Dubious claims dropped faster and more frequently during American Idol‘s Top 6 performance show than J.Lo’s legendary backside in her latest music video. Phillip Phillips kidded that the U.S. government is running tests to make Jessica Sanchez’s voice even more poweful. Skylar is a “thick-boned” girl, noted Hollie (who’s been in this country — and in front of the Idol judges — long enough that she really ought to know the term “thick-skinned.”) And Randy Jackson claimed to have invented the word “ginormous“ right there at the judges’ table. (I know I’ve been suggesting for years that we pitch in and buy the Dawg a thesaurus, but now it’s clear we’re going to have to go full throttle and purchase a dictionary and a subscription to Weekly Reader, too.)
Still, in the midst of all the foolery and half-truths, one statement — also from Mr. Jackson — stood out for its genuine truthiness: Each and every member of the Season 11 Top 6 is ”ready to jump on the charts” right this very minute. Sure, we can quibble over the commercial viability of their song choices, or whether they’re “current” enough to find a place on airwaves dominated by neon-clad cavepeople and that chick with a dollar-sign in her name who Tweets pictures of herself urinating in the street. But after a half-dozen terrific covers of Queen’s greatest hits, followed by a solid round of “Contestants’ Choices,” there’s no denying Idol‘s latest crop of contenders are a seriously stellar sextet. Let Jimmy Iovine sign ‘em all, and get the revolution underway, yes? (Ke$ha can get a job as one of their roadies!)
Still, in the words of Skylar Laine, the show must go on, so let’s get down to the business of discussing the night’s 12 solo performances. (That Queen medley featuring Brian May and Roger Taylor was a lot of fun, too, even if it revealed Elise and Skylar as the true rock royalty of Season 11, and gave me my first flash of an all-female Final 2 that I could definitely support.)
Jessica Sanchez: “Bohemian Rhapsody” If I had to rank every Idol finalist over 11 seasons in order from most-likely to least-likely to utter the words “Mama, I just killed a man” in real life, Jessica would undoubtedly wind up in the Bottom 3. But once she opened her mouth and began to sing Queen’s epic anthem, it didn’t matter that her pixie form and meek smile lacked the inherent danger of a Bo Bice or an Adam Lambert or a Skylar “Diamond-Studded Pistol” Laine, or that she might not have the physical strength in her thumb and forefinger to successfully pull an actual trigger. Jessica perfectly captured the mournful, haunting quality of the verses, while successfully transitioning into and out of the cacophonous fury of the uptempo bridge. “Bohemian Rhapsody” really isn’t a song that should be condensed to 90 seconds, but to me, this was a moment where Jessica stopped perfectly coloring within the lines, and gave us a glimpse of an original artist she might someday become. And unlike J.Lo, I don’t think she needed run around or whip her hair back and forth to accomplish it. (We’ve already got Willow Smith for that brand of addictive ridiculata.)
Skylar Laine: “The Show Must Go On” I’ll admit it: I’ve been completely under the spell of Skylar’s voice for several weeks now. But even so, I don’t think I could’ve predicted the awe-inspiring power and passion she brought to Queen’s most haunting composition. As J.Lo correctly noted, Skylar has a way of “really articulating every part of the song,” and indeed, as the Mississippi teenager got to the line “Inside my heart is breaking, my makeup may be flaking, but my smile still stays on,” she managed to infuse it with a world-weariness and drama that defied her tender age. And just as impressive as the emotion she brought to the song was the way Skylar’s vocal rose and rose and rose with the exceedingly difficult melody. I found myself holding my breath — fearful Skylar would lose control of the steering, veer right off the edge of the cliff, as she sped toward that treacherous final series of glory notes — but nope, she made every hairpin turn without the slightest difficulty. I’ve listened to this performance 10 or 11 times now, and I still can’t think of anything else in Season 11 that can trump it.
Joshua Ledet: “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” Joshua may have built his reputation as Idol‘s Gospel-inspired balladeer, but to me, his best performances are the ones where he sheds his choir robe and gets down with the git-down. From the old-fashioned microphone to the black jacket with leather lapels, Joshua embodied the swing and the jive of the lyrics, strutting the stage with a secular swagger, bending his knees with the rhythm, and eventually losing his damn mind (in the best possible way) over what is indeed a crazy little thing called love. The way Joshua played with the outer boundaries of his vocals — the flirty swoop on “cool cool sweat,” the gutteral growl on “take a long ride on my motorbike” — might have seemed like wretched excess if he hadn’t done it with such consummate casualness. Dude is unstudied to the point where it’s like an outside entity takes over his body and voice — and all you can do is sit back, nod your head, and let that same spirit raise your Gospel hand for you. Amen!
Elise Testone: “I Want It All” Who needed the infographics backdrop spelling out the words “I Want It All” when we had Elise’s sultry vocals delivering the message in such sublime fashion? Indeed, the rocker chick who looked like a front-runner after “Vienna” and “Whole Lotta Love” got her groove back wrapping herself around a melody that sounded like it had been written just for her. Elise is a lot like Joshua in that her voice has a multitude of settings, and when she’s got the right song, she can break ‘em all out in a 90-second performance without seeming the slightest bit strained. The way she screamed “GIMME!” and then finished the thought with a wriggling, breathy “what I know is mine,” had me hooting and hollering from my couch. Idol has taught Elise that rock anthems are her wheelhouse, she told Ryan in her post-performance interview, and I have to say, if she sticks with that gameplan, she might achieve her second “underdog rising” story arc of the season.
Phillip Phillips: “Fat Bottomed Girls” There’s not a whole lot to say about Phillip’s raucous, winking cover of this raucous, winking ditty. Dude hit his notes squarely, and infused ‘em with his trademark growl, but more importantly, he found a way to translate last week’s legendary/swoon-inducing sound bite — “Does your daddy let you date?” — into musical form. So even if he winds up in the Bottom 3 (a distinct possibility) I don’t think he’s at risk of elimination.
Hollie Cavanagh: “Save Me” “Just be up there having a good time,” yammered J.Lo, which seemed like an odd critique for a ballad with a chorus that goes “Save me, save me, save me/ I can’t face this life alone/ Save me, save me, save me/ I’m naked and I’m far from home.” Um, was Hollie supposed to slap on a pageant smile and throw some jazz hands into the mix? Phooey! From my living room couch, I felt like this was Hollie’s most powerful, emotionally connected performance of the season, and instead of hearing a talented teenage kid cover a grown person’s hit record, I heard a young woman bring a familiar melody to life in a new and different way. (Yeah, that’s another way of saying she made it her own.) If I had one suggestion for Hollie, though, it’d be this: Ditch the treacherous heels next time, and take to the stage in flats, or barefoot even. You’ll never be able to truly take ownership of the stage if you’re teetering on stilletos that would only need a couple extra inches to qualify as stilts.
Jessica Sanchez: Luther Vandross’ “Dance With My Father” Jessica brought a palpable angst (and her usual pitch perfection) to a ballad that was already covered once this season by Jermaine Jones — but it was kind of like staging an Iron Chef competition and making a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese. “Dance With My Father” is such a thuddingly mawkish slice of hokum — and the literal backdrop of a silhouetted dad raising his baby into the air was so corny — it really seemed beneath Jessica’s talents. And in a competition this tight, that song-choice misstep might be enough to put her at risk of elimination.
Skylar Laine: Jason Aldean’s “Tattoos on This Town” Skylar would’ve had to perform “Tattoos on This Town” while strapped to a flaming trapeze to match the outsized intensity of “The Show Must Go On,” but on the other hand, the sweetly sentimental Jason Aldean track is probably a good representation of who she wants to be as an artist. (Randy: “Yo. Yo. Women can’t be artists, dude!”) And while the opening verse had a slightly grating nasal quality to it, Skylar’s vocals seemed to open up as the performance chugged along, ending in a vocal run so strong and spectacular that I might go so far as to call it downright Underwood-esque.
Joshua Ledet: India.Arie’s “Ready for Love” To quote the great philosopher DeAndre Brackensick: “Oooh, Lawd!” Honestly, I’ve been waiting for Joshua to give a week off to the Gospel choir that’s taken up residence in his dressing room, to strip down an arrangement so we can truly hear all the colors of his voice, and with “Ready to Love,” he accomplished that and so much more. Sure, Joshua’s vocal was impressive as ever — that last run dipped so low it hit bedrock — but perhaps more importantly, I think this performance silenced doubters who’ve claimed Joshua can’t bring emotional depth to his material. Cornball as it may sound, with this India.Arie cover, Joshua was just a guy, standing in front of 20 million people, asking for someone to love him. (Bonus points for Mr. Ledet and Ms. Laine for her post-performance teasing about his “12 Standing Os!” over the course of the past nine weeks. I hope voters don’t hold that over-the-top display of judges’ pimpery against the guy, though.)
Elise Testone: Jimi Hendrix’s “Bold as Love” “You can’t pick cherries with your back to the tree,” said Steven, in a poetic critique of Elise’s somewhat obscure song choice. But actually, it is possible — if not entirely efficient — to harvest fruit with one’s hand behind one’s back. And I like to think that’s exactly what Elise accomplished. Hendrix’s original isn’t exactly a singer’s kind of song: It’s sort of a sing-speak shuffle with the guitar front and center. But Elise somehow twisted the tune to fit her sultry brand of jazz-rock improvosation. Maybe all the riffs and runs — and the manipulation of that giant orange train on her dress — was too much information for Randy to handle, but this is a dude who thinks he invented the word “ginormous.” I say we give J.Lo the last word on this performance: “You slayed the song so hard that it didn’t even matter!” Preach, Jenny, preach!
Phillip Phillips: Dave Matthews Band’s “The Stone” I’m going to admit I never before heard “The Stone,” and after Phillip’s cover, I’m not really sure if ever need to hear it again. To me, the Georgia peach played second fiddle to his saxophonist and fiddler on a song with no real hook or shape or, well, much of anything. But I also am fully aware that my lack of love for “The Stone” is entirely subjective. A whole lot of people love Dave Matthews, and I respect that — knowing that’s the type of artist he wants to be — Phillip took us on a journey to DMB-ville, whether or not that location is anywhere near a confetti shower at the Nokia theater in late May. I will say that Randy using the word “artist” 146 times during his critique of Phillip was a little galling, since his praise for this male contestant was built on the same exact foundation he used to slam Elise. But who am I kidding? Looking for consistency and fairness from Randy is like looking for a working septic tank without sewage.
Hollie Cavanagh: Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb” I’m just going to revert back to what I said in my post-show wrapup on Wednesday night. Hollie’s rendition of “The Climb” was like the first dandelion peeping up in your front yard after a long, cold winter: Really, really pretty, even if I’m not sure we’ll still remember it come summertime. That said, the metallic-flower top of Hollie’s halter dress was spectacular, and she really did seem to feel the lyrics of this ballad that was perfect for her age and experience. She’s just bein’ Hollie, I suppose.
Letter Grades for the Week
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