During the second hour of "American Idol" this Wednesday, the top four girls sang "One-Hit Wonders," a theme voted for by fans. (I admit I may have voted for that theme a couple times. And by "a couple," I mean, like, 67.) Excitedly I sat in front of the TV with my popcorn and boxed wine, ready for a delightful evening of Chumbawumba's "Tubthumping" (a great song choice for anyone who's ever been in the bottom three), Buckner & Garcia's "Pac-Man Fever," Baltimora's "Tarzan Boy," Willow Smith's "Whip My Hair," "One Night in Bangkok," "Who Let the Dogs Out," or, of course, the best one-hit wonder ever, White Town's "Your Woman." Yes, I should've known from my years of "Idol"-watching that the contestants would disappoint me and either pick the fuddy-duddiest songs imaginable, or just ignore the theme altogether. But still, I dared to dream.
You see, I was hoping for a bit of irreverent, even silly fun after a long season that's been full of negative energy and plenty of low-energy performances. But alas, I didn't get my fun fix, and that was a problem. However, it wasn't the only problem.
"Are there any one-hit wonder songs from at least the last decade?" decried judge Keith Urban, in his most astute critique of the season. The man had a point. The songs the girls went with weren't contemporary (all of them were from the 1970s or earlier), and on a show that keeps losing its younger viewers to "The Voice," this was not a good thing. Another issue--a particularly troubling one, especially for the music trivia geeks at home who tend to shout at their television screens--was that really none of the song choices were true one-hit wonders. Or they at least fell into a very murkily gray area. Come on, are songs really one-hit wonders if they were hits for multiple artists…and some of those artists actually had multiple hits? Do songs that were also hits for Donna Summer or Destiny's Child really qualify for this category? Why not just play it fair and square, and have the contestants cover "Call Me Maybe" and "Pumped Up Kicks" instead?
To borrow a phrase from in-house advisor Jimmy Iovine, who was none too thrilled with contestant Amber Holcomb's choice of "MacArthur Park" this evening, I think these girls were "smoking a little bit of that green icing on that MacArthur Park cake." But it was the judges who really seemed to be smoking something--especially when, with smoke practically streaming from their ears, they angrily came down way too hard on some performances that actually were impressive.
Here's a rundown of the night's hits…and misses:
Once again, the judges did their blatant best to make Amber happen. Part of me couldn't blame them for championing Amber so aggressively--she's a great talent, a very pretty girl, and probably the most marketable contestant left in the top four. But their Amber-pimping reeked of desperation…and it could backfire in the votes, eventually. Anyhoo, in the first hour of the show, the contestants sang songs of their own choosing, from any genre and any era, and Amber went with…Celine Dion's "Power of Love." This was disappointing--not because she sang it badly (she did an admirable job with the difficult song), but because it was such a ho-hum "contestant's choice" for a NINETEEN-YEAR-OLD. Really? Celine Dion? This is a song that a teenage girl actually chose for herself? But the judges of course fell all over themselves trying to convince America, and maybe even convince themselves, that this performance was "current." Mariah Carey said, "You took a classic song and you gave it flavor." Keith said, "If ever there was a song that was tailor-made for everything in your voice, that was it. Amazing, perfect song choice. There's a reason you're still here in this top four, baby." Nicki Minaj called the white-pantsuited Amber a "big sexy glass of milk," declared Amber's beauty worthy of its own moment of silence, and raved, "We're just at your show--you don't even feel like a contestant anymore!" Said Randy Jackson: "You're the contestant with the most growth. You came in as a baby, and you are now a pro!" This performance was fine, but it was not worthy of the standing ovation and endless fawning it received.
For her one-hit wonder song, Amber did the aforementioned "MacArthur Park," which was a top 10 hit for Irish actor Richard Harris in 1968. But of course, she was really doing the 1978 disco version by Donna Summer, a woman who during her illustrious career landed 20 singles on the top 40 chart (14 of which made the top 10, and four of which went to number one). So much for that "one-hit wonder" theme, then. The song worked okay for Amber, but it was hardly "current" or "like Rihanna," as Randy totally insanely claimed during his hyperbolic critique. Nor was it any sort of example of how Amber supposedly "takes chances," as an equally deluded Keith stated. It was all very safe, very cruise-ship. It was so forgettable, in fact, that Nicki called Amber "Angie." Whoops. Only Jimmy Iovine, safely ensconced in his backstage lair, dared to be critical, saying, "That song is corny, and not even Amber can pull off corny." Later, when Jimmy came out onstage, he was loudly booed by the studio audience, but I have a feeling the voting audience at home may agree with his assessment.
The true song stylist of the season, the one who genuinely does take chances (the kind of chances we usually only see from guitar-playing rock boys on "Idol," sadly), took on one of the few actual current songs of the night, Drake's "Find Your Love." She took her usual artistic liberties with it, turning it into a torchy, sultry, jazz-inflected ballad, and it totally worked. And yet, the two of the judges didn't give Candice nearly enough credit for the way she switched up the song. If this had been Phillip Phillips doing a jam-band version of "Find Your Love," the judges would have wildly praised his creativity, but instead Nicki said the performance was too old-fashioned, and Randy said it was too "church-girl" and had too many runs. (This made no sense. Candice has never been guilty of oversinging, unlike many other "Idol" contestants.) I didn't really understand why Candice was accused of being old-fashioned when she did an inventive remake of a Drake song from 2010, while Amber was praised as "current" for doing a Celine Dion adult-contemporary ballad from 1993 (that was actually originally recorded by Jennifer Rush in 1985). But the minds of the "Idol" judges work in mysterious ways, sometimes.
For her one-hit wonder performance, Candice did "Emotion." Yes, this was the only hit for Australian pop singer Samantha Sang, who went to number three with it in 1977, but it was also recorded by the Bee Gees (whose Barry and Robin Gibb wrote the song), and it was a top 10 hit for Destiny's Child in 2001. So, yeah…this was another song choice that only loosely adhered to the theme. But Candice rocked it enough that she could have a hit with it herself. I feared the performance was a little too laid-back to make an impression on voters, but it had a smooth, easy-breezy groove, and Candice's vocals were, as usual, on point. The judges all liked this--Nicki thought this was more modern and relevant than Candice's previous effort--but then Ryan Seacrest trotted out Jimmy so that Jimmy could argue face-to-face with the judges about their disagreement over Amber's "MacArthur Park" performance. Not cool! This should have been Candice's time. Amber had already received her critique. Candice looked as annoyed as I was by this, but at least Jimmy got the judges to admit that Candice had out-performed their pet Amber in this second round.
Kree is a fantastic singer with great technical skill, but her lack of onstage fire has continually disappointed me, especially last week when she sucked all the soul out of the Black Crowes' "She Talks to Angels." This week, singing her chosen song, Susan Tedeschi's "It Hurt So Bad," Kree had more of that spark I'd been missing from her. True, she still could have let loose even more, but for someone who is usually so reserved and mellow, this was a move in the right direction, performance-wise. Kree was losing herself in the bluesy tune, just as Mariah had advised. Mariah was kind to Kree, but strangely, the other judges tore the poor girl to shreds. Randy said it wasn't her best vocal and that she seemed disconnected from the song. Keith told her, "If you're gonna sing a song like that, you've got to leave your heart on the table. You can't just let your vocal do it." And Nicki was the harshest (and most censor-baiting) critic, saying, "That performance is not going to give you what you need to do [to get to next week]…Everybody can blow smoke up your ***hole, but that was not it. That was not a top four-worthy performance." It seemed like the judges had suddenly been instructed to orchestrate an Amber/Angie finale, and that the busing of Candice and Kree had officially begun.
For her one-hit wonder number, Kree reached back to 1967 for Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale," a nostalgic song for her that she's loved since she was 8 years old. (Whether this was a suitable "one-hit wonder" choice was also up for debate, though; Procol Harum actually charted two other top 40 U.S. hits in the late '60s/early '70s.) Kree claimed she was "gonna lay it out there" and even "dance a bit"--but she didn't, really. She did a nice job, but once again, she held back, and her voice even sounded a bit ragged. I preferred her Tedeschi cover. And yet, the judges liked this a bit more. Randy said, "You redeemed yourself for me. You sang your face off!" Mariah said, "I'm going to go download that right now, because I need that on my phone. But there was no redeeming needed for me, ever." Keith griped that Kree's song choices were "middle-ground songs; they're not one or the other for me," a comment I understood, but Nicki really went in for the kill again, saying, "That was beautiful, pretty, angelic, but do I believe it can keep you out of the bottom two? That is the question, and the answer is no." I do worry that Kree's tough critiques and midtempo song choices may be her undoing this week (she was in the bottom two last week), but we shall see.
For her personal song choice, Angie went with "Who You Are" by Jessie J. It was a song she'd chosen before--she did it during Hollywood Week. Plus, she performed another Jessie J song, "Nobody's Perfect," during the Sudden Death rounds in Vegas. Hey, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? Probably a smart move, since it seems like every time Angie has tried to switch things up (remember "Shop Around"?), the judges have crucified her and ordered her back to her piano bench. Sitting at her piano for this entire performance, Angie showed real emotion for once (something this self-confessed drama nerd has struggled with many times). At first her performance had a little too much overt camera-play for my taste, but then she settled into the song and into the moment, and it felt authentic. This was the Angie we all fell in love with on "You Set Me Free." Said Keith: "You started prim and proper, but then you got looser and looser and more carefree and cooler, and the consonants fell away. Remember [like the Jessie J song says], it's okay not to be okay!" Said Mariah: "That was beyond. That was a professional moment. I'd wondered how this was going to evolve from the auditions--where is she going to take this? It was stunning." Said Nicki, "There's no one that compares to you in this competition when you are behind the piano." Randy even said this was so good, Angie made him forget "Who You Are" is a Jessie J song. He also told her she was "in it to win it," of course.
For her second song, Angie sang something that wasn't exactly a one-hit wonder either: "Cry Me a River," which was credited as the famous 1955 Julie London version, but has been recorded in the past by dozens of popular singers, including Ella Fitzgerald, Shirley Bassey, Joe Cocker, Susan Boyle, Linda Ronstadt, and Michel Buble. Well, anyway, Angie could be the next singer to have a hit with "Cry Me a River," as this was another solid performance from her. It wasn't her best, and it wasn't as good as "Who You Are," but her irrepressible theatricality worked in her favor here. Mariah called Angie "classic." Keith called her "mystical and celestially powerful." Nicki oddly said, "You came out tonight to snatch some wigs off some heads! Tonight was your night." Randy declared this the best performance of the evening. I don't know about all that…but I do know that with high praise like this, plus a plum pimp spot and no screw-ups, Angie is all but assured advancement to the top three.
But will all this even matter? Ryan announced at the end of Wednesday's episode that there will be a "special surprise twist" announced on Thursday's results show--and with one extra week to fill between now and the May 15-16 finale (the Judges' Save was not used last week, and it has since expired), it is possible that no one will be eliminated this Thursday, and we'll have a top four redux show next week, instead of a top three.
However, if I were to predict which contestant is going home (assuming there is an elimination this week), then I'd guess Amber. Her death-spot placement and occasional past showings in the bottom two or three, not to mention the annoying way the judges have been ramming her down viewers' throats lately, all put her at risk.
Tune in Thursday to find out who, if anyone, goes home! Until then, Parker out.