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'American Idol' recap: What do the judges have against Haley?

May 12, 2011 |  8:50 am

MB1_9451 Am I the only one who's feeling a little "emo," to use Haley Reinhart's word, after Wednesday night's "Idol," in which the top four "Idol" contestants performed first a song that inspired them and then a song from the collection of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, on which they were mentored by Lady Gaga?

Because I really think the judges unfairly piled on Haley, while equally unjustly lavishing praise on a cringe-inducing performance by Scotty McCreery -- and I'm feeling a little put out about it.

After rightly admiring James Durbin's (OK, vaguely pandering) performance of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin' " -- "You did it right," said Steven Tyler; "Great song, great job, great performance," said Jennifer Lopez; "The highest degree of difficulty and you did it!" said Randy Jackson, who actually played with Journey briefly back in the late '80s -- the judges pretty much yanked the carpet out from under Haley after she performed Michael Jackson's "Earth Song."

Haley started off slowly, and then growl-kicked into a higher gear as the song took off, singing with a passion that stirred and kinda stunned. Was it her best vocal performance on "Idol" ever? No, but it was emotionally inspired and inspiring -- ostensibly the point of the exercise and a quality the "Idol" judges praised when James performed Badfinger's "Without You" last week.

You knew things were not going to go well by the sound of Jennifer Lopez's voice when she took the mic to give Haley feedback over the applause. "So Haley, here's what I loved about that," she said, and did praise the feeling behind the song before expressing disapproval for Haley's song choice. OK, fair enough. But then Randy had at Haley, telling her the song was at the top of her range and "just not your vibe." Haley protested that it wasn't the top of her range and she "just felt it," but it did her little good. "I didn't like it," Randy summed up. "I thought you were screaming."

Haley -- eyes narrowed, mouth compressed -- did look like she was stifling a scream. Thank goodness for Steven who said, "Haley, what do you get from that? They're both wrong. That song showed me that you can .... The audience heard it and America will hear it. Don't believe them."

That would have been a fine place to let it go, and it's possible that Ryan Seacrest was trying to defend Haley by asking the judges, "What is she supposed to with that concoction of feedback?" But it just fired them up again.

Then, after all four of the contestants had sung -- Scotty the flag-waving Alan Jackson song “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” which includes the lyric "I know Jesus and I talk to God," a lyric he particularly seemed to feel; and Lauren Alaina the Martina McBride song "Anyway," which she said she could "really relate to" with "all the devastation in my hometown and the South from the tornadoes last week" -- Ryan called all the contestants back onstage and asked the judges who'd won the round and who had something to prove on the next round. Then they piled on poor Haley again. The first round was "a tie between Scotty, James and Lauren," Randy said, adding that Haley would have to " up her game next round."

Round 2 for Haley was like a replay from last week (though with the delightful addition of special guest mentor Lady Gaga, with whom Haley appeared to have a special bond). She stepped out on that stage with something to prove, and proved it, singing the heck out of Ben E. King's "I Who Have Nothing" and prompting a Standing O from the judges. But even then, they continued to harp on that first performance.

"Haley, Haley, Haley, this is why we can't take it easy on you," Jennifer said. "Look what you're capable of, baby. That was amazing. One of the best performances of the year."

Randy said Haley "came back" and "got mad" and "had a moment" then trotted out an "in it to win it," adding, "This is what you had to do and you did it," and concluding that it was one of Haley's "best vocals ever."

Steven, bless his heart, said, "This was a classic moment with classic Haley. You just Reinharted yourself to the middle of next week." You know something's amiss with a judging panel when Steven Tyler is the least erratic person on it.

Ryan compared the judges' feedback for Haley to a marriage, where "yes means no" and "no means yes."

MB1_9579 But if Haley is the judges' henpecked husband, Scotty is the mistress who has inexplicably stolen their hearts. (Except he's the prudiest mistress ever -- Lady Gaga made him want to kiss his cross? Seriously, dude, loosen up a little.)

I can understand liking his laid-back Alan Jackson number, which was sincerely delivered, but the judges' feedback was a little over the top, with Randy saying Scotty was "set for superstardom" and Jennifer telling Scotty she was "in love" with him and what he stood for and that he was "meant to do this." She added, "I'm glad that we're here to witness it, that's all."

OK, fine, but Scotty's song in the second round, a neutered version of the Coasters' "Young Blood," was an embarrassment. It was like watching Bowzer from Sha Na Na mug his way through a song about a vampire. In the Coasters' hands (video below), the song is flirty and sexy and suggestive, and maybe even a little raunchy. In Scotty's hands, it just came off as crazed. Totally not the right song choice for him -- and a bouncy, funny song was probably not a great "in it to win it," stakes-raising sort of choice either, if it comes to that.

But the judges have been blinded by their mutually agreed-upon love for Scotty (Jennifer and Randy have clearly compared notes and anointed Scotty a favorite; Steven's the only one who once noted that Scotty was a "puritan," which didn't upset Scotty nearly so much as Steven's intended compliment that he'd seen him "dance with the devil.")

"Dude, were you having a good time up there?" Randy softballed Scotty's way, then called Scotty a "seasoned professional." "I think we just saw both sides of a Scotty concert," he said.

Jennifer said Scotty had "hit his stride."

Again, let us be thankful for Steven, who said, "Dude, you made Gaga's yaya go lala." And also for Ryan, who naughtily asked Scotty if he noticed him flirting with Lady Gaga, making Scotty shift around and stammer.

So, OK, look. Bottom line: I think Scotty's fine, but not all that. And that Haley has been inequitably treated by the judges. And that Lauren and James deserve the praise that has been heaped upon them. (In fact, Lauren had a particularly good night, hitting some strong, powerful notes with that Martina McBride song and playfully going at Elvis Presley's "Trouble" -- Haley-style, in fact -- and working to find her peace with the word "evil" in a way I have a hard time imagining Scotty doing. But her finest moment may have been when she leaped to Haley's defense during a post-show backstage interview, saying the judges' criticism of Haley made her "a little ill," because "Haley has the best voice on this show.")

Haley, who was not my favorite at the outset, has shown consistent growth and humor and heart and dedication over these last few weeks, and there's every sign that she can contribute her upward trajectory. Steven's right: She sings "sexy." I hope voters put her in the top three with Lauren and James.

And Scotty? Look, I'm sure he'll be a terrific country star, just as they keep telling us, but over the weeks I've tired of the mugging and the pointing and the crazed looks into the camera. And I'm liking his man's-man, swaggery persona less and less. I didn't think he was nice about Lauren when Ryan asked on-camera if they were an item, while she generously said he was "kinda cute." And I was really turned off by his response to Lady Gaga on Wednesday night's show. (It seemed intolerant to me.)

I know Scotty fans will rip into me for this. (Bring it on!) But does anyone out there agree?


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-- Amy Reiter

Photos, from top: Haley Reinhart and Scotty McCreery perform for the "American Idol" judges. Credit: Michael Becker / Fox