Oh, how richly ironic that Lady Gaga, who is arguably the biggest player in the pop game right now, mentored the top four this week on "American Idol." I mean, this a show whose two biggest frontrunners, country kids Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina, are so ultra-conservative that Gaga's very leotarded, skunk-wigged presence had Scotty kissing a cross pendant and begging God for forgiveness ("Apparently he's a bit more conservative than I imagined," mused Gaga), and rendered Lauren too afraid to even sing the word "evil" in an Elvis song.
"You're not a kid, you're 16," Gaga told them from behind the 29 pounds of spooky space-alien makeup caked on her poker face. "When I was 16 years old, I was way too weird to be on 'American Idol.' They would have shut the door in my face."
Yes, in that one utterance, Gaga defined everything that is wrong with "Idol." She proved that pretty much no one on this show is ready to compete with what's really going on in the pop marketplace, which is total free-for-all weirdness: Gaga going out sans pants, Nicki Minaj rocking those flamingo-pink wigs, Katy Perry wearing bras fashioned out of cupcakes, Rihanna wielding day-glo whips and chains, Jessie J doing it like a dude, the glitter-and-filth-slathered Ke$ha, the kabuki-painted Florence Welch, the aerial-stunting Pink.
See, despite "Idol" producers' assertions earlier in the season that this would be "American Idol: The Remix," a revamped competition that would help find "the next Lady Gaga or Muse," it's been pretty much business as usual this year, with most of the edgier contestants (Rachel Zevita, Naima Adedapo, Paul McDonald) falling by the wayside; the remaining contestants being forced to sing decades-old songs by Elton John, Carole King, and Elvis; and the frontrunners being the singers who most appeal to conservative viewers. Same "Idol," different judges.
But while Gaga didn't exactly outfit anyone in meat-dresses or make them swing from chandeliers dripping with fake blood, she did manage to coax little-monstrous performances out of all four contestants, even Scotty (who, despite his protests, actually seemed to be flirting with Gaga a bit...unless that was just that wiggly-eyebrow facial tic of his). I think Scotty secretly crushed on her. He even "made love to the microphone" like she ordered him to, and did it with gusto. So can we please start a petition to make Lady Gaga a judge next season?
Here is how the top four did...
The first number each contestant did was a "song that inspires me," and James went with the slam-dunk choice of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," a titanic tune that--thanks to "Glee," "The Sopranos," "Rock Of Ages," and even the Season 8 "Idol" cast--everyone in America knows and loves. But that was the problem: Countless singers have covered this perennial power ballad, so James really had to bring something new to it. Did he? Well, not really. But his performance did have stadium showmanship, and well, it was a performance of "DON'T. STOP. BELIEVIN'." 'Nuff said. If it wasn't for the fact that James was singing in the kiss-of-death first slot for the second week in a row, I would have figured this was a total setup to guarantee his place in the finale. "You did it right, you couldn't have picked a more popular song right now," said Steven Tyler. "Great song, great job, great performance," Jennifer Lopez said predictably. And Randy Jackson, who once played bass for Journey and never lets anyone forget it, declared: "That was the highest degree of difficulty, and you did it!" Randy's comment, along with J.Lo's that James "set the bar" for the episode, seemed a bit premature--James was good, but not great--but I guess no one can deny the power of this song.
For their second songs, the contestants sang the hits of classic '50s songwriters Leiber & Stoller, and were coached by Gaga. (You know, because the Lieber & Stoller influence is so evident in Gaga's music.) James got one of the cornier tunes of the night, "Love Potion Number 9," but after Gaga willfully got behind him, all up in his bizness, and grabbed his hips to MAKE him swivel his pelvis like Elvis, he gave a surprisingly good performance, almost turning the novelty song into a pop-metal number. (The pyro at the end didn't hurt.) "I wasn't sure about that song for you...but you just told me that I was absolutely wrong," said Jennifer. "You take any song and you put that James thing on it." Said Randy, "You're peaking that right time. You're having a moment every single week, and that was hot too!" Let's see if James really peaks at the finale.
Considering her sleepy-eyed hippie vibe, I suppose it's no surprise that Haley chose Michael Jackson's "Earth Song" for her inspirational number. Was it her best performance ever? Well, no. She over-sang and over-growled a bit, and it was a tad sleepy in a not-good way. But she so did not deserve the harsh critiques she received from the judges, especially Randy, who griped, "It confused me who you are as an artist, because the song doesn't suit you....I didn't like it. I thought you were screaming at the end." And Haley, after weeks of being over-criticized while her rivals have been over-praised, for once didn't just shrug off the judges' flak. She finally seemed to crack, sassing back angrily to Randy and looking like she was about to punch someone (probably Randy, who later rudely declared round 1 a three-way tie between James, Scotty, and Lauren). I didn't really blame her. But at least Steven made sense for once, going against Jennifer and Randy and asserting, "Don't listen to them. They're both wrong. That song showed me that you can. You nailed it with feeling, you pushed it over the top. Don't believe them." Hey, Steven finally gave a sensible critique!
But of course, this was all part of the Haley story arc. The same story arc as last week. As in, the judges blasted Haley's first performance beyond all reason, dragged her down, then dubbed her second performance the second coming of Lambert and said she was back in it to win it. But really, Haley's performance of Leiber & Stoller's "I Who Have Nothing" was stunning. She seemed to really bond with mentor Gaga (who'd granted Haley permission to perform the unreleased "You & I" last week), and Gaga seemed excited to have a subject so willing to go gaga onstage. "How do you feel about getting a little psycho, giving them a little Edith Piaf?" asked Gaga of her new little monster. Haley then channeled all of her post-critique fury and delivered the performance of her lifetime. Or at least of the season. A standing ovation ensued. Hey, didn't this happen last week? Well, at least Haley got praise where praise was due. "This is why we can't take it easy on you, baby!" howled J.Lo. "Look what you're capable of! You are that amazing! One of the best performances of the year!" Said Randy, "You just had a moment that puts you in it to win it!" And Steven created a new verb, wordsmith that he is, by saying, "You just Reinharted yourself into the middle of next week!"
In one of the shrewdest, if most manipulative, song choices in "Idol" history, for his first number Scotty did Alan Jackson's "Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning." A song that mentions Jesus. A song about 9/11, sung mere days after Osama bin Laden's assassination. Genius, Scotty, genius. The performance itself was rather unmemorable, but so what? Just like James's first song choice, it was suitable, smart, and crowd-pleasing, regardless. "A perfect song choice now for where we are as a country," said Randy. "That was beautiful; ditto what Randy said," Steven tossed off lazily. And Jennifer, one of two over-age ladies to flirt with young Scotty this week, gushed: "I'm in love with you, I can't help it!"
For his second song, Scotty did the campy "Young Blood" by the Coasters, and finally someone (Gaga) sorted him out on his weird limp-handed microphone-holding technique, advising Scotty to imagine that the mic stand was a girlfriend he was about to French-kiss. ("It better be a good-looking mic," Scotty grumbled.) Gaga used some curse words, too. Scotty seemed spooked at first ("Lord, this is not my doing," he invoked), almost ready to thwack Gaga over the head with his Bible which surely was on the set just out of frame. But I think she got to him. By the time he hit the stage, he was "a little psycho" himself, all sassafrassy and, to quote Steven from last week, dancing with the devil. "Dude, you made Gaga's ya-ya go la la!" Steven said, as only he could. Then he compared Scotty to Pat Boone, which I think was compliment, although I am sure that's not the vibe Gaga was going for.
Lauren's inspirational song choice was almost as savvy, and sappy, as Scotty's: She did the heartstring-plucking, God-namechecking "Anyway" by Martina McBride, dedicated to victims of the recent flooding in Memphis. "You can spend your whole life building something from nothing, and one storm can come and blow it all away," she crooned. I actually thought she must've derived just as much meaning from the lyrics, "You can pour your soul out singing a song you believe in, that tomorrow they'll forget you ever sang." After all, she's received so much criticism lately for not being memorable, and last week she was in the bottom two for the first time. This was a performance America will most likely remember, however. It was just the sort of performance conservative voters adore. "Lauren, you did it again!" said her biggest champion (and, ironically, the show's least conservative judge), Steven. "You broke my heart, man. That was the most beautiful thing." Randy said Lauren was "back in it to win it," something he says about her every other week, when he isn't referencing her first audition in Nashville to which she's never really later measured up. (Randy mentioned her first audition again this week.) I wouldn't say this was amazing or anything, but, as J.Lo pointed out, it was exactly what she needed to do.
But it was when Gaga got her paws on Lauren that things finally got interesting. Lauren seemed utterly terrified of Gaga, much more so than Scotty had been, and was bizarrely reluctant to sing the words "I'm evil" in her Elvis Presley number, "Trouble." But Gaga, who knows a thing or two about building confidence in shy, insecure teens (who make up much of her adoring fanbase), coaxed the evil twin out of Lauren, explaining it was just a CHARACTER she was portraying, not an actual statement to America that she was a horrible person unworthy of votes. Lauren finally got it, and then strutted onstage with a surprising amount of unforeseen self-assurance, almost reminding me of Allison Iraheta at times. (I said almost. No one's as rad as Allison.) Randy dug Lauren's new "rocker thing with a little attitude" (so did I), and J.Lo said, "I saw a performance quality in you that I had not seen in you before. It was mature, it was a total attack, and it was really, really good. Who is that?"
So now it is prediction time. I think Lauren and Scotty saved themselves, by going with conservative, timely, and semi-political/religious songs for their first numbers, then showing off their sassier sides during their second efforts. And James surely won over the audience with his time-tested Journey cover and pyro-enhanced pelvic thrusting. So...that leaves Haley. She delivered two solid performances, but the judges came down extremely hard on her, and let's face it, a good percentage of the voting public is persuaded by what the judges have to say. Additionally, while I appreciated the fact that Haley stood up for herself, historically sassing back to the judges has NEVER helped any contestant on this show. America doesn't like argumentative contestants, plain and simple. So Haley may have just Reinharted herself right off the show, sadly.
Tune in Thursday to see if I'm right. Until then, Parker out.