On Wednesday's "American Idol" top 10 show, the finalists sang the songbook of Billy Joel and were mentored by celebrity guest Diddy (because, you know, when anyone thinks "Billy Joel," they immediately think "Diddy," right?). But it was new in-house stylist Tommy Hilfiger and his new muse Erika Van Pelt who stole the show, when Tommy somehow convinced Erika to undergo what was probably THE most drastic mid-season makeover in "Idol" history.
This week, the formerly blonde, bobbed 26-year-old, who'd already definitely faced some serious style challenges in Season 11 (er, a purple taffeta prom dress with opaque black tights? where was Hilfiger THAT night?), gamely took Tommy's advice to chop and dye her locks into a drastic neo-Kris Jenner/Liza Minnelli pixie cut. And this particular scissors-happy makeover went much better than the teary ones usually seen on "America's Next Top Model." When Erika eventually appeared onstage to sing "New York State of Mind," she was in a whole new state of hair--she basically looked unrecognizable--and this was actually a good thing, since she'd been up for elimination the past two weeks and therefore probably needed a hip image overhaul. Style maven Jennifer Lopez loved EVP's new "Pat Benatar vibe." Randy Jackson thought she looked "hawt!" Ryan Seacrest even declared, "Not since the Sanjaya ponyhawk have we seen such a transformation with hair!"
The other big "makeover" of the night came courtesy of Heejun Han, this season's resident funnyman who until this week was only entertaining when he was OFFstage (onstage, he always lamely transformed into a sedated Michael Bolton impressionist). This time, Heejun finally let it all hang out. Starting off with one of his usual comatose cabaret ballads, Heejun suddenly stopped the song, echoed what America had been thinking for weeks with "No, no, that is WAY too slow!"--and then went nuts. He ripped off his button-down suit, started sing-shouting the "Bosom Buddies"-popularized "My Life," and basically became the embodiment of Jon Peter Lewis, Taylor Hicks, Casey Abrams, Magic Cyclops, and Norman Gentle combined, sweating mostly water all over the stage. At long last, the real Heejun revealed himself! And it was awesome.
So, will Erika's new look be enough to win her new fans this week, and keep her out of the bottom three for once? And will Heejun's comedy act be a hit with voters? Well, I don't know about that, but I do know that these big reveals were some of few actually exciting moments of a snoozy show filled with ballads, ballads, ballads. (My dream of someone covering "Big Shot," "Still Rock 'N' Roll To Me," or "Pressure"--the latter accompanied by a scene-by-scene recreation of "Pressure's" Cold War-era paranoia music video--remained frustratingly unrealized.) Here's how everyone, including Erika and Heejun, performed this week:
Deandre Brackensick - Singing in the first kiss-of-death spot, after having a rough time last week, 17-year-old Deandre might have been unwise to pick the prophetically titled "Only The Good Die Young." Mentor Jimmy Iovine advised him to channel some Catholic guilt into the song (or something like that), Diddy started gushing about Billy's foxy ex Christie Brinkley...and then Deandre came out dressed in some '90s flightsuit that Hilfiger put him in, whipping his hair like Willow Smith in a windstorm. This all should have been a mess. But you know what? It somehow worked! Deandre put what Jennifer called his trademark "island-y" spin on the song and turned it into a radio-friendly reggae-lite jam, and it was one of the more upbeat moments of the two-hour episode. J.Lo called it "a great way to start the show!" Steven Tyler mused, "At first I thought it was a little too happy, but isn't that what the world needs right now?" The only judge who didn't seem too happy was Randy, who grumbled, "I wasn't jumping up and down." (Side note about that oft-used Jackson catchphrase: Has anyone ever actually seen Randy jump up and down?)
Erika Van Pelt - Rocking her new Benatar 'do and what seemed to be a whole new sense of self, EVP sang a lovely version of "New York State of Mind." Said Randy, "I think you're one of the best singers in this whole thing." Jennifer agreed: "Such a beautiful, beautiful vocal!" But considering Erika's edgy new style, I really wish she'd done something a little less safe, a little tougher and cooler. I found this performance a tad bland, even though her vocal was on point. The song did not match the hair!
Joshua Ledet - After his "When a Man Loves a Woman" tour de force last week, which J.Lo declared the best "Idol" performance of all time, it was inevitable that whatever Joshua did this week would be a comparable letdown, unless he was able to levitate while being accompanied by all four reunited/resurrected members of the Beatles or something. There wasn't really anything wrong with his rendition of "She's Got a Way," but it was obvious that he was uncomfortable with the song, and it really wasn't until the choir kicked in that any of his old magic came back. "I feel stupid to say anything negative in any way because you sing so crazy," sighed Jennifer. "When the choir came out, I know that is where you live and feel comfortable, but I needed to feel like you were connected more to the lyrics." Steven claimed he didn't know the song (really???), which is probably why he enjoyed Joshua's performance more, since he had nothing to compare it to. "You made a song that I didn't know come to life. I think you sang the sweat out of that song," Steven said. Flip-floppy Randy somehow agreed with both Jennifer and Steven. Sadly, this time I agreed more with...Jennifer.
Skylar Laine - Speaking of not knowing songs, Randy apparently thinks Billy Joel's "Shameless" was covered by Brad Paisley. Um, it was not. It was remade by Garth Brooks, and it was Garth's cover that inspired Skylar's version. (Shame, Randy, shame!) Skylar did fine with this, but I missed that old Skylar fire. (Skylar is one sassy contestant who could have done "Big Shot" justice!) This was tame, and the random trucker-hatted dude in the frame clapping along arrhythmically didn't help matters. Randy embarrassingly namechecked Paisley and then gave one of his typical it-started-off-bad-but-by-the-end-you-worked-it-out critiques. Steven criticized Skylar's pitchy moments, but said she "breathed life" into the tune. Jennifer was the most complimentary, saying, "I love your attack--you're not shameless, you're fearless!" I don't fear for Skylar just yet, but if she keeps playing it safe like this, she could be in trouble down the road.
Elise Testone - After inexplicably landing in the bottom three last week despite her amazing "Let's Stay Together" performance, Elise was under a lot of pressure this week. But she clearly wasn't doubting herself. Ignoring Jimmy's advice to cover a less obscure song than "Vienna" and Tommy's advice to wear form-fitting bellbottoms instead of a roomy maxidress, the rebel girl stuck to her guns...and delivered yet another stellar performance, perhaps her best yet and definitely the one during which she flaunted the most feisty personality. Steven, her biggest fan on the judging panel, gushed, "That melody was so fantastic, just brilliant!" Howled J.Lo, in a line that reminded me of Paula Abdul's famous quip about wanting to squish David Archuleta's head: "I'm so happy for you, I just wanna shake you and hold you and squeeze you!" Shouted Randy, "America, there's a reason why this girl is in the competition! She's unbelievably talented!" Randy was right, and I hope Elise's decision to do "Vienna"--possibly a bigger risk than Erika's haircut or Heejun's silly shtick--pays off. This dynamite lady should NOT go home in 10th place!
Phillip Phillips - Also eschewing an "Idol"-administered makeover was P-Squared, who ignored Tommy's stern fashion advice against gray clothing by wearing a gray collared shirt OVER a gray tee. Phillip also didn't heed Diddy's suggestion to not play guitar this week. Tommy and Diddy were basically saying, "Hey, Phillip Phillips, don't be Phillip Phillips this week"--and Phillip was so not having it. Instead, he didn't fix what ain't broke, and he turned "Moving Out" into a Dave Matthews Band song. (Phillips could turn any song into a DMB song. It's almost bizarre.) The way the crowd reacted, it seemed like Phillip was smart to keep doing his own thing. "I felt like you were taking a little bit of aggression out on your mentors!" laughed J.Lo when critiquing Phillip's angry, crazy-eyed performance. "You took that song and you Phillip-Phillips'd it," said Steven, adding, "I'm glad you wore gray!" (Then Steven gave Phillip his scarf--and Phillip rejected that, too! I guess Phillip has a look, and he's clearly sticking to it.) Then the highly quotable Randy Jackson summed it all up with: "Those that do, should. You just did because you do." Well said, Randy. Well said.
Hollie Cavanagh - Hollie was much more open to getting a makeover, and frankly, the teenager needed one, since she'd been dressing like a church-going grandma all season. She let her hair down, literally, as Steven had been advising her to do for weeks, and she looked amazing. She didn't quite sound amazing, however; her cover of "Honesty," a song she admitted she didn't know until this week, was more of a struggle than usual for her. "You're one of our grand singers, but tonight you were a little pitchy," said Steven. "You take on these big songs and that's great, but at the end of the day, you have to know every single note of the song," Jennifer pointed out. "Come on, now, you're better than that!" Randy scolded. This was hardly terrible, and Hollie didn't really deserve a scolding, but this was definitely her weakest performance so far.
Heejun Han - Bringing the comic relief I always knew he was capable of bringing, at a time when the episode desperately needed it, was my man Heejun. I secretly suspect that Heejun was planning to do this all along, and that his time on "Idol" leading up to this breakthrough had been one long genius act of performance art (and that maybe he was waiting to make sure he secured a spot on the summer tour before he let his freak flag fully unfurl). This move may backfire on him, turning off "Idol" viewers who take this show very seriously--but hey, if Heejun goes down this week, at least he'll go down in spectacular, spectacular flames. "I love that you brought a little fun to tonight; that was a breath of fresh air," said J.Lo, proving that she actually does have a sense of humor. "At least you had a good time, and it was definitely entertaining," laughed Randy. Only Steven, surprisingly, wasn't in on the joke, semi-chastising Heejun with: "Are you happy that you took the piss out of that song? I'm glad you did, but the music business will kick your ass. At some point you gotta take it more serious." Just as long as that point isn't now, Steven. Right now, I am enjoying the comedy stylings of Heejun Han way too much to have him start covering Michael Bolton again.
Jessica Sanchez - During rehearsals, Jimmy instructed 16-year-old Jessica to sing "Everybody Has a Dream" to Diddy (or "Puffy," as his ex J.Lo accidentally called him this evening--awkward!). That was a little creepy. But hey, it worked. Jessica delivered yet another stunning performance that had all three judges up on their feet. "When God was giving out vocal chords, you were so at the front of the line. I've got nothing to say except thank you for letting me hear you sing, baby," said Steven. "It was like that song was written for you!" proclaimed Jennifer. And Randy used the synonyms "flawless" and "perfect" to describe Jessica's performance. Maybe Jessica should sing every song to "Puffy" from now on.
Colton Dixon - Season 11's resident piano man did "Piano Man," of course, going back to his roots after a few weeks of mostly just using his piano as a prop to jump on. (He also stayed true to his literal roots, refusing to change his trademark skunky hairstyle as Tommy Hilfiger advised.) This was just BRILLIANT, the performance of the night. I had what Jennifer annoyingly insists on calling "goosies" all over my body, and J.Lo announced that she had "goosies from head to toe." Steven called Colton "stunning" and "outrageous." Randy said this was a "sensitive, touching, moving performance--and by the way, I love the hair!" Colton should play the piano every week, Phillip should play the guitar every week, and both of them should keep on ignoring Tommy; if they do, we're probably going to have another guy-vs.-guy finale this season.
So now, it is prediction time. This is a very strong top 10, so it's a tough call, and it's going to be emotionally tough no matter who goes home Thursday night. Joshua might be in the bottom three, although I think he earned enough goodwill with last week's "When A Man Loves a Woman" to survive elimination. I think the bottom two will actually consist of Deandre (solely because he went first and was quickly overshadowed by the performances and makeovers that followed him) and Heejun, whose performance, while delightful to some (read: ME), probably turned off many humorless viewers. I'd like Heejun to stay on the show and keep me entertained, but the plus side is, if he's the lowest vote-getter this week, we'll get to see him sing for the Judges' Save...and that has the potential to be a truly stupendous TV moment.
Tune in Thursday to see if I'm right! Until then, Parker out.