American Idol Top 5 Performance Recap: Modern! English!

phillip phillipsIf you’ll allow me to paraphrase Phillip Phillips (covering the Zombies), “it’s that time in the (American Idol) season for loving (our favorites).” Indeed, the Idoloonie Nation has devoted the last four months to auditioning dozens of singers for the role of America’s Next Top iTunes Obsession, and with each of the five remaining finalists having delivered 13 live solo performances, our allegiances have pretty much been pledged, our opinions have been pretty well formed, our speed-dialing fingers have been worn down to bone and sinew (as has the space between Randy Jackson’s ears).

But with the finish line less than a month away, there’s often a dark underbelly to the love we feel for our Idols. It surfaces in blogs and message boards and phone conversations. “Phillip has no talent!” “Jessica has no emotions!” “Skylar’s too nasal, too spastic!” “Hollie’s too stiff, too pageanty!” “Joshua doesn’t sing, he screams!”

And to be quite honest, there no refuting these arguments. Music is a subjective art form. It can’t be graded like a math test or quantified like a Jennifer Lopez endorsement deal.

Which is why we must give thanks for the Idol judging panel of Tweedle-Huh?, Tweedle-Abs, and Tweedle-Yo!. No, I’m not saying these highly paid “experts” — this, Randy, is how air quotes are used — are of any use in separating the wheat from the chaff, the Kelly Clarksons from the Ke$has. On the contrary, the judges are useful in giving the Idoloonie Nation a common ground, an outlet for unleashing all the angst and stress and disappointment of the American Idol journey. Still smarting over Colton and/or Elise’s exits? Rage against J.Lo for admitting she’s blissfully unaware of The Box Tops’ “The Letter.” Frantic that you didn’t get any busy signals while voting for your favorite this week? Then point and jeer at Randy for his confusion over the word “crustacean.” Miserable that Phillip Phillips missed his high notes this week like an aardvark trying to plant a kiss on a giraffe’s lips? Um, then you might have to use me as your personal punching bag, ’cause Uncle Nigel’s lackeys sure didn’t seem to notice!

Look, I’m never going to say Phillip doesn’t have talent or that he wasn’t worthy of a Top 5 (okay, a Top 7) finish. To do so would be to ignore a solid (and sometimes quite excellent) body of Season 11 work that includes “Still Rainin’,” “Movin Out,” “Hard to Handle,” “In the Air Tonight,” and a sublime audition to “Thriller.” But this week, not all the “Does your daddy let you date?” smoldering in the world could mask the fact that P2 flat-out got owned by Jessica, Hollie, Skylar, and Joshua — in two sets of performances. And it’s hard to justify anybody advancing to the Top 4 on an 0-for-8 losing streak.

With that in mind, let’s get down to the business of dishing indivdual performances:

The ’60s
Hollie Cavanagh: Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High” | I’ve spent half of Season 11 trying to remember why I was so bummed Hollie got cut during the Season 10 Green Mile episode, and for the last two weeks, Hollie has been loudly (and effectively) reminding me. “River Deep, Mountain High” was a study in sublime power vocals, without any unneccessary embellishments. I mean, if you’ve got a high-quality, perfectly cooked fillet mignon, are you really going to muck it up with horseradish or ketchup or blue cheese? Similarly, Hollie held back on the melisma and the vibrato and the riffing, delivering a classic melody with heart and soul, while strutting around like the Pied Piper as her backup singers and brass section trailed along, transfixed. The “I love you, baby” breakdown was one of my favorite musical moments of the season, and you can’t really argue with a little flirty interplay with the bongo drummer, either. Scary opening performance slot be damned, the Liverpool lass might just last another week in the competition!

Phillip Phillips: The Box Tops’ “The Letter” | I’m not entirely sure why Phillip chose “The Letter,” when he freely admitted he wasn’t crazy about the original version. But even more confusing to me was how Randy could declare the performance a rousing triumph while noting there “was not quite as much melody in the chorus.” That’d be like looking at a blank sheet of newspaper and saying “there’s not quite as much story on that page.” By compressing the refrain to a hiccupy/growly three-note range, Phillip sucked all the intensity and urgency out of the composition. We’re supposed to believe our narrator is so moved by his lover’s writing, that he’s eschewing a high-speed train for a pricey airline ticket. By the time Phillip was done telling us about how “my baby she done wrote me that letter,” I wasn’t sure if he’d be inclined to mosey across the street to see the lady in question. I dunno: Phillip might just end up getting get that ticket for an aeroplane — because if he’s ever going to be at risk of packing his bags and heading back home, this is the week.

Skylar Laine: CCR’s “Fortunate Son” | Skylar frequently gets described as being the Season 11 firecracker, and indeed, this performance highlighted the fast, dangerous, and explosive “POW!” that she often brings to the table. On its surface, a Vietnam protest anthem seemed like an odd fit for this gun-totin’ Mississippi teenager, but I felt like she channeled the cheeky anger of the chorus quite nicely. I don’t know anything about Skylar’s political point of view, but the way her voice floated skyward on “It ain’t me,” the way she worked every inch of the stage with a fearsome stomp, I believed she wasn’t no millionaire’s son, protected from the ugly realities of a nation at war. Or maybe I just really like the sound of her voice when it’s paired with a growly, swamp-dwelling melody?

Jessica Sanchez: Ike and Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” | I’ve said it all season long that Jessica is at her best when she’s dropped in uncharted musical territory and is left with nothing but her own excellent musical instincts to find her way home. Unfortunately, her mentors this week kept her tethered to Tina Turner’s iconic rendition of this CCR ditty, right down to the lineup of leggy backup dancers and blasting horns and gam-centric choreography. Oh sure, there was that slowed-down blues-y intro, when you’re coloring inside the lines of a Tina Turner sketch, chances are you’re going to run out of ink before the picture is completed. Jessica hit all her notes, and managed not to tumble off the stage while attempting to dance in ridiculously high heels — a continuous and wrong-minded styling issue for almost every woman on this show for four or five seasons running — but as Randy said, the end result was “just okay.” (Eww, it feels gross to agree with Randy.)

Joshua Ledet: The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” | In much the same way Jessica’s opening number failed to catch fire, Joshua’s “Ain’t Too Proud” also felt like it was stuck thigh-deep in ’60s hepcat choreography and an arrangement that did nothing to reinvent this dated slice of Oldies Station cheese into something fresh or modern. Yes, Joshua’s sequin-striped sleeves were fabulous, as was the daffodil in his lapel — side note: Ryan, you weren’t fooling anyone acting like you thought that was a tulip — but when the Season 11 history book gets written, this performance will really only be noteworth for a mentoring session that had this exchange:

Steven Van Zandt: If you happen to sign him…
Jimmy Iovine: HAPPEN?

In other words, don’t worry if the Season 11 Standing Ovation Activator (TM) gets sent home before the finale: He’s getting himself a major-label deal before the summer tour comes to a close.

British Pop
Hollie Cavanagh: Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love” | This that made me go “Squeeee!” like a 9-year-old girl: Hollie’s to-die-for dress, featuring an amazing train of black cobwebs. The sparse, piano-driven arrangement that allowed her voice to live front and center from start to finish. The absolute pitch perfection. That glory note, which truly and honestly bled with conviction, and brought this Ryan Tedder composition to life in a way I’d never before experienced. (Nah, I’m not really into Leona Lewis, sorry.) Things that made me grumble: The animated heart exploding into silly shards backdrop. (MY GOD THIS SEASON’S BACKDROPS ARE AWFUL! Whew, I feel better now.) J.Lo saying this: “We put you through the ringer because we always believed in you!” when she really meant was “Sometimes it’s fun to play with contestants like cats with balls of yarn.”

Phillip Phillips: The Zombies’ “Time of the Season” | I’m not going to belabor the catastrophic results of Phillip attempting to hit those falsetto notes on the chorus of this psychedellic ditty. I’ll just say it was about as fun as watching a second-grader strike out every time he goes to bat for an entire season of Little League. (Oh, my inner 9-year-old just winced at the memory.) Even worse, Phillip seemed to struggle with the lower notes of the verses, too. Which made it all the more bizarre when Randy went on and on about how this performance proved that Phillip “really can sing the melody.” Um, did it, Randy? Did it? J.Lo and Steven praised it, too. So either we have a case of the judges holding back their criticism so as to not activate Phillip’s voting bloc, or the judges knowing Phillip is so far ahead in the voting that they need to start justifying his inevitable coronation, regardless of what he does on stage. Thursday night’s results show — and whether or not Phillip lands in the Bottom 2 — should tell the tale.

Skylar Laine: Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” | Oh how the staging for Skylar’s countrified twist on this Brit-pop classic took me back to the days of watching Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters variety show with my parents back in my grade-school years. I mean, the streetlight props and the ridiculous couple sitting on the random park bench didn’t exactly pulsate with modernity. And yet I agreed with J.Lo that there was a passion and a power to Skylar’s delivery that somehow elevated all the silliness on stage around her. The kid really knows how to spin a yarn: When she got to the “It wasn’t me who changed but you/ And now you’ve gone away,” I got the same woman-done-wrong-singing-so-right chills that Skylar made happen during her Kellie Pickler cover a few weeks back. I worry that the relative quietness of this number compared to Jessica and Joshua’s subsequent explosions could put Skylar at risk this week, and if she goes home, I suspect I’ll be quoting another line from this ballad. “Left alone with a memory. Life seems dead and so unreal. All that’s left is loneliness. There’s nothing left to feel.” Yeah, folks, I’m in that deep.

Jessica Sanchez: Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful” | Like I said in my post-show write-up on Wednesday, once in a while, an Idol vocal lives up to the ridiculous “mist and candles and special lighting” treatment. And that’s exactly what Jessica did with her nuanced, moving cover of Joe Cocker’s soul classic. Yeah, the glory note was one of the best we’ve heard in several seasons of Idol, but the rest of the song was equally sublime. And while Jessica’s rendition didn’t have the haggard, world-weariness of Joe Cocker’s classic, that’s not really the mood you’d want from a 16-year-old anyhow. Jessica brought to the song a freshness and innocence of first-time love, and a reminder that even if the judges seem reluctant to give her standing ovations, she is nevertheless a legit contender for Scotty McCreery’s crown and sash.

Joshua Ledet: The Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” | It can’t be easy taking the stage after a video rolls with your guest mentor stating that your quickie studio rehearsal was “one of the greatest performances I’ve ever heard in my life.” I mean, talk about pressure! And while I’m not certain Joshua’s live version of “To Love Somebody” could hold up to such massive hyperbole, it was certainly another tremendous moment in his Season 11 journey. I don’t really know how to describe what Joshua does. It’s like he crawls inside a song and then has to use the power of his voice to turn it inside out, to find his way back into the world. If that’s a step too far, you have to at least admit that Joshua’s unabashed R&B holleration turned the Bee Gee’s pretty wisp of a melody into something totally different and decidedly more stirring. Here’s hoping Standing O #13 doesn’t prove his undoing.

Phillip & Joshua: The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” | Three things we learned from this: Either Joshua and Phillip’s senses of humor are drier than a Texas sidewalk on a hot July day, or they really weren’t into the idea of this duet; Joshua needs to realize that there’s nothing wrong with a guy putting his arm around you — even (especially?) a guy as dreamy as Phillip; and Phillip doesn’t really benefit from a head-to-head comparison of his and Joshua’s vocals.

Jessica, Skylar & Hollie: Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” | Let’s give 33 points apiece to the Season 11 ladies for diving into a cheesy little group performance without a single complaint, and for using that enthusiasm to make it actually enjoyable. And we’ll give that one extra point to Hollie for a high note that was as stellar as it was unexpected.

Letter Grades for This Week’s Performances
Hollie (Brit): A
Jessica (Brit): A
Joshua (Brit): A
Hollie (60s): A-
Skylar (Brit): A-
Hollie, Jessica, Skylar Trio: B+
Skylar (60s): B
Joshua (60s): B
Jessica (60s): B
Phillip (60s): C+
Phillip & Joshua Duet: C
Phillip (Brit): D+

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