Considering that the median age of "American Idol" viewers is 45 years old, I'm fairly certain many fans felt more ancient than one of Steven Tyler's discarded gypsy scarves on Wednesday night, when the top 12 performed songs from the years in which they were respectively born. I can only imagine how Steven Tyler himself felt, since the oldest two contestants, Paul McDonald and Naima Adedapo, were born in 1984, and several of them didn't even enter this world until the MID-NINETIES. ("I have leftover sandwiches under my bed older than you," Steven informed one contestant.) No wonder so many Season 10 contestants don't know who the Beatles are; "American Idol" almost seems like "American Juniors" this year.
But in an era when the charts are topped by Justin Bieber, Willow Smith, and Greyson Chance, a 16-year-old like Lauren Alaina doesn't seem so young anymore. And besides, lots of great music came out in the '80s and '90s. So I put my personal feelings of reverse-ageism aside, and got all psyched for a dream episode filled with cute contestant baby photos and, hopefully, everything from Madonna to Nirvana covers. Well, I didn't get any Madonna, but thanks to Casey Abrams, I got to witness the first-ever Nirvana song on "Idol." That's a memory I'll keep in my heart-shaped box forever.
It turned out that some finalists possessed a more extensive musical knowledge than others, but in the end, life experience didn't always guarantee a stellar performance. Here's how the minors versus the over-18's stacked up:
Naima Adedapo - I was a little worried because my girl was singing in the kiss-of-death first spot, AND because she chose to take on the immortal Tina Turner. But I hoped that this comeback contestant--who only made it into the top 13 via the Wild Card round, then wowed everyone last week with her Rihanna reggae performance--would impress with Tina's comeback hit, 1984's "What's Love Got To With It." But, um, not so much. She was good, but after last week's tour de force, she just fell a little flat--and her final note was the opposite of flat (as in really sharp). The always easily impressed Steven was all smiles ("You've got a sorcerer's grasp of melody...I loved it!" he raved), but the usually equally easy-going Jennifer Lopez actually got critical, and rightfully so, saying: "You bring your specific flavor to everything you do, and I love that...but now I'm starting to see that you're consistently pitchy." Uh-oh. Newly self-appointed "mean judge" Randy Jackson was of course the toughest on Naima, saying the vocals were "kind of a mess" and "all over the place." So the love of Naima's loyal fans will have EVERYTHING to do with whether she stays or goes this week, because this performance probably won't win her any new followers.
Paul McDonald - What is up with the "Idol" producers putting Naima and Paul in the tricky opening spots of this week's episode, huh? Are they TRYING to upset me and send my favorites home? I want Paul and Naima on the Idols Live Tour, dang it. Anyway, this scheduling decision gave me the blues, and Paul's song choice, Elton John's "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues," was a perplexing one. This was not my favorite Paul performance--I would've preferred some early R.E.M., or maybe some Psychedelic Furs (gawd knows Paul has the rasp to do the Furs' Richard Butler proud)--but I guess after last week's risky, "obscure" Ryan Adams cover, he wasn't taking any chances. His cold this week (and a vocal-cord node he tweeted about recently) only made his rasp raspier, but as usual he compensated with his vivacious personality, "McDonald two-step," and ceaseless jolly demands that the crowd whoop it up along with him. J.Lo noted that she could tell the ailing Paul was "struggling" vocally, but on the plus side she said: "You have so much soul and so much star quality, it overcame that." Steven told him, "You define 'cool dude in a loose mood.'" And while Randy refused to give Paul a "pass" just because he was illin', Randy too was mostly forgiving, pretty much dubbing Paul the new Ray LaMontagne. The judges just seem to adore this fellow no matter what he does--and honestly, that's fine with me, because I'm beginning to doubt just how long America will keep voting Paul through. And if the Judges' Save must be used, I'd like it to be used on Paul.
Thia Megia - Born in 1995, Thia is this season's youngest contestant, but onstage she exudes all the youth and vigor of Steven Tyler's great-aunt. Case in point: This evening, she elected to sing "Colors Of The Wind" by Vanessa Williams. REALLY? Of all the 1995 songs? What about TLC's "Waterfalls," Madonna's "Take A Bow," Sheryl Crow's "Strong Enough," or "No More 'I Love You's'" by Annie Lennox? All of those would have been better choices than Vanessa's treacly, forgettable ballad, which was rendered even duller by Thia's typically emotionless delivery and floor-length bridesmaid dress. "The problem I'm having is you've been singing all these ballads every week...I felt like I was at some pageant. There was nothing special," griped a right-on-the-money Randy. Questioned Steven: "You have a beautiful voice, but is that song who you think you are?" J.Lo called the performance too "safe...We need to see you break out of that." Thia may be one of the more technically gifted singers of this season, but as less-perfect contestants like Naima and Paul have proved, it's not just about the voice. Personality counts, too--and I'm not so sure if Thia even HAS one.
James Durbin - This born-in-'89 rocker rocked some Bon Jovi this evening, and while it wasn't quite as exciting as his Judas Priest cover from a couple weeks ago (Motley Crue's 1989 smash "Dr. Feelgood" would've been a more feelgood choice), I have to say he belted out the power ballad "I'll Be There For You" almost better than Jon Bon Jovi himself. And he did so while working the crowd like a stadium-rock pro, slapping the audience's outstretched hands and stomping the stage in custom-made leather boots, while Muse frontman Matt Bellamy (there with his starlet girlfriend Kate Hudson) looked on. Steven seemed a little bummed out, warning James, "Don't get too poppy on me," but then James fearlessly invited Steven to duet with him on the "Idol" finale, Steven shockingly agreed, and all was right with the world again. (Set your DVRs now, people.) J.Lo seemed pleased, "acting a fool" as she sang along, and told James: "Every time you get up there, you bring me so much joy!" Randy noted a couple pitch issues, as he is wont to do, but then said: "You always figure out how to make it your own." I have a feeling James's fans will be there for him when it comes time to vote this week.
Haley Reinhart - This 1990 baby sang a song by one of what Randy calls "the big three," Whitney Houston (the other untouchable two are Celine Dion and Mariah Carey). And while I was glad that she went with a more uptempo hit ("I'm Your Baby Tonight"), I think it was a BIG mistake for her to do a "big three" song at all. Her performance improved towards the end, as she got growlier and prowlier, and no one could accuse her of not putting her own spin on the song...but her vocals sounded more like Whitney circa 2011 than circa 1990. Haley just didn't measure up. J.Lo surprisingly didn't comment on Haley's voice, instead criticizing her "tense" and "forced" stage movements. Randy understandably expressed confusion over Haley's schizophrenic song selections (Alicia Keys, then LeAnn Rimes, and now this), saying, "I'm just not sure who you are...or that you're sure, either." Steven said he missed that "Janis Joplin thing" he once heard in Haley's voice (although it seems Randy never heard it, since he quipped, "Where was THAT?"). Overall, Haley's critique was not positive. She was no one's baby tonight.
Stefano Langone - Stefano started his pre-performance interview piece teasing that he'd considered covering 1989 hits like Milli Vanilli's "Girl You Know It's True," NKOTB's "Hangin' Tough," or Tone Loc's "Funky Cold Medina"--and my fondness for Stefano instantly upgraded. Come ON, how awesome would that have been? Unfortunately, he was just kidding. Instead he went with "If You Don't Know Me By Now," a soul ballad originated by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes 17 years before Stefano was born, but later popularized by Simply Red. This turned out to be a good choice, too. While I heard a wonky note at the end that, bizarrely, none of the judges mentioned, for the most part Stefano worked it out and sounded strong. Randy dubbed it the best performance of the night: "You picked the highest degree of difficulty, like the Olympics, and slayed it! 10, 10, 10!" Said Steven, as only he could: "You're gonna make Jimmy Iovine more famouser!" And J.Lo even told Stefano (a Wild Card who almost didn't make the top 13 at all): "You could take this thing." Whoa! I'm not so sure about that, but I do think Stefano will be around for a while to get "famouser." Which means maybe he'll do some New Kids On The Block next week!
Pia Toscano - I give Pia points for the satin Linda Ronstadt jumpsuit she was rocking, and for her always-impeccable vocals (she's for sure the strongest female singer this season), but I'm beginning to tire of just seeing her stand there and look/sound pretty. I need more PERFORMANCE from her. It boggled my mind that J.Lo called Pia's song choice, Whitney Houston's "Where Do Broken Hearts Go," an "uptempo" song (really?), but OK, at least this here was one contestant who could handle a Whitney vocal with ease. "You are why this show is called 'American Idol,'" said Steven. "You took that song over the top in your own special way, and you nailed it!" Exclaimed Randy: "Pia is in the competition to win it!" I don't doubt that one bit, but I would like to see more variety from her in the coming weeks. And more '70s jumpsuits, too, please.
Scotty McCreery - In his bio piece it was revealed that Scotty was an amateur Elvis impersonator as a young lad, but since he was born in 1993, Presley songs were off the table tonight. (Side note: 1993?? I could have sworn Scotty said he was 16. Has he "gone Hollywood" so much that he's already he's lying about his age? But I guess if he was born in late '93, he would have still been 16 at last year's auditions. OK, enough math for now.) So anyhoo, Scotty went with the unchallenging choice of "Can I Trust You With My Heart" by Travis Tritt, another country song straight in the middle "of his lane." And while it was fine, it was nothing new from him, despite Jimmy Iovine's earlier advice that he try to "grow" this week. So I was baffled when Jennifer and Randy praised Scotty for "pushing it out there" and "taking chances." Um, what performance were they watching? This was such typical everyday McCreery fare, he might as well have hit the stage crooning, "Babylockthemdoorsandturnthemlightsdownreallow..."
Karen Rodriguez - Karen is a solid singer, but after last week's dreadful Selena impersonation (and subsequent, deserved bottom-three placement), she needed to deliver a knockout performance this week to get back in the game. She certainly made an impression visually--little black minidress (instead of her usual pageant gowns), up-to-there Pretty Woman boots, and a Snooki/Winehouse/Marge Simpson hair pouf--but her snoozy song choice, 1989's "Love Will Lead You Back" by Taylor Dayne, wasn't quite as flashy. Randy put it best when he said: "It was better that last week, but I'm still not jumping up and down." Steven liked Karen's Spanish-language verse ("I love it when you break into your ethic what-it-is-ness!"), but I am beginning to find the dual-language thing to be Karen's gimmick, an almost desperate, tacked-on afterthought, so I didn't agree with him. Jennifer told Karen she'd seemed scared at first--and who could blame Karen, since not even J.Lo liked her Selena song last week?--but that Karen "attacked it" in the end. I'm wondering if the fans who kept Karen afloat last week will be motivated to attack their phones this week.
Casey Abrams - As I mentioned earlier, Casey amazingly performed the first Nirvana "Idol" cover this evening--and he went for the granddaddy of all Nirvana songs, "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Another first here: He was the first contestant of the season to play an instrument (the electric bass) on the big stage. Was this a perfect performance? Well, no. Even Jennifer admitted Kurt Cobain had some mighty big Converse to fill, and I'm sure Casey's attempt will have its haters. But this was by far the most INTERESTING performance of the night, and the most passionate--even if, as J.Lo pointed out, it got a bit "screechy" in parts. Randy was so floored, he compared Casey to supercool artists like Radiohead, Muse (I wonder if Matt Bellamy agreed with that), and Lykke Li, and said: "I love that you're putting art first and then thinking about commerce second!" (I wonder if Jimmy agreed with that.) I love that about Casey, too. Casey, please don't get sick again. Stay well, and stay in this race. "American Idol" needs you.
Lauren Alaina - Melissa Etheridge's 1994 hit "Am I The Only One" is a song full of raw yearning and passion, but 16-year-old Lauren, who usually traffics in teenagey cutesiness, sapped the song of all of its original emotion. She flatlined like Thia Megia on a bad day, in my never-humble opinion. But the judges all called it a comeback, after last week's widely panned, country-fair-ready Shania Twain cover. "You gave it that country flavor...you just took it and made it your own!" said Jennifer. Randy and Steven even said the cold Lauren was battling this week (I guess that's one germy Idol Mansion the top 12 are all living in) helped her voice. But I thought this was just a sick performance, not a siiiiick one. It was better than last week's, granted, but I was still underwhelmed.
Jacob Lusk - Say what you will about Jacob--that he's too flamboyant, that he oversings, that he needs to tone it down. All of these statements are true, to some extent. But a) the man can SING, and b) he is interesting, a contestant we always remember. With him singing last and putting his own gospel spin on Heart's "Alone," he was certainly memorable this evening. Ann Wilson of Heart should really be in the "big four"--her vocals are amazing, and almost every "Idol" wannabe who tries to sing the Heart catalog fails and pales in comparison--but Jacob did Ann proud, give or take a showboaty, pitchy note or two. (Yes, the song's coda did go a little awry.) At least he had the pure passion that the song required. "Gospel had a baby and named it Jacob Lusk!" preached Steven, while Jennifer and Randy respectively called Jacob's performance "amazing" and "genius." I'm still a little worried that Jacob won't go as far in this competition as the judges hope or expect, but I think he is safe this week.
So, now it is prediction time. I'm a little worried for my faves Naima and Paul, who were not at their best and performed so early in the show, but I think Paul still has enough of a fanbase to stay in the game. Naima probably won't be so lucky. As for who will round out the bottom three, I don't think Haley and Karen, who were both in the bottom three last week, did themselves any favors with their Houston and Dayne covers, so I'll go with them. But of those three, I think it's Haley who's had the roughest time defining herself--at least we all know where Naima and Karen are coming from--so I'm guessing it will be her turn to go.
We'll all find out if I'm right Thursday night. Until then, Parker out.