Wednesday's theme on "American Idol's" top five night was "Now & Then," meaning the contestants each warbled one modern-day tune and one '60s/'70s classic. Among the "Now" songs were a couple of hits by former "Idol" winners and a somewhat leftfield emo rocker, but the most
leftfield choice was by Haley Reinhart, who boldly took the "Now" motif truly to heart and performed a song so very now, it hasn't even been commercially released yet
Yes, in an "Idol" first, a major-label recording star, Lady Gaga, allowed an unreleased tune to be performed by one of the contestants...and Haley did such an excellent job with it, now it's Gaga who may have to worry about "making the song her own" once her version is finally on iTunes. But was it too much of a risk for Haley to do an unknown tune, on such a mainstream show (on which Paul McDonald once got chewed out for covering the semi-obscure Ryan Adams)? The judges seemed to think so, but considering that the contestants are constantly being told to go outside the box and take chances, I argue that Haley should only be praised for her ultimate act of "Idol" bravery.
Anyway, here's how Haley and all the others did...
For his "Now" performance, James picked just about the
perfect song: the widescreen emo-pop-metal of Thirty Seconds To Mars' "Closer To The Edge." It was basically the blueprint for what he should do post-"Idol," whether or not he wins. Sure, I totally love James in '80s-rocker mode, and wouldn't mind him releasing an album of all Skid Row, GNR, and Motley Crue covers. But he'd probably fare better in 2011 with modern-rock material like this, uptempo angst-rock that'd appeal to fans of My Chemical Romance, Tokio Hotel, A.F.I., and Muse.
So after James's 30STM performance, I could envision hundreds of James Durbin T-shirts being sold at my local Hot Topic. (And I'd like one in my size, please). "You are in it to win it!" said Randy Jackson, the first of about 27 times he'd use his new favorite catchphrase before the episode was over. "In the past few weeks you've showed that you want it," said Jennifer Lopez. "So grab it, take it, it's yours to take!" And Steven Tyler summed it up with, "The way you were working the audience, you're ready for Freddy." I don't know who this Freddy guy is...but I think he wants a Durbin T-shirt, too.
For his second, "Then" number, James took on one of the most difficult tunes in the "Idol" songbook: "Without You," the multi-octave Badfinger classic popularized by Harry Nilsson. I braced myself as he revved up for the massive chorus, seeing how choked-up he already was (he was thinking of his faraway fiancé and son) and hoping his emotions wouldn't get the best of him. Personally, I appreciated James's sentiment and sincerity, but thought his vocal was off and he couldn't be 100 percent excused just because he was all homesick and verklempt. All three judges acknowledged his vocal shortcomings and used their other favorite catchphrase, "pitchy," but all of them still couldn't help but be moved by James's demonstrative display. "This is the mark of truly a great performance. No, it wasn't perfect, but it was emotionally
perfect," rationalized Randy. "When you sing as good as you do and you can let a song get the best of you, that's crazy time," said Steven. And Jennifer said, "You're not just the guy who can wail into the stratosphere...you have the heart and soul to back it up."
When I learned that Jacob was ambitiously taking on both the feminine and masculine sides of the Jordin Sparks/Chris Brown duet "No Air" for his "Now" song, I was intrigued. After all, I've also thought there was a certain androgyny to Jacob's persona that he was too afraid to tap into. Now I see why he was afraid. This just was not good. He seemed out of breath before he even got to the chorus--no air, indeed. Jennifer praised Jacob for going in this more R&B/pop direction, so apparently that giant hibiscus in her hair was blocking in the hearing in her ear. Then again, she told Jacob if he kept doing songs like this he'd end up in the "top three," so apparently she doesn't
think Jacob is in it to win it. Randy and Steven disagreed with J.Lo, with Steven making sense for the first time in weeks when he said, "We're waiting for you to find a niche, that certain thing that you do best that's gonna make you the American Idol." And Randy stated the obvious: "I don't see you as Chris Brown or
Jordin Sparks." In most scenarios, this would be a compliment. Not this time.
Thankfully, Jacob redeemed himself with his second attempt, in the most unlikely way imaginable: by covering "Love Hurts," a '70s classic rock power ballad by Nazareth that I would have expected James Durbin to sing. This worked surprisingly well, although it was better in the beginning, when it was just a relatively reined-in Jacob and a lone harpist, before it went all wonky and overblown with a horn section and Jacob's all-over-the-place glory notes. Then it became more like "Eardrum Hurts." But overall, this was a success, especially compared to his "No Air" fiasco. "I am sucker for passion and I felt it again; everyone got lost in you because you got lost in the song," said Steven (who always digs it when a contestant gets too emotional to sing properly). Declared Randy, "Jacob is back! I could be wrong, but that might have been the highest note ever sung on that stage!" Jennifer's critique was a sort of backhanded compliment, with her praising Jacob for rebounding after a missed mid-song note (she mentioned the flubbed note at least twice); but ultimately she was nice, saying, "You really brought it home. When you hear that type of vocal, it just takes you to another place." But will it take Jacob to the top four? Or three? We shall see.
Lauren's never been my favorite in this game, but if anyone was "in it to win it" this evening, it was this little lady--at least during her FIRST song. She looked better than she ever had before (anyone got her stylist's phone number they can give me?), and I was surprised by how well she handled the difficult Carrie Underwood song "Flat On The Floor," especially considering all the crises of confidence she's suffered this season. To quote a line Simon Cowell once told future country star Kellie Pickler, Lauren was a little minx on that stage. "That is the direction for you! I love you showing this fun, energetic side!" raved Randy. An equally excited J.Lo howled, "You ate that up! I saw that you want it! That's what you have to do, just like that, every time." And Steven, the sage who declared Lauren "The One" way back at her first audition, called her "as good as it gets. I think you're it
." So, was Steven right all along?
Um, maybe not. Unfortunately, when it came time for Lauren to sing "Unchained Melody"--her mom and dad's song, and an old favorite of Simon Cowell's as well--she kind of blew it. This song has been done to death, on "Idol" and elsewhere, so she needed to bring something different and exciting to the tune besides killer pipes and a nice salon blowout. Guest mentor Sheryl Crow said the song needed "maturity," and that is where Lauren came up short. It's not her fault, the girl just turned 16...but this is the kind of song that separates the women from the girls, and Lauren's tender age showed here. (Haley could have done this much better.) I just wish the wishy-washy judges had been a little tougher on Lauren. Jennifer merely shrugged: "There's nothing to judge, it's a beautiful song sung beautifully." Randy told her she sang like a bird. And Steven said, "You're so ripe up there, looking for that just-right song." I agree...it's just that "Unchained Melody" wasn't quite
the right song.
Belting out Montgomery Gentry's "Gone" for his first song, Scotty performed with more attitude and verve than I'd ever seen from him before. Although his placement in the "bottom two" last week wasn't real--Ryan Seacrest had called off the results at random--maybe just having to sweat it out on a results show for the first time, waiting to hear his fate in the last two minutes of the episode, lit a new fire under Scotty. Because tonight, he performed like a star. "I lost it there for a second, I was so excited!" howled a very enthusiastic Jennifer. "You just owned that stage. And I heard some growling in there, too!" (Uh oh. We all know what too much growling did for last week's castoff, Casey Abrams.) Steven, with a gleam in his eye, said, "Up to now you've been like a puritan, but I saw you dance with the devil tonight. And that's a good thing for you!" And Randy summed it all up, as only he could, with: "Who knew that you could rock the stage like that, dude? This guy's in it to win it
!" (Side note to Ryan, though: Please stop calling Scotty McCreery "Scotty The Body." Being associated with one of the show's all-time least popular contestants, Season 4's Scott Savol, will not help him Scotty M. stay in it to win it.)
After in-house mentor Jimmy Iovine called out the judges on their contradictory "be who you are, but stretch yourself!" weekly advice (Thank you, Jimmy. Thank you.
), Scotty attempted to do just that--stay true to his country roots, but show another side of himself--by singing his second Elvis song of the season, "Always On My Mind." I love Scotty in mellow mode, and his voice sounded nice here, but this ballad didn't quite connect the way his "You've Got A Friend" performance from last week did. He just didn't quite go all the way emotionally, and I think that, as was the case with Lauren and "Unchained Melody," this was a function of his age. Come on, has this 16-year-old boy ever had his heart really broken? Or felt the true pangs of romantic regret? Scotty could probably do an amazing job with this song in five or 10 years, but not now. But hey, guess what? The judges loved it. Of course they did. Steven proclaimed, "America loves your voice, man." Randy called Scotty the show's "youngest veteran" (meaning, presumably, that Scotty already seems like a seasoned pro, which isn't entirely untrue). And Jennifer said, "Between those two songs, you showed us what a well-rounded artist you are. There is nothing awkward
about you." Apparently J.Lo has never seen Scotty hold a microphone.
Taking full advantage of "Idol's" new connection to Jimmy Iovine's Universal Records, for her "Now" song Haley got to belt out an unreleased Lady Gaga ballad, "You & I." Gaga's many little monsters, who will hopefully vote for Haley this week, surely appreciated this (Gaga's been doing the song in concert for months now, so it's not totally unfamiliar), especially since Gaga herself gave Haley her blessing. But was
this song choice a huge risk? Well, yes and no. On the plus side, at least few people could compare Haley's version to Gaga's original, so it was easy for Haley to put her own stamp on it. And on the SUPER plus side, Haley sang the Judas out of it. Hers was a monster version, indeed. But the judges had their many doubts. "I'm not sure if that was that great of a song," said the insane Randy. "You are a great singer, but I don't know if that whole thing did you any favors." Agreed J.Lo, whose hair-flower had clearly wedged itself into her inner-ear canal by this point: "It was a cool idea to do an unreleased Gaga track, but I'm not sure that was the best advice Jimmy gave you." Bizarrely, this was a rare instance when Steven was the voice of reason, arguing: "When someone can take a song we don't know and make it work, that's a beautiful thing." Hey, since when did Steven Tyler start making sense
? And, side note: Come on, who TURNS LADY GAGA DOWN? Once Haley got the go-ahead from the pop queen, she had no choice but to do "You & I."
Luckily the judges were more on board with Haley's show-closing, show-stopping "Then" performance, of the Animals' "House Of The Rising Sun." Mentor Sheryl Crow earned her entire week's Fox paycheck by wisely advising Haley to start the song off a cappella, which made it the ideal showcase for Miss Reinhart's sultry, sex-kittenish voice. And even when the arrangement got a little too cabaret-style at the end, Haley still commanded attention. All three judges gave her a standing ovation, with Randy hollering, "The award for the best performance of the night goes to Haley! You've grown by leaps and bounds on this show!" Wow, who would've thought that the girl who was in the bottom three for the first two weeks of this competition would eventually be knocking out powerhouse performances like these?
So now it is prediction time, and this a REALLY tough call. More than half of the remaining contestants will be in the bottom three, so really, any of them could be in it to lose it, so to speak. I think Lauren may be in the bottom due to her underwhelming "Unchained Melody," James due to his tricky placement (singing first) and flubbed second-song notes, and Jacob due to his horrific one-man duet. But in the end, it's probably Jacob who'll go home. He's had a nice long run, bucking the odds and surviving over favorites like Pia Toscano and Casey Abrams, but it's hard to imagine him lasting any longer.
Tune in Thursday to see who's still in it to win it! Until then, Parker out.
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