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'American Idol' recap: The top 12 reach Nirvana

March 17, 2011 |  9:32 am

RM__RAY6883 The top 12 stepped it up on Wednesday night's "American Idol," delivering a series of rousing performances that, for once, made the judges' unrelenting enthusiasm seem justified. 

As Randy Jackson and Jennifer Lopez would really like you to know, we have a competition! A fierce competition! A hot competition! Some of these people (and for this, I'll break out the Randy "right there!" point) are in it to win it!

Sure, there were stumbles, but something about the songs from their birth years (and  childhood reminiscences) awakened something in these 12 young performers.

And when I say young, I do mean young. As Steven Tyler said to James Durbin, who, born in 1989, is actually far from this year's youngest contestant, "I've got leftover sandwiches under my bed older than you." Those sandwiches were already antiques by the time Thia Megia (1995) and Lauren Alaina (1994) were born.

But there's no time to ruminate about how old we are, and just what we may have been doing with our lives (or with whom, or what our hair looked like as we did it) in 1987, the year Jacob Lusk came into this world; we have performances to discuss. Let's take them in order of performance:

Naima Adadepo: Tonight we learn that Naima's mother is a jazz vocalist and that the most difficult thing about the competition for Naima is being away from her own children, ages 1 and 3. Naima performed Tina Turner's "What's Love Got to Do With It" (1984), strutting across the stage in platform heels, and I'm thinking she may soon be able to spend a lot more time with those kids. Steven said something about her opening up "a can of whoopdidoo on us tonight," but both Randy and Jennifer chided Naima for going off pitch. I'm not sure what a can of whoopdidoo is, but Randy and Jennifer were right. And it's gonna be hard to stay in this competition for long if you can't hit the notes.

Paul McDonald: In his pre-performance segment, we learned that Paul was losing his voice and saw him looking cute as a kid in a cowboy outfit. Then we saw him looking cute onstage, performing Elton John's "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" (1984). His voice was definitely rough, even breaking, in spots, and I wasn't quite swaying along in blissland, as Jennifer was. But I agree with the judges that Paul's distinct voice and performance style can put over songs even when the vocals are not top notch. Or, as Steven put it, Paul charms us by coming on like "cool dude in a loose mood." One with very white teeth. (Fun Paul fact: He planned to become a pediatric dentist before setting his sights on a music career.)

Thia Megia: Is it just me, or are Thia's days starting to look numbered? She started so strong, but once the competition really kicked off on the "Idol" stage, I'm with Randy, she's just bored the whoopdidoo (to borrow Steven's word) out of me. For starters, her song choices are consistently ill advised, in this case turning in a sepia-toned version of "Colors of the Wind" by Vanessa Williams (1995). Lovely vocal tone and a sweet smile won't take Thia all the way unless she starts picking better songs. It might not even take her much further.

James Durbin: I like that James played with dolls (or at least one doll) when he was a little boy and that he dismisses his mother's clearly oft-told story about how even when he sang his ABCs, he had perfect pitch. I thought his performance of Bon Jovi's "I'll Be There for You" (1989) was pretty good; not as hands-in-the-air-worthy as Jennifer did ("Every time you get up there, it brings me such joy," she gushed), but I did like the pyrotechnics at the end. Steven promised to jump on stage and perform with James during the finale, telling Ryan, "That man right there has a rich vein of inner crazy. I'll join him." Who knows whether James will make it all the way to the end, but one imagines that he'll at least survive until next week.

Haley Reinhart: Haley, we learn, gets her musical talent from her parents, who are in a band: Her mom is the lead singer; her dad the lead guitarist. Haley actually does pretty well with Whitney Houston's "I'm Your Baby Tonight" (1990), moving around the stage a little more comfortably than she has in the past, which makes Jennifer's note about her onstage moves, while valid, seem a little mistimed. But who can focus on what the judges have to say about Haley's performance when there's the red lipstick on her face and cheek to fixate on? Ryan, thank goodness, comes to Haley's rescue with a tissue, and Haley jokes about her "first red lipstick massacre." I find Haley's good humor endearing, but will it be enough to overcome Randy's observation that she still seems to be casting about for a musical identity? Will Haley be back to give Steven "more blues," as requested? We shall see.

Stefano Langone: Oh, my gosh. Stefano's parents are almost as cute as he is. And his dad, from whom Stefano says he inherited his love of music (just as his dad got it from his own music-store-owning father), kind of killed me when he told Stefano, "We're proud of you, man." Stefano definitely gave his folks something to be proud of with his pitch-perfect rendition of Simply Red's (OK, Randy -- Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes') "If You Don't Know Me by Now" (1989). The judges were as impressed as I was. Randy called it the best performance of the night so far and compared Stefano to an Olympic athlete who set the bar high and then slammed it. Steven said Stefano was going to make musical mentor Jimmy Iovine even more famous than he already is. Jennifer also loved it but wanted Stefano to connect more with the audience. But if the audience doesn't know (and love) Stefano by now –- after a series of knockout performances -- it is never gonna know him.

Pia Toscano: If Stefano's dad loosened the lid on my emotions, those photos of little-girl Pia with her (late, loved) grandpa knocked it right off. Pia overcame a bad outfit (what was that white satiny harem-pantsuit?) to deliver a soaring rendition of Whitney Houston's "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" (1988), collecting major kudos from the judges. "You are why this show is called 'American Idol,' " Steven said, giving a high, if confusing, compliment. Jennifer applauded Pia for picking something "uptempo." And Randy got himself all pumped up about how Pia was "in the competition to win it!" Your little girl did you proud, Grandpa!

Scott McCreery: Clouding my thoughts about Scotty is the fact that my very own 7-year-old son dressed as Elvis Presley this Halloween, practiced curling his lip and said to those who gave him candy while he was trick-or-treating, "Thank you, thank you very much" -– just like Scotty. Couple that with the endearing fact that Scotty's parents gamely sang his  "Baby lock them doors …" refrain, and add in Scotty's range-expanding performance of Travis Tritt's "Can I Trust You With My Heart" (1993), in which he hit (and held) notes we haven't heard him hit before, and I'm resold on this country boy.

Karen Rodriguez: I'm thinking this may be Karen's last performance, and here's why: 1) She has a strange preoccupation with celebrity, building on last week's Selena-doll creepiness with repeated references to her sister's obsession with Nick Jonas. 2) She really looked ridiculous in that "Star Trek"-babe outfit: the retro hair, the futuristic dress, the hip boots -- what era are we supposed to be in again? 3) Her voice, while workmanlike, doesn't have anything truly distinctive about it. There's only so long she can use the fact that she can sing parts of pop songs in Spanish (Steven calls it her "ethnic-what-it-is-ness") -- this time on Taylor Dayne's "Love Will Lead You Back" (1989) -- as a reason to stay in the competition. If she does hang in there for another week, it may be because her mother was so adorable. Mama Rodriguez I'd vote for.

Casey Abrams: If Casey isn't making news for hospitalization, he's making it for his musical choices. He returned to "Idol" Wednesday night with a risky song pick: Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (1991) –- the first time Nirvana has been performed on the "Idol" stage, we're told. Was it too risky? Casey wondered before he went onstage (and after we learned that his "older" parents really crack each other up). He didn't care, he decided: It sums up a generation. The judges actually seemed unsure what to make of Casey's performance. Jennifer termed it "screamy screechy," but Randy and Steven hailed Casey for his courage, his "crazy" and his commitment to art over commerce. Honestly, Casey just seemed like he was having fun up there. Whatever America thought of it, I think, at this point, Casey has credit to burn.


Lauren Alaina: This was the night that, for me, Lauren finally truly proved herself worthy of all that "the one" talk she stirred up during auditions. I'm still a little irritated by the cutesy, giggly thing she does when she's not singing (though I have to give her credit for flummoxing Ryan -- er … Peaches? -- with that moustache-adorned surgical mask). On Wednesday night, Lauren was more subdued than usual because she had the flu. But did that affect her performance? Not adversely. Her take on Melissa Etheridge's "I'm the Only One" (1994) really kicked. "Cold or not, whatever's happening," Randy said. "That was very nice … So have a cold every week." Steven couldn't even seem to come up with one of his confounding what-it-ises, gushing only, "You're beautiful … you're a shining star."

Jacob Lusk: Performing last -– after even his own adorably music-impaired mother –- Jacob brought his gospel flavor (or as he termed it, his "Lusky stank") to Heart's "How Do I Get You Alone?" (1987). It was, as Lusk's performances always seem to be, intense. (As Jennifer said, he gives himself completely to each and every performance.) Randy used the word "caressed" to describe what Jacob did to the notes at one point, then returned to his usual vocabulary, enthusiastically barking, "Jacob is in it to win it!" Steven said, "Gospel had a baby, and they named it Jacob Lusk."

Bottom line: I'm thinking Naima, Karen and probably Haley (but maybe Thia) for the bottom three. Your predictions?

Full Show Tracker coverage of "American Idol"

-- Amy Reiter

Photo: Lauren Alaina performs on "American Idol" on Wednesday. Credit: Ray Mickshaw / Fox