Who would have imagined the songs of Queen would inspire better performances from the "American Idol" contestants than songs of their own choosing? But, with a notable exception or two, that proved to be the case Wednesday night, when the six remaining "Idol" hopefuls tackled the music of Queen and then sang a second song they felt suited them.
I have to admit, I had my doubts, and the contestants seemed to initially have had doubts too. Meeting with Queen's Roger Taylor and Brian May, Phillip Phillips asked about tackling such big songs. Freddie Mercury, they assured him, "was very shy" and the songs of Queen quite human, "very personal." Just feel the songs, Taylor and May told the contestants, and they would do fine.
The advice seemed to pay off. It was apparent from the moment the top six took the stage, backed by Taylor and May, to sing a medley of Queen anthems that they were having fun with the material.
In the end, the judges said, the candidates had nearly all turned in at least one top-notch performance. Then again, in a rare show of judge discord, Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler didn't agree in every case about which songs worked and which didn't. They did, however, continue to agree that Joshua Ledet warrants a standing ovation every time he opens his mouth to sing. Ledet racked up two more standing O's from the judges Wednesday. We'd say he now had too many to count, but apparently Skylar Laine has been keeping track: According to her calculations, Ledet now has had 12 standing ovations from the judges. Wow.
Now that the outrage after last week's eliminations has died down, everything proceeded pretty much as expected on "The Voice" this week. And what Tuesday night's elimination rounds lacked in surprise, they made up for with the comfort of knowing that the right people had been sent home and the best candidates tapped to move forward to duke it out in the semifinals.
After Florence and the Machine, backed by Team Cee Lo, had performed their song "No Light, No Light," the remaining members of Team Adam and Team Cee Lo gathered to learn their fates.
Carson Daly delivered the audience verdict with merciful swiftness. America's save is … the boys! The sole remaining guy on each team had been saved: Tony Lucca would advance from Adam Levine's team. Jamar Rogers would move forward from Cee Lo Green's crew.
That left Mathai and Katrina Parker to compete for Levine's save, and Cheesa and Juliet Simms to vie for Green's.
If you predicted that Parker would blow it out of the water and Mathai would turn in a sweet yet somehow disappointing performance, you were right. Mathai sang "Cowboy Cassanova" and didn't lack for charm, but did lack a certain power and urgency. The judges complimented her on her "aggression."
Then Parker came on -- looking lovely -- and showed off her lush, round, gently raspy tone on "Perfect." "I know Tony got the vote from America," Blake told Adam. "But Kristina is the best singer on your team." Christina said she agreed with Shelton "100%" and that, of all the singers on Levine's team, she was "most excited to hear original material sung by" Parker.
The eight singers on teams Cee Lo and Adam performed on Week 2 of "The Voice's" live quarterfinals Monday, and before the night was over two of them had gone home in another irritating "instant elimination" round, in which each coach must send home one team member before the performance sweat has even dried.
As I've said, I think it's ridiculous to hand this sort of game-changing decision to the coaches before the audience has even had time to absorb the performances, much less to vote for their favorites. Even Adam Levine, who had embraced the nod toward greater coach control last week and at the beginning of Monday's show (around the time the coaches were cracking each other up, apparently with fart jokes), seemed a little less enthusiastic by the time his turn came to suddenly crush one of his team member's dreams. It was "stupid," he said, that the coaches had to send someone home.
Then, after a speech about how being sent home wasn't the end of the world for the performers, Levine informed Pip, the dimpled lad who ditched his trademark bow tie and veered off key Monday with "Somewhere Only We Know," that he was letting him go.
That meant audiences would still be able to vote to save one of the remaining three members of Levine's team, leaving the other two to vie Tuesday for the coach's save:
Mathai: The former nursing student gave a so-so performance of "I'm Like a Bird," with what her coach, Levine, called a "sketchy dude" swinging acrobatically overhead, but she still emerged smiling.
Katrina Parker: The former cubicle worker distanced herself a bit from those Adele comparisons and gave an emotionally raw, vocally polished "Jar of Hearts" that ought to collect her a few votes.
Tony Lucca: The former "Mickey Mouse Club" member stopped the show by tweaking his past and hitting back at fellow former Mouseketeer Christina Aguilera with a rocking rendition of Britney Spears' "... Baby One More Time." Even Aguilera, who had ripped into Lucca after a previous performance, admitted she "thoroughly enjoyed" Lucca's performance. "Nice job," she said.
At least, before bringing the ax down on Pip, Levine spoke extemporaneously, rather than reading his singers a message he'd composed on his cellphone. That's what Cee Lo Green did before cutting his team's weakest link: letter-jacket-and-hairband-wearing Boston car mechanic and Green-dubbed "lady killer" James Massone. Massone had turned in a typically tame, teenybopper-targeted performance of "I Want You Just the Way You Are." "It just laid there for me," Blake Shelton said after Massone had performed, likely echoing the thoughts of many.
Massone's departure left three singers to seek the save on Green's team:
Jamar Rogers: Rogers' positive outlook and heart-tugging back story -- the HIV-positive recovering drug addict has said he didn't think he'd make it to his 30th birthday, crediting a Green song with helping to save his life -- gave a particular power and poignancy to his intense performance of "It's My Life."
Cheesa: Green's anointed "power vocalist" gained judge approval for her gutsy, throaty take on "I Have Nothing" -- Aguilera said she hit notes that Whitney Houston herself hadn't; Green weirdly hailed her "childbearing strength" -- but it just seemed all wrong to me.
Juliet Simms: The raspy-voiced rocker donned a set of giant "Angels in America"-esque wings and stood amongst cascading feathers for her no-holds-barred take on "Cryin'," but the melody flew away from her like a bird.
We'll get the audience verdicts tonight. In the meantime, who do you think gave the best and worst performances?
"American Idol" vs. "The Voice"
Each week our experts and readers rank the best of the best between the two blockbuster singing competitions. Last week, "American Idol's" Phillip Phillips came out on top.
Who will the favorite this week? Use the poll below to vote. Check out last week's performances and see what our judges had to say at latimes.com/idol-voice.
"No more second chances, no more safety nets," Randy Jackson reminded us at the outset of the "American Idol" results show Thursday night, on which Kris Allen and LMFAO performed. Since the judges had used their one save of the season to bring Jessica Sanchez back from the brink last week, from here on in, week after week, someone would head home.
This week, Colton Dixon got the bad news. And though the show's lead-in had promised that the results would be "another shock," to me, at least, Dixon's ouster was really only mildly surprising.
The judges loved Dixon, the faithful, skinny-pants-sporting piano player with the tuftily interesting '80s hair. The 20-year-old Tennessean had some of the showmanship of last season's James Durbin, but more softness and polish and style. But while I admired Dixon's comfort with a keyboard and melodic control, I never found him terribly exciting. To use the current judge parlance, I never connected with him on an emotional level. Colton Dixon, as far as I'm concerned, is no Phillip Phillips. INTERACTIVE: Who's the best? "Idol" vs. "The Voice
Not that I was comparing. That was mentor Jimmy Iovine's game. Iovine once speculated that Dixon, who had not previously been in the bottom three, was splitting the teen heartthrob vote with Phillips. Iovine contended that, at some point, that voting bloc would swing one way or the other. This week, that may have happened.
Of course, we'll never really know why the voters turned their backs on Dixon. But certainly he had not had a good night on Wednesday. (Phillips had.) Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" was probably not the savviest choice or the most suitable for a guy whose strongest moment on the show may have been when he sang his "favorite worship song." His fan base might not have been Lady Gaga devotees. And anyway, his performance of the song was strange. Iovine called it "completely wrong." Ol' Jimmy didn't have very kind things to say about Dixon's onstage look, either, comparing it to "1985 Billy Idol on MTV'" and "'Spider-Man' on Broadway."
Dixon's second song, Earth, Wind & Fire's "September," on which he accompanied himself on a leaf-strewn piano that matched his hair, was, to put it plainly, a total snoozer.
After the justified outcry over Jessica Sanchez's near-ouster last week, "American Idol" wanted us to think of this week as "a new beginning for all." But who are they kidding? We've watched these seven singers for many weeks now. We've seen their best performances and their worst. And every time they step back onto that stage, we judge them, yes, on what they do right then, but also all we have seen and heard them do before.
Sure, in the remaining weeks before next month's finale, they will have a chance to reshape –- to stretch and refine -- their images and our impressions. But for the most part we've gotten a good grasp on who they are. Many of us have picked our favorites. And here's the truth of it, and maybe the underlying reason that someone as talented as Sanchez, who remains a definite contender to take the whole thing, could come so close to going home so early: At this point, there's really not a clunker in the bunch.
Their individual talents were clearly on display on Wednesday night's "Now and Then"-themed show, during which each contestant tackled two songs: one from the year 2000 until the present day, as well as a retro "soul" tune.
Texas-dwelling Liverpudlian Hollie Cavanagh, whom the judges had cast as the weakest link, had yet eluded the bottom three last week. She passionately ripped into Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" and proved herself worthy of the song and the competition. The judges were effusive, telling her she had finally managed to connect and show her emotions. (Conveying an emotional connection to a song would become the judges' topic of the night.) "You did it," Jennifer Lopez said triumphantly. For her second song, Cavanagh had fun with "Son of a Preacher Man," and if anything, the judges' liked it even better, saying she showed a new composure and is "ready."
Colton Dixon's autumn-red hair streak matched not only his pants but also his sister Schyler's 'do (Ryan Seacrest brought her up onstage to salute her bro) and the piano on which he accompanied himself for his second song, Earth Wind & Fire's "September." Much as the judges seemed to love Dixon's take on Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" –- "You are so in the zone right now," Randy Jackson told him –- they were less enthusiastic about his low-key version of "September." "It's not as exciting as we would have liked," Jackson said.
The untold number of Justin Bieber fans who tuned in to see their idol appear to introduce what turned out to be only a brief clip of his forthcoming video, "Boyfriend," may not have noticed, but two more contestants were sent home on "The Voice" on Tuesday night, leaving Teams Blake and Christina with just two contestants apiece as they head into the semifinals in two weeks.
(Don't despair, Beliebers. Your heartthrob, whose new album will be released June 19, will return to perform "Boyfriend" – and perhaps make more confusing chit-chat with the coaches – on "The Voice's" finale, which is only three weeks away.)
But somewhere between the high-pitched, lovelorn screams of Bieber devotees and fans of the Wanted, which performed live on Tuesday's show, "The Voice" got down to the at times tearful business of narrowing the playing field.
Of course, "Voice" fans may still have been reeling from the previous night's jarring instant eliminations, in which coaches Christina Aguilera and Blake Shelton each sent one contestant home, without any post-performance input from "Voice" voters. Aguilera, in particular, had startled viewers and stirred up controversy by eliminating a perceived frontrunner, Jesse Campbell. Her decision apparently surprised her fellow coaches, as well.
"I was really shocked, and I'm not easily shocked," Adam Levine said, noting, however, that it was Aguilera's decision to make.
"I am no stranger to controversy and I am OK with that," Aguilera reminded viewers, saying she had a strategy, had thought long and hard, and had, ultimately, followed her heart. "I am fearless in the face of what I believe," she added, before directing attention to her remaining team members, looking frightened as they clumped together on the stage.
Ashley De La Rosa, Chris Mann and Lindsey Pavao: One of them would be saved by the fan votes. The other two members of Team Christina would compete for Aguilera's save.
Classically trained opera singer Chris Mann got voter save, leaving De La Rosa, Pavao and Aguilera all looking unhappy.
Wow. Total shocker on "The Voice's" live quarterfinals Monday night, on which Teams Blake and Christina performed. And I'm not talking about when Christina Aguilera appeared without pants to sing "Fighter" with her team and a high school choir. The last time Jesse Campbell performed on "The Voice," he was "the one to beat," according to Adam Levine, who, alas, was not his coach. And the time before that he was the one who made us love him by stutter-singing the word "b-b-b-baby" with such style in the B-b-b-battle Rounds.
This time, he was the one his coach, Aguilera, sent home. And I, for one, totally didn't see his insta-ouster coming. Campbell, who had overcome homelessness and had a lovely young daughter and a fluidly expressive voice, was one of my early favorites. Now – without the audience weighing in on his performance of "Halo," a song picked by Aguilera that was not a good fit -- he's gone, and to quote Jordis Unga, who was also sent home in a flash, "I'm sad."
Actually, what Unga said was "I'm sad, but I understand," because her coach, Blake Shelton, explained why he'd made the choice he'd made. It wasn't personal or even really much of a judgment call. Faced with making a decision he didn't want to and apparently hadn't expected to have to make, he decided to "revert to America's vote," and send home the person he'd saved from elimination two weeks before. That was a rationale we could probably all understand.
His team – sassy, boot-stompin' country girl RaeLynn; soulful belter Erin Willett; Alicia Keys' spotlight-worthy former backup singer Jermaine Paul; and vulnerable rocker Unga – had all given more or less top-notch performances Monday night, though Willett had unfortunately been saddled with an Adele song, "Set Fire to the Rain," and no one really shines like Adele when singing Adele. "You had big shoes to fill," Aguilera told her. But Willett did manage to use the song to highlight her own strengths.
RaeLynn growled and shimmied winningly on "She’s Country," which was a perfect song for her. Paul showed off his supple voice and commanding stage presence on "Against All Odds." Shelton predicted Paul would look back on the performance as a turning point in his career. And Unga – in a glamorous, form-fitting white evening gown that showed off her impressive arm tats – got vulnerable and a little bit weepy with "A Little Bit Stronger."
On Thursday night, the "American Idol" voters opted to eliminate the contestant who many, many people, including the judges and this critic, had considered to be one of the front-runners -- if not the leading candidate -- to win the whole thing this season. That is, Sanchez would have been sent home had the judges not used their one and only season save.
Not that there was any doubt that they would use it once they saw who America had condemned to the bottom three: Sanchez, Joshua Ledet and Elise Testone -- judge and critical favorites, all. (Sanchez is also the voter favorite in our "Idol"/"Voice" poll.)
We probably would have been more shocked by the vote results and the save had we not been through the whole Casey-Abrams-save and Pia-Toscano-elimination insanity last year. But this year, thank goodness, the judges had husbanded their save for just the right moment. (No thanks to Jennifer Lopez, who had seemed ready to use it on several less-worthy, previously eliminated contestants.)
And though totally unexpected, the results were ultimately short on suspense, especially once Steven Tyler had tipped the judges' hand: "We're gonna use our card tonight, especially with an outcome like this," he said, totally deflating what was poised to be one heck of a dramatic moment.
All of Ryan Seacrest's hard work trying to build tension had gone to waste. After dispensing with the niceties -- the contestants singing Pink's "Raise Your Glass," the ceremonial reading of laudatory tweets from singers whose songs had been performed and dispensing of fan mail (sounds like Colton Dixon's going to make some high school prom girl very happy) -- Seacrest got down to business.
This post has been corrected. See note at the bottom for details.
The seven remaining contestants on "American Idol" performed songs from 2010, 2011 and 2012, in clusters as well as solo, on Wednesday night. It really did come as something of a relief to hear these young people do current hits, mostly of their own choosing.
As the judges noted at some point, this week's theme allowed us to see not only how the contestants might fit into today's music marketplace -– to put it crassly -– but also how far they've come and how much they've grown and developed in the "Idol" competition. Most of them have reached a comfort level onstage, learned to calibrate and control their performances, and relaxed into their personas in a way that makes them, if anything, better able to accept and integrate input from mentor Jimmy Iovine and his parade of luminary helpers.
This week's mentor was Akon, who apparently pegged Jessica Sanchez as a standout from back before the final 13 were selected. "She's gonna be a legend one day. I believe it. I really do," Akon said.
Sanchez seemed to prove Akon right with Jazmine Sullivan's "Stuttering." Seated atop a staircase with piano accompaniment nearby, Sanchez poured her powerful vocals into a poignant plea for the ability to express herself clearly and to be known.
It felt intimate, as if she were singing directly to us, and when she seemed to nearly miss the step she aimed to sit on, we may have found ourselves wanting to reach out and give her a hand. The judges loved it, naturally, but Jennifer Lopez's instructions to Sanchez to be more like fellow contestant Joshua Ledet, just when she's finally really growing into herself, might have left you -- sputtering.