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'American Idol' recap: The top 9 rock out

April 7, 2011 | 10:04 am

_PG27903 The top nine took the stage on "American Idol" on Wednesday night to sing songs written by inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, which the show reminded us is an "esteemed institution featuring all the greats."

After Steven Tyler, himself a Hall of Fame inductee, explained the hall's importance in an opening montage, and fingered a few costumes from rock legends like Paul McCartney and Elton John (the focus of last week's "Idol"), he kissed a statue of himself, depicted mid-shriek, and noted: "Second prettiest bust I've kissed all day."

It was Tyler's best line on a night that featured a lot of gushing from the judges over performances that were both gush-worthy and, honestly, somewhat less so.

To wit:

Jacob Lusk, "Man in the Mirror": "I'm not a rock and roll guy," Lusk, who rarely seems to go anywhere near a stage without a gospel choir backing him up, reminds us in his pre-performance video. After emoting his way through Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" during rehearsal, Lusk decides the song's a little unsubtle and sexy for him, and instead goes with Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror," then informs us that if we don't like it, and he ends up in the bottom three, it won't be his fault: "It will be because everyone in America wasn't ready to look at themselves in the mirror." Then he skips around the stage, channeling any anxiety he must have felt from what appeared to be an earpiece issue into some pelvic thrusts that wouldn't have been out of place in the Gaye song.

Maybe it's because he told me if I didn't love him it was my own fault –- or perhaps it’s the over-emotional delivery and crazy vibrato or the fact that he is often overpowered by his backup singers (In this case, he essentially sang a duet with the woman who co-wrote this song) –- but I'm finding myself increasingly irritated by Lusk. (His adorable duet partner, however, I'd totally vote for.) The judges loved him, though: "Every time you sing you bring another little piece of yourself to the party," Tyler said. Jennifer Lopez complimented him on believing in himself and sticking "to what feels right" for him, calling it a "beautiful performance … perfect in every way." Randy Jackson thought the song was "hot," revealed Lusk's "moral conviction" and a "deeper message," and was filled with Jacob "moments," noting, "Dude, I'm so proud of you." Only Ryan Seacrest mentioned Lusk's discomfiting dance moves. (Why are only the women assessed by the judges on their movements onstage, while the men are given a pass? Discuss!) "I don't know what was more powerful, your voice or your hip thrusts there," Seacrest said, leaving me wondering if maybe he wasn't the new Simon Cowell.

Haley Reinhart, "Piece of My Heart": Haley, who has oft been compared to Janis Joplin by the judges, decides to give the people what they want: a Janis Joplin song, which she shreds, topping her season's-best performance from last week. I briefly find myself concerned that, after the song is over, she'll have another red-lipstick incident, but no, her chin finishes the song clean and Haley gets clean marks from the judges. Lopez tells Reinhart that she's "showing everybody that you're a contender" and that they "need to be careful" of her, adding, somewhat confusingly, " You keep going like that, you're going to be around for a minute." Jackson loves that Reinhart  showed off the "bluesy kind of soul thing" that made them love her when they first saw her, telling her "welcome back." And Tyler compares her favorably to Joplin, saying, "Haley, I couldn't find nothing wrong with that … You took it up a few notches … You nailed it."

Casey Abrams, "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?": Abrams had originally wanted to sing Sting's "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic," but mentor Jimmy Iovine and guest mentor aren't feeling that song for him. (Someone calls it lounge-y, and I'm pretty sure I heard the phrase "very Sammy" uttered.) Chastened by his near ouster and save, Abrams' apparently no longer a man inclined to ignore advice from above, as he did back in his Nirvana-singing days. He switches to Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Have You Ever Seen the Rain," cracks out his trusty upright bass and gives the most adorable performance of the night. (He's much cuter without the bushy beard and whopping mop of hair.)

Jackson is excited, saying he's not only made Creedence Clearwater Revival and John Fogerty "proud," but that he's made the upright bass, which Jackson plays, "cool." "You've put it in popular music," he enthuses. "Casey is revolutionary." Tyler cracks that Abrams "ought to put some wheels on that thing and ride it around town," calling him a "true musician … the full package." And Lopez sounds maybe more fannish than ever. "I'm paying top dollar to be in the front row," she says. Seacrest asks Abrams if he feels more pressure because the judges used their one save on him. Abrams responds that he feels like he has to give "150%" in his performances now. "I want to make them proud," he says of the judges. "I want to make America proud, but I want to make these guys proud." I'm loving humble, but still funny and charming, Abrams. 

Lauren Alaina, "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman": Another contestant the "Idol" process has brought low, only to slowly build back up, Alaina tells us in her pre-performance video (in which she charmingly appears sans makeup) that she's "getting back my confidence week by week." She sings a perfectly respectable rendition of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," but ironically has been styled to look as unnatural as possible, with her hair in some kind of odd (apparently Gwen Stefani-inspired) faux-hawk that makes her look a little like a chicken when she moves her head and neck. Tyler and Lopez are over the moon. Lopez rolls out her favorite adjective, "amazing," while Tyler again declares his love for Alaina and then tells her that, although she came into the competition a little girl, she's growing up, and "Tonight you are a natural born woman." Jackson, clearly reluctant to be the killjoy, notes that the song was difficult and that others have killed it on the "Idol" stage in seasons past, before damning Alaina with faint praise, though she doesn't seem to notice: "I think you did a good job," he says. On the bright side, Christian Slater is in the house with his adorable daughter, and she's clearly a fan.

James Durbin, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps": After weeks of rocking out and showing off his wrestling moves, Durbin is ready to put his sensitive side on display. "You're never going to advance as an artist and as a person if you don't take these chances," he tells us, sounding far less preachy about it than Lusk did when he told us in his backstage soundbite that we had to change ourselves to change the world. His performance starts off a little shaky, but then builds. By the end, he's wet-eyed and emotionally wrung out. Lopez says it's "nice to see the other side" of Durbin, and good of him to share the pain and vulnerability that "lives so deeply inside" of him. Jackson also is touched by "the real, true emotional side of James Durbin," and credits him for taking a chance, concluding, "You did a good job, dawg." Tyler states the obvious, "Not only did your guitar weep, but you did, too." Then Durbin reveals that his song and his tears are for his family "and everything that I'm shooting for," which is sweet.

Scotty McCreery, "That's All Right":  For rock and roll week, Scotty decides to pay tribute to his childhood hero, Elvis Presley, tackling the song that put the King on the map, "That's All Right." The show plays it up as a risky departure for McCreery (country boy does rock and roll), but as far as I'm concerned, Elvis makes total sense for McCreery, whose voice is perfectly suited to tackle the King. Sure enough, McCreery sounds great, but his stage movements are more peculiar than ever. He does his vigorous pointing thing, bends over at odd angles, makes bizarre faces, and (oh my!) at one point seems tempted to do an Elvis hip shake, then (mercifully) gives that up to return to pointing and mugging. Then at the end, a bunch of girls run onstage to hug him.

The judges are similarly admiring. Jackson declares that McCreery is "in it to win it," has proved himself not to be a "one-trick pony" and notes that he's shown a side of himself that was previously unseen. "This was like a new Scotty, " he says. Tyler says, "I thought you were all hat and no cattle, but you brought Elvis into the house," and then waxes on mistily, reminding us of his elder status, by expressing the keen wish that music like Elvis' would come back into style. Lopez notes McCreery's emphatic moves, asking him if he watches rap or hip-hop videos, what with the pointing and all, because she's noticing that he has "a little bit of flavor." That's maybe the last thing I'd say about McCreery, but whatever.

Pia Toscano, "River Deep Mountain High": I love Pia Toscano. (At the moment, she and Abrams are my deep-heart favorites -– not only because of their musical talent, which is considerable, but also because they appear to be willing to work hard to improve themselves and please us.) And after this performance, I love her a whole lot more. She finally turned in that up-tempo number the judges have been begging for, and moved around the stage more. She nailed it.

The judges agreed. "You killed it," Tyler said, adding that Toscano ought to know that "there's a million guys in a million bars having a million drinks about you tonight." Tyler said Toscano was "really, really, really special up there," that she had "greatness" and advised her to continue to push herself by researching great performers, presumably to perfect her moves.  Jackson said that he "believed in" Toscano and that she showed him what he knew all along was there, then trotted out one of his favorite phrases for at least the second time of the evening: "Pia's in it to win it." Seacrest asked Toscano if it really felt as seamless to her as she made it look onstage. No, she revealed, she was "terrified" before every performance. Awww.

Stefano Langone, "When A Man Loves A Woman": In his pre-performance video, Stefano Langone looks a little worried about what awaits him onstage, but he does a pretty good job … for Langone: keeping his eyes open, not getting too schmaltzy with the notes. Regardless, now that I'm in over-him territory, there's no going back. Honestly, now that my heart's cooled on him, I don't even find him that cute anymore. Lopez, however, is still feeling the love, big-time. "Baby, baby, baby, baby," she begins, sounding surprisingly Bieber-esque. "I knew you had it in you ... That was beautiful ... I loved it." She felt the emotion, and that Langone was singing to somebody and about somebody, calling the performance "magic." Jackson tried to give his first measured response of the night: "The first part felt a little jerky to me," he began, before Lopez jumped all over him calling him "crazy, you're a crazy person." Beaten, Jackson settled on "I liked it, but I wasn't jumping up and down." Then Tyler entered the fray, saying he would have to "agree to disagree" with Jackson, and telling Langone that he liked the "old-timey" feel and the "passion." "Tonight, you nailed it," he said. Poor Jackson. Clearly, the guy never wanted to be Simon Cowell, and now he's stuck being the mean judge while Tyler gets to be the voice of amusing nonsense, minus the "dawg."

Paul McDonald, "Folsom Prison Blues": I have liked Paul McDonald, his whole singer-songwriter, laid-back vibe and his gritty voice are truly appealing (and his teeth sure do gleam), but it must be said: He's no Johnny Cash. Iovine and finally got him to crank up the energy level by telling him to act deranged (and then refusing to let him tone it down), and he turned in a spirited, confident performance, accompanying himself on guitar.  But his voice is not flattered by comparison to Cash's: It seemed high and thin in a song we're used to hearing low and booming. The judges didn't seem to mind. "I got three words for you, man, three words: I loved it," Jackson rapturously offered. Tyler called McDonald a "crazy character … a perfect imperfect boy," which he clearly meant as high praise, adding, "You rocked the house." Lopez said it was "right in your lane," adding that it was "a perfect way to end the show, good job."

So clearly, without guidance from the ever-admiring judges, we'll have to reach our own conclusions. I'm picking, let's see … Lusk, Lagone and McDonald for the bottom three. Those picks are based on my own preferences and not because I am afraid to look in the mirror, Lusk -- although actually, now that he mentions it, I am a little afraid to look in the mirror. The only one of those I'd be a little sad to see go is McDonald. What are your predictions/preferences? Who do you want to see sent home?

Full Show Tracker coverage of "American Idol"

-- Amy Reiter

Photo: Scotty McCreery performs in front of the judges on "American Idol" on Wednesday on Fox. Credit: Frank Micelotta / Fox.