Get ready for a lot of Elton John this week, America.
In addition to lending this week’s “American Idol” its theme, the “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” singer will be host and musical guest on this weekend’s “Saturday Night Live.”
We know the “SNL” writers won’t know what to do with Sir Elton, but could he bring out the best in the Top 11? Click through to find out…
Singer: Scotty McCreery
Song: “Country Comfort”
My Take: Uh-oh. Opening an 11-person show didn’t work out so well for Casey Abrams last week. Jimmy Iovine sounds like he’s getting tired of One-Trick Pony Scotty, but at least the pony has brought out his guitar this week. That means Scott isn’t holding the microphone on a severe angle and it also means he almost has to keep his neck straight. The improvement in his stage presence is dramatic. This is the first time I’ve been able to watch Scotty in a couple weeks. This isn’t an Elton John song that I know, but Scotty seems to give it a solid, but thoroughly unexciting spin, right up until a killer low note at the very end. And by “killer,” I mean that Scotty somehow misses the note entirely and has to wiggle his voice into the melody. We already knew that Scotty’s got the young women in his pocket, but tonight he stands up for a verse about his grandma with the producers and then gives a shout-out to the woman herself during the performance. I wasn’t all that interested in Scotty, but I don’t think he needs to worry about the Casey Curse.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: Steven loves everything about Scotty. J-Lo thinks Scotty has amazing instincts, urging him to always keep grounded. Randy felt like he was at Scotty’s concert, though he also seems to be thinking that Scotty will be playing concerts at a neighborhood bar-and-grill.
Singer: Naima Adedapo
Song: “I’m Still Standing”
My Take: Naima’s just screwing with us at this point, pouring a heaping helping of “reggae swagga” onto this Elton John joint, launching with a Jamaican-flavored shout-out to the people in the world who are still standing. But the opening accent isn’t a temporary affectation. She’s doing the entire song accented. It’s a weird choice and I’m open to interpretation that it’s verging on offensive. If on Music of Bob Marley Night, Scotty McCreery came out and tried spitting patois, you’d be all, “Dude. STOP.” But you know the funny thing? “I’m Still Standing” actually lends itself decently to the reggae rearrangement. I don’t mind it and Naima’s having fun messing with the audience. She’s reached this weird point, though, where she probably isn’t allowed to just “sing” every again. The minute she does a ballad without a funny accent or a crazy dance interlude, the judges will say, “Where’s the Naima we loved in Hollywood?” and she’ll get voted out immediately. So keep bringing the wackiness, Naima.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: J-Lo loves Naima and loves her reggae swag, but she didn’t like the flipping of the song. “It was a better idea than it was payoff for me,” J-Lo says. Randy loves reggae, but he says that the arrangement came off “corny.” J-Lo tries insisting that you have to respect Naima for trying. “Good for you for picking a song that fits you,” Tyler says. And that’s Steven Tyler’s constructive criticism. “What’s for you is for you, what’s for me is for me,” Naima tells Randy.
Singer: Paul McDonald
Song: “Rocket Man”
My Take: This ought to be a good theme for Paul, since he’s the only guy this season who remembers buying Elton John records back in the ’70s. Paul’s working the rose-splattered suit and the guitar and it’s always nice to see his enhanced comfort level when he gets to instrumentalize. Paul’s still such a darned welcoming performer. As usual, he greets the audience and asks us how we are. As he hits the chorus, he seems to be urging us to join him, but since he’s rearranged the melody slightly, nobody can actually sing along. Heck, the way the melody has been arranged, even Paul is barely singing along. The range of the original has been squished to almost nothing and Paul still isn’t hitting a lot of the notes. He remains an absolutely lock to win “America’s Hobo Troubadour.”
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: Randy calls it “quiet comfort,” which is a terrific description. But J-Lo wonders if Paul is holding back. Randy wants Paul to go all the way. Tyler rambles for a bit. “When you start singing and hitting every note, I’m not going to like you anymore,” Tyler adds.
Singer: Pia Toscano
Song: “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”
My Take: Dang. That was a bombshell red dress Pia was wearing on her fashion shoot last week. Tonight’s dress is short and sparkly. Oh look. Not only is Pia singing another big ballad this week, but she’s singing a big ballad that already has had its definitive “American Idol” cover. And no, I’m not just kissing up to scary Clay Aiken fans here. There’s a place in the middle where you can actually hear Pia trying a little bit too much. That wouldn’t be unusual for most “Idol” singers, but Pia rarely seems to be sweating under the spotlight and tonight there are a couple runs that maybe she didn’t need, a couple notes that she’s shouting that in previous weeks might have been sung? But perhaps she’s taken to heart that the judges want to see just a little more energy and this effort is her way of showing energy? Meh. I’m nit-picking. It’s not a small song and she’s making it bigger, as opposed to Paul, who shrunk “Rocket Man” down to nearly nothing.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: “Pia, you’ve done it again,” Steven raves. “That’s just about as good as it gets,” Tyler adds. “I felt you more than I have before,” J-Lo says. J-Lo wants Pia to break through the barrier. “You’ve sung a ballad every time and guess what, you’ve slayed ’em every time,” Randy says, before comparing Pia to Whitney and Mariah. Randy still suggests that maybe a mid-tempo song next week wouldn’t kill Pia?
Singer: Stefano Langone
Song: “Tiny Dancer”
My Take: Oh, Stefano. So cheesy. Couldn’t you have found a song that was a little bit less lyrically intricate? Lyrics are Stefano’s kryptonite and this is a song that’s all about the preciseness and passionate yearning of the words. He puts the emphasis on the wrong words, almost without fail. In some cases, he’s mumbling words so badly I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know what the lyric even is, much less what it means. I guess we give him credit for not singing the chorus about Mr. Tony Danza? I keep waiting for the song to build to something awesome when he gets to the chorus, but instead it builds to something smarmy and nasally. By the end, when Stefano comes over the the judges’ table and practically runs his fingers through J-Lo’s hair, Randy’s cracking up.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: J-Lo felt like Stefano moved the crowd, calling it both “amazing” and “really good.” Randy raves that Stefano’s eyes were open throughout. Tyler thinks Stefano nailed it. I have absolutely no idea what they watched or heard.
Singer: Lauren Alaina
Song: “Candle in the Wind”
My Take: I wonder which time Lauren Alaina thinks is “the first time” this song came out. One nice thing about Stefano “Mumbles” Langone is that he makes me immediately appreciate Lauren’s careful enunciation. I don’t have a clue who or what she’s singing the song to — whatever meaning and heft John gave the song when singing about Marilyn Monroe and then Princess Di has vanished entirely — but she’s nailing the lyrics. The vocals are solid, country-fied stuff. She could have gone a bit bigger, but I almost applaud Lauren for going under-stated.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: Randy calls it one of the greatest Lauren Alaina performances on the stage. “That was just perfect,” Tyler says, before joking that if she keeps singing like that, she’ll be able to afford the rest of her dress. I honestly hadn’t noticed that Lauren’s wearing a cape-and-mini combo. Suddenly Lauren is self-conscious, as many teenage girls would be to be sexually harassed by a 75-year-old cadaver. J-Lo calls her gorgeous and says the performance was gorgeous as well.
Singer: James Durbin
Song: “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)”
My Take: James is bound and determined to use the audience as a prop tonight, even though Jimmy Iovine doesn’t seem especially convinced this a good idea. James does, indeed, begin in the upper deck behind the stage before working his way down the stairs, down into the audience and back again. I’ll say this for James: He’s in good enough shape that he doesn’t run out of lung-power. He also gives up the running-through the audience thing fairly early. He spend a little time standing at the microphone before getting restless and jumping on top of the piano and taking a big leap off. This has to be the most heavily insured “American Idol” performance in history. I’ve counted seven different places in which Steven Tyler would have broken a hip. By the end, James is wailing, the stage is engulfed in flames and who the heck knows what the actual song was that James sang or how he wasn’t. I suspect that if you close your eyes and just listen, that was pretty bad, but who was doing that? This was more like the “Goodfellas” nightclub tracking shot of performances. Only not so good.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: “You go where no man can go, but just don’t wear out your welcome,” Tyler cheers. “When you’re up there, I forget that it’s a competition show,” J-Lo says, calling it “a full performance of a great song by a great artist.” Randy loved that James was having a great time. James says that his biggest fear was having A Pepsi Moment. Now he’s referring to Michael Jackson here, but Seacrest doesn’t have a clue what the joke is and tries to clarify that the show is sponsored by Coke. James is confused at Seacrest’s confusion. You can sense him wanting to say, “Dude. I’m not advertising for the competition. A Pepsi Moment is having your hair catch on fire and your be forever changed for the worse.”
Singer: Thia Megia
My Take: Thia’s not actually singing to me tonight. She’s singing about the pain of missing her brother. And she’s singing with Jimmy Iovine’s threat that if she doesn’t connect, she’ll be going home. Count Thia in with the singers who have been coached on enunciating. So good for you, Thia! Way to say the words! As for the notes? Well, those are a bit rougher. You could give Thia the credit to say that she’s so overwhelmed by emotion that she can’t be bothered to hit notes? Sure. Let’s say that. But to say that, you’d have to ignore how darned sleepy this whole performance is. There’s no energy and even less genuine emotion. I’m very glad, though, that Thia didn’t sing anything from “The Lion King,” because then she’d have had to talk about how it came out before she was born. And that really might have made me get stabby, as opposed to just sleepy.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: “That was really beautiful,” says J-Lo, who has abandoned her substantive judging from last week. Randy liked that it was relaxed, but he says there were “a couple” pitch issues. Randy feels that it was too safe. “When you find the right song, the voice appears and that’s what happened tonight,” Steven says. Really? Here’s the thing, judges: You know why Casey was voted out last week? Because viewers are sheep, at least a little. They need the judges because somebody has to help them separate the wheat from the chafe. If the judges serve no purpose in distinguishing between good performances and awful performances (Stefano and Thia), then they serve no purpose.
Singer: Casey Abrams
Song: “Your Song”
My Take: At the urging of the producers, Casey has trimmed the beard and gotten a haircut. I’m just glad he didn’t get rid of it entirely. Casey, now looking clean and presentable, starts this performance on a stool, accompanied only by a piano. This is a very good change-of-pace performance from Casey, who has had doubters wondering if he can actually sing, or if he’s just a growler. Wonder no more. The guy can sing. And we don’t need to worry that this is what Casey’s likely to do next week or the week after, but it’s nice to know that he can do sweet, pure and earnest if required. That being said, the best part of the performance comes at the end, when he adds just enough growl sell some emotion other than “benign tenderness,” closing on a solid falsetto.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: Randy says that Casey’s performance was nice and tender and brilliant. Steven either loved the last two falsetto notes of Casey’s performance, or hated them. I can’t tell. He initially indicated the latter, but apparently meant the former. J-Lo says she’s lost sleep over some of her decisions this season, but she had no regrets about putting Casey through.
Singer: Jacob Lusk
Song: “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word”
My Take: Jimmy Iovine seems to be implying that this is a Jacob performance sans over-dramatization. And yet it starts with a warbling, vibrato-heavy falsetto? I know that “over-dramatization” means something different for Jacob than for other performers, but come on… And can you really be said to be avoiding over-dramatization when you’re wailing away in a glass-shattering upper register engulfed in a foot of fog-machine-provided smoke? Jacob, The Phantom of the Opera called and even he thinks you’re being a little theatrical. [As an aside, Jacob hits all of the notes well and unlike Pia or Thia or Stefano, I never doubt his degree of feeling or sincerity. In fact, I think if this hadn’t been advertised as understated Jacob, I might have felt that it actually *was* understated. As Jimmy Iovine would tell you, it’s all about hype.]
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: Tyler loved the first half of the song and the second half equalled the first half. J-Lo references Robbie Rosen. NICE! Randy loved the first half, but he actually felt that Jacob had too much restraint. He wanted to see his “Jacob Spot.” Ew.
Singer: Haley Reinhart
Song: “Bennie and the Jets”
My Take: I’m not sure I remember a more surprising use of the “Idol” pimp position. Is Haley about to blow the doors off this here “Idol” barn? Damn. Haley starts off curled up on the piano, “The Fabulous Baker Boys”-style. It’s a kitchen sink performance from there. There’s definite growling. There’s sex kitten purring. There’s a little near-yodeling. I’m pretty sure she’s doing the chorus in parseltongue, she’s hissing so aggressively. There’s even a little near-scatting. It’s all over the place. Nobody’s accusing Haley of being understated tonight. But I kinda like some of the places it goes. Jimmy Iovine’s notion that this is Haley bringing everything together is ludicrous. There’s no “together” to this performance, but I’m not immune to the component parts in their cute package.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: “That was it, Haley!” J-Lo raves. “It all came together,” she continues enthusiastically. “Best performance of the night,” Randy barks. “You sing sexy,” Tyler adds.
TONIGHT’S BEST: Twas a middling night of “American Idol.” I can tell you some people I enjoyed, including Casey, Pia and bits and pieces from Haley. But “best”? Meh. None of these performances are going to have me heading to iTunes.
TONIGHT’S WORST: This was not a very good week for Stefano and Thia. And while I don’t expect he’s going to be in any danger, James Durbin’s frantic craziness was almost certainly more entertaining in the room than it was from home.
IN DANGER: I could imagine five or six different people falling into the Bottom Three, possibly even including Scotty McCreery for a dull performance from the opening slot. I’d have bet dollars to donuts that Haley was doomed no matter what she did, but the combination of over-praise from the judges and the pimp slot should keep her safe. I’m predicting Thia and Naima to go home, with Stefano edging out Paul McDonald for the last spot. But if you look back, the judges didn’t have real criticisms for a single performer, which is total crazy-sauce.
Who did you like? Who did you dislike?