In her own sweet and adorable way, Hollie Cavanagh has clawed and kicked her way to "American Idol's" top four--bucking the odds, outlasting frontrunners like Colton Dixon and Skylar Laine, ruining office pools, and along the way establishing herself as Season 11's tiny Reinhartian warrior. Last week, in fact, she was so wonderfully in the zone, as Randy Jackson would say, she even managed to upstage Jessica Sanchez. But this week on "Idol," some of the fight seemed to leave Hollie's little warrior body. Joshua Ledet and Jessica experienced big moments with big songs that once again had the judges up on their feet (in case you'd lost count, that was the TWELFTH standing ovation for Joshua, and this latest one was undoubtedly deserved). And even more excitingly, Phillip Phillips--whose dreadful performances last week were so phoned-in, they may as well have been sponsored by Sprint--turned it all around and delivered what was arguably not only his finest performance of the season, but one of Season 11's best performances overall. But sadly for Hollie, she didn't quite do what she needed to do in order to break up what has long seemed to be this season's practically preordained final three.
"She's got to come from behind and do magnificent. She can't just do okay. No chance," warned tell-it-like-it-is advisor Jimmy Iovine. Hollie seemed to rise to Jimmy's challenge on her first song, but when she struggled through Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me," that song's title unfortunately became prophetic. Hollie certainly couldn't make the judges love her, at least. Steven Tyler, who usually thinks everything is "beautiful" and "over-the-top," told her the Raitt performance "fell a little short," and Randy criticized it as "the wrong choice at the wrong time." With the finale only two weeks away, this definitely was the wrong time for Hollie to be receiving such rough critiques.
Hollie, along with the rest of the contestants, had two chances to impress this evening: first with a "California" song, then with a "Song I Wish I'd Written." (Or, in poor Hollie's case, a "Song I Wish I'd Sung Better.") All four singers were somewhat disappointing on their Cali tunes, of course avoiding any interesting or risky choices like Guns N' Roses, Jane's Addiction, or some West Coast hip-hop, and instead going with snoozy fare like, um, Josh Groban. But everyone except Hollie really stepped it up when they got the opportunity to perform songs that meant something to them personally. Maybe Hollie just should have wished she'd written a different song.
Here's how everyone did this Wednesday...
Phillip got the death spot, fueling my speculation that the "Idol" producers were hoping to railroad this seemingly unstoppable dude off the show to make way for their clearly hoped-for Joshua/Jessica finale. But based on how Phillip did this evening, the producers may not get their way. Phillip's Cali cover of "Have You Ever Seen The Rain" had some spunk that was missing from his lackluster performances last week (which, apparently, Phillip's brother told him were terrible--someone make Phillip's brother an "Idol" judge!). Sure, I could have done without a third Creedence Clearwater Revival song in just two weeks, and no, Phillip didn't get all the lyrics right--but hey, at least Phillip wasn't doing a Dave Matthews impression or crazy-eyed "Fat-Bottomed Girls" karaoke this time around. "You're living proof that the road to success is always under construction," Steven said in his usual babbling-Burger-King-commercial manner. Jennifer Lopez mentioned something about Phillip having "cottonmouth" (um, what?), but praised the performance, saying, "There's this Joe Cocker quality to you that I have not heard from you before." And Randy gave one of his usual at-first-it-was-rough-dawg-but-then-you-worked-it-out-and-it-was-great-by-the-end critiques. Not a bad start for Phillip, but maybe not enough to keep him out of trouble. But then...he did his second song.
Yes, then Phillip sang "Volcano" by Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice. It may have been a risk for him to do such a relatively obscure tune at such a crucial point in the season, and I was bracing myself to hear J.Lo slam him for being too "artsy," but even she had to admit that this was "one of the most beautiful, poignant moments a contestant has ever had." Eschewing his usual hokey jam-band shtick and fratty DMB copycattiness, and playing on a hushed, darkened stage with just a cellist and a female backup singer (who was no slouch herself), Phillip generated some real magic here. I had goosebumps (I refuse to call them "goosies"), I had chills...and I had visions of Phillip winning Season 11, as long as he keeps creating genuine, amazing moments like this one. "That was the kind of song I could listen to in headphones over and over," sighed Steven. "I don't think many contestants could have pulled that off. It's a real testament to who you are," said Jennifer. "Dude, that's one of your best performances of the whole season. Sometimes, the little simple statement has more volume to it," said an uncharacteristically wise Randy. Phillip REALLY seemed unstoppable, after this.
For her California song, Hollie took on a toughie, Journey's "Faithfully" (Steve Perry is serious stuff), and I was impressed by how well she pulled it off, especially at the end when she got to the wailing ad-libs. It was a real vocal workout, and even Randy (who, in case you didn't hear it the first 53 times he mentioned it on this show, used to play with Journey) told her she "did Steve Perry proud" and was "in the zone." Jennifer told her, "I get emotional seeing how far you've come. It's just a beautiful thing." Steven offered some weird Hallmark/botanical analogy with: "You've blossomed creatively. Creativity is a very delicate flower, and you can make it bloom by giving it positive affirmations." Okay, then...
But Hollie's bloom definitely started to wilt when she tackled the Bonnie Raitt ballad. It was a competent performance, and there was technically nothing wrong with it...but emotionally, it was just totally flat, totally passionless. (This is a problem that younger contestants with less life experience to draw from have always had on this show--Hollie is only 17. But then again, the even younger Jessica did NOT have the same struggles this week.) "A song like that, you have to have gone through a bunch of things to feel that. It fell a little short. Sorry, baby," said Steven. "It's like you knew that it had to be emotional, so it got the better of you," said J.Lo. "At this point in the competition, you need moments. The song gave you nowhere to go. There were no moments for me," shrugged Randy. Normally I get annoyed when the judges all gang up on Hollie while going so much easier on the other contestants, but in this case I agreed with them. This was not bad, but it simply was not enough.
Joshua must be a secret fan of "The Voice," since both of his song choices this week were ones recently, and memorably, performed on "Idol's" rival show. He even did a Maroon 5 duet in the middle of the night with Phillip! (FYI, Hollie's "Faithfully" was the song for the Tony Vincent/Justin Hopkins Battle Rounds duet on "The Voice," in case you care.) For his first solo number, Joshua did "You Raise Me Up" (which was Chris Mann's "Voice" solo from this week), and it was, surprisingly, one of his weakest performances of the season. Of course, even a "bad" Joshua performance is awesome by anyone else's standards, but the song did seem too low for him in the beginning, and then by the end, it got into some scary screechiness that sounded more like "The Voice's" cat, Purrfect. But the judges just turned a blind eye, or a deaf ear, to all that, and heaped Joshua with their usual crazed praise. "Another great performance from you," J.Lo read off her notes. "I can only say I'm glad you got on that plane," said Steven, referring to the fear of flying that almost kept Joshua from coming to Hollywood. "I think you are the plane right now." (Um, okay, Steven.) "You're proof that if you are a great singer and a great artist, you can sing anything," Randy said. It's true, Joshua CAN sing anything. But there are songs that he can sing better than "You Raise Me Up."
And one of those songs is DEFINITELY James Brown's "It's A Man's, Man's, Man's World," which Joshua slayed so thoroughly during his second performance, he gave "The Voice's" Juliet Simms a run for her money. (Forget about Simon Cowell's master plan to host an "X Factor"/"Idol"/"Voice" superfinal; let's just have a singoff between Juliet and Joshua. I'd sign up to see that on pay-per-view!) Anyway, Joshua managed to accomplish the impossible here: HE OUTPERFORMED HIMSELF. This was an outrageously awesome performance, full of fire and ferocity and sweat and swagger, and he sang like one of the old-time greats. By the end, J.Lo wasn't just on her feet, she was almost on her knees, bowing down to him. Steven was equally worshipful, raving, "No man or woman has ever sang that good with that much passion, ever. I can go home right now. I've never heard anything like that in my life!" Said J.Lo: "We thought we had seen everything you have to give. We hadn't!" And Randy called this "one of the best performances in the history of any singing show." I've often thought that the judges have overpraised Joshua, but this time, I think they got it right.
For her first song, Jessica went back to very old-school Cali, doing Etta James's "Steal Away." It got a little growly in parts (growling is a habit Jessica picked up at age 7, according to home movie footage that aired this evening), but she nailed the sophisticated song and once again proved she's an old torch-singer soul trapped in a tiny teen girl's body. "When I think about all the great female singers out there who'd be your contemporaries, you're just one of the best," said Jennifer. "I love that. You just nailed that. That showed the other side of your voice," said Steven. "Your vocals are ridiculous. That girl right there can sing the phone book!" howled Randy. Probably true--but I'd rather hear Jessica sing Etta, thanks.
For her final song in the pimp spot, Jessica took on the Dreamgirls behemoth "And I Am Telling You, I'm Not Going," a crazy-difficult song that makes "Bohemian Rhapsody" seem, well, like singing the phone book. (Randy said it's one of the hardest songs in the world to sing.) It's also a song that in recent years has become closely associated in people's minds with one of the greatest "Idol" divas, Jennifer Hudson. But Jessica NAILED this. Inspired by the Judges' Save night when she almost went home a few weeks ago, she made it clear that she has no intention of ever coming that close to being sent home again--unless it means she's one of the top three enjoying a ticker-taped homecoming celebration next week, that is. This was a grand statement song, and it even topped her "I Will Always Love You" performance, which until this night had been the Jessica Sanchez performance by which all other Jessica Sanchez performances must be judged. "I think you're in it to REALLY win it," said Randy. "Another winning performance, just over-the-top," said Steven. "Your vocal ability is just not something you see every day. It was a real moment--we've had a lot tonight, but that was amazing," said J.Lo.
So now, it is prediction time. I think I've already made it abundantly clear who I think will go home this week--anyone other than Hollie will be a MAJOR upset--but who will join her in the bottom two? Possibly Phillip, because he sang first, and because Jessica and Joshua were so stunning...but it's a moot point, really, because it's Hollie's time to go. She had a good run, but it seems like she won't be able to make America love her this week.