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‘American Idol’ Top 3 Night: Room For Error

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks

Throughout this season, the "American Idol" contestants have worked hard to prove they belong in the big leagues, recording with superstar producers like Don Was and Rodney Jerkins; absorbing the vast knowledge of mentors will.i.am, Beyonce, and Lady Gaga; and, of course, performing for tens of millions of people on live TV. But the fact is they're still very young (the top three's average age is only 17 and a half), still growing, still learning, and therefore mistakes will be made. And they were made this week, as the top three competed. But it was all part of the unscripted "Idol" fun--and really, more important than the errors themselves was how the contestants handled their gaffes, and how they rebounded from them.

Haley Reinhart's stumble was the biggest, and it was literal one: She got carried away during her high-energy Zeppelin performance and tripped while running through the audience in her heels, falling right in front of judging table. Yet she barely missed a beat or a note. She just kept on singing--and singing well. However, her rebound shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone, since let's face it, this tenacious little lady has proven time and time again that she can take a lickin' and keep on tickin'.

Lauren Alaina suffered two setbacks. Before singing her second song, she announced that her pantyhose had just ripped (what 16-year-old wears pantyhose nowadays?), and blushed like a teenager writing into Seventeen magazine's "embarrassing stories" letters column while the house stylist hurriedly applied liquid shimmer makeup to her legs. (Because gawd forbid a girl go onstage with normal, pasty limbs. Come on, she's only 16, how unsightly could her actual legs be?) And when she missed a key change during her second song, Lauren beat herself up mercilessly about it on the air, despite the sympathetic judges' insistence that her performance had been great otherwise. The casual, confident way Haley shrugged off her flub, compared to the way Lauren cringed over her more minor incidents, put a spotlight on the girls' differing maturity levels and made me think it's Haley who's more ready for the big time.

But ultimately, it's up to America to decide that. So who's really in it to win it? Read on and decide for yourself.

SCOTTY MCCREERY

For round one the contestants sang their picks, for round two they sang Jimmy Iovine's picks, and for round three they sang the judges' picks. So for his personal pick and first number, Scotty went with a straight-up country wedding song, Lonestar's "Amazed." I was not amazed, per se...but here's my take on Scotty: He does not personally appeal to me. Country music just isn't my thing. That's just my taste. But...I totally get his appeal. I understand why people adore and connect with this kid. He carries himself very well for someone so young (17), he performs with confidence without ever seeming like he's trying too hard (please note HE made no mistakes this evening), he has a very mature and distinctive (if somewhat limited) voice, and, to his credit, he doesn't try to mix too much pop in his country (unlike so many young Nashville stars today, whose songs barely sound country at all, save for a bit of steel guitar buried in the mix). I know that in the country world, he could have a huge, huge career, whether he wins the show or not. But, who am I kidding? He'll probably win. And at least on this performance, after an entire season of being told he ain't broke and he don't need to fix it, he pushed himself vocally, and proved he can sing in more than one octave. He belted this one out like it was his coronation song, and overall, this was a solid performance. "Did I hear you get angry during the middle of that modulation?" gasped an incredulous Steven Tyler. "That's what I've been waiting for!" Jennifer Lopez praised Scotty's use of vibrato and played up his teen heartthrob appeal, gushing, "I'm sure there's a million girls who wish you were singing that song to them." And Randy, on-trend man of the moment that he is, just quoted Swingers, I think: "That's money! Scotty's got money!"

Jimmy's pick for Scotty was the recent country hit "Are You Gonna Kiss Me Or Not?" by Thompson Square, another tune sure to please Scotty's smitten female fans. I liked the fact that he played guitar--doing so usually cancels out all those weirdly muggy mannerisms of his--and this was a good, solid performance, something straight off CMT. But it was nothing special; just typical Scotty, no evolution at all. But hey, guess what? The judges thought he was in it to win it! Of course they did. Jennifer and Randy even thought he won round two. (Spoiler: He did not.) "I never heard you deliver a chorus like that before," said Steven. (Um, I have.) "There were so many moments in there that I loved so much," said Jennifer, before suffering a Paula Abdul moment and asking Scotty to shave his head for the finale. (He agreed, breaking the hearts of a million little girls out there. Don't do it, Scotty!)

The judges' pick, "She Believes In Me" by old-school crooner Kenny Rogers, was my favorite Scotty song of the night. I like Scotty in sensitive mode, free of all his corny eyebrow-wriggling shenanigans, and I do like it when he evokes classic country (though I wonder if this 1978 ballad connected with the kids watching at home). He pushed himself vocally here again, too. "That's the first big chorus you've sung in a big way like that," said Steven, clearly reading off his notes from his previous Scotty critique. "I haven't heard you sing a chorus like that before." Jennifer, who'd been earnestly singing along with Scotty, said, "We wanted to see if you could hit that big chorus. I guess you showed us!" And Randy, after months of telling Scotty to stay in his lane, contradictorily told him, "It about you stretching yourself at this point." Isn't that advice too little, too late, Randy?

LAUREN ALAINA

For her own pick, Lauren chose Faith Hill's "Wild One," a seeming good choice for a girl who, in my opinion, excels most when she traffics in pop-country (complete with buried steel guitar!). Some advice from mentor Beyonce (who coincidentally had a new video to promote) about channeling her inner Sasha Fierce helped Lauren up her performance game, and she came out cute, effusive, and confident. But her vocals started off weak and a little overly breathily--maybe hauling the massive weight of her fist-sized Christmas-ornament earrings got her winded? This was a pretty good performance, but not a "moment," nothing people will be discussing around the office watercooler tomorrow. The judges all dug it though, of course. "You come out there and you attack it like that, that's what you gotta do! Very good!" said J.Lo. Steven said, somewhat ickily, "You're so ready for this, you're ready for America to just be all over you." (Yikes!) Randy just referenced Lauren's first audition, like he does EVERY WEEK. (And of course, the show replayed that audition in its entirety later, just in case Randy's weekly reminders weren't enough.)

For her second, Jimmy-selected song, once her L'Eggs-less legs were properly spackled by that aforementioned makeup artist, Lauren sang the Band Perry's "If I Die Young," a pop-country tune Jimmy had apparently wanted her to do all season long. She did pretty well with it till the end, when she missed her key change and sort of blew it. The judges, of course, gave their old "you were just so emotional, that's great, you pushed yourself, hurray!" cockamamie excuse, and practically PRAISED her for missing the note. But Lauren did not go so easy on herself, cringing and letting her trademark lack of self-confidence show through. I felt bad for her, but still, she did have a little reason to worry.

For her judges' pick, Lauren got Lee Ann Womack's tried-and-true "I Hope You Dance." I'm not so sure this was such an inspired choice. We've all seen Lauren sing inspirational MOR country ballads before (just last week, in fact). Her delivery was pleasant, but a little pageanty, and not quite the performance she needed to give to ensure her spot in the finale. But hey, guess what? The judges loved it! "You walked out here like you own the Grand Ole Opry," said Lauren's biggest fan, Steven. Name-dropping Randy mentioned his deep, meaningful friendship with Ms. Womack and assured Lauren that Lee Ann would approve, then told Lauren she was in the zone, in it to win it, etc. And Jennifer exclaimed, "You gave me gooseys from head to toe. I am going to dare to say that you won that round for me already!" Okay, then.

HALEY REINHART

All right, talk about a "moment"! This was a landmark performance in many ways. First of all, after hearing her game-changing cover of the Animals' "House Of The Rising Sun" a couple weeks ago, Led Zeppelin contacted Haley and gave her permission to cover their song "What Is & What Should Never Be." (Zep only ever granted such permission to one other "Idol" contestant, Season 8's Adam Lambert, who is no slouch.) Second, Haley's rocker father played guitar for her, marking the first time a parent had ever accompanied a contestant onstage. Cute! And finally, when Haley stumbled, she just soldiered on with a smile. "Did you fall for me? That was superb," said Steven. "You keep going, that's the sign of a professional!" noted Jennifer (who, judging from her infamous 2009 American Music Awards performance, knows a thing or two about tripping onstage and getting right back up.) And Randy, learning his lesson after over-criticizing Haley last week (a tactic that backfired on him and caused his boy James Durbin to go home instead), shouted praise to the high heavens: "This is what it's all about! This girl is slaying it! THIS WAS ONE OF YOUR BEST PERFORMANCES EVER!" Then he called round one for Haley--a total turnaround from last week, when he'd declared round one a three-way tie between Scotty, Lauren, and James.

For her Jimmy pick, Haley got Fleetwood Mac's "Rhiannon," and she had a total Stevie Nicks/Linda Ronstadt moment, complete with music-video wind in her hair and a Diane von Furstenberg-ish cocktail dress. Very sultry, very '70s-cool, very Jordache-commercial. Unfortunately, she struggled a bit with the lower-register notes. But, despite her fears, she remembered all the words (and she looked to the heavens and heaved a grateful sigh of relief over that), so she avoided another embarrassing moment. Randy, suddenly Haley's number-one fan, actually said she had "perfect pitch" during the song and told her she was "in the zone." Jennifer, borrowing Steven's favorite adjective, called it "a beautiful moment." This was not Haley's finest performance, but it was a nice contrast to her rawkin' first number, and at least the judges didn't come down overly hard on her like they usually do.

For her final song, the judges' pick, Haley got the most challenging song of the night: Alanis Morissette's grrrrrowly grrrrl-rocker, "You Oughta Know." It seemed like the perfect choice for this season's resident rebel chick, a song that tapped into her angry side and required some amusing lyrical tweaking in order to pass muster with the Fox censors. (The song's most controversial line was changed to "Would she go out with you to the theater?"--though the lyric "Is she perverted like me?" was left intact for a little subversive appeal.) The octave seemed way too low for Haley at first and she really struggled, and when she reached the pre-chorus she got all mumbly and mush-mouthed and I started to worry that she'd really messed up the words this time. But as Randy likes to say, she worked it out, and fortunately she nailed the fiery chorus. "I loved seeing you rock out in a soulful way," said Randy, even though a week or two ago he would have raked her over the proverbial coals for this flawed performance. "Amazing, that was so perfect," said Steven, predictably. And Jennifer said, "That was really good job; there's nobody that can match you as far as how high you can go." But can Haley go as far as the finale?

Well, now it is prediction time. And I think that, yes, against all odds, we WILL see Haley in the finale next week. Despite her many setbacks throughout the season--and the setbacks she suffered this week--she delivered two of this episode's most memorable performances, and her fanbase and momentum have grown in the last few weeks as America has rallied behind this scrappy underdog. As for the other two, the country vote will definitely be split this week between Scotty and Lauren, and while Lauren's style is more current pop-country, I know Scotty's fanbase is stronger. Scotty's never been in the bottom three (Lauren has once); he's the only boy left (which means he might have a lock on the tween-girly vote); and he's been unstoppable all season. Sure, anything could happen--back in Season 8's top three week, Danny Gokey, who'd never been at risk before and seemed a shoo-in for the finale, got voted off--but I'd be genuinely shocked if Scotty didn't make it through.

Tune in Thursday to see if I'm right! Until then, Parker out.

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