The Top 13. This is when American Idol really hits its stride. There's something comforting about settling in, knowing who's who, and getting more time with each contestant. It isn't uncommon for new favorites to emerge and for early favorites to stumble along the way.
This week's performances allowed contestants to choose a song by their personal idols, the artists that they most admire and work with the producers to come up with a version that best suits them. It was also this season's first real chance to get a feel for Jimmy Iovine - the music producer that many suggested would fill the Simon Cowell gap and revitalize Idol. Iovine's performance really didn't live up to the hype that's been generated. He seemed to be following what must be the Official American Idol Mentor Script:
If (insert contestant's name here) goes out and performs like (he/she) did it in rehearsal (he/she) will be great.
Wow. Are you blinded by the insight?
But since the show is really about the contestants, and not Jimmy Iovine and the other producers, let's get down to business.
Lauren Alaina started the show off with Shania Twain's, "Any Man of Mine." Lauren seems to have her heart set on country but her most memorable performances to date have been outside of that genre. The judges were all underwhelmed with Lauren's song choice. Steven Tyler told her that the song needed to be a little more "kickass," while Randy really captured the issue when he said they wanted America to see more of the girl they first saw. That girl rocked a Steven Tyler tune with the man himself and made for one of the most memorable auditions. This is what Lauren needs to show America again. Yes you're cute. Yes, it's hard to see the judges criticize you. And yes, your stage presence is way beyond your years, but we need the voice, Lauren. Bring back the voice!
Joe Cocker was Casey Abram's inspiration this evening. Casey explained that when Joe Cocker sings, you can feel the performance. He also pointed out that Cocker doesn't look so hot when he sings either. Well, Casey can be as self-deprecating as he likes, but if he continues to deliver performances like he has been (the picture of him as a child with the bowl haircut and toothy grin, doesn't hurt either) women are going to be enchanted with Casey. In this performance of "With a Little Help from my Friends," he once again embodied the song and interpreted it with more than just his voice, but with his movements and emotions. Jennifer said that she felt like she was watching someone important up on stage.
It was great that Idol gave viewers a moment to collect themselves after Casey and before Paul by placing Ashthon Jones in the third slot. Ashthon started falling from grace last week and the descent continued Wednesday night when she shared that her idol was Diana Ross. Come on Ashthon, do we look like we all just fell off a turnip truck?
Last week, the judges critiqued her and said that she should be singing Diana Ross and POOF Diana Ross becomes her idol? It certainly seemed like she was pretty impressed by working with Rodney Jerkins who has worked with Mariah Carey, Monique, and Keisha, all of whom would likely rank higher on this 24-year-old's idol list than Diana Ross. It may have been easier to forgive her had she knocked it out of the park, but "When You Tell Me That You Love Me," was a struggle from beginning to end for Ashthon. The judges were unconvincing in their praise; Steven saying that there was more in her, and Randy and Jennifer commending her for keeping her composure and pulling her voice back in when the song got away from her. Could it have been that they were embarrassed that Berry Gordon had been invited by Jimmy Iovine to see Ashthon perform and they thought maybe if they said good things, he wouldn't realize he had just wasted a trip?
Next up was Paul McDonald, who sang "Come Pick Me up" by Ryan Adams. Just to be safe, Paul emphasized it was Ryan with an "R," although chances are people were not expecting someone as unique as Paul to start bellowing "(Everything I Do) I Do it for You." Paul was delightfully odd again on stage, his strength being the softness of his tone. It has long been said that to get people to listen, one should speak softly. Paul proves that the same holds true for singing. He is never going to be a Jacob Lusk or a James Durbin, but therein lies the beauty of his performances. They are understated and intimate and Paul doesn't tell you how you should feel, instead the listener has to actively listen in order to fully experience his performance. The judges all enjoyed Paul but said that they hoped, "America gets it." Jennifer confessed she didn't know the song or Ryan Adams; Mandy Moore, his wife, would be hurt to hear it!
Ryan then once again earned his salary by perfectly imitating Paul McDonald's dance moves, which are effeminately spastic, like a joyous pixie twisting to their inner tune of happiness.
Pia Toscano chose Celine Dion as her idol and sang Eric Carmen's, "All by Myself," which has really never been done quite as well as Renee Zellwegger in Bridget Jones's Diary. It was Pia's choice of song that made Lauren Alaina's statement after her earlier performance, strike a chord, "I just didn't want to do a ballad 'cause that's what everbody does." This, like Ashton's performance was exactly what Lauren was hoping to avoid, which is not to say that Pia didn't perform the song well because she did. She did everything she was supposed to do. She wore a pretty dress with pretty matching heels. She espoused the importance of family values. She belted out the ballad and then smiled humbly as the judges piled praise on her and then she dedicated the song to her father and blew him kisses. Maybe if America keeps her in long enough she can foster world peace and end world hunger.
The highlight of the evening, which came as quite a surprise, was James Durbin performing Paul McCartney's, "Maybe I'm Amazed." James wasn't the only one who was amazed. This performance was pivotal for James and for American Idol's new format because it proved that the music producers could really bring another dimension to the contestants and it proved that James - who was always pretty formulaic and indulgent - could, with the right guidance, become a star. It is this kind of vocalist that music producers must long to get their hands on, someone who has the foundation and with the proper direction can exceed everyone's expectations. James's control of the song was really remarkable and there was a vulnerability to him that made him a little easier to connect with. It was one of the best performances of the night with Randy saying that "James Durbin is dangerous, America," and Jennifer adding that James has what all great rockers have, a melodic quality to his voice.
Another surprise was Haley Reinhart choosing LeAnn Rimes's, "Blue." Apparently Haley has been singing the song since she was eight-years-old. If one had to pick a genre for Haley chances are they wouldn't guess country. But despite Randy saying she gave a "sleepy" performance, Steven thought that if you listened hard enough you could hear all of Country Western America cheering for Haley. It was disappointing to see Lily Scott go home after performing a Patsy Cline song last season. Let's hope that the Cline connection to "Blue" doesn't prove to be a jinx for Haley as well because Haley really pulled off a song that even Jimmy Iovine admitted a lot of people couldn't pull of.
When hearing that Jacob Lusk was singing R. Kelly's, "I Believe I Can Fly," I believed I could cry. If an obscure, AI blogger had the authority to compose a no-sing list for Idol, this song would certainly make the top ten. The choice of such an overexposed, saturated song is almost as questionable as stating that R. Kelly is your Idol on national television. Of course, Jacob performed the song as only Jacob could, though it was refreshing to actually hear a judge (Randy) point out that there were some pitch problems in his performance, especially after Steven said that Jacob was so good he can't be judged. There seems to be a real vacuum this season that is making itself more and more evident as time passes. Saying that its the "Simon vacuum" would be too specific but try as Randy might, there is a real element of honesty missing from the judges table. While no one deserves to be ridiculed, the judges are not doing the contestants any favors by acting like adoring fans. Sometimes, criticisms are hard to hear but wouldn't it be better to be straight with these contestants now, before they jump in with the real sharks?
Thankfully, the judges were a bit more constructive with Thia Megia who sang Michael Jackson's "Smile." Thia was really thrown for a loop when the producers pointed out that it was actually written by Charlie Chaplin and dates back to silent film. In her interview, she demonstrated how much she had learned about "Charlie Chapman." Thia is the second contestant to choose an artist, that the judges compared them to last week, as their Idol. While it is a little easier to imagine Michael Jackson being Thia's idol than it was Diana Ross being Ashton's, Thia really didn't bring any Jackson flair to the performance. The intro wasn't bad, but as soon as the song reached the second half and the band, who all seemed to be playing 1980's Casio electronic home keyboards, kicked in, the performance quickly fell apart. The judges gave a similar critique but Thia, who appears so void of enthusiasm she seems to be half asleep, didn't really seem to be processing what she was singing. Sleepy, er, Thia, needs to start showing some signs of, not just personality, but of life unless she plans on targeting the lullaby genre.
And turning back to our imaginary no-sing list for Idol, let's put every Stevie Wonder song ever performed on the list. Apparently Stefano Langone didn't read this list or the previous blog about Clint Jun Gamboa's disastrous Stevie Wonder song choice that led to his elimination . . . because he selected Wonder's, "Lately." Stevie Wonder's inclusion on the no-sing list has nothing to do with him as an artist, rather it has to do with the 10-years of Idol contestants wearing the music out. This opinion stands in direct contrast to everything the music producers and judges said about Stefano's performance, but remember that the judges also said great things about Clint's Stevie Wonder performance, too and now where is he? One just has to question Stefano's thought process with this choice. America didn't vote for him. The judges saved him. So for his next performance he chooses a song that is 30 year's old and nine years older than he is? Despite the rave reviews about Stefano, he could be in danger. (The high-top sneakers didn't help matters.)
Karen Rodriguez chose, "I Could Fall in Love," by Selena, which certainly wasn't a surprise (the girl has Selena Barbie Dolls, for crying out loud!). She looked incredible with a JLo/Selena inspired black sequin pant suit and the stage was set for a solid performance from Idol's Latino Cutie, but something went horribly awry. Jennifer Lopez asked after the performance if Karen could hear herself because the pitch was so off. Randy said she seemed like she was fighting the song and Tyler said he knows she can sing so much better. Based on vocals alone she would be on the top of the list to go home this week, but it's well known that voting is not based on vocals alone and hence, she'll likely be safe.
Quick! Close your eyes and guess who chose Garth Brook as their Idol! That's right, baritone Scotty McCreery took on, Garth's "The River," and insisted that he was going to stay true to the song and himself. His performance was just another example of Scotty being exactly where he is meant to be in his song choice and his register. Jennifer said that she felt he was connecting with the audience more in this performance, though last week he proved to be quite engaging, as well. Randy, moments after criticizing Karen (and other contestants) for not listening to him when he says that contestants need to make the songs their own and add something to them, commended Scotty for not changing the song, cheering, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!" Way to be consistent, Randy. There's little doubt Scotty will be giving another stellar performance next week.
Last but not least - well, although not least, but certainly in the bottom of the heap, was Naima Adedapo. She picked, "Umbrella," by Rihanna and worked with Tricky, who produced the original. Both Tricky and Jimmy Iovine expected great things from Naima; Jimmy stating that if she performs like she did in rehearsals, she could go right to the top five. Naima definitely had an interesting performance, complete with rather erratic dance moves, lighting, sound effects, and a reggae section. But aside from the reggae, Naima really struggled with pitch tonight and she was out of breath for a good part of the song due to the ambitious dance sequences. Steven said her performance was pitchy, JLo claimed she didn't care about pitchy because she loved what Naima did, although she does need to work on control. Randy still cares about the pitch problems but loved the reggae.
Here are the predictions:
- James Durbin
- Scotty McCreery
- Casey Abrams
- Paul McDonald
- Pia Toscano
- Jacob Lusk
- Lauren Alaina
- Haley Reinhart
- Thia Megia
- Karen Rodriguez
- Stefano Langone
- Naima Adedapo
- Ashthon Jones
Tune in on Thursday for the live results show.
Check out Ryan Adams on The Letterman Show below.