'American Idol' recap: The top 5 do something old, something new
The top five "American Idol" contestants took the stage to sing two songs apiece -- one contemporary, one classic for a "Now & Then" theme -- Wednesday night. With only three weeks left until the finale, Ryan Seacrest warned us, the pressure was on.
"Who is it going to be?" Ryan wondered, surveying the remaining contestants. "One of them, that's for sure."
Thanks for the clarity, Ry.
Then, after Randy Jackson dispensed a few of his usual "in it to win it" platitudes and we learned that Sheryl Crow would be helping Jimmy Iovine mentor the contestants this week -- "The cold hard truth is that someone's going home," Crow reminded us -- we were off …
Song 1: 30 Seconds to Mars' "Closer to the Edge"
Pre-roll highlight: James and Sheryl sing a duet (and sound great), and she says, "I got to sing with James. I feel like I can officially retire now." Jimmy says he doesn't "think there's anything between him and greatness tonight." Expectations are clearly high.
The performance: James, hair spiked and wearing a sleeveless, studded vest (and a tail/scarf), gives one of his trademark energetic, concert-like performances, while Jennifer Lopez dances in her chair with an appreciative look on her face that could be read as pain if you didn't know any better.
Judges' response: Steven Tyler thinks James kicked it. Jennifer thinks he's "ready for stadiums" and that the competition is James' "to take." Randy thinks the song choice is an indication of where James can go as a contemporary artist and then tosses in an "in it to win it" before chanting, "He wants it, Ryan. He wants it." Ryan weighs in that James went "the full monty," confusing me, because I thought that expression had mostly come to mean taking off your clothes at this point, but I guess that's not what Ryan meant.
Pre-roll highlight: James, moved to tears by the song, leaves the studio and goes and sits facing a wall to gather his emotions. He explains that it has to do with his wife and child -- and that though it's difficult to be away from them during the competition, he's doing it all for them. Sheryl says that she hopes James can keep it together for the performance but that, if he can't, there's something "really honest" about that.
The performance: James stands at a mike and sings powerfully, moving himself to tears as he crescendos. He's clearly emotional in spots but manages to put those feelings into the song. Riveting. Afterward, he looks spent.
Judges' response: Randy thinks James' emotional outpouring but vocal control "is the mark of a truly great performer." Though all the notes weren't perfect, he says, "it was emotionally perfect." The competition, Randy tells James, is "yours to lose." Steven likes the intersection between the emotion and the vocals and says that, although it was "pitchy" in a "James Durbin kind of way" (whatever that means), the emotions were "incredible." Jennifer likes that James shows he's "not just some rocker" but has "a heart and soul." She adds that James is a "true, true artist" and is "serious about winning this thing." Ryan asks a still-shaky-looking James how he's doing, and he says he's "hanging in there," adding, gratuitously perhaps, "Every single week I leave everything on this stage, everything."
My take: It was a little strange to see James weeping in front of a wall and refusing to go back into the studio, but the audience loves James, the mentors love James, the judges love James, who doesn't love James? His journey from underdog (battling Tourette's and Asperger's) to frontrunner is a great storyline. And he seems to have more at stake in this competition (the wife and kid) than many of the other contestants. Depending on what happens in future weeks, and despite the fact that I couldn't see myself buying his album or anything, I think he's a pretty good bet for a win.
Song 1: Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown's "No Air"
Pre-roll highlight: In a conversation before his performance, Jacob tells Ryan he still thinks he can win the competition, adding that it means a lot to him to have made it out of Compton (lest you forget that's where he's coming from) and "have a positive impact." He decides to sing both parts in Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown's "No Air," on which he will be working with the song's original writer and producer. Jimmy says that, because tackling both parts will be so hard to do, we should all be very proud of Jacob for attempting it. That doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement.
The performance: Yeah, the song comes off as complicated and a little messy. Not one of Jacob's best moments. At the end of it, I'm thinking he's probably cooked.
Judges' response: Jennifer seems to have liked it, saying that although they know Jacob has "the showmanship" and some of the best vocals they've had on the "Idol" stage, she isn't sure what direction he's going to go in as an artist. Knowing that this is the sort of song that Jacob says he'd want to record, she says, will help him get to the top. Randy totally disagrees. He doesn't think it's the right direction for him, sees him more as a Luther Vandross than a Chris Brown or a Rihanna. Steven says he's still waiting for Jacob "to find a niche." Ryan asks Jacob who he is and where he wants to go. Jacob says, "I think I'm an artist that appeals to everybody," which doesn't seem all that promising.
Song 2: Everly Brothers/Roy Orbison's "Love Hurts"
Pre-roll highlight: Jacob is uncertain when Jimmy suggests the song for him, so Jimmy has Sheryl sing it, and Jacob instantly declares that he loves the song. Jimmy says Jacob has to do something that's going to "spread" his audience.
The performance: Jacob sings passionately, and though his voice breaks in the middle of a note, he doesn't let up. It feels a little weird, though, to hear him singing "It hurts, it hurts." And a quick shot of Anthony Hopkins in the audience after Jacob finishes up makes all that hurt seem vaguely sinister. But maybe that's just me.
Judges' response: Steven says he's a "sucker for passion" and tells Jacob, "Everybody got lost in you because you got lost in the song" and "that's a beautiful thing." Jennifer loves the way that Jacob hangs in there despite the "bobble in the middle" and that he brings out "the tricks at the end." Randy thinks Jacob "redeemed" himself and may have hit the highest note ever sung on the "Idol" stage -- "Mariah high," he calls it. "Jacob is back."
My take: I really do think Jacob is cooked now. His attempts to come out of the Vandross zone have fallen flat, and the Vandross zone is getting tired. I trust that, by coming this far, he'll find a career in music. I do want him to continue his journey out of Compton. But I don't need to hear more of his tremulous notes or watch him jump up and down this season. Am I being too harsh?
Song 1: Carrie Underwood's "Flat on the Floor"
Pre-roll highlight: Sheryl and Jimmy encourage Lauren to stand center stage and pour all her power into the song. Sheryl says she should plant her feet and think "Look where I am … I'm here." Jimmy says Lauren has "taken all the constructive criticism as fuel" and that she's ready to go out there and fight for it.
The performance: Lauren kicks it! She hits notes she's not hit and sings with renewed confidence and that great tone that has kept her in this competition week after week. Watching her, Jennifer dances and has that (appreciative) pained look on her face again.
Judges' response: Randy thinks Lauren is headed in the totally right direction "100%," calling the performance "energetic" and "amazing." "Lauren is in it, y'all," he declares. Steven says "the sky's the limit" for Lauren and echoes his original assessment, from way back at auditions, "I think you're it." Jennifer says Lauren "ate that up" and did what she had to do to prove she was ready to "rise to the top." Ryan says, "Talk about confidence. Good job!"
Song 2: Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody"
Pre-roll highlight: Lauren tells us she's singing "Unchained Melody" because it's her mom and dad's song. (Awww.) Jimmy notes that the song, which most people know from the movie "Ghost," "takes a lot of maturity" to sing and that Lauren is going to have to reinterpret it to find out what it means to her.
The performance: Lauren's dress and hair are a bit retro pageanty, and the song gets a little sleepy in the middle, but her voice sounds strong, and it's kind of interesting to see what she can do with a slow, melodic love song.
Judges' response: Jennifer punts, saying there's "nothing to judge there." "That was a beautiful song sung beautifully by you," she tells Lauren. Uh … thanks? Randy says Lauren can "sing like a bird" and thought it a "very tender moment." Steven thinks Lauren's singing is "so ripe, so there," which sounds a little creepy coming from him. He adds that he could listen to Lauren sing "all night."
My take: I didn't love Lauren's second song choice, really, but I do love her voice. She is the contestant whose album I'd say I'm most likely to buy -- or at least whose single I figure I'd be most likely to crank up on my car radio. I hope she makes it safely through the next few weeks.
Song 1: Montgomery Gentry's "Gone"
Pre-roll highlight: Sheryl digs Scotty, telling him, "You've got a big career ahead of you." Jimmy says Scotty's song choice has great lyrics and intensity and says he's "really rooting for him tonight."
The performance: Yeah, the performance is among Scotty's best. He's got energy, romping all over the stage -- at one point doing a leap onto the judges' peninsula. He keeps his pointing to a minimum and irritates me less than he has in a long time. His vocal is strong, and most important, he looks like he's having fun -- in a James Durbin-ish sort of way.
Judges' response: Steven shocks Scotty by saying "up to now you've been a puritan" but that tonight "I saw you dance with the devil," adding (perhaps because Scotty looks like he doesn't know how to take that), "and that was good for you." He thinks Scotty has shown "a whole other part" of himself. Jennifer says Scotty "just owned that stage" and that she "heard some growling in there." "That is some 'American Idol' stuff right there," she says. Randy comes to Scotty's rescue by saying that he doesn't know about Steven's "dance with the devil stuff" but that he felt he was was at "concert Scotty." Randy declares, "Scotty's in it to win it too!"
Song 2: Brenda Lee/Elvis Presley's "Always on My Mind"
Pre-roll highlight: Jimmy notes a contradiction in the judges' instructions to both be true to yourself and then push yourself to try new things and venture out of your comfort zone. Scotty decides just to do his own thing. Meanwhile, Sheryl declares, "I love Scotty. I live in Nashville. I can't wait for him to move there and have a big singing career that I can sort of horn my way in on."
The performance: A letdown. Scotty's energy level has dropped to a simmer. He appears to be sort of phoning it in (an image helped along by his very obvious earpiece cord), and he goes off-key in a few spots. What's more, he sings the lyrics, in spots, as "You were hallways on my mind," which is actually kind of funny. In short, a bit of a napper. (Bright spot – a post-song audience shot of a sign reading "I've got the hotties for Scotty!")
Judges' response: Jennifer thinks Scotty's two songs show how "well-rounded" he is. "Nothing awkward about you up there," she says, adding that Scotty is comfortable in his own skin and "just a true performer." Randy reveals that the judges call Scotty "our youngest veteran." He hails Scotty's decision to stay in his comfort zone and says, "When you speak quietly, and you do the simplest things, then you can get the loudest reaction. " Steven calls the rendition "perfect." Scotty's grandma is in the audience, and when she's handed the mike, she says, "He's my Scotty."
My take: Scotty, though really good in spots, is much more uneven than the judges' comments indicate, and I find that irritating. Why does he get a free pass for flubbed notes and weird stage moves? And why is he hailed for taking risks when he pretty much always stays squarely in his comfort zone? Anyone have a theory?
Song 1: Lady Gaga's (unreleased) "You and I"
Pre-roll highlight: Haley tells Ryan that the song she will be singing, a Lady Gaga song that the singer performs in concerts but has not yet released, was originally suggested to her by Jimmy. Haley knew it was a risk to sing a song unknown to the masses at this point, but after speaking with Lady Gaga, she decided to go for it. The mentors predict that Haley will have "a moment" with the song.
The performance: Haley looks great in sparkly pants and a sleeveless leather top. She's definitely getting more confident up there too. And the song, though unfamiliar, seems to suit her voice. Personally, I think she slays it.
Judges' response: The judges do not think she slayed it. You can always tell when Jennifer is unimpressed by a performance because she starts, "Hi, baby …" She tells Haley she doesn't think choosing a song people don't know is such a hot idea, says she wishes she'd picked a song "that really showcased you in a better way." Randy doesn't think it's "that great of a song," adding, "I don't know if it did you any favors." Steven is also tepid on the song but says he thinks Haley is "just a perfect song away" from being the next American Idol. Ryan asks Haley how she feels about her song choice after the judges' comments. She looks a little uncertain but then seems to forgive herself, saying, "It was an opportunity and I took it."
Song 2: The Animals' "House of the Rising Sun"
Pre-roll highlight: Sheryl recommends that Haley begin the song a capella, which sounds like a fine idea. The mentors tell us that Haley's about to interpret the song in a whole new way and that we're "gonna love it."
The performance: The mentors are right. It's a triumph for Haley. She tears into that Animals song like … um … an animal going after its prey. Terrific. The judges give her a standing O.
Judges' response: Randy (retaking his seat) says, "The award tonight for the best performance of the night goes to Haley!" He says the song shows how far Haley has come, how she's "blossomed." "You're so good now," he says. "That was amazing." Steven loves the way it was "sweet and sour" and "raspy." Jennifer says she doesn't know if Haley came out ticked at the judges or what, but "that song has never been sung like that before." She thinks Haley did a "great job" with "incredible focus." Ryan asks Haley how she feels. Her response? "I feel good. I feel relieved now." I can imagine.
My take: Haley rocked both her numbers tonight. The judges were wrong about the first song but right about the second. I hope she gets through at least until next week, and after that last song, I think she could go further. Maybe a lot further.
Bottom line: Here's hoping Jacob goes home tonight. And you? Who do you think "Idol" can stand to lose? Do you think Haley was right to tackle an unknown song? Do James' tears make you love him more or less? Weigh in.
-- Amy Reiter
Photo: Haley Reinhart performs on "American Idol," May 4, 2011. Credit: Michael Becker /Fox