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'American Idol' recap: The top seven tackle the 21st century [Video]

April 21, 2011 |  9:33 am

MB1_8132 Somewhere in the middle of Wednesday night's "American Idol," on which the top seven contestants vied to stay in the running by singing songs from the 21st century, Ryan Seacrest wandered onto the stage in a Casey Abrams beard and observed, "Wow, the wheels have fallen off this program."

That was after Steven Tyler apparently swore a blue streak that had the show's censors leaning on their "dump" button -– but before Tyler appeared with his mouth taped shut, and certainly before he stuck out his tongue through the mouth of Ryan's image on a magazine cover.

It was after the already-booted members of this season's top 13 returned to strut around the stage and sing, defiantly, about being a rock star and not needing us. (Nice to see you again, Ashton, Karen, Thia, Naima, Pia and Paul.) And after Steven leaned into the mic to inform us that we should be filled with regret about our choices. (Strangely, I felt no regret. The heart has a way of moving on.)

But it was before Ryan pulled Pia Toscano's "good friend" Mark Ballas, of "Dancing With the Stars," out of the audience to ask him if he had a favorite in the competition this season and got an answer that seemed to confuse Ryan: Casey Abrams.

It was after Casey surprised Jennifer Lopez with a kiss as he wrapped up his performance and left her giggling and emoting about his "soft lips."

But it was about midway through the performances, which were as follows:

Scotty McCreery, "Swingin' ": Before Scotty takes the stage to sing LeAnne Rimes' winky-teasy "Swingin' " in his inimitable fashion, the other contestants do their best to imitate that style, noting that Scotty holds his mic as if it were a flute and sings out of the side of his mouth. Then Scotty demonstrates. The judges, for once, are not impressed. Steven observes that it's probably Scotty's "equivalent of a Rolling Stones song," and wishes for a little more "boot scoot," as if Scotty were running from his "last girlfriend." Jennifer praises Scotty's "storytelling quality" but says she was expecting more from him, noting that it's "down to the wire" and "time to pull out the big guns" and move "past your comfort zone." Randy thinks it's "safe" and "boring" and feels that, with the number of songs Scotty had to choose from, "there could have been a better song for you to sing." Scotty, who has always earned high praise from the judges, even when it wasn't clear he deserved it, seems nonplussed. But backstage, his fellow contestants comfort him. "There's 15 million little girls pointing their finger at Randy right now," Lauren Alaina says.


What would Simon Cowell say if he were still a judge?

James Durbin, "Uprising":  "Every song that I sing I just get this amazing vision for it," James tells Ryan. Moments later, James marches in with a bunch of costumed drummers and turns in a riveting rendition of Muse's "Uprising." The judges salute him, literally -- and then verbally. Jennifer says she's going to "go out on a limb" and predict that it's going to be, "theatrically, the best performance of the night." It was also, she says, the highest they've ever heard James sing. Randy says James "slayed it." And then Steven compliments the singer's attire. "You stay out of my closet, man," he jokes, calling the look "Mad Max meets storm troopers on Melrose," and noting, "You'd be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap." Ryan has fun with "The James Drummers." All in all, a good night for James.

Haley Reinhart, "Rolling In The Deep": Haley looks great in a retro red dress with white polka dots, and sounds even better as she tackles Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" out on the front stage thrust. Jimmy Iovine has encouraged her to sound "angry," which works for her; she sounds controlled and increasingly confident. Randy approves, not only of the performance but also of the course Haley's taking as an artist. "I think you chose a perfect direction for you," he says, adding that, though he noted a sharp spot or two, he's "really happy." Steven says he "thought it was a great performance as well," though it was "a little slow" at the beginning. Jennifer says it takes "a lot of guts" to tackle a current hit song and that Haley "brought a little bit of Haley to it." Even Ryan offeres a favorable critique, calling Haley "a fighter" and saying, "Good one up there, good one." Will it be enough to keep Haley, a stool of doom habitué, in the running? She does seem to be hitting her stride.

Jacob Lusk, "Dance With My Father": Take a good look at Jacob, Lusk fans. I'm thinking it could be his last week. After his fellow contestants describe him as a diva -- or "diva-ish," as one of them qualifies -- Jacob gives an uneven performance of "Dance With My Father." The song is not only by his hero, Luther Vandross, but also reminds Jacob of his own father's death, when Jacob was only 12. He dedicates it to "all the fathers out there" as well as everyone who has either lost a father or doesn't feel they really have one. Whether technical problems or runaway emotions are to blame, Jacob's performance isn't among his best. Steven calls him "Luther Lusk," adding "Baby, you are so good," and saying his "daddy was up there listening" to him. Jennifer gives restrained praise, noting that "emotionally, it was a beautiful performance." Randy puts it more bluntly, saying it "didn't make me jump up and down" and that he missed "the old Jacob." "If you're still here next week," Randy says. "Don't hold back." If? Ouch. 

Casey Abrams, "Harder To Breathe": Jimmy Iovine and Casey have apparently made up after last week's artistic tangle. "I'm glad that he cares so much," Casey says of Jimmy. Jimmy says Casey is as stubborn as one of his sons, but that he's "really proud of him" for his song choice this week: Maroon 5's "Harder to Breathe." Casey is funny, scooting around the stage in his sneaks, slapping a few hands in the front row. Have we seen Casey move around onstage much before? Then he trots over to the judges' table and, right at the end, plants that playful little kiss on Jennifer, and the judges go wild. Jennifer exclaims, "Casey! … See now Casey's not playing fair," and adding that he's got "soft lips." Steven interjects, "You did what I've been trying to do for four months." Then Jennifer tries to get back to the performance, saying she "loved it" and that Casey had "brought all your Caseyism." Randy says Casey is always "about surprise, surprise, surprise," urges him to "continue to take chances," and says he "loved it." Steven calls Casey a "cult hero" and then swears a lot about how good he thinks Casey is. Then there's the whole Ryan-in-a-fake-beard thing, which culminates with Ryan thanking Casey "so much for changing the course of this show." It's not entirely clear what he means. Thoughts? 

Stefano Langone, "Closer":  It probably doesn't come as a surprise to any of us to hear that Stefano is a total ladies man who will "flirt with a piece of paper" (though it is a little unnerving to hear him gush that women are "the fruit of life"). Lauren says Stefano needs to learn that "he doesn't need to try that hard," which is pretty much what Jimmy Iovine tells Stefano about his performance: Don't beg, don't whine. Be confident. Stefano turns on his strut and looks a little less on the verge of a sneeze than usual. This seems to please the judges. "Yo, yo. Wow, Stefano, Stefano," Randy says, revealing that he'd been concerned that it would be "a little jerky … a little bad karaoke," but that Stefano had "turned me around. … You smoothed it out." Steven is happy Stefano danced. Jennifer admires Stefano's swagger, calling the performance "very, very good." Ryan weighs in: "You turned it into ladies night." Am I the only one who's a little creeped out by the way gender roles are defined on "Idol"? Wednesday night's show seems a particularly ripe example. Discuss!

Lauren Alaina, "Born To Fly": In her pre-performance video, Lauren seems more like the 16-year-old girl she is than ever, telling us that she's worried that she'll fall behind the others in the competition because she's not hitting all the crazy notes they are. Jimmy calls her a "magical" singer and presses her not to hold back. Lauren turns in an effortless-sounding performance of Sara Evans' "Born to Fly," which she appears to have been born to sing. Steven praises her modesty and then gives her a laundry list of singers to tackle: Alison Krauss, Faith Hill, Shania Twain. Jennifer says Lauren has a "special voice" with color and character in it and tells her to practice singing those crazy notes in the shower. Randy says Lauren "can sing everything" and tells her she "must believe" and that she "can grow by leaps and bounds." He adds, "Challenge yourself, Lauren." So when Ryan asks Lauren if she believes she can do what the judges says she needs to do to win the competition, Lauren, takes a deep breath and says, emphatically if not altogether convincingly, "Yes!"

And there you have it, the judges believe it's anyone's game, though Steven thinks Casey is "more equal than others." My prediction for the bottom three? Hmmm. Let's say Jacob, Stefano and -- though it should be Scotty -- maybe Haley (or even Casey) with Jacob going home. Your picks/predictions? Which performance was your favorite and which left you cold? And who do you think will head home Thursday night?


What would Simon Cowell say?

Full Show Tracker coverage of "American Idol"

-- Amy Reiter

Photo: Casey Abrams performs for the "American Idol" judges Wednesday night. Credit: Michael Becker / Fox