It was Rock and Roll Hall of Fame night on American Idol this evening, and while that theme seems to imply covers of classic rock songs, it actually seems to provide contestants with just another opportunity to showcase their wheelhouses. However, I’m not saying that is a bad thing. In the vein of last week and the week before, the remaining finalists delivered a solid performance show. In fact, I agree with the observation my friend Kelcie made: this was the best performance show yet this season. Honestly, ranking these covers was a nigh arduous task, because, yet again, no contestant slipped up with an unfortunate genre-switch or particularly out-of-tune vocal. Everybody sounded great, save a few janky notes here and there. So, to rank these potential Idols, I had to look beyond the vocal to the performance. Who actually performed the song convincingly instead of just singing a competent cover?
And so, without further ado, here are my critiques, ranked in order from “worst” performance to best. (I use the word “worst” loosely, because, as I’ve said, nobody was bad.) And as always, the links in the song title will direct you to video of the contestants singing their little hearts out, without any critique from the judges, because let’s not lie: none of them really said anything of great import. As Linda Holmes of NPR’s Monkey See so eloquently put it via Twitter tonight: “It’s good to see the judges on Idol brutally grading everyone on a scale from A+ to A+++.” Come on, Randy/Steven/J.Lo: you are judges. Say something constructive!
But, I digress. (I apologize for the ado when I promised there would be none.) The ratings:
#9: Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman,” caterwauled by Stefano Langone: I still have issues with Stefano’s weird resonances, his strange pronunciations (freh-eend; what is this, Rebecca Black’s Fri-ee-day?) and his thin voice, and all of those problems were in full force tonight. I also took issue with his shaky last note (he just needed to kick the vibrato in sooner, and the pitch wouldn’t have wavered so much, I think), but I can’t deny that for most of the song, he was hitting his pitches pretty handily. Of the remaining contestants, Stefano is the one who still leaves me a little cold. He is a capable, talented singer, but he is just not vocally on the same level as the rest of the finalists, and because of that, I think that he may find himself at least sitting on a silver stool tomorrow night, if not packing his bags for home.
#8: Elvis Presley’s “That’s Alright, Mama,” misguidedly “sexy-faced” by Scotty McCreery: I disagree strongly with the judges’ remarks about Scotty showing us a new side of himself; rather, he just showed us another version of his good-ol’-boy country twang, which may not be my cup of tea, but I can appreciate it, because his vocals sounded pretty good. However, Scotty is so low on my ranking primarily due to his ATROCIOUS performance style. (The caps lock is justified; please watch the performance and try not to vomit.) I find it extremely difficult to take Scotty seriously when he holds the mike like this and makes faces like this. What self-respecting performer looks like such a cheeseball when he’s singing? Last week, he played the guitar and the awful mugging for the camera subsided a bit, but this week it was back with a vengeance. I’m aware that Scotty is too cute to land in the bottom three, but that doesn’t mean I have to accept his “aw, shucks” faces laying down.
#7: Michael Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror,” hip thrusted by Jacob Lusk: Jacob’s husky lower range was on full display tonight , and he gave his upper register a workout, too (I don’t think I’ve ever heard this song in such a high key). But, ol’ Lusky Stank tried something new this evening: he started shaking his hips. Not once, not twice, but many, many times. If there was ever any doubt about his sexuality (there wasn’t), he put it to rest tonight with his MJ sashay. I think Jacob’s impassioned dancing clashed with the message of the song, especially after his comment about how if he landed in the bottom three, it would mean that America doesn’t want to look at itself in the mirror. Smells a bit of Michael Lynche’s pompous comment last season after a particularly iffy performance that rang horribly across the Idoldome: “Check me out on iTunes.” You’re a contestant on American Idol, gents. You’re not a multi-platinum recording artist. Take the attitude down a few notches. Your voice (at least in the case of Jacob) is there, just make the overall package work, too.
#6: George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” heavily emoted by James Durbin: I love this song immensely, and maybe because of my devotion, I immediately am iffy about covers of it. That being said, James delivered an emotional, solid vocal, even in spite of the unnecessary screamed note at the end and the indulgent final riff. I did enjoy the arrangement, particularly the strings. And while I typically think that Idol contestants who dedicate songs to their loved ones are full of horse pucky, I actually believe James, and I think that his tears were legitimate, a rarity on this show. I also appreciated the softer side of James, as Randy said. If nothing else, James is a consistent vocalist who shows signs of growth every week, and I am certainly not going to badmouth that. He just needs to find the song that will blow the audience away without flaming pianos.
#5: Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High,” blasted to the rafters by Pia Toscano: Let’s get one thing straight: Pia can SANG. Our vibrating eardrums can tell. She has slayed ballad after ballad, week after week. But can she handle a legitimately uptempo song? Well, the answer is a resounding “kind of.” Vocally, Pia was on point: bright, tuneful belt with flexible riffs and rounded tones. In the words of Jenny from the Block: check. But, Pia’s problem lay in the fact that “River Deep, Mountain High” is a dirty song, and she sang a white bread version of a decidedly whole-grain roll. Now, I don’t mean dirty in a sexual way, but vocally dirty. Tina Turner’s version is full of grit and sass and soul; Pia’s was like the bleached, squeaky clean version of that, with every speck of grit washed away. Even her stage movement felt sterilized: she just walked a slow circle around the judges, singing at one audience member after another (and I do mean “at,” not “to”). I just wanted to see a less shiny and polished version of Pia this week, but not surprisingly, she delivered the same polished Pia that is slowly beginning to bore me every week.
#4: Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” semi-awkwardly sang by Lauren Alaina: To me, this Aretha classic is not really appropriate for a 16-year old to be singing. Some of the lyrics are questionable: “…you make me feel so good inside,” namely. Lauren is not quite worldly-experienced enough to be singing about a man making her feel like a natural woman. That said, Lauren delivered a quality vocal that switched up the original and added a pleasant twang/growl. Although, for the love of everything holy, Idol contestants need to lay off the key changes. The key change added nothing to the song that wasn’t already, except for jumping Lauren’s money note up a half-step. I think that Lauren may have quite a career in front of her, if she can keep up the solid, dependable vocals.
#3: Janis Joplin’s “Piece Of My Heart,” tackled, flayed and eaten alive by Haley “Dark Horse” Reinhart: I can’t decide whether it is her song choice, her inspired ad-libs, or maybe the fact that she is just pleasantly imperfect (see Paul McDonald), but Haley is worming (growling) her way into my heart. She just voraciously rips into her songs like a lion into a hyena: the song never wins, for better or for worse. Again, she covered a song that can handle her many guttural stylings, and she delivered the best riff of the night at 1:22 in the above video. “Piece Of My Heart” has been heavily covered on Idol, but Haley managed to give it a unique twist of individuality, which becomes more and more difficult with every passing season. If Haley delivers another stellar performance again next week, I will be fully in her camp, and I’ll probably eat my metaphorical/proverbial hat.
#2: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen The Rain,” plucked, strummed and SANG by Casey Abrams: Casey solidified his “I’m back” status with tonight’s rendition of the CCR classic. He did everything that makes Casey great: he played the string bass (and I firmly disagree with Randy’s pronouncement that Casey is making the upright bass “cool.” The upright bass has always been, and will always be cool), he gave us soulful, unique vocals, and there was not a scary face in sight. Casey is such a nuanced vocalist that I can’t even catch all of his performance tricks the first time through. He chews on specific words in his mouth, distorting the resonance in an entirely enjoyable fashion. He throws in a few growls here and there. He even tosses his voice up into his falsetto for good measure. All these facets combine into a really powerful, affecting performance, and one that was only narrowly beaten by…
#1: Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” performed by Paul “Bedhead” McDonald: Paul doesn’t have a witty verb describing his performance because the word itself does it justice: Paul performed that song. His exuberance was just leaping through my television, complete with fantastic balladeer dancing and incredible frontman charisma. While his vocals weren’t as solid as Casey/Haley/Pia, they were probably his best yet, and he displayed some surprising control on his riffs. But Paul’s major strength is not his vocal, it’s his ability to infuse a song with the essence of Paul. Every cover he does is different than the original in very pleasant fashion, and like I mentioned last week, his covers are not cerebral. They just seem to pour out of him and his guitar. Tonight, ol’ PMcD came out and proved that he most certainly did not belong in the bottom three last week. Let’s keep him around, America. Lord knows he’s more entertaining that Ashthon, Karen and Thia combined.
So who’s going home? I have two bottom threes tonight: the three I think should be at the bottom, and the three I think will be at the bottom. In my humble opinion, the bottom three should be Scotty, Jacob and Stefano, but I think the Silver Stools of Doom will actually be reserving spots for Stefano, Jacob and…I just can’t decide! It could be Paul, who did INEXPLICABLY find himself in the bottom last week. It could be Pia, who is becoming a middle of the pack runner, who may not have a loyal enough fan base to keep her on top. It could be Haley, who has found herself in the bottom two weeks already this season. It could be Casey, who was already voted off and saved this season. I do think that Stefano will wind up going home, though. He just isn’t quite of the same caliber as the rest of the contestants.
So, what do you think, Internet? Do you agree with my sudden Haley devotion? Do you think that Stefano is actually worth keeping around? Are you also afraid of Jacob’s whirling-dervish hips? And did anybody else think that one back-up singer was a dead ringer for Naima? Let me know what you think, good or bad!