Watching this week’s American Idol performance show was like going to a four-star restaurant for an incredible multi-course meal (under the watchful eye of head chef Stevie Nicks) only to get pestered by the Three Busboys of the Apocalypse to fill up on the stuff jangling around in their white paper McDonald’s bags: “Yes, yes, the Maine Peekytoe Crab with maroon carrot, volcanic garlic, and pickled carrot sorbet looks sublime, but this McRib with a side of McNuggets is what’s going to bring you to your feet with ecstacy!” Say what now?
There are, of course, a few different ways to interpret J.Lo, Randy, and Steven’s inexplicable standing ovations for middling performances by Heejun Han and DeAndre Brackensick. Maybe they were operating under Uncle Nigel’s instructions to create a “night of redemption” theme involving last week’s surviving Bottom 3 contestants that Ryan Seacrest could tout midway through the telecast. Perhaps they wanted to give some extra encouragement to the two weakest links in the Season 11 chain. (Tangent: Oh how the combo of “chain” and “Stevie Nicks” makes me want to open my iTunes and play this on repeat.) Or maybe the Idol judges are simply predisposed to any contestant who possesses a ‘Y’ chromosome, seeing how they jumped to their feet for four of the five men left in the competition (and heaped lavish “contender for the title”/”threw down the gauntlet” praise on the fifth).
To paraphrase Elise Testone’s Vegas Week solo, Idol is a man’s man’s man’s world. It’s just a shame that the three people with the Coke cups and multi-million dollar contracts seem to have forgotten it would be nothing without the franchise’s most successful women and girls. Take J.Lo’s response to Elise’s riveting end-of-episode take on Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”: “I didn’t wanna get up, but you made me get up!” Hrmmm…where was that ambivalence about rewarding Elise’s male compatriots?
Okay , okay…enough griping from me. Like I said at the top of this recap, we’ve got an incredible multi-course meal to discuss, so let’s dig in!
Colton Dixon: Lifehouse’s “Everything”
Note to Colton: You can tell the judges and mentors that you’re singing your “favorite worship song of all time” till you’re blue in the face, but nothing — I repeat, nothing — will convince them you’re not singing a romantic ditty for the lay-dees. I mean, dude, learn to keep the focus on what’s important, for me for you. Naturally, even Ryan’s intro tried to play up Colton’s dreamboat status — “Girls, here we go, it’s Colton Dixon” — but Colton just kept on keepin’ on, delivering the hook-free Christian rock anthem with a dewy-eyed earnestness that found him dropping to his knees to end the performance. The end result was tender and heartfelt — even if it wasn’t particularly distinctive — but I have to admit I heard several bum notes when the verse forced Colton into the lower end of his register. Randy kept chanting throughout the night that Colton had “thrown down the gauntlet” for his competitors and was a real “contender for the title,” but I wish he’d just taken the direct route: Don’t forget to vote for Colton just because he went first!
Skylar Laine: Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead”
Continuing a trend of unfortunate Ryan-isms, did anyone else wince over our host saying how Skylar would show her “sexy side” after the commercial break, only to discover that this season’s country phenom was tackling a song about a woman’s murderous response to violent physical abuse? And while Jimmy Iovine predicted Skylar could wind up in “a little bit of jeopardy” for picking a track with a “really narrow melody,” I sure as heck hope he’s wrong. “Gunpowder and Lead” may be a straight-shootin’ ditty without a lot of room for vocal runs and swooping holleration, but it allowed Skylar to show off what J.Lo called her “unbridled, can’t-keep-it-in-the-can energy.” Better still, when Skylar hit the final refrain, the ferocity of her delivery — and the physicality she brought to the stage — drove home the underlying menace of the story she was telling. I’m not ashamed to say I got chills. Still, I’m worried the No. 2 performance slot combined with muted praise from the judges and an unfortunate/bulky ensemble might lead to Skylar’s first Bottom 3 encounter.
Colton, Elise, and Phillip: Fleetwood Mac medley!
Just being completely honest, Elise’s fantastic, whiskey-soaked “Edge of Seventeen” was the meat in the sandwich of Colton’s serviceable “Landslide” and Phillip’s borderline manic “Don’t Stop.”
Heejun Han: Donnie Hathaway’s “A Song for You”
Look, I’m happy that Heejun is taking the competition seriously, and that he doesn’t want to disappoint his fans, but while his good intentions weren’t exactly the paving stones to hell, let’s not pretend he performed a miracle of Elliott Yamin proportions with his cover of “A Song for You.” And let’s not pretend that the judges did Heejun any favors by offering a standing ovation for a performance peppered with pitch problems, breath-control issues, and dicey diction. Heck, Randy himself admitted that Heejun “wasn’t perfect,” so instead of leaping to his feet and applauding, why not offer him some “constructive criticism” (air quotes courtesy of the Dawg) about hitting the consonants and extending his notes at the ends of his phrases? The worst part of the judges’ unfounded praise is it’ll probably buy Heejun another week or two in the competition — at the expense of more talented competitors.
Hollie Cavanagh: Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel”
Speaking of which, I’d say Heejun’s likely survival could spell doom for Hollie, who seemed to miss Stevie’s whispered entreaty that it’s not the size of the voice — or the shouting of a glory note — that matters. Had Hollie processed that advice, maybe she wouldn’t have barrelled through Carrie Underwood’s first post-Idol hit with foot pressed down on the accelerator, arms stiffly clutching the steering wheel, her big Cadillac of a voice thundering along with not nearly enough emphasis on nuance and finesse. But ultimately, it was Steven Tyler’s feedback that resonated most: “I wish you’d sung a different song.” Indeed, what’s frustrating about Hollie is her almost robotic approach to song selection and delivery: Because Hollie keeps picking Big Diva Ballads and delivering them without any deviation from their original arrangements, she inevitably ends every performance reminding you that she’s not quite Xtina or Whitney or Celine or Carrie, instead of driving home the point that — with a little honest coaching — she’s unquestionably more ready for prime time than, say, Heejun or DeAndre.
DeAndre Brackensick: Eric Benet’s “Sometimes I Cry”
Look, there’s no doubt in my mind that DeAndre possesses the tools to be a successful singer: He was terrific in Vegas week tackling “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” and his Top 13 take on “Master Blaster” was a fun, funky trip. But for the life of me, I can’t fathom what (aside from Uncle Nigel sending volts of electricity into their chairs) prompted the judges to give Deandre a Standing O for a vocal this week that was about as pleasant as listening to a Snowy Owl sink its talons into a frightened prairie dog and carry it back to the nest for disembowelment. The problem wasn’t so much DeAndre veering off pitch — although his big glory note went noticably askew — but rather, that he doesn’t possess the emotional maturity to connect with an adult song about heartbreak. Without the deep well of loss and longing that informs Eric Benet’s original, DeAndre’s cover became a whole lot of screeching and caterwauling, signifying nothing. Then again, he’s a guy, so maybe we should follow J.Lo’s instructions: “Pick up your phones and vote for DeAndre” to give him “a few more weeks” in the competition. After all, there are still four more girls to get rid of before we have to start picking off the boys, right?
Jessica Sanchez: Beyoncé’s “Sweet Dreams”
Jessica has a serious problem: She’s performing at such a high and consistent level, the judges won’t really give her effusive praise till she makes a blind man see, or cures a child’s broken limb, or at least brings a few new adjectives to Randy’s mumblemouth. Not only did Jessica’s spooky-slow riff on Beyoncé’s uptempo hit (and enigmatic “red door” staging) prove she’s willing to take risks and show some real artistry — whether or not Beyoncé has slowed down the jam in concert is beside the point — but her vocal was a thing of pitch-perfect, high-drama beauty. The way Jessica uses her ridiculously huge voice to alternatelty shimmer then bulldoze then glide across the words of her songs makes me think she’s got the potential to conquer radio, and maybe serve as fodder for RuPaul’s Drag Race lipsynch-offs for the next 10 seasons.
DeAndre, Joshua, and Heejun: Michael Jackson medley
Um, nice moonwalk, Joshua! Solid vocal, too, buddy!
Phillip Phillips: Jonny Lang’s “Still Rainin’”
After last week’s torturous mentoring session with Diddy — seriously, I’m still skeeved out about the availability of a pack of chicks stored somewhere in the recording-studio lobby — it was so nice to see Phillip come face-to-face with an adviser who really appreciated his musical point of view (even if she did add a footnote about him being “gorgeous”). I have to admit I couldn’t help but be swayed a little farther onto the Phillip bandwagon after hearing Stevie Freakin’ Nicks tell him that he’d surely have been invited to join Fleetwood Mac had he been pals with her and Lindsey Buckingham back in the day. I mean, come ON! And Phillip’s cover of “Still Rainin’” lived up to the hype. I loved his little ad-libs on the chorus, and J.Lo was right, the guy brings such an intensity to his performances that you can’t help but fall into his musical rabbit hole. In other news, Randy is friends with Jonny Lang, but there’s still no explanation for why he’s lasted 11 seasons on this show.
Joshua Ledet: Harry Nilsson/Mariah Carey’s “Without You”
Joshua once again took off his jacket — emotionally, not literally — while performing what Jimmy Iovine called (rather definitively) one of the five most challenging songs of all time. But while much has been said about Mr. Ledet Gospel-izing this season, I thought “Without You” was a huge departure from his standard-operating delivery. Oh, sure, he started quiet and gruff, and steadily built the song to a frenzied, howling climax (amidst a very weird forest of decaying trees). But this performance tapped into a well of pain and despair that Joshua really hasn’t drawn from during his Season 11 run. When he hiccuped for a moment — missing a note as he fought back actual tears — Joshua opened up and showed us he’s capable of breaking hearts, not just stirring souls, and maybe going farther in the competition than some pundits might’ve anticipated. In other news, I have to say that I am coveting my neighbor’s black-and-white braid-patterned jacket! And also, Randy spoke with Mariah Carey on her birthday. Or he got her voicemail. Or he posted a note as Dawg10213 on her fan site message board. One of those three things happened, I’m pretty sure.
Skylar, Jessica, and Hollie: Madonna medley
What this hodgepodge medley lacked in polish, it more than made up for in nice mini-moments for its participants. In particular, Hollie sounded incredible on “Borderline” — reinforcing the opinion of the Idoloonie Nation that it’s time for her to tackle some non-ballad fare, and by someone other than a Monster Diva Vocalist. Jessica, meanwhile, got to flex her vocal muscles on “Like a Prayer,” and dang if Skylar didn’t completely command all my attention strutting her stuff on “Express Yourself,” even if her mic seemed to go silent for a third of the performance.
Elise Testone: Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”
As much as I am flipping out over the opportunity to purchase the studio version of Elise’s Led Zeppelin cover on iTunes, I can’t lie: I loved her rehearsal-room duet with Stevie Nicks on Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” even more. (We need a full version, and we need it to happen on the Idol finale.) But back to the subject at hand. I got nervous when I heard Elise had picked “WLL,” especially since Adam Lambert had performed it with such hip-thursting gusto back in Season 8. But Elise brought her own energy to the song that was equally mesmerizing. Whereas Adam’s vocal and staging were utterly in your face — and, with his “every inch of my love” sneer, just a little nasty — Elise’s performance was more subtly seductive. The way she covered her face with her hand on the chorus, the way she reduced her voice to a sexy coo as she faced off with the guitarist, the sandblast power of that final “love” (preceded by an almost Shakira-like hip shimmy). Everything about this worked — and worked double overtime. How the judges weren’t already on their feet as she was delivering the final note is a mystery of Smoke Monster proportions. But who cares if J.Lo didn’t want to get up, or if Randy had to water-down his praise by noting “everybody wants to do this thing, they want to win this thing. It doesn’t really matter. Elise continued her climb out of the Bottom 3 basement, and along with Jessica and Skylar, proved that the Season 11 ladies are in it to win it — even if the judges are ambivalent about standing for (or with) ‘em.
Letter grades for the night
Elise Testone: A
Jessica Sanchez: A-
Phillip Phillips: A-
Skylar Laine: A-
Joshua Ledet: A-
Colton Dixon: B
Hollie Cavanagh: B-
DeAndre Brackensick: C
Heejun Han: C
What did you think of this week’s show? Who was your favorite? Who’s in trouble? Sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol news, interviews, and recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!