American Idol '80s Night: Gwen Stefani mentors, Skylar Laine soars (+video)

American Idol: Gwen Stefani makes her second appearance as an Idol guest mentor.  Armed with Bette Midler's power ballad, Skylar Laine makes an impressive comeback.

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    The final eight American Idol contestants pose in Los Angeles, Calif. This week, the contestants were coached by guest mentor Gwen Stefani for their performances of songs from the 1980s.
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If American Idol refuses to embrace more current music, then the 1980s is a good decade to mine.  The songs of the 1980s hold a special place in the hearts of Gen X'ers the world over, and the fashion of the decade has made a recent comeback. Viewers were even given a glimpse of Randy Jackson donning a particularly garish '80s ensemble that made his current fashion choices seem a little less offensive, crystal brooches and all.

To help coach the final eight to greatness was mentor Gwen Stefani and her 'No Doubt' bandmate, Tony Kanal.  This is Gwen's second time mentoring Idol contestants, her last visit occurred in Season Six. Many were likely surprised that Gwen opted to return to Idol since it was rumored that she regretted her decision to mentor the show in 2007; Gwen was reportedly displeased when contestant Sanjaya Malakar opted to perform her hit song, "Bathwater."  It turned out to become an iconic American Idol performance, characterized by ridiculously bad vocals and Sanjaya's famous faux-hawk. So, either the rumors were wrong or Gwen Stefani decided to give the whole Idol thing another go.  Perhaps she intentionally chose to return on '80s night, significantly reducing the chances that any contestants would butcher her material, since No Doubt was not formed until the late 1980s.

With just eight contestants left, Idol thankfully abandoned their trios and gave us four duets Wednesday evening.  Colton Dixon and Skylar Laine gave a solid performance of "Islands in the Stream," after which Ryan Seacrest teased that their chemistry seemed very real.  A surprising comment since the two barely looked at each other throughout the performance, unlike Phil Phillips and Elise Testone who sang the Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty duet, "Stop Dragging my Heart Around."  In this performance there was such a natural chemistry between the two that even Jennifer Lopez said it was one of those duets that make you wonder if the singers are really in love. (When, of course, they're not since Phillip is destined to meet and fall desperately in love with a talented American Idol blogger.) The duet format particularly benefited Phillip since it prevented him from withdrawing into his shell when he sings since his focus was directed toward Elise.

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Jessica Sanchez and Joshua Ledet gave a great performance of, "I Knew You Were Waiting for Me," that made Jennifer prognosticate that she may be looking at the final two contestants. DeAndre Brackensick and Hollie Cavanagh gave the least successful duet of the night with their rendition of the Pointer Sisters "I'm so Excited" – although it was refreshing to see a more relaxed, adorably dressed Hollie.

DeAndre Brackensick:  This week DeAndre opted to sing, "I Like It," by Debarge.  Gwen encouraged DeAndre to look more confident when he performs which is no doubt (pun intended) difficult for DeAndre since in the next breath Jimmy Iovine predicts that DeAndre is going to be in the bottom three again.  Not surprisingly, the judges disagree and laud DeAndre's performance.  Using the movement of his hair as a barometer, Jennifer could detect that he was more confident this week. Leaving the interpretation of hair movements to Jennifer, Randy actually made a good point (wow, who wrote that?) when he applauded DeAndre for not singing the entire song in falsetto.  It was a step in the right direction but not a big enough one.  C

Elise Testone:  Elise returned from last week's Idol high, with the fervent desire to recreate the special moment she achieved with her last performance.  In her mentor session, she was torn between Leonard Cohen's, "Hallelujah," and Foreigner's, "I Want to Know what Love is." But when the latter successfully induced goosies in Gwen and Tony, the decision was made.  Unfortunately, an Idol moment is a rare thing that can't be predicted or controlled (sorry Nigel Lythgoe, its true) and while Elise is a powerhouse of talent, this week she failed to recreate last week's greatness.  Steven Tyler felt it was the wrong song stating, "It's hard to take one from the other cuz it's an '80s song and that's for sure and '80s songs are '80s songs, but uh . . . yeah."  What more is there to say?  B-

Phil Phillips:  Phil chose to perform the Genesis hit, "That's All."  After a rocky rehearsal with the mentors, Tony suggested that Phil not play the guitar in the bridge and instead, make eye contact with the audience.  It was a great suggestion since a connection to Phil is sometimes hard to establish since he is such an introverted performer who seems to forget that there's an audience.  Unfortunately, this week Phil seemed distracted by having his brother-in-law, Ben playing guitar with him on stage and failed to make that critical connection.  Sure, he was still good but not nearly as good as he was in the duet with Elise.  B-

Joshua Ledet:  "If You Don't Know Me by Now," was a great song choice for Joshua but Gwen pointed out that sometimes Joshua's vocals are just too much. A problem that the mentors implied was remedied by changing his transition during one point of the song.  Hmmm, OK.  They are the experts and Jimmy definitely seemed confident in Joshua's performance this week, so it had to be good, right?  Well, according to the judges, who gave him a standing ovation, Joshua was amazing.  Obviously, they do not find the vocal indulgences off-putting, but his over-the-top screaming toward the end ruined an otherwise decent performance, IMHO.  C+

Jessica Sanchez: Choosing a Whitney Houston song for the second time this season, Jessica Sanchez performed, "How Will I Know," a song that unlike some of the other contestants' selections, was hugely popular during the 1980s.  When Gwen Stefani suggested that Jessica stop moving her body like a typical lounge singer, Jessica knew just the remedy – she would channel her alter-ego, Bebe Chez.  (Am I the only one who finds this alter-ego thing completely ridiculous?  It's like some desperate Beyonce/Sasha Fierce mimicry that makes me want to crawl under the sofa in embarrassment when she starts talking about it.)  Thankfully for Jessica, it was not her but Bebe who gave a mediocre performance.  Despite what the judges say, the song was sharp throughout and sounded more like she was screaming the lyrics than singing them.  B-

Hollie Cavanagh:  Hollie selected the song, "What a Feeling" from the movie Flashdance.  The mentors encouraged Hollie to sing the song with a rock edge and confidence.  After some technical issues with power to the keyboard Hollie gave a decent performance of the song but the judges were not impressed. Steven said her pitch was everywhere and Jennifer encouraged her to stop thinking so much when she performs.  Visibly upset, Hollie put on a brave face and explained that she was still learning and would take the advice given to her into her next performance, which is exactly what JLo warned her not to do.  B-

Colton Dixon:  Colton, rocking a lighter 'do" this week, took on Cyndi Lauper's, "Time After Time," and was star-struck by Gwen Stefani in the rehearsals.  It was a good performance but Colton really needs to start enunciating his words better.  His tongue, which seems to function perfectly well during speech, suddenly becomes lazy and defiant when singing, refusing to properly form words.  Nevertheless, it was a good song choice and a solid vocal, barring the slurred speech and all.  B+

Skylar Laine:  This week Skylar was contemplating singing Dolly Parton's "9 to 5," a song that everyone, including Gwen, thinks Skylar could do really well.  The problem is the song is completely predictable and certainly would have landed her in the bottom three again this week.  Thankfully, Skylar took a chance on the Bette Midler ballad, "Wind Beneath My Wings."  By channeling her energy into a song with such heart, Skyar successfully transformed herself from honky-tonk country performer, into a singer to be reckoned with.  The stellar vocals were only enhanced by the emotion she injected into an already emotional song and she achieved her Idol moment this week.  A

Predictions:

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.  So here we go, bottom three:

  1. DeAndre Brackensick
  2. Hollie Cavanagh
  3. Elise Testone

It has to be DeAndre THIS week, right??  It could be, but I have this sinking suspicion that it may be Hollie who departs us this week.  It came to me in a vision as I watched the movement of DeAndre's hair.

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