Wednesday's "American Idol" show marked the first coed competition of the season, and the stakes were high. Universal Records toughie Jimmy Iovine was in the house to "keep an eye on the contestants" (according to a melodramatic Ryan Seacrest); superstar producers like Don Was, Rodney Jerkins, Jim Jonsin, Rock Mafia, and Ron Fair mentored during rehearsals; gospel choirs appeared out of nowhere to heighten the drama; and, just to add to the pressure, the contestants were required to sing songs by their own personal idols (i.e., their favorite artists of all time). That was a lot to live up to, but hey, that's what separates the true Idols from the boys. And girls.
For the most part, the contestants fared well. Only a couple singers seriously stumbled--notably (and surprisingly) Karen Rodriguez, who tried way too hard to impress her beloved J.Lo. Sadly, Karen's efforts backfired, and I therefore predict she'll be the one to go Thursday night.
Here's how everyone did....
Lauren Alaina - After all the pimping Lauren has received since her first audition, when Steven Tyler perhaps prematurely called her "The One," I was a little surprised that the producers had her sing first, in what is usually the kiss-of-death spot. (By an episode's end, short-attention-spanned viewers often struggle to remember a performance that happened two whole hours earlier.) But really, Lauren's cover of her idol Shania Twain's "Any Man Of Mine" wasn't all that memorable. Yes, she riled up the crowd with her high-energy performance, but it still felt like she was the opening act, not a headliner. And the fact that her biggest asset, her GREAT VOICE, was drowned out by the show's two Kendra Chantelle/Haley Reinhart-lookalike backup singers didn't help matters. As a result, Lauren got some of her first negative critiques of the season. "I love that song, but I wish it'd been just a little bit more kickass," said Steven, who's normally Lauren's biggest fan. Jennifer Lopez told Lauren that she needed to "kick it into high gear--like, really really go there." And Randy Jackson curmudgeonly griped, "You sang it well, but we're looking for that girl we first saw--something that lets you shine beyond belief." Wow, is it possible that Lauren isn't The One after all? Hopefully she can take this constructive criticism to heart and step up her game. She can only coast on cuteness and early hype for so long.
Casey Abrams - Those old Taylor Hicks comparisons came crashing back when Casey chose to cover his role model, Joe Cocker, to whom the silver-haired Soul Patroller was constantly compared in Season 5. But Casey took the Cockerisms to a whole 'nother level with his wildly unhinged, choir-assisted "With A Little Help From My Friends" performance, a song that he adorably confessed he knew from "The Wonder Years." (Sometimes it's hard to remember this dude is only 19.) This guy didn't have to try not to sing out of key; he sounded great, he exhibited all of Cocker's spastic physicality without coming across as a caricature, and he made everyone audience his instant friend. (And did I mention he was looking sharp? Seth Rogen, eat your heart out.) The judges certainly were impressed. "There was a point when I grabbed Randy and said, 'What am I watching right now? I am watching somebody important!'" raved J.Lo. "You blew me away!" Randy agreed: "I'm always excited to see what you can do...so unbelievable, so exciting! I loved it." And Steven broke out a couple of his colorful Tylerisms, calling Casey a "rainbow of talent" and "plethora of passion." I couldn't have said it better myself, S.Ty!
Ashthon Jones - J.Lo compared this baby diva to Diana Ross last week, so it probably seemed like a smart move for Ashthon to cover the Supreme this week. But the results weren't quite supreme. Her song choice, the ballad "When You Tell Me That You Love Me," didn't sound so exciting onstage--I would have preferred one of Diana's fierce, uptempo disco hits, like "Inside Out"--and she struggled vocally in parts as well. Overall it was a decent performance, but Randy didn't like the song (even though it was, ironically, the "Idol" American Red Cross Disaster Relief single in Season 4), and neither did Jennifer. Still, Randy told Ashthon: "I saw you grow as a singer...I think you did yourself some good with that." Steven was also pleased, saying, "I think there's a lot more in there than you're showing us...I have confidence in you!" I have confidence in Ashthon too--and obviously this diva has confidence in herself--but I'm not sure America will. She wasn't even voted into the top 13 in the first place (she was a Wild Card pick), and I'm not sure if this song will be enough to get her votes. But hey, legendary Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, sitting in the audience with Iovine this evening, seemed to dig it, and that's probably the best compliment Ashthon could receive.
Paul McDonald - Haters, back off. This is a McDonald Hate-Free Zone. Yes, I know this quirky Nasvillian rocker, with his seemingly tipsy "McDonald two-step" dance and sandpaper-tongued rasp and wacky jackets, is a polarizing contestant--and his risky decision to cover the relatively under-the-radar alt-country icon Ryan Adams ("Ryan with a R," Paul clarified, lest anyone think he was about to do Bryan Adams' "Cuts Like A Knife" or something) might hurt him. But kudos to Paul for staying true to himself--Ryan is HIS idol, period, so why should he sing something more top 40-friendly? I personally loved Paul's ramshackle performance of "Come Pick Me Up" for all the reasons others probably hated it (the flailing dance moves, the barely-there breathiness, the kooky adlibs...this was real-deal rock 'n' roll, people). But the judges, while overall complimentary, spent way too much time harping on the song's obscurity. Jennifer, a judge and therefore a supposed music "expert" of sorts, even embarrassed herself by admitting that she had no idea who Ryan Adams is. (Really? She's never hung out before with Ryan's pop-star wife, Mandy Moore?) So I thank Paul for schooling J.Lo, and much of America--and I hope, as Randy worded it, "America gets it." This show would be so much less interesting, and less COOL, without Paul.
Pia Toscano - OK, aside from Paul and probably Casey and James Durbin, none of the "Idol" contestants seem to have any knowledge of musical history, and it's starting to annoy me. Ashthon thinks "And I Am Telling You" is a Jennifer Hudson song, hardly of these kids know who the Beatles are, and now Pia thinks "All By Myself" was originated by her idol, Celine Dion. (Eric Carmen did it first, in 1975. Educate yourselves!) All right, my rant is over, because hey, I couldn't fault Pia's actual performance--the woman can SING, and she might be the strongest female vocalist of Season 10--or her pop-star appearance (she looked GOOD in that silver Beyonce freakum dress). Singing Celine was a big risk--bigger than singing Ryan Adams, really--but Pia nailed every note and looked amazing doing it, and received a massive standing ovation as a result. "A lot of people were thinking, what were you going to do to top last week?" Jennifer said, referring to Pia's previous standout "I'll Stand By You" performance. "But...here it is!" Randy praised Pia for successfully singing a song by one of the "top three" (the other two are Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, kids), and Steven gushed, "That was the sum total of everything you've been working toward till now. You just polished that apple!" Then he wished Pia a happy International Women's Day. She is woman, hear her roar! And watch her make the top five, too.
James Durbin - I admit that, at first, I hated this guy. Then, I tolerated him. Then, I kind of liked him. And now....I REALLY like him. He started to win me over with his Judas Priest cover last week, and while I was a little disappointed that this metal fan didn't pick Ozzy Osbourne or Axl Rose as his idol this week, I was very impressed with how James showed off his sensitive side during his cover of Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed." This was a whole new Durbin. He had a nice new haircut, a clean-shaven face, a new understanding of voice control (thank you, Peggi Blue, Debra Byrd, or whoever's responsible for that), and he just sounded fab. What a pleasant surprise. "James Durbin is dangerous, America! This boy can sing!" howled Randy. J.Lo, who called James "everything," could barely be heard over the audience's undying applause, about which she told James, "Get used to it!" And then Steven mumbled something like, "You have taken everything you ever felt and taken it into the middle of next week." And you can bet James will be back next week.
Haley Reinhart - Haley crooned LeAnn Rimes's "Blue" (which was originally written for the late, great Patsy Cline), and I must say I preferred this style of vintage country over Lauren's cheesy earlier performance. I also definitely preferred this over Haley's growly, trying-too-hard Alicia Keys impression from last week. Her voice was pure audio honey on this, and even the yodeling worked. "If you listen real close, you can hear the country-western part of America roaring," Steven said. Jennifer praised Haley's "special thing," her "sexy quality" and "sensuality." Only Randy was underwhelmed, calling the performance "a little boring" and "sleepy," and telling Haley: "You're young, you have all this energy--you've got to hit me with that wow thing!" Will America be wowed enough to vote her through? This was a good performance, but a mellow one, so I'm not so sure.
Jacob Lusk - When Jacob, a truly funny and silly dude, announced that his idol was R. Kelly, I got all psyched and ready for him to belt out a couple of chapters of "Trapped In The Closet." Awesome! But no such luck. Instead, Jacob went with the most treacly and overblown chest-beating anthem in the Kelly catalog, "I Believe I Can Fly." Then he sang it with a robed gospel choir. (Hey, even Lee DeWyze had to wait until he was in the top three to get a choir...so how come Casey and Jacob got them in week two?) Honestly, Jacob didn't need the backup; he's a one-man choir, so loud he can drown out even the Ray Chew Band. His performance was, to be honest, way too over-the-top, filled with gratuitous Mariah notes that could wake the dead, and yes, I hated the song choice...but hey, at least he was interesting. "You are so good. You can fly and soar beyond your wildest dreams," said Steven, his ears probably still ringing. "You make me feel so much when you sing," said the rendered-deaf J.Lo. And Randy said, "To me, that's what singing is about!" I'm not so sure about that; I love this guy, but sometimes he needs to rein it in a bit (for an example of this, see: Durbin, James). But when all is said and done, I believe Jacob can--and should--go far.
Thia Megia - There's no doubt that this girl is talented, but I just find her so...boring! There is little real spark or personality to her performances--and then, when she tries to jazz things up a little bit, it all goes awry. Tonight she took a nod from Randy, who last week insanely likened her tone to that of Michael Jackson, by covering MJ's "Smile." (Which, by the way, is not a Jackson song; screen legend Charlie Chaplin wrote it, and dozens of artists have recorded it. Educate yourselves!) Like last week with "Out Here On My Own," Thia wisely started off with her lovely voice front and center, with very little instrumentation--but then the whole thing went wonky as a fussy jazz arrangement came in out of nowhere and Thia tried to DANCE. Um, no. That just Did. Not. Work. And it made her look like an amateurish 15-year-old, something Thia has avoided doing up till now. The judges were more impressed than I was, with Randy comparing her tone not only to Michael Jackson's but to Adele's, and all three judges praising her voice--although Steven pointed out a few pitchy notes, and none of the judges seemed to dig what Jennifer called the "interesting" arrangement. "It doesn't matter; you sing like an angel," J.Lo insisted. But Thia was later shown backstage in tears. She seemed way too shaken up, considering that the judges had actually gone pretty easy on her. I worry that this girl doesn't have the thick skin to handle this competition, if even the mildest of critiques upsets her so much.
Stefano Langone - Taking on "Lately" by Stevie Wonder was a big task, and at first I was not sure if Stefano, who'd already butchered a perfectly good Bruno Mars song in the top 24 rounds, was up for it. His performance started off very boy-bandy, then lurched into a bizarrely manic Hi-NRG breakdown that J.Lo called "the disco remix," but as Randy would say, by the end he worked it out. And I give him credit for, as Randy would say, trying to make the song his own. Steven told Stefano he "soared like a volcano," whatever that means, and Randy even said the Stevie Wonder would approve of this performance. Will America approve? Well, Stefano was a Wild Card last week, so America's actually voted him off before...but this might have been enough to make him stand out and survive.
Karen Rodriguez - Karen, an avid collector of Selena dolls and equally avid worshipper of Jennifer Lopez, probably thought it was a brilliant strategy to cover Selena, whom J.Lo portrayed in the 1997 biopic that was her first breakout movie role. But not even J.Lo liked this performance of "I Could Fall In Love," which was a very bad sign. If J.Lo couldn't fall in love with this, who could? Honestly, this was a mess. Karen's voice was rangy, the ballad sounded flat, and it just came across as a second-rate Selena impersonation. Plus, her sparkly pantsuit looked like a Selena Halloween costume. Jennifer told Karen she sounded "uncomfortable with some of the notes," which is a nice and long-winded way of saying she was pitchy, dawg. Randy called the performance (wait for it) "sleepy" and said, "It felt like you were fighting the song." Steven said Karen "lacked a little bit." How disappointing. I expected more from Karen...and I think Jennifer did, too.
Scotty McCreery - All right, I'm just going to put this out there: I do not get Scotty McCreery. But then again, I "get" Paul McDonald, so to each their own, I guess. I do think Scotty has a recordable, professional-sounding voice that would sound right at home on country radio, but I don't find him interesting or original, and I certainly don't think he has a wide vocal range; he's like the opposite of Jacob Lusk. I don't think Scotty brought anything new to his cover of Garth Brooks's "The River," although he didn't seem to even want to, since he spent his entire rehearsal insisting that the original was good enough and needn't be changed. Normally this would irk Randy, who's constantly telling contestants to make songs their own, but this time Randy totally contradicted himself and declared, "If it ain't broke, don't even think about fixing it!" Jennifer told Scotty she saw him "open up as a performer," which made no sense, since I saw nothing other than his usual lean-forward-and-smirk shtick. Steven rambled something I couldn't understand, but it also sounded positive. I fear this kid is going to go far, maybe even win this whole thing...and I Just. Don't. Get. It.
Naima Adedapo - Naima was not voted through last week, criminally, but the judges gave her a second chance as a Wild Card, and thank gawd they did. If they hadn't, we would have never known this girl had this in her. I had Naima pegged as an old soul, a throwback chanteuse in the Ella Fitzgerald mold or an earth-mama Erykah Badu/Lauryn Hill type, so when she rocked this crazy cover of Rihanna's "Umbrella," I was thrown for a double-loop. She danced like one of J.Lo's back-in-tha-day fellow Fly Girls! She rapped! She busted out some reggae! Go Naima! It was awesome to see this whole new side of her, and it certainly didn't hurt that she got to work in the studio with Tricky Stewart, the man who produced RiRi's original "Umbrella." By the end of it Naima was a little winded (it's hard to dance and sing at the same time, which is why pop stars like, well, Jennifer Lopez usually lip-synch), so all the judges understandably told her she needed to work on her breath control. But overall, they loved her spunky, funky performance. "You got fire, gurl!" sassed J.Lo. "I adore you!" raved Steven. "I loved the whole reggae thing!" added Randy. So I think the judges were right to save Naima. Let's hope America does the right thing too, and votes her through this week.
So now it is prediction time. While Paul might be in a little trouble due to his risky song choice and bizarre stage presence, I know he has a strong and ardent fanbase (he's already the first Season 10 finalist to chart in Billboard, with an album by his band the Grand Magnolias debuting at number 16 on the Heatseekers chart), so I think he will be OK. I believe Thia should be in the bottom three, but I know that she too has a devoted following that will save her. I think the biggest at-risk contestants are Karen, who really blew it, and Ashthon, who performed decently but chose a ho-hum song and has never been a fan favorite. Who else might end up in the bottom three? Possibly Haley, who did a country song but will probably find most of the country fans giving their votes to Lauren and Scotty, or Stefano, who is still trying to redeem himself after his Bruno Mars misfire almost got him voted off the show. But as I said many paragraphs ago, I think Karen will be the one who ultimately gets cut.
Whatever happens, we'll find out Thursday night. Parker out.
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