Last week on "American Idol," Season 11 class clown Heejun Han supposedly let "the real Heejun" come out to play, declaring, "I wanna DANCE," stripping off, and channeling crazy Casey Abrams, Magic Cyclops, and Norman Gentle all at once as he goofed his way through the "Bosom Buddies"-popularized "My Life" on Billy Joel Night. While I found Heejun's shtick--and it was a shtick--highly entertaining, Steven Tyler absolutely did not, and apparently neither did many viewers, who put Heejun in the bottom two for the first time this season. Heejun narrowly survived over the undeniably more vocally gifted Erika Van Pelt, stirring up even more outrage among "Idol" viewers who take this show very seriously. So this week, on what was overall a highly emotional and highly competitive night on "Idol," Heejun had a lot to prove. And by changing his strategy and going back to his old-school balladry, he got back in Steven's--and probably America's--good graces.
Crooning Donny Hathaway's "A Song For You" with a completely straight face, no wacky dance moves, and a lot of heart, Heejun totally redeemed himself. I held my breath, half-expecting him to say, "No, no, that song is way too slow!" and go nuts--but that moment never came. Instead he just delivered his best, most serious performance of the season. Sure, I kind of missed the comedy, but the judges sure didn't (they actually gave him a standing ovation this time), and this was definitely what Heejun needed to do to stay in the game. "Heeman, you did it! You turned it around. You don't even know how good you sing. You keep believing in yourself," said Steven. "People don't realize you don't make it this far by mistake. You're here because we realize you can sing this way," said Jennifer Lopez. And Randy Jackson declared, "Finally, the Heejun that we selected [in Hollywood] came back to us tonight!"
Explaining to Ryan Seacrest why he decided to play it straight this week, Heejun said: "I realized I was letting so many people down, and I don't want to let them down anymore--and I especially don't want to let myself down." Heejun was definitely not the best singer during this VERY strong week, and I am still not 100 percent sure he'll be safe on Thursday. But he was at his personal best, and he certainly did not let anyone down.
Anyway, Wednesday night on "Idol" started with what I initially mistook for a Tommy Hilfiger infomercial. (I wonder what Tommy, "Idol's" new in-house style advisor, thought of the Bedazzler'd neckbrace that recently injured pop star Jason Derulo, seen sitting in the audience with girlfriend Jordin Sparks, was wearing? Or what he thought of the old '80s footage of a shaggy-haired Jimmy Iovine rocking out with awesome guest mentor Stevie Nicks?) But eventually, the episode got AMAZING, as the contestants sang the songs of their own personal idols. Many of them were obvious choices (feisty country girl Miranda Lambert for feisty country girl Skylar Laine, Christian rockers Lifehouse for Christian rocker Colton Dixon, soul-pop diva Beyonce for soul-pop diva Jessica Sanchez), although there were a few surprises--like Phillip Phillips not covering Dave Matthews!
The contestants also, surprisingly, performed in trios, perhaps as some sort of advance advertisement for this summer's Idols Live Tour. And all I want to know is, when do tickets go on sale? Heejun, Deandre Brackensick, and Joshua Ledet were fun on their joint performance of Michael Jackson songs, and Jessica Sanchez, Hollie Cavanagh, and Skylar Laine were fabulous covering Madonna, but the best of these threesomes had to be Elise Testone, Phillip Phillips, and Colton Dixon--my three favorite contestants of Season 11--teaming up for a medley of Fleetwood Mac hits that did Stevie proud. If none of these contestants end up winning, they should consider forming a trio. Heck, they should consider forming a Fleetwood Mac cover band.
Heejun's triumph has already been covered, but honestly, the night was packed with stellar, emotionally charged performances that will make fans' voting decisions, my elimination prediction, and Thursday night's farewell all incredibly difficult. Heejun might be safe this week after such a turnaround, but after going up against the other eight, who were all at their top of their game, he's probably still sweating mostly water right now. This was definitely the best night of Season 11 so far. Here's how everyone else did:
Colton Dixon - Colton's mentoring session began with Stevie Nicks telling him to ignore Hilfiger's order to cut his hair, further proof that Stevie Nicks is a wise, wise witchy-woman. (Simon Cowell really should hire her to be a judge on "The X Factor." Seriously.) Then Colton started singing "Everything" by Lifehouse. LIFEHOUSE. Really? Nothing against the band, they're fine, but this was a night when he could have chosen any of his favorite all-time influences, and picking Lifehouse over, say, the Beatles or Stones seemed a little odd. He explained that "Everything" was his favorite worship song, wearing his religious influences on his white leather sleeve--a move that will either help him (overt declarations of faith never hurt cross-kissing Scotty McCreery) or damage his standing among less conservative rock-music-fan viewers. As for his performance, he certainly put his heart into it, ending the song on his knees, as if in prayer, as his eyes filled with tears (his grandfather, watching in the audience, was also misty-eyed). But overall, this was a mini-letdown, especially after last week's amazing "Piano Man," one of the best performances of Season 11 so far. "Everything" just draggggged, and the vocals were not his best. But the judges were unusually worshipful of Colton's worship song. "You are a dream come true for a judge on 'Idol,' man," raved Steven. "What a way to start the show! It was so emotional! I can honestly say that I was really moved," said Jennifer. And Randy said, "I've been a fan since we met you a season ago, and one of the most important things an artist can have is believability. I believe you. I think I could be looking at a contender for the title! He wants to win!" So I guess Randy was saying that Colton is...wait for it...IN IT TO WIN IT? I agree, but I think he'll have a better chance of winning if he delivers more performances like last week's Billy Joel tour de force.
Skylar Laine - After a couple ho-hum weeks during which she seemed to be losing momentum, the sassy Skylar of "Stay With Me" came crashing back, guns blazing, on Miranda Lambert's "Gunpowder & Lead." A perfect song choice for this teenage huntress (she'd performed it earlier this season at the auditions), she proved that, like Colton, she could really be a contender. J.Lo praised her "unbridled, can't-keep-it-in-the-can energy." Steven said, "That was over-the-top. You had so much of Galveston [Skylar's Texas audition city] in that." And Randy remarked, "I don't know if I've seen a country star in a long time other than Carrie [Underwood] who has that kind of range. You are a powerhouse singer!" Wow, a Carrie comparison? That was no faint praise for this little lady.
Hollie Cavanagh - Hollie had some guts to cover "Jesus Take The Wheel," a signature song by one of "Idol's" most successful alums, Carrie Underwood--especially after Skylar had just earned a comparison to Carrie herself. But a special, tender moment with Stevie, during which Stevie talked about her mother's recent passing, seemed to help Hollie tap into some real emotion here. She sang the be-Jesus out of this, and with the digital-confetti background onstage and her finale-night-worthy gown, Hollie seemed like she was already a winner, already singing her coronation song. Randy, however, wasn't quite declaring this the performance of a champion. "Pretty good job," he shrugged. Steven was equally meh, saying, "I'm not gonna mess with Jesus and/or Carrie. I felt your emotion, I just wish you'd sang a different song. It was just okay for me." Only J.Lo was effusive, raving, "I have to disagree, because to me that was one of your best. That was the first time I really felt like you connected with the song and felt it emotionally." We'll have to wait and see if voters agreed with Jennifer or with the other two judges.
Deandre Brackensick - Deandre was in the bottom last week too, but he also redeemed himself (if any redemption was even necessary) with his passionate take on "Sometimes I Cry" by Eric Benet. He sang almost the entire song in his trademark dog-whistle falsetto--a strategy that has disastrously backfired for him in the past--but this time he was positively Maxwellian, and he worked it out, as Randy Jackson might say. A well-deserved standing ovation from the judges ensued. "One-hundred percent passion; that was what your voice was made to do. You gave Prince a run for his money," proclaimed Steven, Deandre's biggest fan on the panel. "That was beautiful," Randy said, employing Steven's favorite adjective. "That is who you are, and that is what you should do." And J.Lo pleaded with America, saying, "People, pick up your phones and vote for Deandre! I need to hear this voice some more!" I don't know if America will listen to J.Lo--this was an extremely competitive week, and SOMEONE has to go, unless the judges use the Judges' Save on Thursday--but I agreed that this was a fantastic performance. Deandre may be inconsistent, but when he's on, he is ON.
Jessica Sanchez - Sixteen-year-old Jessica is basically a baby Beyonce, so it was no surprise that she tapped into her inner Sasha Fierce to cover Bey's "Sweet Dreams." What WAS surprising was the previously unseen artistry of her interpretation. Before this evening, Jessica was always vocally perfect (almost TOO perfect), but she never seemed to put her own spin on any song she covered. There was no element of surprise. While I was always excited to find out what song Colton, Phillip, Elise, Skylar, Joshua, or even Heejun would pick, and how they'd interpret those songs, with Jessica I merely expected she'd do a straight-ahead, technically flawless remake. Not this week! Slowing Beyonce's jam to a crawl, backed by a harpist, Jessica gave her most interesting performance of the season, And yes, it was technically flawless, of course. "A really, really beautiful rendition. You left us wanting more," said J.Lo. "I think you're a star no matter what, but you did it again. Delicious," salivated Steven. "The maturity that you have as a singer at this age--where do you learn that? You just innately have this unbelievable talent. You're one of the best singers I've heard in many years," said Randy. Jessica's sweet dream of being this season's "Idol" winner may indeed come true, if she can keep performing like this.
Phillip Phillips - After Stevie Nicks paid him the ultimate compliment by revealing that if Phillip had been alive back in the day, he would have been asked to join Fleetwood Mac, P-Squared did Stevie proud with a smoking rendition of Jonny Lang's "Still Rainin'." I felt like I was, to use a favorite Randy Jackson phrase, watching a Phillip Phillips concert. "You want us to feel the music, to experience it with you. You make everything go away when you sing. Amazing!" said Jennifer. "Every song you sing, you own. It's in your body and soul," said Steven. Randy of course namedropped his supposed BFF Jonny Lang, then raved, "I love you every time you come out. I love the artist you are." After "Still Rainin'," Phillip is still reignin' over Season 11, for sure.
Joshua Ledet - Joshua sang "Without You" by his idol Mariah Carey, which of course was originally written and recorded by Badfinger and most famously covered by Harry Nilsson. But whatever. Joshua sang it amazingly enough to make all three of those artists proud, giving a performance full of pathos and passion. This was practically on par with his "When A Man Loves A Woman" from two weeks ago. "Mariah would be listening right now saying how proud of you she is. Dude, I love you. That was flawless," said Randy. "You pushed yourself so far. You had an emotional breakdown, and that's beautiful. Thanks for pouring your heart out for us," said Steven. "Oh my God, don't make me cry. You are a phenom. You are an absolute angel from heaven," gushed Jennifer. All I can say is, I can't liiiiiiive, if "Idol" is without Joshua...
Elise Testone - Elise took a HUGE risk by covering Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love"--a tough song to sing under any circumstances ("the hardest song in the world to sing," according to Randy), but also one that was originated on "Idol" by almighty rock god Adam Lambert (the first "AI" contestant to ever be granted permission to cover Zep) and understandably not performed on "Idol" since. But tonight, Elise joined the ranks of Adam and last season's Haley Reinhart (the only other "Idol" contestant to ever dare to sing Zep on the show), and she rose to the occasion. Her version of "WLL" was very different from Adam's, more earth-rock than glitter-rock, and she really came across as a baby Stevie Nicks. Stevie even told her she was a "kindred sprit" and said, "If I needed a singer, I'd hire her in second." Hopefully, though, Elise will be on "Idol" too long to accept Stevie's kind and flattering offer any time soon. "I wasn't sure if you could pull that off, because nobody can pull that song off," began Steven (who apparently didn't watch Idol" Season 8, when Adam murdered this song), "but you made Robert Plant proud tonight!" Said J.Lo, "That was some real rock-star stuff!" And Randy praised Elise's "flavor" and howled, "Congrats!" I just hope he was practicing his congratulation declaration for when this underdog hopefully "Reinharts" herself into at least the top three. I got a whole lotta love for this girl.
So now it is prediction time, and MAN, this one is a toughie. If there was ever a time this season when the Judges' Save would be used, it'd be this week. But if it's not, I think Deandre will go home (as many predicted he would last week), despite the fact that he was so great this Wednesday. Rounding out the bottom three may be Colton (because he went first in the kiss-of-death spot, and because his preachiness may have been a turnoff to some), and maybe Heejun, who despite redeeming himself was still the technically weakest vocalist of the night. But really, it could be anyone--or none of them! All I know is, Wednesday's emotional episode is about to be followed by one very emotional Thursday results show.