American Idol Top 4 Performance Recap: Lost in the Wilderness

Say what you want about Ryan Seacrest, but dude has impeccable timing. For a brief moment during American Idol‘s Season 11 Top 4 performance telecast, I feared the hardest-working host on TV was about to propose to girlfriend Julianne Hough (and merge the powerful Idol and DWTS royal houses in the process).

But nope, Seacrest was just kidding around — and simultaneously promoting Hough’s new movie, Rock of Ages (so no hard feelings, okay?).

I, for one, was relieved. Not only would popping the question during Idol have been tackier than a Randy Jackson accessory — honestly, dawg has to stop trying to make his pins happen — but it would’ve risked cutting short a night that featured not one, not two, but three separate performances that could easily qualify for most Top 50 Idol Performances of All Time lists.

With that statistic settling into your brain (and making you cry either “Amen!” or “Blasphemy!”) let’s cut right to the music — which fell under two separate categories of “Songs by Artists from California/Songs About California” and “Songs the Contestants Wish They Wrote.” Keiran, dim the lights…

California Dreamin’ 
Phillip Phillips: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” |  If Phillip’s first performance of the night was a meal, it would’ve been a hastily assembled turkey sandwich, scarfed down over the sink before rushing out the door to an appointment. There was nothing particularly wrong with it (well, except for the stupid backdrop of vintage surfers surfing) but it was entirely utilitarian. I appreciated that Phillip stuck to the melody, and unlike last week’s “Time of the Season” — which even his brother-in-law labeled “pretty rough” — that he hit most of the notes. But there was a roteness to the performance, a sense that as Phillip set down his guitar, called on his go-to sexy saxophonist, and began to sing, that his mind was already on his second song of the night. J.Lo kicked the word “great” in the teeth by using it to describe Phillip’s cover, but Steven continued his trend of making an enthusiastic yet cryptic statement that sounds less and less like a compliment the more you think about it: “The road to success is always under construction.”

Hollie Cavanagh: Journey’s “Faithfully” | It was fascinating to get a reminder of Hollie’s weepy, emotionally untethered Season 10 audition, especially juxtaposed against the chipper trouper she’s become over the last 11 weeks. New Hollie would never let ’em see her cry, not even if J.Lo had strung her from the ceiling by her ankles and repeatedly hit her abdomen with a stick, convinced that eventually, delicious candy would rain down on the stage. And yet while the last few weeks have seen Hollie surge from also-ran to appealing underdog, “Faithfully” represented a step back from the power and passion of “Bleeding Love” and “Rolling in the Deep.” The stripped-down arrangement of the intro exposed a tremulousness in Hollie’s vocal, and only when she got to riff over the “whoa-oh-oh-ohs” at the end did the performance really come to life. It was telling that Hollie explained to Ryan Seacrest that she needed choreography duo NappyTabs to explain to her that “Faithfully” is about a musician on the road, promising fidelity to a lover in spite of distance and loneliness. In the end, “Faithfully” turned out to be a test for which Hollie wasn’t fully prepared.

Joshua Ledet: Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up” | Speaking of Season 10 audition footage, I was stunned by the physical transformation Joshua made between last year and now. It’s like the difference between a peacock with its tailfeathers bound and broken, and one with its fan on full display, instinctively aware of its own power. I was excited to hear Joshua cover “You Raise Me Up,” mainly because I wanted to see what he could do with a song that’s more about precision and restraint than full-fledged Gospel holleration, but unfortunately, his emotions got the better of him on a song he’d dedicated to his dad, and his voice closed up like an artery after another trip to the Cheesecake Factory. To me, it was Joshua’s worst vocal in 11 weeks of live performances — granted, he’s set his own personal bar very, very high — but the judges still lavished it with praise. “You are the plane right now!” shouted Steven, referencing Joshua’s fear of flying and taking home the Gold in hyperbole for this round. The judges realize they’re not doing Joshua any favors by never offering him even the slightest bit of constructive criticism, don’t they?

Jessica Sanchez: Etta James’ “Steal Away” | A few weeks ago, Jimmy Iovine pledged that he’d be keeping a close eye on Jessica’s song choices and vetting them for age-appropriateness. And so naturally, this week he had her tackle a bluesy Etta James jam about the innocent bloom of first love…a late night booty call? “My folks are sleeping, so please don’t waste no time/ I know it’s late but please don’t make me wait/ So come on steal away.” Er, maybe girlfriend just wants to make a late-night run to Dairy Queen, and knows her parents wouldn’t approve since she didn’t finish her mixed veggies at dinner? Jessica, please justify my enjoyment of this performance! “Secretly, I’m a 65-year-old and I’ve been singing all my life.” Okay, I feel better, because appropriate or not, there’s no denying Jessica brought a nasty-beautiful aggression to the tune, throwing in little squeaks and big growls and a “bay-buh” pronunciation of “baby” that was very Beyoncésque. And on a night of big ballads, a little bit of funk was truly appreciated.

RELATED | American Idol Top 5 Results Recap: She Ain’t No Fortunate One

Joshua & Phillip: Maroon 5’s “This Love” | Those interlocking black and white pianos were yet another thuddingly literal bit of Idol staging, but even if the last two men of Season 11 weren’t living together in perfect harmony, they brought a goofy chemistry to the number, as well as a few genuinely good vocal moments. Joshua’s soaring “I’ll take these broken wings” bridge was DVR rewind-worthy, and I liked the sexiness of Phillip’s syncopated grrrrs and arrghs. J.Lo was right, the whole thing was an “unexpected treat.”

Hollie & Jessica: The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame” | Everything about this perfomance was wrong — except for the song choice and the actual vocals. The cloth swings seemed designed to take Jessica and Hollie out of their comfort zones and minimize their chemistry, and the verses and chorus were chopped up in a way that kept interrupting the gals’ momentum. But dammit, “Eternal Flame” is a million times better than most treacle-y Idol ballads, and when Hollie hit some of Susanna Hoffs’ high notes, I really wished she’d made it her “California Dreamin'” pick instead of “Faithfully.” Like J.Lo pointed out, the song was a good showcase for both singers’ combination of sweetness and power.

The Song I Wish I Wrote
Phillip Phillips: Damien Rice’s “Volcano” | Holy dramatic staging, Batman! The juxtaposition of Phillip under a single spotlight, the female backup singer moodily facing in a different direction, and that talented lady cellist off to the side was probably great for the live audience, but the way it was captured by the Idol cameras was stunning. (Emmy voters, take note!) What’s more, I’d rank this as Phillip’s best performance — vocally and artistically — for the entire season. Unlike his Dave Matthews cover a few weeks back, Phillip seemed in total control of this obscure gem, and it highlighted his sex appeal and vulnerability. This had shades of Kris Allen’s “Falling Slowly” and Adam Lambert’s “Mad World,” where it doesn’t even matter that Phillip chose something unfamiliar to Top 40 radio listeners. Jimmy noted that “the butterfly came out,” but I’d go one step further: The butterfly floated right into the Season 11 Top 3.

Hollie Cavanagh: Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” | The hardest moment of Top 4 week, for me for you, was Hollie’s slight hiccup/tentativeness before she repeated the line “And I will give up this fight.” I’m not sure if Hollie lost her place in the song, or if she was just feeling emotional and struggling to maintain control of her vocal, but I do know one thing: I wasn’t feeling the ache and heartbreak of a woman realizing her lover is slipping away, I was feeling sorry for a sweet kid who may or may not have realized that her dream was in its final hours. Yeah, stranger things have happened than Hollie cracking the Top 3 — ever hear of Jasmine Trias or Nikki McKibbin? — but our British Texan’s face registered glum defeat as she put down the mic and prepared for what she knew would be drawn-out negative feedback from the judges. It’s okay, kid: We’ll always have your iTunes rendition of “Power of Love” (which, incidentally, was Skylar Laine’s favorite iTunes recording of the season).

Joshua Ledet: James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” | I hate to give too much credit to J.Lo when I really need to talk about what I’d easily rank among the 10 best Idol performances of all time, but the Middle Judge standing on her feet and shaking her hands like she was holding Polaroid pictures pretty much summed up my OMG-SMDH-WTF-HOOOOGRRRLLLL response to Joshua’s performance. Never again will I say the word “train”: Now it is “trrrreeeyyyynnnnn.” Never again will I put a red iris in a vase: Only in a lapel. I loved how Joshua caressed the mic and cooed coming out of the chorus, as if he was trying to soothe the burdens of womankind in a single note. I loved his falsetto howl, a Mother’s Day gift to even those of us who are not mothers. I loved how the whole arrangement receded like a wave heading into “he’s lost in the wilderness” — and then came back with double the tidal force. I loved that black satin jacket. THIS WAS ASTONISHING. (Or, translated into J.Lo, sickening.) As Steven Tyler noted, “I can go home right now.” President Obama already did me a solid by coming out in support of same-sex marriage this week — won’t be long till somebody makes a (legally) honest man out of me — but now he needs to pass a presidential decree making it illegal to have a Season 11 finale without Joshua Ledet. And no, I am not even joking.

Jessica Sanchez: “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” (from Dreamgirls) | I need to really sit and have a think, but it’s possible that Season 11 Top 4 night is responsible for not one, not two, but three of the Top 50 performances — maybe even Top 25 — in Idol history. And certainly Jessica’s gale-force drama would make the cut. I do wish she’d brought more physicality to the performance — to me, seeing her stand stock still while delivering the bombast was like going outside in a hurricane and seeing a flag hang limply from its poll — but otherwise, it was pretty much perfection. So good, in fact, that I’m inspired to write my own song (to the tune of “And I Am Telling You,” of course.

And I am telling you she’s not going
That’s the best vocal she’s ever done
Shone as bright as the morning sun
No, no, there’s no way
No, no, no, no way they’d do hometowns without her
Girl’s got way too much power
Like a world-class liqueur
She’s staying
She’s staying
And you, and you
You’re gonna love her

Letter Grades for Solos
Joshua (Man’s World): A+
Phillip (Volcano): A
Jessica (And I Am Telling You): A
Jessica (Steal Away): B+
Hollie (Faithfully): B-
Joshua (You Raise Me Up): B-
Phillip (Seen the Rain): C+
Hollie (I Can’t Make You): C+

Okay, your turn. What were your favorite performances from Top 4 night? Take our poll, then sound off below. And for all my reality TV recaps and news, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!