I can’t get no satisfaction — not when it comes to American Idol‘s Season 12 theme nights, anyway.
I know, I know: A couple weeks back I put together a gallery of potential alternatives to the usual “Songs That Inspire” and “Songs From the Year You Were Born” — and I’d actually included “’80s Rock” and “No Ballads Allowed” among my 22 suggestions. So you think that Fox’s official announcement of “Classic Rock, No Ballads” for Top 7 night would’ve been cause for nothing but a joyful Headbangers Ball up in Casa Slezak.
Alas, the problem this week wasn’t as much concept as it was execution. First of all, Burnell’s post-performance chat with Ryan Seacrest hinted what most of us know too well: Idol persists in foisting a limited list of pre-cleared songs on its finalists, thereby stifling their creativity and imagination and ensuring we’re doomed to hear the umpteenth version of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” or “You Give Love a Bad Name” or “The Letter.” Plus, Nigel Lythgoe’s borderline phobic treatment of songs written after the Year 2000 is becoming almost comical in its absurdity.
And don’t even get me started about the fact that Amber essentially sang a ballad. Or the fact that, in the interest of a “redemption edit,” Angie somehow got away with a 2003 Evanescence hit which prompted the producers to drop the modifier “Classic” and turn it into the much more expansive-sounding “Rock Night.” Is it any wonder they had the final two performance slots this week? (Subtlety has never been Nigel’s strong suit.)
Thankfully, a handful of performances managed to cut through the “been here, done this” aura that swept across the stage like so much dry ice. And hey, as my Twitter follower @mjdipaolo pointed out, at least the show seems to have put the SwayBots back in the quarantine barn down on the farm (if you’ll excuse a Walking Dead Season 2 reference). With that said, let’s jump to tonight’s set list and letter grades for every performance.
Burnell Taylor: Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love A Bad Name” | Look, I understand rock ‘n roll isn’t in Burnell’s “wheelhouse,” but he performed his Bon Jovi cover with such an absence of enthusiasm you might’ve mistakenly thought he was on the Martha Stewart show and learning how to correctly fold a fitted sheet. At best, the performance was a kid waving a white flag with embarrassment and begging for a free pass into next week, when he can get back to performing a ballad at the mic stand while moving nothing but his hands. At worst, though, it was an 18-year-old already so stubbornly attached to a narrow idea of who he is (or wants to be) as an artist, that he can’t be bothered to get creative, find a fresh approach to a new song or give us anything other than depressing karaoke. (For my money, the most honest feedback from the judges was Keith’s howl of laughter as the cameras cut away from the performance and to the judges’ table.) Sure, based on overall body of work, Burnell deserves to outlast Lazaro, but with non-efforts like this, it’ll be hard to muster up outrage if he doesn’t. Grade: D+
Angie Miller & Lazaro Arbos: Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” | For the second consecutive week, Lazaro proved his inability to handle learning the lyrics to more than one song per episode. Angie tried gamely to cover her partner’s missed cues and mumbled delivery, but by the midway point, it seemed as though the volume on her mic had been turned down, transforming the number into a showcase for the show’s background singers. That’s when my internal Siri tried to call up a memory of Joshua Ledet and/or Fantasia’s awesome “Crazy Little Thing” covers from prior seasons — heck, I’d have settled for Tim Freakin’ Urban’s — but like Clarice Starling hearing the screaming of the lambs, some horrors can’t be drown out. Grade: D
Kree Harrison: Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” | Let me preface this by saying that I think Kree Harrison has an absolutely beautiful voice. But contrary to Mariah Carey’s critique, I’m really starting to feel like Kree doesn’t always understand which songs are best suited to her instrument. I mean, “Piece of My Heart” is essentially The Giving Tree in human form: It’s about a protagonist who’s offered her man “everything a woman possibly can” — and you can hear that well of desperation in every tremble and croak of Janis Joplin’s raggedly warble. Kree’s version had none of those rough edges, and alas, none of its gut-level emotion, either. I want to give her a pass, considering she was dealing with a pinched nerve (and as Keith reiterated, another absurd pair of heels), but I’m not certain that Kree would’ve ever possessed the wild abandon needed for “Piece of My Heart” — even if she’d been in perfect health (and not saddled with movement-constricting footwear). I don’t want this to be a case of me loving the idea of a contestant more than the contestant’s actual musical output, but it’s starting to feel that way. Grade: B
[Side note: "Piece of My Heart" has now become such a knee-jerk, go-to anthem for rock weeks on reality singing competitions, I'm actually starting to root for somebody to tackle the other "Piece of My Heart" -- the one released by Tara Kemp back in the early '90s! At least it hasn't been done to death, right?]
Candice Glover & Burnell Taylor: The Box Tops’ “The Letter” | I’m still obsessed with Carly Smithson and Michael Johns’ ’70s-swaggery results-show rendition of this ditty a few seasons back, which is why I was extra stoked that Candice and Burnell took it in a funky-blues direction (look at me refusing to use the term “made it their own”). Keith was right that Burnell was a shining star, while Candice opened up a whole galaxy when she came wailing on the second verse, but their genuine chemistry made the stage-presence chasm a little less pronounced (aside from those moments when Burnell’s super-stiff arm began to spasm — probably because it wasn’t being allowed to “sculpt the head in the “Hello” video). (Also, a random question, but when was the last time “chasm” and “spasm” got to be in a paragraph together?) Grade: A-
Janelle Arthur: Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right” | I’d be lying if I didn’t point out that Janelle hit a handful (or two) of wobbly notes on the verses of Billy Joel’s hard-charging pop ditty. But hey, at least girlfriend was fully embracing the uptempo theme and working the stage like we’d all come to her concert (and, dagnabit, she was gonna make sure we all got our money’s worth). Better still, as Nicki noted, she’s managed to stay authentically country — but at the same time, show enough confidence to choose songs that, on paper, are daring enough that they could easily turn into catastrophes. No, she doesn’t quite have an engine in her vocal cords the size of Carrie Underwood’s, but then again, I don’t remember Carrie Underwood ever being this much fun during her Season 4 run. Grade: B+
Lazaro Arbos: Queen’s “We Are The Champions” | If I’m being fair, Lazaro’s performance (with maybe 70 percent of notes hit and a lot of aimless wandering) wasn’t anywhere near as painful as his violet and black-sequined tux shirt (paired with turquoise pants!), but it also didn’t have any more originality or gusto than what you’d hear on an average Thursday night karaoke competition at your local pub, either. Nicki can talk about Lazaro’s “Hispanic tease” and Mariah can lie and say things like “you did a good job,” but that’s only because brutal honesty makes Lazaro cry. And Lazaro’s tears make people vote. And when people vote for Lazaro, that means Kree or Candice or Amber or Janelle wind up in jeopardy. (Uh-oh. Why do I have a sinking feeling one of those ladies is going to wind up in jeopardy?) Lemme wrap this paragraph up before I put any other heinous thoughts into the universe. Grade: C+
Janelle Arthur, Amber Holcomb & Kree Harrison: Billy Joel’s “It’s Still Rock & Roll to Me” | This is a prime example of the whole not being equal to the sum of its parts. Or of a trio being as cheesy as an Applebee’s entree. Or of Amber’s jeans having holes large enough that a full sized adult goat could’ve daintily stepped through ‘em. Okay, so every sentence of this paragraph has made less sense than the one that preceded it: Hey, could everybody reading this send me one of these? Grade: C
Candice Glover: The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” | I can’t disagree with Nicki about “Satisfaction” not being Candice’s best song selection of the season — ultimately, it’s one of those ditties that’s very hard to reinvent, or even drag out of its mid-’60s origins. Nevertheless, even with a broken toe, Ms. Glover managed to ugly up her notes with just the right amount of snarl and growl — and more so than any of her competitors, genuinely capture the rock ‘n roll spirit that was supposed to have pervaded the entire evening. Her disdain was palpable for that man on the radio with his useless information, and the high note she selected for the line “fire my imagination” was as flawless as it was unexpected. Plus, as Nicki said, she put her back into it with a physicality that was neither timid nor tame. I worry that Candice got a bit of a “diva” edit in her pre-performance package — which closed with the easily misconstrued quote “sometimes I want to punch [Burnell] in the face” — and is maybe getting set up as this season’s shock boot. But come on America, a Season 12 without Candice would be like Profiler without Ally Walker: Utter blasphemy! Grade: A-
Amber Holcomb: Heart’s “What About Love” | Congratulations to Amber’s incredible gams for scoring a Standing O from the judges! Oh, come on, it had to be the legs (or maybe the legs, plus the gold-and-black brocade jacket) seeing how Amber’s vocal on “What About Love” got a little strained at the very top of her register, and was delivered with the exact same intonations Amber’s used to cook up ballads for the last six or seven weeks. Granted, a lot of it was beautiful — as Randy noted, girlfriend is just effortless when she’s weaving in those little Whitney-isms to her song choices. But this was one of those moments I appreciated more on an intellectual “oh, she has such big talent!” level than from a visceral “damn! I’m feeling this all the way to the gut!” place. Which made it extra weird when Nicki started salivating about being “pulled in emotionally” and Amber believing every lyric she was delivering. Potato, po-tah-to, I guess. Grade: B+
Angie Miller: Evanescence’s “Bring Me To Life” | Uncle Nigel pulled out so many tricks — special lighting, cool Tetris-y backdrop, a MONSTER wind machine, achingly loving closeups, more smoke! — to drive home the “Angie is back!” edit that I have expected to see a kitchen sink roll past guest guitarist Orianthi’s boots. But all the ridiculous trappings aside, Angie’s actual vocal performance ranked right at/near the top of the pack this week. Evanescence’s massive rock ballad sounds like it could easily pinch-hit as an end-of-Act-One ballad from a modern Broadway musical, and thus, Angie’s crisp enunciation and “I’m looking into your soul!” camera stares didn’t seem out of place. Girlfriend hit every note square on the nose, and while the judges whined a bit (“you should’ve stayed at the piano longer!” “you shouldn’t have worried about your shirt blowing up!”) it all seemed like nitpicking, or maybe Nigel yelling “Don’t go overboard! We’ll start the gushing next week!” into their earpieces. Grade: A-
And with that, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of Season 12 Top 7 performance night? Did it rock, or was it all a bit too variety show? Who was your favorite? Who’s going to be in trouble come results night? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol-related news, recaps, interviews and videos, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!