Back on "American Idol" Season 8, when critiquing Scott MacIntyre's self-described "artistic" song choice, Simon Cowell dared to utter the immortal, dreaded words: "It's fine being artistic...JUST NOT ON THIS SHOW." And I got serious déjà vu this week on "Idol," when Simon's replacement judge Jennifer Lopez similarly criticized this season's resident remaining risk-taker, Phillip Phillips, for covering the dark, relatively obscure Dave Matthews Band song, "The Stone."
J.Lo annoyingly, almost ignorantly called the DMB jam "too artsy," and even voiced concerns that it might land Phillip in the bottom three for the very first time. "Each one of you has a shot to win--especially you, Phillip--so I get a little scared when you do that. I need you to do songs that are going to get you on that last show, so you can win!" (Additionally, Steven Tyler and Randy Jackson blasted Elise Testone for covering a supposedly unknown Jimi Hendrix song, "Bold As Love.")
Ugh. Look, no one thinks "Idol" is some hipster indie show, and with tens of millions of viewers across every imaginable demographic, it can't afford to be (and it shouldn't be). But every once in a while, an exciting "Idol" contestant does come along that takes a few artistic risks--Adam Lambert, Blake Lewis, Crystal Bowersox, and David Cook, all of whom went very far on this show, come to mind--and they make "Idol" just a little bit cooler for the masses. Yes, there certainly was fault to be found with both Phillip and Elise's uneven performances--and I'll get to all that in a minute--but hey, at least they were trying to be a tiny bit "artsy," and I have to give them some credit for that, even if J.Lo didn't.
This is why singing-competition viewers of a certain taste level have been defecting to "The Voice" this year, people. Can you imagine Adam Levine or Cee Lo Green slamming a contestant for doing DMB or Jimi on that show? It'd never happen. And besides, Dave Matthews and Jimi Hendrix are NOT exactly underground artists, anyway. They've sold at least 50 million albums combined. Just sayin'.
Anyhoo, speaking of artsiness and risk-taking, fearlessly original rock legends Queen made their semi-triumphant return to "Idol" this week, and while Brian May and Roger Taylor's medley with the Season 11 top six didn't come close to the royal Queenliness of their last tour de force performance on "Idol" (on Season 8's explosive Kris Allen/Adam Lambert finale), most of the contestants' individual Queen covers this week were better than the performances from Season 5's infamous Queen Night (you know, that night when a humorless Brian May and a hapless Ace Young practically came to blows over a proposed funk-soul remake of "We Will Rock You"). It was, overall, nice to see the Queen fellows back. I wonder what they thought of J.Lo's anti-"artsy" comment?
So along with their Queen covers, each top six contestant also sang a second song entirely of his or her own choosing. Obviously not all of these choices met with the judges' approval, but overall, this was a solid episode. As Queen would say, the show must go on...so let's get to the actual recapping, shall we?
For her first number, Jessica tackled the Rach 3 of all Queen songs, "Bohemian Rhapsody," complete with a backdrop of floating Jessica-heads reminiscent of the tune's original 1975 music video (which--here's a bit of trivia for you--was lensed by former "Idol" director Bruce Gowers). She nailed the song vocally, of course--Jessica is nothing if not consistent--but the whole rock 'n' roll vibe didn't really suit her. She pulled it off better than I'd expected, and I gave her props for the effort, but she still seemed like she was playing a role, not really being herself. "When it went into the more rock part of it, it needed to have a bit more of that rock performance. But the vocal was beautiful," said Jennifer. The other two judges adored it, of course, with Jessica's biggest fan, Randy, actually praising her for her "great restraint." But come on, when you're singing "BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY," that is not the time to be restrained! Too bad Jessica's fierce alter ego, Bebe Chez, didn't perform this instead.
For her second song, Jessica did Luther Vandross's "Dance With My Father"--dedicated to her own military dad, who will soon to be deployed to Singapore. (I suppose after her near-elimination a couple weeks ago, it couldn't hurt Jessica to angle for a few sympathy votes.) This was pretty, but kind of boring. You know who wasn't bored, though? The judges, of course! "That may have been the best I've ever heard that song," said J.Lo. (Sorry, last year's Jacob Lusk and this year's Jermaine Jones!) "I don't think I have ever heard you sing a song bad," said Steven, a man with a bizarre aversion to adverbs. "You are truly amazing to me. Every time you get up and sing, you know what's wrong with it? Absolutely nothing," said Randy. I agreed--there was nothing wrong with this. I just wasn't, to use a well-worn Randy catchphrase, jumping up and down.
Queen's anthemic "The Show Must Go On" was a superb showcase for Skylar's skyscraping vocals, but it was definitely the least country thing she'd ever done on the show--I was surprised she didn't go with a twangier number like "Fat-Bottomed Girls" or "Tie Your Mother Down"--and I had to wonder/worry if that would turn off her core fanbase. It certainly didn't turn off the judges, however. J.Lo actually later declared this the best Queen performance of the night, and said, "I definitely got goosies on that one." Randy even said it was one of Skylar's best performances to date. And Steven used his favorite new adjective, "over-the-top," which apparently has replaced "beautiful" as his go-to compliment of choice. Looks like Skylar might officially be the new queen of this competition.
For her second song, Skylar got back to pure country with her guitar-strumming take on Jason Aldean's "Tattoos On This Town." I always dig it when Skylar plays guitar, so that was a plus, and I also enjoyed it when she bantered with Ryan Seacrest about her own songwriting. I would really love to hear this girl's original material, like the song she mentioned, "Diamond-Studded Pistol"--which, if Skylar can keep up her momentum, just might end up on her album after this wins this show. "I am a ginormous fan! You are fearless!" howled Randy. "You took us there again. There you go!" said Jennifer. Steven said he "kind of missed the flair," and for once I understood what he meant (this wasn't Skylar's feistiest effort), but this was still really strong. And maybe Skylar will bring back the flair and get to sing "Diamond-Studded Pistol" later on!
Mantasia covered a song done by his idol Fantasia on Season 3's Big Band Night, "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," and he totally tapped into his inner 'Tasia. And also a bit into his inner Elvis. Joshua was in full-on swagger mode, and I was loving it. And so were the judges, who gave him yet another standing ovation. "That was unbelievable. Dude, you are so ready! You remind me of Sam Cooke. You just have that thing!" exclaimed Randy. "Is it bad for me to say that Joshua's part of the show is always my favorite part of the show?" Jennifer, a judge who's never made an effort to hide her favoritism, asked rhetorically. Actually, no, J.Lo, it's not really wrong. Joshua is this season's consummate entertainer. Joshua simply has this crazy little thing called charisma whenever he hits the stage.
Joshua's second song, India.Arie's "Ready for Love," was far and away THE best performance of the night, and one of his best of the season. I totally got goosebumps (no, I refuse to call them "goosies") from this gorgeous, passionate, yearning ballad. "I don't even know what to say anymore, I'm just so speechless," said an amazed Randy. (Yes, that's right: Randy was so tongue-tied, he even didn't say "he's gotta have it" once!) Jennifer called this performance "transcendent." Steven pretty much crowned Joshua the winner, saying, "I smell the finish line." And all three judges gave him his second standing ovation of the night (and 12th of the season!). I agreed with all of them--but I do have to say, "Ready For Love" is an "obscure" song (by the judges' silly standards, not mine)--so why no criticism for Joshua's song choice, huh?
Elise's Queen song was "I Want It All," and really, I want it all for this dynamite lady; if it were up to me, Elise would be in the finale, or at least not be in the bottom three every single week. A shot at the finale still seems highly unlikely for Elise, considering her erratic history all season, but this was definitely some killer Queen, and it may have been enough to keep her on the show for another week. Elise was back in Stevie Nicks-ish, tambourine-rattling, rock-goddess mode, and I loved seeing her get her groove back. "You found your stride with the just-right song," praised Steven. "That was you in your element: It was natural, it was sexy, it had everything," purred J.Lo. "That was unbelievable as well. That style of song is so right for you; it allows you to do your Janis thing. Brilliant, man," raved Randy.
But all this praise was sadly short-lived, once Elise returned to the stage to perform "Bold As Love." I had some issues with this second performance myself. It was a cool song choice, very much in her rawkin' wheelhouse, and her voice sounded wonderfully raspy and jazzy...but it was too wordy, and she tried to do a bit too much with it. I actually grudgingly agreed with Randy (shocker!) when he griped that she was "boxing with the song" and that the performance was filled with "too much information." But I didn't agree when Steven chastised her with, "You've got to do songs that people know; you can't pick the cherries with your back to tree," or when Randy said, "It wasn't the right song choice for this time in the competition." When is there ever a wrong time for Hendrix?
On the positive side, I will say that P-Squared committed 100 percent to his performance of "Fat-Bottomed Girls," with his Eddie-Vedder-from-the-"Jeremy"-video crazy bug-eyes and all. But...this was NOT good. This was the Phillip performance that should have been harshly critiqued, not his second one. I do love me some Phillip, but this performance was a mess, and not even a hot one. Apparently "Fat-Bottomed Girls" is the one song in the history of songs that he is unable to "Phillip Phillips" in his typical manner. So I was genuinely surprised that Steven and Jennifer loved this so much. Did J.Lo just relate to the song's subject matter or something? Also, did Steven mean it as a compliment when he told Phillip, "I love watching you run out of breath"? Running out of breath is not a good thing in a singing competition! Randy, at least, was not out of breath, because he said this performance did not have him "jumping up and down." I was not really jumping, either.
And then came the above-mentioned Dave Matthews song, which was slammed for being too much of a risk. Ironically, I feel if the judges were going to slam this at all, they should have come down on Phillip for playing it too safe. Phillip has been compared to Matthews since his very first audition, so really, him covering DMB was, if anything, too obvious and too literal. It was basically like the Queen Extravaganza covering Queen. But I certainly didn't think it was bad, nor did I think it would turn off his core fans--who, presumably, are Dave Matthews Band fans (a very loyal fan group, I might note). Shockingly once again, I sided with Randy, the one judge who seemed to appreciate this. "What you just did is you showed your true colors, once again. I love that you're an artist, and you always will be," Randy said. (Did I come down with the same mystery illness that Ryan Seacrest reportedly had this week? Why was I agreeing with Randy so much this evening?)
Hollie sang Queen's "Save Me"--perhaps a plea to voters to keep her out of the bottom three, for once?--and I thought it was a little tame. Other than one missed note towards the end, she nailed it vocally, for the most part, but this performance was lacking a certain wow factor for me. And when she sang that last line about being "far from home," I thought to myself, "Maybe not for long, Hollie--you might get sent home this week!" Steven diplomatically told her she "did a really good job," while an equally sedate Randy said, "I thought this was solid for you, but everybody when they come on needs to have a MOMENT. That song didn't quite have that for you." Jennifer rambled on and on, making no sense as she advised Hollie to be careful not to let emotion get the best of her, then 10 seconds later told Hollie to get MORE emotional. (Which is it, J.Lo?) Hollie, however, got in a little dig during her backstage post-song interview, when she said, "Jennifer is a great...performer." (NOT "singer.") I have to wonder how Hollie--not a perfect singer, but a darn good one--feels having to take singing advice from Jennifer friggin' Lopez week after week.
But then Hollie gave it her all in the pimp spot, coming full circle by reprising her original Season 10 audition song, Miley Cyrus's "The Climb," and of course singing it about 10 million percent better than Miley ever did (not that that's saying much, but you get my point). "The Climb" is another sapfest I wish could be blacklisted from all singing shows forever, but if it must still be performed on "Idol," this is the way to do it. Hollie was really great, and she finally earned her first standing ovation of the season. "Now that's the Hollie Cavanagh that we love! That's the one! Perfect song for you!" hollered Randy. "That was stepping it up!" Jennifer declared. And Steven said, "You sing a song like it's going out of style." I actually think "The Climb" went out of style a long time ago, but talent like Hollie's is timeless.
So now, it is prediction time. This one is another tough call. Will J.Lo's fears be realized, and will Phillip end up in the bottom three Thursday night? At one time, it was hard to imagine the seemingly Teflon-coated contestant ever being up for elimination--but then again, after last week's Colton Dixon shocker, anything is possible. (And perhaps I overestimate the general population's familiarity with the Dave Matthews catalog.) That being said, I still believe the Phillip fanbase is strong, and so I actually predict that the bottom three will be Jessica (because she sang first, mainly, but also because she's been the lowest vote-getter before and because her rock shtick was semi-unconvincing); Hollie (because that seems to be the pattern lately, no matter what she does); and...Elise, with Elise going home. Elise has bucked the odds before, and I'd like to see her buck 'em again, but I believe her time may finally be up.
Tune in Thursday to find out if I'm right, when another one bites the dust.