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'American Idol' recap: The top 8 take on the '80s

April 5, 2012 |  8:38 am

American Idol
"I hope none of you win," Heejun Han, who was voted off "American Idol" last week, told his fellow contestants in a look-back sequence at the top of Wednesday's show. It was funny, yes, and also a bracing moment of honesty – rivaled only by Steven Tyler admitting he "wasn't all there" for most of the '80s -- popping up on a night of jewel-toned, big-hair memories.

But the truth is that, unless something entirely unprecedented happens, someone will win. It's just hard to get a clear handle, at this point, with eight contestants remaining, on who that winner will be. Wednesday night's show, in which the top 8, guest-mentored by Gwen Stefani and her No Doubt bandmate Tony Kanal, performed songs from the '80s, didn't provide much clarity. It was a night of strong performances from strong performers we've seen perform strongly before. Never mind that many of the contestants were not yet born during the decade in question.

DeAndre Brackensick kicked things off with DeBarge's "I Like It," and looked more comfortable onstage than he has in a while. (Is there a direct relationship between Brackensick's comfort level and his hair flips? Discuss!) Plus he seemed to have mastered the connection between his natural voice and his falsetto. The judges loved it. "I like it. I like it a lot," Lopez said. Tyler deemed it "exceptional."

INTERACTIVE | 'Idol' vs. 'The Voice': Who's the best?

Stefani had predicted a "magic moment" for Elise Testone, who she said was one of her favorite singers in the contest. And I thought Testone, looking fab in a one-sleeve dress, delivered with Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is." (I was particularly glad Testone hadn't attempted Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," which has become sadly overused on "Idol.") The judges didn't like the performance. Tyler thought it was the wrong song. Lopez thought Testone looked beautiful, which is "Idol" judge-speak for "I don't have anything nice to say about your singing." And Randy Jackson thought the whole thing was "out of tune everywhere."

After working his magic on Stefani, who called him "very sexy," Phillip Phillips phillip-phillipsed "That's All," by Genesis, backed by his guitar-playing brother-in-law. His performance cemented my conclusion that I'd buy a Phillip Phillips version of almost any song. The judges were similarly impressed. Tyler called Phillips a "wildflower," whatever that means, and added, "You just love being who you are." But Phillips' brother-in-law gave him the biggest props of all, saying Phillips' family "couldn't be more proud of him," especially for "staying true to himself."

Stefani got Joshua Ledet to tone down his "vocal gymnastics" a bit on "If You Don't Know Me by Now," released in the '80s by Simply Red, and it was a good move. It was a return to form for Ledet, after last week's over-the-top performance. The judges gave him a standing O, with Lopez and Jackson hollering "crazy" to boot. Lopez called it "spectacular" and a "powerhouse performance." Tyler said it was "just perfect." And Jackson trotted out his new favorite phrase: He's/she's "gotta have it." Who knew the repetition-prone "Idol" judge could manage to make us miss "in it to win it"? Or even "that's the way you do it"?

After being called "shockingly good" by Stefani, Jessica Sanchez finally proved her up-tempo, non-ballad mettle with Whitney Houston's "How Will I Know." As Stefani predicted, she nailed it. The judges hailed Sanchez's maturity and power. "So fantastic," Tyler gushed. "Everything you do is beautiful. Everything you do is great." Even Ryan Seacrest couldn't hold back his enthusiasm for Sanchez's performance, expressing admiration for her "poise" and "confidence." 

Kanal advised Hollie Cavanagh to "prepare, prepare, prepare" for her performance, and then get out there and "free-fall." And Cavanagh did seem looser as she scooted around in a fringy blue dress and sang "What a Feeling" from the movie "Flashdance." I thought she did great, especially toward the end. But the judges were not pleased. "Your pitch was all over the place. I'm so sorry to tell you," Tyler tisked. Lopez chided Cavanagh to stop thinking and let go more, which is pretty much what Jackson said too. Poor Hollie. That doesn't bode well for her.

Colton Dixon weathered some serious flirting between Stefani and Jimmy Iovine during rehearsal – Iovine called Stefani an "incredibly beautiful girl"; Stefani called Iovine "Jimmy Jim" – and then sang Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time," using an arrangement he later said he'd "completely ripped … off" from a band called Quietdrive. ("Sorry, guys," he said.) Before Dixon had copped to the rip-off, the judges were enraptured by "his" version.  "You could do a record right now," Tyler said. Jackson told Dixon he'd "made it your own." Or Quietdrive's own. Whatever.

Skylar Laine capped off the evening with "Wind Beneath My Wings," proving she could sing a power ballad with not just the rest of them, but also the best of them. Stefani had predicted a "wow moment" for Laine, saying her voice "is like ice cream," and the judges were definitely wowed. They gave Laine a standing ovation. Lopez appeared to be in tears. Jackson even led his comments with "Wow, Skylar, wow, wow …" He called it Laine's "best performance on the show to date" and then told her she "wants it, too." Lopez felt Laine was telling the audience, "Don't count me out," and proved she was a real contender. Tyler said, "That's the best song you could have picked for your voice and the end of the night and the beginning of your career, girl." At least he didn't mention Galveston again.

And we haven't even talked about the duets. Highlights from those included Phillips strutting around stage like a strange chicken while he and Testone made like Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks on "Stop Dragging My Heart Around" and Sanchez and Ledet inspiring each other on "I Knew You Were Waiting for Me." Jackson called the latter "one of the greatest performances I've seen on this show." Randy's gotta have it, dude.

What did you think of the top eight's performances?

INTERACTIVE | 'American Idol' vs. 'The Voice' -- Who's the best?

"Idol" vs. "The Voice" Times music and television writers, including Amy Reiter, are ranking the five best performers each week, regardless of venue. Readers are invited to cast their votes too. See who made the top five last week at Who do you think stood out this week? Use the poll below to make your picks. Check back to see if your favorites made the cut. The poll closes Monday at noon.



Full coverage: 'American Idol'

'American Idol' recap: Heejun Han heads home

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-- Amy Reiter

Photo: From left, Skylar Laine and Colton Dixon perform in front of the judges on "American Idol" on Wednesday on Fox. Credit: Michael Becker / Fox