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American Idol: Top 9, Top Downloads, Top Performances

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks

Tonight promised to be a night of high drama, not just because of the fallout from recent surprise eliminations (Alexis Grace two weeks ago, Matt Giraud's close call last week), but also because of Danny Gokey's recent tragedy--no, not the death of his wife, which we all already know about, but the tragic death of his grandfather last week.

But there would be the usual drama as well: bad song choices, bad fashion choices, bad Simon/Paula spats (sans crayons this time), and a few genuinely bad performances on this week's vaguely themed "Top Downloads" top nine episode.

But the most dramatic moments ultimately came when the contestants I was previously least enthused about delivered the best vocals of the night. Which just goes to show, you can never be too sure how this whole competition's going to pan out.

First up was Anoop Desai...and Anoop Dogg was back in da house, as Randy Jackson might say. Despite all the flak Anoop caught in past weeks for doing OTT partystarters by Bobby Brown and Michael Jackson, I much preferred him in that fun and funky-fresh mode. In fact, when he took the judges' advice to tone down his Anoopness, I feel he went too far to the other extreme and became more boring than robot-doll Jasmine Murray waking up from a nap. Enough with the puppy-eyed balladry, I thought! Bring back the Anoop with the popped collar, dorky Jacko moves, and New Jack swing! Well, that's the Anoop we got tonight, singing Usher's "Caught Up," and I thought his performance was fun, if a bit clumsy and imperfect. It was endearingly clumsy and imperfect, if that makes sense.

Some of the judges (except crabby Simon, of course) welcomed back the old Anoop, but only tentatively. Randy was glad that Anoop "picked up his swagger," and Paula Abdul appreciated seeing Anoop's "playful side" again, but they both agreed with Kara DioGuardi that his vocal interpretation was too safe and copycatty. Kara went so far as to say: "It's like a bunch of frat guys dared you to get up and sing Usher!" Of the four judges, however, it was Simon Cowell who was really gunning for Anoop, reverting to the nasty mood of Michael Jackson Night when he told Anoop he'd regretted bringing him back as a wild card at all. Tonight, Simon described Anoop's Usher cover as "a complete and utter mess"; concurred with Kara that he seemed like a "college boy trying to be a pop star--and failing"; and said, "It actually gave me a headache!" I thought that was a bit harsh. At least Anoop was fun again. He wasn't stellar, but I'd rather see trainwrecky-but-party-hardy Anoop over sleepy-balladeer Anoop, any day.

Speaking of trainwrecks, up second was Megan No-More-Joy Corkrey, stumbling through a painful interpretation of Bob Marley/Lauryn Hill's "Turn Your Lights Down Low." More like "Turn Your TV Set Volume Down Low," I say! What happened to Megan? I used to like her so much. She was once my favorite girl on the show. But I agreed with Simon tonight: "All the things we liked about you are disappearing." Poof. Gone. I don't know why she picked this draggy midtempo song--a great song when Bob or Lauryn did it, of course, but when Megan attempted it, it was, as Randy said, "like watching paint dry"--over the more obvious quirky/soul suggestions the judges brought up (Adele, Duffy, Winehouse). Aside from the awkward Tony Manero fingerpointing disco moves (no wonder Paula suggested Megan perform next time seated on a stool, "with no distractions of movement"--a nice way of saying MEGAN CANNOT DANCE), her vocals were also faltering and straining. "That part of your register was getting irritating," Kara griped. "I really like you, but I think you're in trouble, girl!"

Simon, once Megan's biggest fan, was harshest on Megan of course, barking: "The song was boring, it was indulgent, it was monotonous, and nobody's going to like that." I sort of agreed, though I do believe if Megan was paired with the properly Feist-y material, she could be a viable, credible recording artist. Her natural quirky charm could take her far.

Just not on this show. American Idol is NOT the right place for Megan. The stage might not even be the right place--unless it's on a stool, as Paula helpfully suggested.

Danny was next. He didn't mention his grandfather's passing once, or his wife's for that matter, but he obviously channeled all his hurt and emotion into his heartfelt performance of Rascal Flatts' "What Hurts The Most." I've never been a big Danny fan, and I'm still not quite drinking the Gokey Kool-Aid just yet, but even I must admit this was his best performance of the season (which was Simon's official assessment). It was passionate--in a sincere way, not in a showoffy, Celine-style way--and that was probably because he connected to the lyrics of loss so deeply. Along with the aforementioned praise from Simon, Cowell also compared Danny's effort to Anoop's and Megan's weaker ones as "like two snails competing with a racehorse."

But then another racehorse came running out of the gate, when Allison Iraheta showed up. She was singing No Doubt's "Don't Speak," and she was playing guitar! Man, could this girl get any cooler? I didn't even know she played the "axe," as Paula put it. She came out with that six-string strapped to her back and I fell in love with her even more hopelessly.

Her vocals were gravelly and great, and her guitar playing was pretty good considering she'd only learned the song two days prior. Her performance was so on-point, in fact, that all the judges could criticize was her outfit. I personally liked her Cyndi Lauper-ish dress--it was very Betsey Johnson, and Allison is so unusual, after all--but her pouffy pink party frock and lightsocket-shocked pink-punk hairdo solicited comments like Randy's: "Dude, what are you wearing!?" Kara further said, "The rock in you comes out of you no matter what you're wearing, so you don't need to dress the part!" And Simon described the outfit as a castoff from the Addams Family set. But please note that the judges had very little negative feedback regarding Allison's singing. So why they'd have to pick on her clothes? This isn't Project Runway, you know...and we all know the Idol stylists were at least partially to blame for Allison looking like a giant, if cute, red velvet cupcake tonight.

Scott MacIntyre went next, and my critique for him is similar to the one I had tonight for Danny Gokey: He's still not my favorite, I still think he's a little overrated, but he was better tonight than he's ever been this season. He warbled Billy Joel's "Just The Way You Are," and it was THE perfect song choice for him (unlike many of his other perplexing song selections of past weeks). He played the song without an orchestra, just a man and his trusty piano (a smart decision), and he sang it with a conviction I hadn't heard from him before tonight. He was also rocking a new look--leather Fonzie jacket, what Simon amusingly described as "Ryan Seacrest hair"--that made him appear a little more Idol-worthy. Simon praised Scott for finally picking an appropriate song, and called it Scott's effort his "best performance by a country mile so far. It's a different Scott!" Randy even declared Scott's performance "one of the best of the night."

So Scott was in the bottom last week, and chances are after this, he won't be in the bottom tomorrow night...but if he is, and if he does go home, he will go out on a major high note. Paula said she was proud of Scott tonight, and so was I.

Matt Giraud, who surprisingly landed in the bottom three last week alongside Scott, sang next...and after his version of the Fray's "You Found Me," I fear he might end up in the bottom again this week. He looked good--Matt can pull off a Members Only jacket with a panache few men are capable of--and playing in the middle of the audience surrounded by adoring fans was a nice touch. And his vocals were strong, not at all karaoke, the voice of a relevant and real pop star. But...well, he pretty much sounded exactly like Isaac from the Fray. It was almost spooky, how soundalike Matt was. "You aborted the things we love most about you, like your riffing and falsetto," Paula lamented. She even compared Matt's performance tonight to his infamous top 36 Coldplay misstep (the one that sent him home for a while, before Wild Card Night), to which Matt good-naturedly but nervously chuckled, "Come on, it's not that bad!" I disagreed with Simon that "You Found Me" wasn't a commercial enough song--seriously, the Fray are huge, right?--but agreed that it didn't ideally showcase Matt's unique style.

But maybe reverse psychology will work with the voters this week, since Matt was great last week but ended up in the bottom despite the judges' high praise. "You should be happy because we don't like you this week," Simon sarcastically quipped. Matt didn't look too happy, however.

Another onetime favorite that the judges didn't like this week was Lil' Rounds. She showed up onstage in yet another wig, albeit a flattering one, paired with a hideously unflattering bridesmaid dress, and delivered a decent but uninspiring/uninspired rendition of Celine Dion's "I Surrender." It was an ambitious choice, obviously, and for the most part she nailed it vocally. But it was clearly a showoff statement song, her way of saying, "Hey, listen up, voters! I can SING!" Randy and Kara were pleasantly surprised that Rounds managed to sing it so well, but also not-so-pleasantly said it was the wrong song for her in the end, too old-fashioned and safe with (Randy's words) "not enough swagger." Simon dusted off one of his trademark kiss-of-death critiques, comparing it to a wedding performance, and groaned, "The personality's being sucked out of you. We have to stop this." Added Paula: "I don't want to see an adult-contemporary Lil' Rounds."

I don't think America wants to see that either, so I would assume that Rounds would be in trouble this week. But then Ryan Seacrest attempted to interview her cute kids in the audience, asking them about how they felt about the "mean judges" talking smack about Mommy. The kids got all deer-in-headlights and monosyllabic, and one of them reacted by nervously hugging Randy, who melted immediately and probably felt like dawg-doo for giving Rounds a hard time. (Please note, the kids did not hug Simon.) It was an undeniably adorable moment, one that even brought tears to Lil's eyes. So if she escapes the bottom three tomorrow, she needs to take her kids out for big ice-cream sundaes or get them a Wii or something. Becaus her kids will be what saves her this week. Voters won't be able to resist.

Speaking of cute...well, I still love me some Adam Lambert. He's just dreeeeaammmy. I'd give him a hug, for sure. BUT. He's not perfect. Until now I've loved every note that's come out of his Elvis-like sneering mouth, and he's still my favorite by--as Simon would say--a country mile. But his performance of "Play That Funky Music" tonight was more clunky than funky. It was over-the-top, which is something I usually love about Adam, but not in a good way in this case. For the first time in this competition, Adam was corny. I was surprised he went the disco route (complete with more Tony Manero moves, and bellbottom trousers, even),

and that his attempts to rock out this song weren't as successful or credible as his radical remakes of "Ring Of Fire" and "Satisfaction." I cringed a little bit and thought, "Why, Adam, why? Of ALL the songs you could do, you picked this one? A song once covered by Vanilla Ice?!?"

But if Adam survived the "Ring Of Fire" backlash (over what I thought was an AWESOME performance), he will survive this. At least the judges dug it. Paula--who was up on her feet dancing like a drunk-on-Cosmos bachelorette party guest throughout Adam's performance--called Adam a "true genius" and likened him to rock masters Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler. Simon then called Adam "very brave" and "original." Well, at least I agreed with that part. Adam is nothing if not brave and original.

Last but certainly not least was Kris Allen, who out-of-the-blue wowed me tonight. I've never been a big Kris fan, not since he surprisingly won his top 36 round over more obvious contestants (and future wild cards) like Matt and Megan. But his piano performance of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" tonight (accompanied by a string quartet) was actually spectacular. Who knew he had it in him? 

Not me. He was totally compelling, from his passionate vocal to his unique arrangement. "I have three words," Kara cried out. "THAT. IS. ARTISTRY." Simon called Kris's arrangement "clever and cool," and Randy said it was one of the best performances of the night--which was true.

And so now, as always, it is prediction time, This one's going to be tough--so many singers really stepped up their game tonight. Danny Gokey, Scott MacIntyre, and Kris Allen delivered their far-and-away best performances of the season; Allison was awesome, despite all the fashion criticism she unfairly received; and Adam was still ADAM, despite his questionable boogie-fevered song choice.

I'd say that Anoop, Megan, and Lil' Rounds would hit bottom, but Rounds has those cute kiddos on her side, so I'll wager the bottom three this week will instead be Anoop, Megan, and Matt...with probably Anoop going home. But Kara is right: Megan is in trouble this week. As she is every week...

Tune in tomorrow night to see if I'm right! And log on tomorrow (Wednesday) morning at 9:30am Pacific for Yahoo!'s live Idol chat, where you can chat with Idol fans (including me) about tonight's show and tomorrow night's predicted results. Just log on tomorrow at http://tv.yahoo.com/blog/yahoo-tv-water-cooler-idols-top-9-perform-top-downloads--214 and come say hi!

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