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'American Idol' recap: The final three vie for the glory

May 19, 2011 | 10:09 am

MB1_3236 Judging from Wednesday night's extended-play "American Idol," in which the final three contestants –- Scotty McCreery, Lauren Alaina and Haley Reinhart –- performed three songs apiece over the course of two hours, the following moments showed that everyone involved is in it to win it:

-- Jennifer Lopez's "goosies": "You cannot buy those," Jennifer said, noting the tiny bumps along her arms apparently brought on by Lauren's rendition of Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance." "Those are not for sale. Those only come out when somebody makes them come out. You just gave me goosies from head to toe."

-- The hustle of the backstage makeup team: It repeatedly primped both female contestants, even touching up Lauren's legs after a pantyhose snag!

-- Beyonce's "Run the World (Girls)" video: I was sad to see it fade out before she'd finished her shoulder shakes and fingernail kisses.

-- The parents' involvement: Haley's dad played guitar alongside her on Led Zeppelin's "What Is and What Should Never Be"; Scotty's dad sang Scotty's signature "Baby, lock them doors" line (not unimpressively); and Lauren's mom said, candidly, that seeing her daughter through her "Idol" run had aged her 20 years.

-- Ryan Seacrest's shoulder: apparently the perfect height for the "ladies" to lean on.

-- Randy Jackson's feminine side: He complimented the color of Lauren's shimmery sea-foam gown and expressed a desire to grow his hair long and feel it blown around by a fan, like Haley. I totally felt like I was at the Randy Jackson Feminine Side concert right there, Ryan!

-- The wisdom of Steven Tyler, who has emerged as the judge with the most reliable taste. Though prone to confusing (if amusing) pronouncements, Tyler came through with a spot-on assessment of this year's competition: "It's not about how many times you fall," the Aerosmith frontman told Haley after she had tripped on the stage steps mid-number, popped up and kept going like nothing had happened. "It's about how many times you get up." (Even Haley, who usually just laughs off the judges' comments, good and bad, recognized the wisdom of that one.)

-- The fact that Randy doesn't even bother to say "in it to win it" half the time anymore: Now he makes Ryan say it for him.

-- And the spirit of the final three: All three remaining contestants turned in one of their best performances of the competition during the loooong evening.

(Attention, James Durbin: You and your marching band pyrotechnics were missed.)

Now for the recap:

In the first round, Scotty, Lauren and Haley chose their own songs and were mentored by Beyonce. Scotty sang Lonestar's "Amazed," turning in a low-key, less-manic performance than he sometimes does, with fewer finger points and eyebrow waggles. (Costume note: I'm getting a little tired of that red checked shirt.) Lauren chose Faith Hill's "She's a Wild One," and though she's clearly still battling nerves (Beyonce advised her to psych herself up with affirmative phrases before going onstage), she turned in an energetic, full-throated rendition. And Haley earned herself a standing ovation from Randy and Steven (Jennifer withheld) and won the hearts of many (including, perhaps, James' classic-rock fans: Well-played, Ms. Reinhart) with a rocking take on Led Zeppelin's "What Is and What Should Never Be," featuring her own father on guitar –- and that amazing tumble and recovery.

The judges (even Jennifer!) thought Haley won the round. Me? I agree. Round 1 was Haley all the way.

For Round 2, Jimmy Iovine picked the songs -- and proved that he didn't get where he is in the music industry for no reason at all. His selections not only suited each performer but also revealed new facets of them. Scotty, who sang "Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not" by Thompson Square, was one of the best examples. The charmer from Garner was at his least irritating here, playing his guitar and showing a grit and edge I don't think we've really heard from him before. (I can forgive him one stray eyebrow waggle and crazed look at the end; old habits die hard.) Lauren had a transcendent moment with "If I Die Young" by the Band Perry. And while Haley was somewhat less successful than the other two with her take on Stevie Nicks' "Rhiannon." Dark and moody, the performance came off a little restrained, as if Haley were distracted by trying to remember the words; nevertheless, she landed it solidly, if not spectacularly. 

So who won the round? The judges were split. Steven said his girl Lauren, while Jennifer (who is just way gone on Scotty) said, "Scotty, Scotty, Scotty" and Randy (who is just way gone on Jennifer) said, "Scotty, Scotty, Scotty." I think that Scotty was at his best but that Lauren was better. She not only hit the notes beautifull, but also conveyed the emotion of the song. I'm with Steven: Lauren won this round.

The judges picked the songs for Round 3, handing out an uneven batch of selections -– but not the way you might have predicted. Scotty got the big clunker: Kenny Rogers' "She Believes in Me," a song he had apparently never heard. He did the best he could with it, but let's face it. It's a schleppy old-person song, and though the tune is country-inflected, it didn't really seem to be Scotty's thing. On the plus side, Scotty has finally learned to hold a microphone. Lauren sang Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance" and did a fantastic, uplifting job with it. Then Haley stepped out with Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know," and though she breathlessly muttered through the fast-moving between-the-chorus lyrics, she killed the chorus. DEAD. Just slayed it.

The Round 3 winner? Steven surprised me by picking Haley rather than his beloved Lauren. Randy and Jennifer, marching in lockstep as usual, chose Lauren. And I have to call it a tie between Haley and Lauren. (Don't worry, Scotty: I'm sure you locked up the old-person vote.)

My bottom-line take on the final three heading into the finale:

Scotty. He's getting better. I suspect the reduction in his point-and-brow-waggle schtick correlates to an uptick in his confidence. He is only 17, after all. But something about him still bugs me -– and not only the fact that I often hear him wandering off-pitch and no one seems to call him on it. Remember back in Hollywood week, after Scotty participated in group meanness against Jacee Badeaux and forgot the words to a song and said the only thing that could keep him in competition was his low voice? I think that was an astute observation. And I don't think low notes and an all-American eyebrow waggle should be enough to win.

Lauren. Poor Lauren. Maybe she's taught us that picking kids for this competition when they are just 15 years old (she's now 16) is not such a great idea. Her voice is mature, fully formed, but she is still growing. It's been difficult to watch her struggle in the spotlight and to lose her confidence in herself along the way. As the judges keep telling us, her tone is magical. But after seeing how these last few months on "Idol" have two-stepped all over her self-esteem, I worry about what a continued career in music would do to her.

Haley. Talk about picking yourself up after a fall. Not only was Haley a surprise pick for the top 13 (at least she was a surprise to me), she also seemed to spend more time on the pre-elimination stools of doom than anyone else in the early days. She moved awkwardly onstage. She picked songs that people heard as yodeling. She didn't stand out. And then there was the lipstick incident, in which she stood before America smiling, with a chin full of red splotches. How did she bounce back? Honestly, I have no idea. (Read Ann Powers' fascinating take on Haley's rise here.) But throughout the competition, we have watched her grow and mature and gain confidence. The complaint used to be that the judges didn't know who she was. They couldn't put her in a box. But she knew who she was, and over the weeks, she's shown us.

Who needs a box when you just might reach in and grab the prize? Don't bother to wrap it.


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-- Amy Reiter

Photo: Haley Reinhart performs in front of the judges on "American Idol" on Wednesday. Credit: Michael Becker / Fox