‘American Idol’ Top 9 Night: The Long And Winding Show

Lyndsey Parker
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The "American Idol" top nine covered the songs of Lennon & McCartney this week, which regular "Idol" viewers know is almost NEVER a good idea. The young contestants often embarrass themselves by freely revealing their lack of familiarity with the greatest band of all time, the Beatles (which I personally think is grounds for immediate disqualification), and even the ones who own a well-worn copy of The White Album usually pale (no pun intended) in comparison to the almighty Fab Four.

"It's really hard to go wrong when you have the entire Beatles catalog to choose from," Mariah Carey attested this Wednesday, totally incorrectly. Lots can go wrong, apparently. (And if the contestants had access to the Beatles' entire catalog, then they would've been able to sing George Harrison- and even Ringo Starr-penned songs, too, not just Lennon & McCartney compositions. Duh.) In-house "Idol" advisor Jimmy Iovine put it much better when he explained the risk involved with this week's theme, saying, "If you don't sing these songs well, the whole world is gonna know." Or at least the people in the world who are still watching "Idol."

Thankfully, most of "Idol's" supposedly Fab Nine performed their Beatles classics well, but unfortunately, they mostly went with disappointingly safe and overdone choices. If you were hoping for a cover of "Why Don't We Do It In The Road," "Helter Skelter," "Tomorrow Never Knows," or the Siouxsie & The Banshees version of "Dear Prudence," you were out of luck. Where was that red-haired rogue Charlie Askew when we needed him?

Actually, Charlie did rear his little red head for a nanosecond on the show, at the start of the episode, when Ryan Seacrest read off the result of the "Fan Save" vote that would allow a previously eliminated contestant to join this summer's Idols Live tour. Out sauntered Charlie, fabulously feather-earring'd, flame-haired, and full of hope, only to learn that he'd lost out yet again, and that the bonus tour spot would be going to blandly pleasant balladeer Aubrey Cleland instead.

This result was, frankly, a shock. Not only had I predicted last week--when Charlie performed a lovely original called "Blue Sky Diamond," while Aubrey had warbled the 33-year-old Fame ballad "Out Here On My Own"--that Charlie would win this tour spot by a landslide vote, I'd actually conspiracy-theorized that the whole "Fan Save" singoff was just an elaborate ruse to give Charlie a consolation prize and/or help boost tour ticket sales. Sensitive Charlie would get to tour without having to deal with the trauma of weekly competition, and the tour would get a cute boy who could help put tweens' and Awkward Turtles' behinds in the theater seats. It was a win-win situation! Except…Charlie didn't win this singoff.

Oh well. Maybe Charlie is better off going it alone, rather than being forced to do corny step-touch group choreography to Motown songs and Neon Trees hits all summer. But no matter what, I hope to see Charlie again, very soon. Shine on, you sky blue diamond. Shine on.

Here's how the top nine fared this week:

Kree Harrison - Kree is one of my favorite girls of Season 12, and I was thrilled that she was in the top three last week, when Ryan revealed the votes' ranking order. I sincerely hope she can hold on to that top spot after this. She was singing first, which is always a disadvantage (last week's "death slot" singer, Curtis Finch Jr., was voted off), and her song choice, the Joe Cocker version of "With A Little Help From My Friends," was so hackneyed, with zero element of surprise. I would have much preferred for her to do something more tender, like "Blackbird" or "I'll Follow The Sun." Kree's vocal was faultless, of course (even though she was suffering from a cold), but I didn't spontaneously break out in the goosebumps I usually get from her. The judges got goosies, though. "I love that no matter what song you're doing, you're Kree. All the cool things about country is what you are," said Keith Urban. Said Nicki Minaj: "You've started to become this superstar before our eyes. I'm so glad you believe in yourself now [Side note: Exactly when did Kree not believe in herself? I don't recall that], because you are the whole entire package." Randy Jackson called Kree "ready," and Mariah told her, "I didn't think it was good...I thought it was fan-freakin'-tastic!" Actually, I thought it was just good.

Burnell Taylor - I love me some Burnell, but when he confessed that he'd never heard "Let It Be"--one of the most popular Beatles songs ever, and one that's actually been covered on "Idol" many times--a little piece of me died inside. The fact that teenagers in America are growing up not knowing the Beatles just makes me sad. Kids should be singing these songs in preschool. Seriously, they should be listening to Beatles tunes in the womb. (At least Burnell said, "I don't know them like I should know them," so maybe he is willing to learn.) But anyway, for someone who didn't know the song at all, Burnell did a solid job with it. He sounded like he also had a cold (I just think that's how he sounds, though), and there was an understandable emotional disconnect between him and some of the lyrics, and it didn't quite pack the euphoric, evangelical wallop that the best "Let It Be" renditions do. But it was a respectable effort. The judges more than respected it, however--they loved it. "You didn't even sing the song--you caressed it. You were so delicate with it," gushed Nicki. Said Randy: "You didn't know [the song], but look at what you did to it. This is the mark of a great artist." Said Keith: "You have the most instantly recognizable tone of everyone in this competition. It's so soulful, and you come from such a spiritual place." Speaking of place…Burnell was in seventh place last week, which was much lower than I think he should have ranked. Will this performance help him move up the leaderboard at all? My guess is no, but I hope he sticks around and gets to do a song he's more familiar with next week.

Amber Holcomb - I was pretty delighted that Amber did "She's Leaving Home," a song so perfect and gorgeous that not even the robots in the best worst movie ever, 1978's Sgt. Pepper, could ruin it. Amber's interpretation was a little robotic itself--her unfamiliarity with the song kept her from truly connecting with it--but technically, her voice was stellar. Randy complained that the performance "started a little slow" (um, it's a slow song, how was it supposed to start?), but said it picked up momentum by the end. Keith thought Amber made the song sound modern and fresh. Nicki thought it was obvious that Amber was unhappy with her song choice (accidentally implying that it wasn't really Amber's "choice" at all--oops), and said, "I don't wanna see that. Toughen it up!" Mariah admitted, appallingly, that she too did not know the song. Amber, at age 19, at least had an excuse. But really, 43-year-old Mariah didn't know "She's Leaving Home" either? Mimi needs to go back to her Fox dressing room and listen to the entire Sgt. Pepper album (the real one, NOT the '70s movie soundtrack) on repeat. Now.

Lazaro Arbos - Oh, Lazzy. Sigh. I love almost everything about this kid. I love his little bowties, his ice-cream-man suits, his Ricky Ricardo pompadour, his smile, his "bravery" and "courage" that the judges are always praising…really, I love everything about him EXCEPT HIS SINGING VOICE. And obviously, that's a problem--especially since he was the highest-ranking male contestant last week, in fourth place, which means he could very well outlast more worthy contestants this season. Lazaro's performance of "In My Life" just wasn’t good. Jimmy even had to give Lazaro a click-track to help him stay on the beat. Mariah wishy-washily pep-talked Laz, commending his supposedly noble ability to "make it through the song," before finally dabbling in a little bit of actual critique and saying the song was too low for him--which was basically a nice and roundabout way of telling him he didn't sound pleasant to the ears. Keith was even nicer, agreeing that it was in the wrong key but saying the performance improved after a key change. (Side note: It didn't.) Nicki criticized Lazaro's lack of confidence, but blamed those nerves on Jimmy's tough mentoring sessions, which made no sense; to me, Lazaro had always seemed skittish, long before Jimmy came along. Only Randy was really brutal (or really honest), declaring this Lazaro's "worst performance ever." Then Lazaro started to cry. Aw. It was unclear if he was crying because of Randy's harsh critique or because, as he stammeringly explained to Ryan, he was forced to change his song at the last minute. (This confession, following that awkward moment when Nicki let it slip that Amber had been forced to do "She's Leaving Home," didn't do much for "Idol's" credibility. Time to do some damage control, Nigel Lythgoe!) Anyway, I don't want to be mean, and I certainly don't want to make Lazaro any sadder…but really, I don’t know if any other song choice would have made things any better here. I just don't think Lazaro is cut out for this show, and if he sticks around much longer, he's going to go from being "American Idol's" sweetheart to being Season 12's Sanjaya-style punching bag. He needs to leave before that happens, for his own sake as well as the show's.

Candice Glover - Finally! Finally this evening's tribute to the Fab Four actually got fab, when Candice totally rocked "Come Together." (Former "Idol" judge Steven Tyler, whose band Aerosmith covered "Come Together" in one of the aforementioned Sgt. Pepper movie's more watchable scenes, surely would have approved.) I had no idea this R&B diva could tap into her inner rock goddess like this, and the effect was awesome. Candice owned the stage, she owned those leather pants and purple ombre hair tips, she owned the song, and she owned the NIGHT. And in an evening of ballads, when she so easily could have gone with a slow Beatles song herself, it was refreshing to see her switch it up and pick up the pace. Keith, who was banging his head throughout Candice's raging performance, told her, "I loved seeing you in this whole other vibe; this rock chick in you was really cool tonight!" Randy loved the uptempo song choice and Candice's "playful side." Mariah said Candice's performance "was like a prizefighter, dahling." Nicki just babbled a bunch of malarkey about wanting to see more attitude on Candice's face. You know, I've been loving Nicki on "Idol" all season, but she was off her judging game this Wednesday; the only thing wrong with Candice's face this week was that it didn't stay on my TV screen for the episode's full two hours.

Paul Jolley - Paul's cover of "Eleanor Rigby" didn't come anywhere near the greatness of David Cook's Season 7 version, but I actually thought this was his best performance to date--even if it definitively proved that, despite his dreams of becoming the male Carrie Underwood, country music is so not the genre for him. Personally, I think Paul should be singing adult-contemporary and trying to be the next Clay Aiken. "Eleanor Rigby" allowed him to bring out his natural, irrepressible, often-criticized theatricality, and it all sort of worked in a cabaret way. But the judges were not into this performance. "I like that jacket and I like that shirt and I like them skinny jeans; I did not like your performance. Very safe, very bland, and forgettable," growled Nicki. Randy said Paul seemed disconnected. Mariah warned him, "You have to be able to give as much emotion when you're singing softly as when you're at the top of your range." Mariah actually advised Paul to hook up with a big pop producer and cut an uptempo, clubby dance record--which is about as far from country music as an artist can get--and Keith once again told Paul he's not a real country singer and said he should go pop-rock. Jolley didn't seem too jolly after getting this critique.

Angie Miller - Angie has been the clear frontrunner all season. Her Hollywood Week performance of her original song, "You Set Me Free," was arguably Season 12's finest moment so far, and just last week, she was in the top three. But I am starting to lose my enthusiasm for her. "Yesterday" was such an obvious Beatles song choice, but if Angie had interpreted it while sitting at her piano--which is when she truly excels--then it could have worked. Instead, she gave an overwrought, overthought performance that felt actress-y and forced. But only Keith called out Angie for seeming too much in her head. Randy claimed Angie gave off a rocker-chick vibe and ludicrously compared her to Paramore's Hayley Williams and Evanescence's Amy Lee, apparently just because Angie was wearing leather pants and flat-ironed hair. (That's the only explanation I can come up with, because the similarities stopped there.) Mariah thought Angie's rendition was "respectful." Nicki thought it was "unbelievably amazing," before suggesting that Angie do Disney soundtracks, which would actually make a lot more sense than Angie trying to be the next Amy Lee. Personally, I wasn't moved by this performance. I wasn't wowed. And I started to think…Angie's not going to win this thing. She's going to go home way sooner than expected and become this year's Pia Toscano, or maybe she'll get saved and be this year's Jessica Sanchez. But she's not going to win.

Devin Velez - Devin is dull, but he does pick songs that work for his voice. "The Long And Winding Road" really proved that he's the technically best male singer left on the show, even if he doesn't exactly come across as current or cool. He didn't change up the song much, but he didn't need to; he's not trying to be Kris Allen or Phillip Phillips, he's just trying to be a smooth crooner. I thought Devin did a good job, but Mariah was over the moon for him, passionately fighting for him--probably because he was in ninth place last week and therefore is at serious risk this week. "You never cease to amaze me. That was just so good. I don't feel like you've disappointed us, ever. I feel it would be a travesty if you did not go through," raved Mariah. Randy said something about Devin being "back" this week (he's always declaring that someone is staging some sort of triumphant comeback, even when that contestant did perfectly fine the week before). But I wonder if Devin will just be back in the bottom two.

Janelle Arthur - Wow. Just wow. Janelle truly impressed me with her unexpected, understated cover of The White Album's "I Will." The song choice really lent itself well to her throwback, pure-country style, and her elegance and restraint were marvelous to behold. This, aside from "Come Together" by Candice, was the highlight of the night. "You have this country thing in your voice that's always present in the most natural way. You know who you are, you're pure, you're true," said Keith. "You never have to say you want to sing country--you just are," said Nicki. (Both of these comments seemed like thinly veiled jabs at the wannabe-country Paul Jolley, of course.) Mariah called Janelle "beautiful," and Randy said Janelle was (wait for it) "back." I think this performance might help Janelle move up to the top three this Thursday, knocking off either Angie or Kree.

But who will move down to last place, and get knocked off the show? I'm predicting it'll be Paul. Paul was all the way down in eighth place last week, and I don't think his ongoing identity crisis--with the judges constantly telling him he's not the type of artist he thinks he is, or the type of artist he wants to be--will help him. It won't make the country audience vote for him, obviously, and I doubt fans of any of the genres to which Paul might be better suited (adult-contemporary, dance-pop, pop-rock) will support him at this point either. Paul hasn't readily identified with any of those musical styles yet, and it's too late for him to switch now without seeming like a blatant careerist and losing whatever cred he has. Paul is basically damned if he sings country, and he's damned if he doesn't. And probably soon, he won't be singing on "Idol" at all.

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

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