutely assume Scotty’s safe passage into the Top 3, though. “Next week, we want a whole different side!” she chirped. Oh, lady, so do we.

Gaga’s mentoring session with Scotty, on the other hand, was an absurdist treat, as the skunk-coiffed diva tried to get the good ‘ol country boy to handle his mic like a hot dog, or his girlfriend’s tongue, until he was forced to kiss his cross, grit his teeth, and wait for it to all be over.

Lauren Alaina: Elvis Presley’s “Trouble”
Here’s a note I was hoping someone — the “judges,” Jimmy, Gaga, a random “all-star” music producer, a makeup person — would give to Lauren: If you don’t want to sing the words “I’m evil” in a song, then don’t choose Elvis Presley’s “Trouble”! It’s actually kind of simple, if you think about it. Just in case you missed the memo that this week’s theme was Leiber & Stoller & Lauren’s Redemption, we got a whole sit-down interview rehashing the fact that Steven Tyler referred to Lauren as “the one” right after her audition — and now her scorched-earth march to global domination is almost complete. With Nigel at her right hand and Jimmy at her left, Lauren will rule the Globe with a cruel and blood-stained fist. Her first edict, “Off with Taylor Swift’s head!”

Oh, gosh, sorry, no. LAUREN IS NOT EVIL. THE DEVIL MADE ME SAY THAT STUFF. But Lauren is also not a singer with the swagger or cadence to pull off a zippy romp in the vein of “Trouble” (or that gold sequined jacket from the Alexis Carrington Collection and 47 lbs of hair extensions). Her “don’t you mess around with me” warnings were about as threatening as a tiny kitten swinging at a ball of yarn, and she sounded downright winded by the time she got to the final few lines and ended with a jump and a squeak as the band hit their final cues. Steven, inching (centimetering?) his way toward redemption, wasn’t sure if he believed it. But he loooovvvves Lauren!

James Durbin: The Clovers’ “Love Potion No. 9”
James may not have wanted Gaga’s hands upon his hips, but her call for added drama and movement definitely helped elevate James’ take on “Love Potion No. 9.” I liked the fact that the resident rocker went into the week with an idea of where he wanted to take this silly little ditty, and indeed, he managed to put a harder-edged vibe on it without destroying the original melodies. There were moments where James’ voice got a little nasal, but his long and winding ending — with multiple pauses and fakeouts and blasts of guitar — was undeniably fun.

And now, on to our letter grades…

Tonight’s Letter Grades
Haley Reinhart: “I (Who Have Nothing)”: A
Lauren Alaina: “Anyway”: A-
James Durbin: “Love Potion No. 9”: B+
Haley Reinhart: “Earth Song”: B
Scotty McCreery: “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”: B
James Durbin: “Don’t Stop Believin'”: C+
Lauren Alaina: “Trouble”: C
Scotty McCreery: “Young Blood”: D

What did you think of Top 4 performance night? Am I right to be so furious on Haley’s behalf, or do I need to simmer down? Who was your favorite? Who will and should go home? Sound off below, and for all my Idol news and commentary, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!

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