Recap: ‘American Idol’ Top 10 Performance – Billy Joel Night

Welcome to Wednesday (March 21) night’s “American Idol.”

If scuttlebutt is to be believed — and I always believe scuttlebutt — Wednesday’s theme is The Music of Billy Joel. And if additional scuttlebutt is to be believed, mentoring the Top 10 will be Sean Combs, because if anybody is trained to help aspiring singers with the work of Billy Joel, it’s P. Diddy. 

Click through to find out how a man who can’t sing steered our “Idol” hopefuls in the fine art of singing…

The episode begins with “Idol” pretending that the elimination of Shannon Magrane was some grand tragedy that we’ll all have to overcome. I hope we can pull it off. We’ll just have to dig down deep, I suppose.

Heck, Jennifer Lopez is even wearing black — Very, very, very tight black — in honor of Shannon’s passing. What can you say about a 16-year-old girl who didn’t die? 

Singer: DeAndre Brackensick
Song: “Only The Good Die Young”
My Take: I don’t understand why Diddy is doing here. Diddy doesn’t understand what he’s doing here. I actually made a joke with a Twitter follower about DeAndre’s version of “Only The Good Die Young” hours before any of the song titles leaked. I was joking. DeAndre comes bouncing down the stage fully tapping into his 1980s self . Remarkably the song is entirely being sung in DeAndre’s actual voice. There’s no falsetto to be found. Of course, all of the bouncing up and down is much more than DeAndre can handle. He lacks the lungs to actually stay in tune and project while bouncing this restlessly. So he sounds strained, but at least he isn’t singing the entire thing out of the top of his head. I don’t like him a lot like this, but I like him more than I like him when he’s squeezing chipmunks for his vocal inspiration. He’s still impressively cheesy and vocally mediocre and he has no clue what this song is about, but whatever. Diddy also was a bit perplexed. By many things.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: “First I thought it was a little bit too happy, but isn’t that what the world needs right now?” Steven Tyler asks. J-Lo praises DeAndre’s “laid-back vibe,” saying it really showcased who he is. Yo. Randy thought it was a great way to start a show, because it didn’t show him anything special. It was good, but it wasn’t great for Randy. Ryan Seacrest calls Randy a buzzkiller for having the nerve to think DeAndre was anything other than the bestest.

Singer: Erika Van Pelt
Song: “New York State of Mind”
My Take: This was a good choice for Erika, one of the few singers in the competition who may remember Billy Joel. And big ups to Erika for having concerns that Red Sox Nation might be not embrace her singing a song like a New Yorker. But… Wait! Erika got her head cut, yo! Wow. Her hair is short and practically black all of a sudden. I’m not sure I agree with Tommy Hilfiger that this was a good idea. She looks good, but she also looks older like this. And you know what female contestants don’t need on “Idol”? To look older. The mentors worried that Erika was going to oversing and… they were right to worry. There’s an aggressive vibrato throughout that serves no purpose and detracts from what would otherwise be a fine and straight-forward rendition of the song. I mean, unlike DeAndre, Erika can actually sing. She’s got a powerful and soulful voice. But while DeAndre knows exactly who he is — for worse or for better — Erika seems to be changing her identity every week. If you aren’t Adam Lambert, being Protean on “American Idol” is a mistake.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: Randy and J-Lo love the look. Randy also loved the vocal and says she could sing the phone book. Randy acknowledges that Jimmy was right about the oversinging, but then says that he doesn’t agree. J-Lo thought it was a “beautiful, beautiful” vocal, but she also wants Erika to let loose physically as well. Steven wanted more character, but thought it had a lot of personality. I have no idea what those things mean.

Singer: Joshua Ledet
Song: “She’s Got a Way”
My Take: Poor Joshua. This is an awful song choice. I get that he doesn’t know Billy Joel. At all, apparently. But isn’t there somebody there capable of helping him? The nice thing about Josh is that he’s talented enough to fight through a botched selection like this one. Yes, he looks confused in his too-tight tuxedo as the fog swirls around him, but he undersells the first half of the song respectably and then when he’s joined by the gospel choice in the second half he gets to show off a little. I have no idea what he thinks the song is about or who he thinks he’s singing to, but he’s too good to look too bad on a song that he doesn’t understand in any way, shape or form. But it’s not like Billy Joel didn’t write songs that Josh could have connected to. Bring out the gospel choir with Josh and “River of Dreams” and that’s gold. This? It’s some different, less shiny metal.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: J-Lo wants Josh to have felt more. She says that she feels stupid criticizing him, but then she says that he didn’t feel the lyrics. And he didn’t. “I felt like you were singing it, but you weren’t SINGING it,” J-Lo says. She’s totally right. Somehow, Steven Tyler doesn’t know this song and he pretends that Joshua made the song come to life. Randy can see where they’re both coming from. Dude. Randy. They said THE EXACT OPPOSITE THING. Pick a side, Randy! Randy wanted Joshua to grab the song more. But none of them want to point out that the song itself, or Josh choosing it, was the real problem here.

Singer: Skylar Laine
Song: “Shameless”
My Take: Surrounded by white dudes who can’t clap in rhythm, Skylar is adding some country rasp to a Billy Joel song that I think I’ve heard once in my life. Skylar, who’s given energetic performances effectively in the past, loses her breath on a short detour through the audience. It becomes mumbly and lot especially melodic. When she’s standing still at center stage, she’s tearing into big hunks of the song. She sounds raw and connected in all of the ways that Joshua, unfortunately, didn’t. It’s not great, but it’s maybe my favorite performance of the night thus far, I think. Or maybe not? Dunno. It’s been another middling night thus far.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: Ah. There was a Brad Paisley version of the song and a Garth Brooks version of the song. That explains it. Or it explains something. Randy blames the key for Skylar’s breath problems in the first half. He’s only part-right. J-Lo thinks Skylar is fearless rather than shameless. Steven has lots of criticisms, but he says Skylar breathed life into the song.

Singer: Elise Testone
Song: “Vienna”
My Take: Sure. If you’ve been in the Bottom Three in consecutive weeks, you totally want to do a song that NOBODY in the “American Idol” audience is going to know. [I’m not saying it’s a song nobody knows. But I assure you that the “Idol” votership has only a limited body of Billy Joel knowledge and this is not part of that body.] And the sad part is that Elise is tremendous, by tonight’s standards. Listen to her phrasing! She’s actually singing the song, finding meaning in the words. There’s enunciation and emphasis and value to the lyrics. She’s doing her standard, raspy thing, but she’s doing it on a song that doesn’t take her into that unfortunate zone where she’s screaming and becomes over-extended. The judges stand up for the night’s best performance thus far. In fact, I feel silly for having been enthusiastic for Skylar after the meticulously earthy, jazzy and musical performance Elise just gave.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: Steven was enthusiastic. “I’m so happy for you. I’m so happy I just want to shake you and hold you and squeeze you,” J-Lo says. Randy likes what everyone has done tonight. Not only does Elise look great tonight, but she also breaks two of her young students up onto stage to hug her. Her students are in tears they’re so proud. He’s a great moment for a singer who desperately needed to connect with viewers.

Singer: Phillip Phillips
Song: “Moving Out”
My Take: Tommy Hilfiger wanted Phil-Phil to change. Diddy wanted Phil-Phil to change. Would Phil-Phil change? Apparently not. Good on you, Phil-Phil. He’s dressed in his normal drabbery. And he’s playing his guitar. And for the first part of the song, it’s all Phil-Phil, with no visible accompaniment. And even when he’s joined later by a band and background vocalists, they’re heard, but unseen. It’s a nicely grungy, rootsy spin on the familiar song. I like how he’s playing with and straying from Billy’s phrasing, but finding his own distinctive way to break down the lyrics. And I’m tremendously relieved he isn’t accompanied by silly singing girls Diddy thought were necessary. One more time: Why is P. Diddy mentoring “Idol” contestants at all? And why is he doing it on Billy Joel night? This is the Phil-Phil we want giving the Phil-Phil performance we want, taking the song and dragging it through the gutter in the best way possible. Thank you, Elise and Phil-Phil for a strong one-two punch. And when it gets to be Songs of Rusted Root night, Phil-Phil and Elise are gonna tear s*** up.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: “You are who you are and you have to be who you are and that’s it. And you saw the response,” J-Lo says, calling it “awesome.” “You took that song and you Phillip Phillipsed it,” Steven says, tossing Phil-Phil a scarf as a gift. “Those that do, should,” Randy says, calling it one of the best renditions of that song ever. Phil-Phil tells Ryan that he isn’t a guy about image and he throws the scarf into the audience. Talk about looking a gift-scarf in the mouth. We don’t see Tyler’s reaction to this act of charity involving what I’m sure was a fairly expensive accessory.

Singer: Hollie Cavanagh
Song: “Honesty”
My Take: What the heck is Hollie wearing? No. No no. No no no. NOOOOOO. A sparkly bustier? On Billy Joel night? To look young? Accompanied by a white pants suit? SERIOUSLY? Hollie looks much older tonight than she’s looked at any other point this season. I think she’s also got this string ensemble trailing behind her 24-7. And for all of Diddy’s alleged illumination of the song, this is a Hollie performance. She gets up there and belts in the same way each week. She does it well, because she has a big voice — not always the same as a great voice, because sometimes she substitutes “shouting” for “melody” — but this performance is indistinguishable from the other performances she’s given since Week One, except that she doesn’t break on the last note. She can hit many, many notes as a singer, but as a performer, she hits the same note over and over.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: Steven thought Hollie was pitchy and that she probably needed another week to work on this. J-Lo doesn’t think Hollie even knew every single note in the song. Randy agrees that the choruses were great and he felt her thinking during the verse. “You’ve just gotta let go,” Randy says.

Singer: Heejun Han
Song: “My Life”
My Take: Heejun is wearing a “Heejun” shirt. I desperately want Tommy Hilfiger to tell Heejun that it’s not cool to wear shirts with your name on them. Unfortunately, he comes to see Tommy in a plain white tee-shirt. I like how Heejun is messing with Tommy and messing with Diddy and messing with everybody. Indeed, this is all a lark for Heejun. The piano player begins slow and Heejun stops him and instructs him to kick it up. He prowls the stage and even comes down to serenade the judges. As a post-modern reflection on the “American Idol” experience, this is absolutely brilliant. From the song itself to his goofy outfit to the light show, it’s basically parodying the notion that a reality show would try to shape less-than-talented performances into pop stars. Of course, as a vocal performance, this is awful. Embarrassingly awful. He’s hardly hitting any of the notes at all. He’s just yelling and mumbling and occasionally shouting “My life.” But Heejun obviously wanted it to be awful. So… Kudos! This is a Sanjaya-calibre vocal with a post-grad thesis twist.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: J-Lo thought it was a breath of fresh air. She has the nervous to say that Heejun didn’t hit the notes the right way and the audience boos. Tyler calls him “Hee-Man.” “Are you happy that you took the piss out of that song?” Tyler says, sounding irritated and, by the end, genuinely annoyed, warning him that the music business will kick his ass. Randy was happy to see Heejun have a good time. Because that’s what “American Idol” is all about. I guess. Today. At least he had a good time.

Singer: Jessica Sanchez
Song: “Everybody Has a Dream”
My Take: This time, Diddy was on-target trying to tell Jessica that she was horribly overdoing the early rehearsal footage we saw. He tells her to connect with the audience and actually sing to people. Will it work? Unlike Phil-Phil, Jessica seems to be completely malleable. Tommy wants that dress shorter? It’s shorter, darnit. Diddy wanted Jessica’s eyes open and her focus out into the audience? Her eyes are focused out into the audience. She could pull the vocal pyrotechnics back a little bit, but just as there’s something to be said for ignoring mentorship if you’re confident in yourself, there’s something to be said for being able and willing to change if you’re 16-years-old and basically a blob of of slowly forming, almost limitless potential. Jessica harnesses the song in the last 30 seconds and it kinda puts Hollie, her direct competition, to shame. In terms of “believing” the song, I still put Jessica behind Elise and Phil-Phil. But in terms of range and pipes, she’s alone.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: “I’ve got nothing to say but thank you for letting me hear you sing,” Tyler says. J-Lo thought that was a defining performance for Jessica. Randy tells Jessica that she has A Moment every time she steps on the stage. Hmmm… Somebody needs to show Randy Jessica’s performance from last week’s episode when she was decided short of A Moment. This is the Jessica the show wants us to see.

Singer: Colton Dixon
Song: “Piano Man”
My Take: Tommy Hilfiger hates Colton’s skunk-do, so Colton’s more determined than ever to keep his skunk-do. As Jimmy notes, Colton’s one of the night’s few performers who was perfectly suited for tonight’s theme. Determined to be faithful to “Piano Man,” Colton initially tones down the Coldplay-style affectations, but they begin to leak in before he gets anywhere near the chorus. And you know what? I kinda appreciate it, because there’s no point at all to Colton doing Billy Joel karaoke. The little changes are part of Colton’s grand Coldplay-ification of the song and they’re also what will make this cover sing very well on iTunes. It really and truly makes “Piano Man” sound more contemporary, as silly as that sounds.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: J-Lo had GOOSIES from head to toe. “Your choice of chords when your voice resolved was just stunning,” Tyler says. “Sensitive, touching, moving,” are Randy’s adjectives of choice. Colton says that before his performance, he prayed for God to use him. The crowd roars encouragingly.

TONIGHT’S BEST: Elise and Phil-Phil were my favorites, with Colton and Jessica right below.

TONIGHT’S WORST: Heejun has this one all to himself. It would defeat the purpose of his performance if I put anybody else in the category with him.

IN TROUBLE: I think Elise may still be in the Bottom Three, but I think she survives. I think Erika is probably going home, with DeAndre also Bottom Three-ing it.

What’d you think? Who’d you love? Who’d you hate?

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