* Goldilocks and the Three Judges: This one’s about a little girl named Lauren who likes to do cartwheels in her backyard and sing along with her BFF to Faith Hill on the radio, skills that — along with sugary feedback from a trio of highly paid court jesters — bring her within spitting distance of a pot of gold confetti at the end of the magic rainbow.
* Captain America(n Idol): A comic book about a kid named Scotty, the nicest checkout boy down at the Whole Foods and the star of his high-school baseball team, who uses his super-powered baritone to defeat the forces of evil and win a major-label record deal.
* The Long Goodbye: A gritty pulp novel about a torch singer named Haley who gets marked for death by a pack of goons, encounters a mysterious manchild named Jimmy who may or may not be out to help her, but keeps foiling her enemies’ plans through sheer talent, moxie, and growl.
Riveting reads, all of ’em. Of course, if you’re not really into any of those, we’ve also got a new roman à clef, The Devil Sips Coca Cola, about a dysfunctional panel of reality-show judges: There’s the aging rock star who’s so checked out that he reads the same set of notes to describe two different performances by a contestant. The thin-voiced diva who offers muted praise to the show’s most intriguing vocalist while secretly fantasizing about cutting her from stem to stern. (Her eyes don’t lie.) And the erstwhile bassist who drops names of famous vocalists the way toddlers drop Cheerios — all because his life coach told him he should try a new method called “relevance by association.”
Then again, who’s got time to read books on Wednesday and Thursday nights between mid-January and May when we’re all working toward the goal of discovering the nation’s next great singing talent? This year, in particular, it’s been challenging work — a far cry from, say, Seasons 1, 3, or even 7, where choosing two finalists from the Top 3 contestants was as simple as picking between a slice of moist chocolate cake and a punch in the throat. Indeed, with the American Idol Top 3 results show mere hours away, it’s impossible to predict with any certainty which of the remaining combatants — Haley Reinhart, Lauren Alaina, and Scotty McCreery — will advance to next week’s Season 10 finale. But let’s break down their individual performances in chronological order — contestant’s choice, Jimmy Iovine’s choice, and judges’ choice — and see if we can make an educated guess.
Scotty McCreery: Lonestar’s “Amazed”
After 12 weeks of live performances, you’d think I would know better than to hope that for the “contestant’s choice” round, the Season 10 front-runner might take a risk by tackling an out-of-left field pop or soul ditty and giving it a country spin. After all, much like the HBO un-cancelling The Comeback or Nabisco introducing a calorie-free Chicken in a Biskit cracker, some things are simply not meant to happen in my lifetime. Instead, we got Scotty “staying in his lane” — the lane which, incidentally, will probably lead him to sell a bajillion records before he’s old enough to legally crack open a bottle of beer — and giving us a performance that was spectacularly competent. Leaning against the piano in his denim jacket and plaid shirt (conveniently in red, white, and blue), Scotty gazed into the camera, hit nine out of every 10 notes, and got his lady ready to lock them doors by telling her, “I wanna spend the rest of my life, with you by my side, forever and ever.” J.Lo gave herself a pat on the back for her mid-season note to Scotty to use more vibrato, and Randy mentioned he’d produced a version of “Amazed” for Boyz II Men, which really reinforced his general awe-inspiring-ness, no? After the Dawg barked about Scotty having put a period on the end of his performance, and his gaze into the camera being the equivalent of money, Ryan Seacrest chirped in with a blithe, “money and punctuation!” Anyone else wonder if our hostbot might be more clever than he lets on?
Lauren Alaina: Faith Hill’s “Wild One”
I appreciated Beyonce trying to get Lauren to tap into a strong, fearless alter ego, but I wish she’d also warned “I’m Just Lauren” to be careful about her breath control on songs with quick cadences. Lauren was gasping by the end of the first line of the first verse of “Wild One,” and wound up wearing the song like a shirt that seems like a good idea in the dressing room mirror, but sits in the back of your closet for two years with its tags still on. It would’ve been nice to hear the judges call her on that issue, or on the fact that during uptempo numbers, Lauren goes to her “legs together, knees bent, shimmy-shimmy” move with disturbing predictability, but instead J.Lo started telling Lauren she needed to “attack” her performances and then morphed into praising her for doing exactly that. And then, Randy…actually, no one really wants me to finish a sentence that starts with “And then, Randy,” do they? (Side note: Anyone want to bet Lauren’s red halter top with white trim was made by the same designer as the powder-blue gown she wore during “Unchained Melody”?)
Haley Reinhart: Led Zeppelin’s “What Is and What Should Never Be”
It’s a pity that the Top 3 weren’t allowed to choose the order of their performances tonight, considering Haley achieved the absolute high point of the telecast with six songs still left in the hopper. As Beyoncé pointed out, Haley “makes you believe in what she believes in,” and this scorching performance of a song I would never have expected to hear on the Idol stage made me think the Lady Reinhart could be in line for a confetti shower — her previous close encounters with the bottom three be damned! I was a little confused by the “baby gate” at the top of the Idol staircase at the start of the performance, but as Haley unwrapped the words of the opening verse like the wrapper of a candy bar, I went into a state of total Idol ecstasy — and didn’t snap out of it till Randy starting serving up his typically rancid word salad. There was so much right about “What Is…” that I’m worried this recap could turn into a Top 20 list. But let’s see…the sensational bugle bead minidress; the blast of pure, cool blues every time Haley reached into her upper register; the added thrill of seeing Haley’s dad slay the song’s guitar riffs; Haley’s smile when she and her dad first made eye contact during the performance; the saucy twirl Haley gave as she moved behind the judges; the way she effortlessly recovered from a nasty spill as she raced up the stairs and back onto the stage; and the gravelly riffing she brought to the end of the number. I could quote some of the judges, but why not relive a little Reinhart magic instead? “Baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, bay-bay! Oooh! Whoa-oh-oh-oh.”
Scotty McCreery: Thompson Square’s “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not”
I’ll say this about Jimmy Iovine: The (possibly) balding man who dresses like Justin Bieber’s stunt double may not be a natural TV star, but he did a solid job of choosing songs for the Top 3 that revealed new and interesting possibilities for their voices. “Are You Gonna” brought out a little more grit in Scotty’s voice, and gave him a way to merge his dueling personas (aka “sensitive guy sitting on a stool and gazing into camera” and “high-school kid with goofy eyebrows and camp sensibility”). Scotty went with an acoustic guitar, a plaid shirt, and a bent knee for this number, and told the truncated tale of a young couple from courtship to wedding day with loads of color and personality — minus the usual patina of hokum. Steven declared he’d never heard Scotty deliver a chorus like this before, J.Lo suggested the Southern gentleman return to the buzz cut he’d sported during auditions (I concur wholeheartedly!), and Randy yelped these words: “Guess what I’m gonna say?” Hmmm…you secretly live to crush Haley Reinhart’s dreams? No! Randy would never say that (out loud). Instead, it was — brace for Dawg-style nonsense in 5, 4, 3, 2… — something about Scotty approaching Garth Brooks’ performance level, even though Garth “engages the audience without doing a lot of stuff.” Wait, Randy knows Garth Brooks is a country superstar — not that cat from the Wayne’s World movies, right?
Lauren Alaina: The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young”
Lauren’s panty hose ripped before her pre-performance interview, which had me wondering if Uncle Nigel was all, “Haley got to have a mishap moment! Someone do something to ensure Lauren has one, too!” Okay, okay…I’ll stop conspiracy theorizing and talk about the performance, which I actually thought was Lauren’s personal best this week — despite the fact that her mind appeared to drift and she flubbed a crucial key change going into the final chorus. That mishap was forgivable to me, though, seeing how Lauren really seemed to be living the lyrics of The Band Perry’s mournful midtempo ditty, especially the line directly before her mess-up: “Funny when you’re dead, people start listenin’.” I actually didn’t disagree with J.Lo when she praised Lauren’s tone and told her she “had a very honest moment in the middle of the song,” but while we’re talking honest moments, don’t you wish Lauren had waited another two or three years before auditioning for Idol?
Haley Reinhart: Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon”
Wardrobe, bring out the draped, gray minidress with the ethereal sleeves. Stagehands, cue the wind machine! Stevie Nicks, provide us with your “very abstract” but very beautiful song about that fine skylark. And Haley, you bring to the performance your “gypsy hand,” your mystical upper register, your delicate restraint! Backup singer, please for the love of cats fighting in the alley, stay out of this! Thank you. Oh Haley. “Oh, Darlin’.” Wouldn’t you love to love seeing her performing at the Nokia next Tuesday?
Scotty McCreery: Kenny Rogers’ “She Believes in Me”
Two housekeeping notes: Check how Idol slyly allowed us to see Scotty getting his “judges’ choice” pick surrounded by a huge, adoring crowd (people love him!) while wearing his old grocery cashier togs (he’s still in touch with his roots!). Also please review Steven’s critique: “That’s the first big chorus you sang in a big way like that!” Well, except for the time Steven said something almost identical about Scotty’s previous performance of “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not.” Shall we draw a comparison to Paulagate from Season 7? Nah, because then I’d have to contemplate even more how disappointing the Aerosmith frontman’s performance has been behind the Idol judges table.
Anyway, what I liked about “She Believes in Me” was the way it stretched Scotty’s vocal range like a Medieval torture victim on the rack — only with much more melodic results. The kid has more range than his critics give him credit for, and if I’m being honest, it’s rare to hear him miss a note. What didn’t completely connect was the idea of Scotty coming home from a late-night gig to his sleeping wife. But hey, the judges picked this one for him, so really if someone has to exit stage left to the tune of David Cook’s “Don’t You Forget About Me,” maybe it can be Randy?
Lauren Alaina: Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance”
I know J.Lo handed Round 3 to Lauren before Haley had even taken the stage — it must really take the pressure off our judges to formulate all their critiques during dress rehearsal, no? — but I thought her Lee Ann Womack cover sounded a little rushed, a little off the beat, and a little bit at odds with the band’s confrontational fiddle player. Plus, after Lauren hit the big “Daaaaannnnce!” denouement, she kind of ran out of steam. Not that I’m saying the performance didn’t have its merits, but as far as my personal ranking of Idol moments go, “I Hope You Dance” didn’t come close to Lauren’s “Anyway” from last week. Maybe I’m cynical or maybe I’ve heard this track covered one too many times, but I have to ask if anyone else in America joined J.Lo in getting a case of the goosebumps after this performance. I sure didn’t.
Haley Reinhart: Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know”
Spoiler alert: I’m a pretty big Haley Reinhart fan. (Badum bum!) But hearing Steven Tyler declare my gal the winner of Round 3 would be akin to declaring someone Top Chef just for defrosting a steak. It pains me to say it, but “You Oughta Know” might rank as Haley’s worst performance of the season. Wandering the empty stage in her lacy blue top and jeans, Haley looked like she’d been unexpectedly called back to the stage to help Idol‘s producers fill out the two-hour time slot, and got saddled with a song she hadn’t performed since a particularly raucous karaoke night back in 2008. On the verses, Haley’s voice got lost like a horror-movie victim in the woods, and on the chorus, she devolved into manic sound and fury without really forging a connection to the woman-scorned lyrics. And while I’m well aware “You Oughta Know” isn’t the easiest song to deliver, I still expect better from someone with Haley’s talent. Too low? Change the key. Too fast? Slow down the tempo? Too karaoke? Try a new and inventive arrangement. It’s Top 3 week, and the season for excuses expired when Kendra Chantelle and Lauren Turner got left out of the Top 13.
That said, I still thought Haley had two of the night’s three best performances, and what gives me comfort is that she shone brightest during the “contestant’s choice” round — a good indication that she knows who she is as an artist and how to get the most out of her voice (even if she clearly has zero hometown fans, or so her hometown package and lonely limo ride might lead us to suspect). Lauren (or “our little baby,” as J.Lo called her), had her low point during “contestant’s choice,” and that makes me worry that without a few more years in the Nashville incubator, she’ll just be a little girl playing dress-up, a princess in a pretty dress at the mercy of whatever producer rides up to the castle. With Scotty once again hitting all his little carnival ducks — predictably, yet with undeniable accuracy — I’m going to predict next week’s finale will (and should) come down to Haley and Scotty.
Tonight’s Letter Grades
Haley Reinhart: “What Is and What Should Never Be”: A
Haley Reinhart: “Rhiannon”: A-
Scotty McCreery: “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not”: A-
Lauren Alaina: “If I Die Young”: B+
Scotty McCreery: “She Believes in Me”: B+
Lauren Alaina: “I Hope You Dance”: B
Scotty McCreery: “Amazed”: B-
Lauren Alaina: “Wild One”: C+
Haley Reinhart: “You Oughta Know”: C-
What did you think of tonight’s episode? Who will and should make the finale? How would you rate the judges’ and Jimmy’s song choices? And what did you think of Beyoncé’s cray-cray new video? 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!