‘American Idol’ ’80s Night: Totally Rad, or Like, Totally Lame?

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Wednesday night was '80s Night on "American Idol," and as soon as the cold open was soundtracked by Mr. Mister's "Broken Wings" (accompanied by some captions in squiggly font that looked like John Hughes movie credits), I expected the episode to be totally awesome, dude. "This music is sure to send some of you straight back to your high school prom," said Ryan Seacrest. "This is the era that brought us stonewashed jeans and neon tube socks." (Hey, wasn't it in-house "Idol" style advisor Tommy Hilfiger who brought us that look?) Sadly, none of the top eight contestants wore anything even remotely stonewashed or neon, but Colton Dixon was rocking some newly bleached Limahl-from-Kajagoogoo hair, DeAndre Brackensick's permy mane was as gloriously Robbie Nevil-esque as ever, and "Idol" producers amusingly unarchived yet another embarrassing Journey-era Randy Jackson photo to fit the evening's retro-to-the-max theme.

Also on hand were No Doubt's Gwen Stefani and Tony Kanal, huge '80s pop fans, serving as guest mentors. And while fashionista Gwen disappointingly didn't dress any of the contestants in '80s outfits, she also thankfully didn't gussy them up as L.A.M.B.'s to the slaughter, like that fateful night last season when she forced poor Pia Toscano to wear an unflattering L.A.M.B. diaper/onesie thingy that might've been to blame for Pia's early exit.

And yet, despite all this radness, something just wasn't so bitchen about "Idol's" '80s Night. Where was the hair metal? The new romanticism? The Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, and Guns N' Roses songs? With all the '80s hits the contestants could have picked from, why did they go with the same old staple "Idol" ballads by Whitney Houston, Irene Cara, Bette Midler, et al? Hollie Cavanagh's Flashdance theme was a particular bummer, after she failed to take her passion and make it happen. Gag me with a spoon, indeed.

But at least the vocals, for the most part, were on point. Along with the contestants' individual performances, they all sang duets--Colton with Skylar Laine on "Islands In The Stream," DeAndre with Hollie on "I'm So Excited," and J.Lo's "dream pairing" of Jessica Sanchez and Joshua Ledet on "I Knew You Were Waiting For Me." But most thrillingly, Phillip Phillips and Elise Testone teamed up on Tom Petty and (last week's Elise-loving mentor) Stevie Nicks's "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," a wonderful "Idol" moment that I seriously hope those two will reprise on this summer's Idols Live Tour. It was actually the best moment of the entire night, in my opinion.

That being said, here's how everyone did individually this week...

DeAndre Brackensick

- I kind of expected that DeAndre, who earned a Prince comparison from Steven Tyler last week, would do something by The Great Purple One tonight (like the falsetto jam "Kiss," of course). But DeBarge's "I Like It" was a good alternate choice for DeAndre. Seriously, this kid was born in the wrong decade. '80s Night was HIS night, and he was so in his element, performing like he was the musical guest on a 1984 episode of "Soul Train." Exclaimed Jennifer Lopez, "I like it! I like it a lot!" Steven said, "That was totally captivating. I forgot where I was!" (A nice compliment, although to be fair, Steven probably forgets where he is on a regular basis.) And Randy said, "El DeBarge is somewhere [in jail? oh snap] saying, 'Oh my God, this kid has arrived!'" I was digging this, too, and I think if DeAndre hadn't performed first in the kiss-of-death spot, a performance like this might have been enough to save him. But we shall see.

Elise Testone

- Although Elise is the only contestant in the top eight who was actually born in the '80s, ironically the '70s seems to be the decade more suited to her throwback rocker style: While her performance on Whitney Houston Night a few weeks ago was a bust, her show-closing performance of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" last week was a total tour de force. But as she flashed back to the '80s this week, her cover of Foreigner's "I Wanna Know What Love Is" (a song brilliantly done by Jamar Rogers and Jamie Lono on "The Voice" just a few weeks ago) was a whole lotta meh. I'm not sure what happened, but she just never really connected to the song, and all of her swagger vanished. "I'm not sure if that song was the right song for you, baby," sighed Steven. "It wasn't totally right every single moment, but you still sang it beautifully," J.Lo said more diplomatically. Randy, who bizarrely called this "one of greatest songs ever" (um, no), was the bluntest, saying, "You never quite hit the pitch right, so it was pitchy during the whole song until the very end. It was not your greatest performance." I was sad to agree with Randy this time. I adore Elise, but I am worried for her this week. Hopefully her stunning Petty/Nicks duet with Phillip will help keep her in the game, because I don't think this effort will be enough.

Phillip Phillips

- Taking on one of the more interesting song choices of the night, and accompanied by his musical brother-in-law Ben, Phillip covered Genesis's "That's All." (P-Squared loves him some Phil Collins; he did "In The Air Tonight" earlier this season.) Anyway, Phillip rocked it as usual. "You're just a wildflower, aren't you?" said Steven, weirdly. (Er, no, Steven--that would be Lauren Alaina.) Jennifer thought Phillip seemed uncomfortable in the beginning (untrue), but thought by the end he "brought it home and you were the Phillip that I love." Randy appreciated the song choice and "the whole brotherly-love thing." This was just awesome--that's all.

Joshua Ledet

- Joshua sang Simply Red's "If You Don't Know Me By Now," which, if you don't know by now, was actually originally recorded in 1972 by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. But who cares? Joshua sang every blue note of this song with evangelical gusto, taking it to church as he is wont to do, and he earned a standing ovation from all three judges as a result. "It's very rare that I want to stand up from beginning to end--that's how good this performance was," raved Randy. "We asked for a powerhouse performance, and that's what we got!" said Jennifer. "It was just perfect," summed up Steven. Oh, and by the way, Steven--it was also beautiful. Just beautiful.

Jessica Sanchez

- Jessica's breakout moment of this season was when she did the Whitney Houston version of "I Will Always Love You," so it made sense that this week she wanted to take on another '80s Whitney classic, "How Will I Know." I liked seeing Jessica do something upbeat for a change, something that suited her age (it's so easy to forget that she's only 16), but I don't think this was her best vocal of the season; sometimes she seemed a little shouty, a little strainy, a little yelly. That being said, even a "bad" vocal by Jessica is pretty frickin' great, and she worked it out, as Randy might say. "Well, that's two powerhouse vocals in a row! I'm listening to you and I can't even believe it's coming out of that little body," said J.Lo. "I don't think I've ever heard you sing where I can judge you. Everything you do is beautiful," said Steven, oddly admitting that he is unable to actually judge. Randy namedropped his old BFF Whitney and raved, "I can't believe the maturity in you." Jessica isn't going anywhere for a while.

Hollie Cavanagh

- Hollie did the Flashdance theme "What A Feeling," unfortunately wearing a six-decades-too-early flapper dress instead of a slashed-necked sweatshirt, although she was delightfully accompanied by a decade-appropriate keytar player. But this song never really took off. Irene Cara's original was so vivacious and triumphant and glorious, but let's just say if Jennifer Beals had danced her final-movie-scene audition to Hollie's version, that ballet company would have never accepted her. This was NOT terrible by any means (Hollie is a great singer), but it just fell a little flat. "Girl, you always arrive, you're always good at the end--but your pitch was all over the place. It took you a while to get there," lamented Steven, thus proving he is actually able to judge when he has to. "It didn't feel like the pop song that it was," said Jennifer, who told Hollie she got too inside her head and overthought the performance. "There were a couple pitchy moments, but it's when you're [over]thinking and you're not just living it that these things happen," agreed Randy. You know what I think? Hollie, who was in the bottom three last week, is probably going to be in trouble again this week.

Colton

Dixon - Move over, "The Voice's" Javier Colon. Yes, Javier's acoustic version of "Time After Time" on "The Voice" last year was amazing, but I also loved Colton's very different rocker-ish (dare I say David Cook-ish?) take on Cyndi Lauper's famous weeper. Colton did exactly what an "Idol" contestant should do: He took an iconic song very closely associated with a particular artist, and he turned it into a current Colton Dixon song. (Although he revealed that his performance was inspired by a version recorded in 2007 by the alt-rock band Quietdrive.) I may go download Colton's AND Quietdrive's versions after I finish writing this article, actually. "You've got one of those voices that you could go record right now. You just proved what you can do to a good song," said Steven. "You were so in sync with the band," said Jennifer. "What you did tonight was you took this song and made it your own. You're so current. You're ready to go," declared Randy. Why do I think this guy's going to get a record deal whether he wins "Idol" this year or not?

Skylar Laine

- Skylar was flip-flopping between "9 To 5" and "Wind Beneath My Wings" for her song this week, and since the Dolly Parton barnstormer seemed like the more obvious choice for this feisty filly, I was a little surprised/disappointed when Gwen, Tony, and Jimmy Iovine advised her to do the Bette ballad instead. Was it good advice? I'm not entirely sure. "Wind Beneath My Wings" was probably a better showcase for Skylar's mighty vocal range (what Randy called her "big ole voice"), but I personally prefer Sassy Skylar to Slow Skylar, so I would have loved to see her do some more Dolly. But she did totally nail this vocal, and the judges gave her a standing ovation. "That's the best song you could have picked for your voice and the end of the night," said Steven. Randy declared this Skylar's best performance to date. And J.Lo said, "You know what you just said to America with that performance? Do. Not. Count. Me. Out." And I agreed. I was shocked when Skylar was in the bottom three last week, but she's a little fighter, and I don't think she'll be at risk this week.

So who will be at risk? My prediction is Hollie, DeAndre, and (sadly) Elise, but I think Elise's Phillip duet and DeAndre's killer falsetto will respectively save them. Instead, I think it'll be Hollie who flashdances off the stage in eighth place Thursday night.

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

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