Just when I'd finally recovered from last week's heart-attack-inducing results show, this week's "American Idol" top 11 redux episode had my life, or at least Casey Abrams's life, flashing before my eyes once again, as I relived in stomach-churning slow-mo last Thursday's pulse-pounding moments: Hulk Hogan's surprise Seacrest body-slam, Casey's weak-kneed onstage meltdown, Jennifer Lopez's flushed-faced outrage. The point of this dramatic rehash was, presumably, to remind us all that the Judges' Save was used on Casey last week, and that as a result two contestants will be going home this week. As if we could ever forget!
In-house mentor Jimmy Iovine even forced poor Casey to rewatch his growly, seemingly possessed Motown performance from last week, Clockwork Orange-style, just to scare him straight. "You know what was wrong with that performance? EVERYTHING!!!" Jimmy howled, while his sidekick Rodney Jerkins urged Casey to shave off his alienating Unabomber beard. And Casey, until now one of this season's most interesting contestants, fell right in line, hightailing it to the local barbershop and later covering a pleasant MOR ballad. Honestly, his calm and collected performance was probably what he needed to do to rebound after last week's disaster, even if it wasn't as memorable as his neurotic Nirvana or madman Motown numbers. But I guess we'll find out for sure if this was the right strategy, when and if this saved contestant is saved by America on Thursday night.
Anyway, working without the proverbial safety net of the Judges' Save this double-elimination week, all 11 contestants really had to bring it on Wednesday. And they had to do so while covering the songs of Elton John, not exactly the easiest "Idol" feat ever. (Yes, Elton songs are great...WHEN ELTON DOES THEM.) So, who will still be standing after this Elton week, and who will be snuffed out like a candle in the wind? Read on....
Scotty McCreery - Of course Scotty did his typical country boy shtick this week. What, did you think he was going to wear a Pinball Wizard costume or sing "The Bitch Is Back"? It was no surprise that he covered Elton's one country song, "Country Comfort." Or that he played the small-town card by talking about how he's not used to glamorous Hollywood photo shoots ("In my heart, I'll always be a North Carolina boy"), and giving TWO shout-outs to his grandmother in the audience like a nice Norman Rockwell kid. What was surprising was the fact that he played guitar. (A guitar named "Scarlet," yet.) Kudos to him for that; with Scarlet strapped around him, he didn't exhibit all his usual bad performance habits (the overexcited facial mugging, the aggressive leaning, the awkward microphone-cradling), and he seemed more professional than ever. This was my favorite Scotty effort so far. "You have amazing instincts about performing and what's right for you...You're right on, never doubt yourself," said Jennifer Lopez. "I feel like I'm already at your concert...You are so in the zone right now!" raved Randy Jackson. And Steven Tyler took a similar ain't-broke/don't-correct-it approach, saying, "There's nothing I can say to you that an old-fashioned pair of high-heeled cowboy boots wouldn't fix." Wow, Scotty in high heels? That certainly would've evoked Elton's glam-rock era, but I have a hunch that playing guitar is about as out-there as Scotty's going to get. I'll take it.
Naima Adedapo - This season's wildest Wild Card took a big risk with a "reggae swag" version of "I'm Still Standing," a song that took on both personal meaning (because she's survived in this competition despite almost getting voted off multiple times) and political (she dedicated her performance to survivors the world over). I appreciated her attempt, and loved the fierce Rasta-striped jumpsuit she was rocking, but in the end I thought her performance was, well, kind of silly. Her odd accent was just so affected--come on, this girl is from Milwaukee, not Jamaica, mon--and it detracted from her actually good singing voice. (And it also kind of made me think of Miss Cleo, who might be predicting right about now that Naima will be in the bottom three again this week.) "I love you and I believe that you're supposed to still be standing in this competition...but some songs just aren't meant to flipped that 180. It was a better idea than it was payoff for me," Jennifer sighed. Randy concurred: "I love reggae, but it kind of came off kind of corny. And you are not corny!" Only the panel's nicest judge, Steven, dug the performance, howling, "Boom shaka laka laka!" and asserting, "Good for you for picking a song that fits you." I just don't really think it was such a good fit, myself, and I am worried Naima won't still be standing after this week's vote.
Paul McDonald - This Nashville maverick already covered Elton this season, and his "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues" performance was his weakest moment yet. This week, however, he wasn't singing the blues. He chose his song more wisely this time, covering the perennial crowd-pleaser "Rocket Man," and while he admitted that his band's attempt to play the song years ago was a disaster, he fared better solo this week, rocketing to the top of the pack as he performed with his heart on the sleeve of his Elton-worthy sequined suit. No, he didn't have the strongest voice of the night (Randy called him "pitchy," surprise), but he delivered one of the show's most honest, raw, and authentic vocals. "The day you hit every note is the day I stop liking you," said Steven in one of his more astute critiques of the evening. "I like the character, where sometimes you hit a note and something you don't; that's my cup of tea." Randy said he liked Paul's "tender" notes and "quiet comfort." And Jennifer mused, "I wonder if you're holding back a little bit, as if there's a little more to your voice than we know." I just hope Paul is around next week, so we can find out.
Pia Toscano - Last week the judges practically begged this Celine-style baby diva to sing something, anything, other than a ballad. So this week she performed..."Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me." And no, it wasn't the disco megamix version. It was another ballad. She sounded great. She looked great. Pia always sounds and looks great. But one perfect Pia performance after another is starting to lose the wow factor for me--there's no surprise here. I just wish she'd rocked it up a little bit this week. However, Steven was happy: "Pia, you've done it again! Some people might've been wrong when we asked you to not sing ballads anymore. That's what you are!" Randy, who actually compared Pia to great balladeers like Whitney and Mariah, didn't seem too upset either, saying: "You've sung a ballad every time, and you slayed them every time." Then J.Lo and Randy argued with Steven and claimed that they'd never complained about Pia's weekly balladry before. Really, now? Next thing, they'll be claiming they never told Casey to stop growling. Talk about selective memory!
Stefano Langone - Stefano took on "Tiny Dancer," one of my personal favorite Elton hits and a song that will be forever linked in my mind with Paul McDonald's favorite film, Almost Famous. Well, almost famous is right...what I mean by that is, I'm not sure how much further Stefano can go in this competition. Granted, this was leaps-and-bounds better than his cover of Lionel Richie's "Hello" last week, which landed him in the bottom two, but there was still that tinge of desperation to his performance. Stefano's performances always seem a little forced to me. However, the judges adored him this week. "I could really feel you taking our notes about connecting with the audience...I really feel like you moved the crowd," said Jennifer. Randy liked that Stefano kept both his heart and eyes open, and Steven was relieved that Stefano avoided his tendency to sound "too Broadway." I will give Stefano kudos for ending his performance by reaching out for former Fly Girl J.Lo's slender fingers as he crooned, "A tiny dancer, in my hand." As far as "moving the crowd" goes, that was pretty dang slick.
Lauren Alaina - The moment I heard that Lauren was going to sing "Candle In The Wind," a maudlin ballad that really should've been retired after Elton sang it at Princess Diana's funeral, I groaned. Bad song choice! But Elton's "Candle In The Wind '97" remake came out when Lauren was, um, ONE YEAR OLD, so perhaps she didn't realize just how hackneyed this song has become. Maybe that's why she didn't sing it with that much emotion, either. Seriously, Thia Megia could've delivered a more passionate performance. Lauren's vocal was solid and she looked lovely in her party-in-the-front/business-in-the-back bi-level gown, but "Candle In The Wind" is a genuinely sad song, and when Lauren did it, this sad song didn't say so much to me. (Why was she SMILING?) The judges had much to say, however. Randy declared it Lauren's best performance yet. Jennifer called her "amazing" and "gorgeous." And Steven recycled a one-liner he used on early auditioner Sarah Sellers: "I've loved you since the first moment you laid eyes on me." (Bet he says that to all the girls.) "You keep singing like that, you'll be able to afford the rest of that dress!"
James Durbin - Finally, some excitement on this episode! James brought the rock this evening, belting out "Saturday Night's All Right For Fighting," and it was more than just all right. He ran through the audience! Executed a perfect Justin Hawkins/David Lee Roth kick-split! Set a piano on fire! Now that's rock 'n' roll, people--or at least as close to rock 'n' roll as "American Idol" is ever going to get. "You've got a really good rock voice, man," said Steven, a guy who ought to know. "You go where no man can go, just don't be up there too long, or you'll end up like me." (But there are worse things that could happen to James than ending up like Steven Tyler--a multiplatinum, world-famous rock star--you know.) "When you're up there, I forget that it's a competition show," said Jennifer. "It was a full performance of a great song by a great artist, period." And Randy said: "What I love about you is you enjoy yourself!" And I enjoyed it, too. In a night of safe pageant balladry, James brought the needed fire, and not just literally.
Thia Megia - And then the ballads started up again, courtesy of this season's blandest contestant. Thia showed some actual signs of human emotion when she choked up at the end of "Daniel"--a song dedicated to her beloved older brother, who moved away (and whose name is NOT Daniel)--but it was kind of too little, too late. The judges really didn't have much to say about her typically Stepfordian performance. Jennifer borrowed a line from Steven and said Thia was "beautiful," and Randy called it "very safe" and implied that Thia might go home this week. Only softie Steven offered real praise, saying, "I think when you find the right song the voice appears, and that's what happened tonight." But will the VOTES appear? I, like Randy, have my doubts.
Casey Abrams - So it turned out that Casey's "makeover" was the least dramatic in "Idol" history--seriously, he maybe shaved off a half-inch of his beard and put a dollop of pomade in his 'fro, that's it. But as far as his performance goes, he was definitely transformed. I'm just not so sure that it was a change for the better. Yes, his stool-seated rendition of "Your Song" was sweet 'n' lovely, but I kind of missed the bushy-eyed, bushy-haired, Cobain/Hicks-channeling wildman of the past couple weeks. At least that was more interesting. If the "Idol" powers-that-be were going to insist that Casey mellow out, they could have at least let him play his stand-up bass again. (Casey's still at his best when he's jazzing it up.) The judges all adored the kinder, gentler Casey, though, and said this performance validated their decision to save him. "The finest moment on the show was putting you through [last week]," said Steven. "One of the greatest saves we've ever had on the show was saving you," agreed Randy. And Jennifer concluded: "You proved your character in your voice with that song...it was just very Casey." The thing is, I don't know if it WAS very Casey. He just seemed a little muted to me. I'm sure much of America will disagree with me, however, and he will be safe (just like his performance was safe), now that he's no longer scaring all the grandmas and little girls in TV land. I just hope he doesn't go TOO far in this cuddly direction, because I kind of like Crazy Casey!
Jacob Lusk - Lusk sure has a lust for life; every time we see him on this show, he's blinging it up on the set of a photo shoot, making history as the first "Idol" contestant to actually enjoy the group-number choreography, or hanging out with Mary J. Blige. He certainly tore into his powerhouse performance of "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word" this evening, almost crying at the end. (Now that is emotion, people! I hope Thia and Lauren were taking notes.) "I watch how far out there, or in there, you get when you sing, and for that alone I love you," said Steven, echoing my own thoughts. "That last note? You don't see that every day. Congratulations," said J.Lo. Randy was the only (mild) voice of dissent, overall praising Jacob's performance but warning him, as the judges often have, about overdoing it. It's true that sometimes Jacob doesn't practice enough restraint, but like James, and Casey, at least he's memorable and unique.
Haley Reinhart - This blonde bombshell closed the show by vamping it up atop a red piano, Fabulous Baker Boys-style, and while I think Randy went a bit too far by dubbing this the best performance of the entire night, I do think Haley's "Benny & The Jets" was her personal best performance of the season. She brought the much-needed sass, swagger, and spunk--all that was missing was the electric boots and mohair suit. "That was it! It all came together!" proclaimed J.Lo. "Great way to end the show! Amazing!" And flirty old man Steven summed it up with: "You. Sing. Sexy." We'll soon find out if sexy equals votes, or if Haley's kitten purr and strategic flashes of leg will alienate the many conservatives who watch this family-friendly show.
So now it is prediction time--and this is a tough one to call, since as I said, two singers will be cut on Thursday. I think two of the hopefuls who were in the bottom three last week--Stefano and Thia--will find themselves there again this week, along with regular chopping-block contestant Naima. But Stefano, who has the girly vote and who did improve from last week, will probably be safe; it's Naima (whose risky reggae sort of backfired on her) and Thia (who has flatlined emotionally and lost her momentum) who will likely go home.
We'll find out Thursday if I'm right! Until then, Parker out.