Recap: ‘American Idol’ – Top 13 Performances

Last week there were 24 singers on “American Idol” and you sent 11 of them packing, America. In fact, you tried to send 14 of them packing, but the judges kept Ashthon Jones, Stefano Langone and Naima Adedapo around.

You can read my interviews with the entire Top 13 here.

On Wednesday (March 9) night, the “Idol” Finalists sang songs from *their* Idols.

How did that turn out? Click through…

Singer: Lauren Alaina
Song: “Any Man of Mine”
My Take: Lauren Alaina idolizes Shania Twain, which allows me to remember the time they did Shania Twain Night on “American Idol” and Jeff “Mutt” Lange’s name wasn’t mentioned once. It was just last year. Not so long ago. This is Lauren’s second straight week of proficient up-tempo country, which apparently is who she wants to be. Almost nothing has been done to the arrangement to make it distinctive for her, though. So really, this is just Lauren doing a fine, honky-tonk bar karaoke version of Shania. And I feel like it wouldn’t be at all difficult to find dozens of women of all age who could do exactly this vocal with exactly this arrangement and you wouldn’t notice any drop in quality. Lauren’s somehow been lured into believing that her personality is *so* darned appealing that she doesn’t need to sing at all. I hope she gets shaken out of that complacency.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: Steven Tyler says that he loves the song, but he wished it had been a bit more “kick-ass.” J-Lo wants Lauren to kick it into high gear. She comes VERY close to telling Lauren to shift out of auto-pilot. Wow! Randy mentions Mutt Lange! Anyway, Randy says that Lauren doesn’t know how talented she is, which is what he said last week as well, almost word-for-word. “I had a good time…” a slightly shell-shocked Lauren says.

Singer: Casey Abrams
Song: “With A Little Help From My Friends”
My Take: Hmmm… This is a rather predictable song choice from a guy who had taken such pride in being unpredictable. But I love that he references “The Wonder Years” as the source of his appreciation for Joe Cocker. I’m not sure how I feel aboutJimmy Iovine basically telling Casey to do a Joe Cocker impression, but thankfully, Casey resists that urging and starts off nicely sedate, sitting on the steps. Then he picks things up, walking to the center of the stage, introducing us to his friends, also known as the background singers. He’s not quite sure on the arrangement, which has made some pacing changes, so there’s a process of finding his footing that includes a bit of shouting. It’s definitely not bad, but I don’t know that I feel the song bursting out of Casey the way I did with last week’s “You Put a Spell on Me.”
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: J-Lo was feeling Casey’s performance. It blew her away. “Dude, you are so unbelievable and so exciting,” says Randy, who also calls it “amazing” multiple times. “You are a rainbow of talent, man,” calls Steven Tyler, who also calls him “a plethora of passion.” The other judges are impressed with the use of the word plethora. I figure Steven once got sick of referring to packs of groupies as “a bundle” or “oodles” and somebody gave him a new word.

Singer: Ashthon Jones
Song: “When You Tell Me That You Love Me”
My Take: Well, you can’t say Ashthon doesn’t know how to take notes. The judges told her to be Diana Ross last week and so she turns around this week and does Diana Ross. Somebody needs to give Ashthon something new to do with her arms. I’m already tired of her reaching out to hug me, of her holding out her hands to tell me not to hug her, of her holding up a finger to tell me that I can hug her in one minute. It’s so darned stagey. Like Karen Rodriguez, Ashthon is too polished. One of the advantage of oddball theme nights is that they have the ability to shake a performer out of ruts or routines. Ashthon already needs to be shaken. As for the singing, let’s just say that Jimmy Iovine and company were right to be worried about her range, because she does not have the range to be singing this song. Remember Trenyce? She made it a long way on “Idol” missing almost every note and then vibrato-ing or otherwise finessing the notes to the right place. Ashthon does the same thing over and over again. Sometimes she’s sharp. Sometimes she’s flat. If this were an airline journey and the notes were her home, Ashthon takes connecting flights rather than direct flights. This shows me that her pitch isn’t the problem. She knows what the notes sound like. She just can’t hit them, at least not purely and easily and immediately. That’ll either be something she can be trained into doing or this will be a short run for her.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: Randy thought it was a safe move, but he liked it, praising her for how well she corrected her missed notes. Steven thinks there’s a lot more to her. “You’re so elegant up there,” J-Lo says. “I love you. You’re amazing. You’re awesome,” J-Lo says, pulling out some thoughtful, constructive criticism.

Singer: Paul McDonald
Song: “Come Pick Me Up”
My Take: I like Ryan Adams as an idol and it’s theoretically a good choice for Paul. He asks us if we’re doing alright this evening. Nobody else has been polite enough to inquire. So thanks, Paul. There’s a hesitant breathiness to the intro which, coupled with Paul’s lurching, becomes creepier than it should be. The chorus is better, but it isn’t a lot better. Ryan Adams’ voice is nasally, but there’s also a purity to it. Tonight, Paul is all rasp and no melody, like he’s trying to sing over the band or over the crowd at a loud bar? I’m sure this is one that would play better to 50 people in a crowded room. For whatever reason, the shambling around like a hobo troubadour isn’t nearly as appealing when he isn’t hitting the notes. And what’s with the sneer at the end. Does Paul think he’s smiling? Or does he know that that wasn’t what he wanted to do?
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: Steven calls it “a little pitchy,” but he still loves his voice anyway. “You’re just so unique,” J-Lo says, but she hopes America gets it. “I don’t know Ryan Adams or that song,” J-Lo admits. Randy loves the character of who Paul is. Randy has a clear point to make: He knows who Ryan Adams is. He wants us all to know that he gets what Paul was doing.

Singer: Pia Toscano
Song: “All By Myself”
My Take: Very nice of Pia to mention our conversation on the Top 13 blue carpet from Thursday. No? She mentioned doing “tons of press.” I’m tons of press! Oh and Pia totally needs to wear those glasses more often. I’m somewhat disappointed Pia did this song because of her love for Celine Dion and not a lingering appreciation for Eric Carmen. Pia hits the big notes marvelously and right on the nose. This isn’t like Ashthon’s searching warbling. But am I the only one who doesn’t hear a “build” to those crescendos? She’s just less impressive on the quieter parts where she gets lost in vibrato and breathiness, so then when the big notes come up, they don’t sound like the same person or like they’re evolving from the same performance. It doesn’t make them less admirable. It just gives her something to work on for the next few weeks as she coasts along. It has to be mentioned, at least in pervy passing: Pia looks gorgeous.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: J-Lo has no words. “Really really beautiful,” J-Lo says. Randy mentions the dangers of singing Whitney, Mariah and Celine, but says that she has “such a natural gift” and he’s in awe. “Very hot, dope, cool performance,” Randy concludes. “You polished that apple. Happy International Woman’s Day,” Steven says.

Singer: James Durbin
Song: “Maybe I’m Amazed”
My Take: This is a nice idol surprise from James. At least in theory, this wouldn’t seem to be a song he could wail on, but let’s see if the producer worked it into James’ strengths. It starts off sweet and soft and there are a couple seconds to reflect on how nice James’ voice is when he isn’t doing the ear-piercing high notes. There’s some shrieking in the middle and it doesn’t work nearly as well, as if the producer felt the responsibility to let him at least shout a wee bit. But he ends simple and clear and unaffected. Eventually James was going to have to do a performance like this, just to show he can. Now we know.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: Randy tells a story of his life before joining Journey. The upshot is that last week James sang Judas Priest and this week he sang Paul McCartney. “James Durbin is dangerous, America!” Randy announces. “If there was ever a review to be said about you, you just sang it,” Steven says confusingly. “You have what the greatest rock singers have, which is a melodic quality,” says J-Lo, who says James has “everything.”

Singer: Haley Reinhart
Song: “Blue”
My Take: Question for the season: Will Haley wear anything with straps this season? Rhetorical, I suppose. This is one of those brands of country music that I really can’t get into. Like I can’t tell if the near yodeling is in tune and if it sounds the way it’s supposed to. But the performance grows on me. By the last time she does the “Blue” yodel, I know it’s coming and it works well enough. There’s enough of the very appealing tone that I like. But even more than the night’s first few women, Haley gives off the impression that everything she’s doing could be much bigger, so do we appreciate the reduced theatricality or lament the challenging songs she maybe isn’t doing? There is a definite sensuality to Haley in performance that isn’t there at other times. Unlike Ashthon (and even Pia to some degree), she knows how to flirt with the camera, rather than tackling the cameraman and mounting him.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: Steven says that the country portion of America is roaring. “So, so fine,” Tyler says. J-Lo says Haley does things with her voice that are “unique” and “diverse” and “really, really special.” Randy? Less of a fan. He’s pleased that Haley can do anything, but he didn’t like her last week and he calls her “a little sleepy and a little boring.” Haley insists she was trying to show a softer side. “Haley has a very sexy quality about her,” J-Lo maintains. I agree with that part.

Singer: Jacob Lusk
Song:“I Believe I Can Fly”
My Take: Ah, a rare “Space Jam” reference. Let us never forget where this R. Kelly joint came from. Jacob stares down this song like Michael Jordan staring down a basketball-playing alien. And then he dunks all over the song. And that’s not a compliment in this case. This isn’t Jacob using a sledgehammer where a baleen would suffice. He’s bringing out the whole bulldozer, with a large gospel choice to boot. By the end, I’ve lost track of the melody and the words and it’s just Jacob spitting out disconnected high and low notes like a casino slot machine paying off on three cherrys. We’ve won something, but it isn’t a song I want to hear again. Some weeks I’m sure I’m going to love what Jacob lays down and the very unique way he does it. This week, it was comically over-the-top for me. See me again next week and we’ll see how I feel.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: “I can’t even judge it. That’s how good you are,” Tyler says uselessly. “It’s very hard to judge you,” J-Lo says uselessly. J-Lo puts Jacob at the top of the season’s talent list. Randy agrees and celebrates Jacob’s “signature sound” and he actually finds a way to criticize Jacob for something he did on the B-verse.

Singer: Thia Megia
Song: “Smile”
My Take: Thia’s idol is Michael Jackson. Darnit. Why won’t somebody represent for Charlie Chaplin? It won’t be Thia Megia, because she doesn’t have a clue who “Charlie Chapman” is. Not a CLUE. She doesn’t know who The Little Tramp is either. Oy. Kids. I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today. It takes me at least 20 seconds to get over the “Charlie Chapman” thing. It has a traditional beginning, nearly a cappella again. Very nice. Not remarkable. But good. Thia can pull that off. We’ve heard her do it before. Last week. Then somebody’s all, “You know what this needs? A bossa nova beat!” So they hit that button on the keyboard. Thia rolls with the punches and does decently after the abrupt change.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: Randy loved the intro. He heard the Michael in her, plus a little Adele. But he wasn’t feeling it as much with the band. Tyler also liked the front more than the end, which could have sounded dirty, but thankfully doesn’t. And J-Lo thirds the common sentiment. Good beginning, “interesting” arrangement. “It doesn’t matter, you sing like an angel says.” Thia agrees that she felt “a lot more better” at the beginning. Guess what? I disagree with the judges. If Thia had sung another minute of that sleepy, traditional version, I fear she’d have gone into a coma. She needed the tempo change to remind her that it might be acceptable to do a song with a different rhythm in the future. [Why the heck was Thia crying backstage? Nobody said anything mean about her.]

Singer: Stefano Langone
Song: “Lately”
My Take: So far, I’m kinda loving the addition of the super-producers. I don’t know if it’s improving things musically, but it’s a different flavor to see the heavy concentration on studio time. I’m gonna say it again: Stefano’s phrasing is really bad. He loses words everywhere. This is another arrangement where somebody got bored by the performance and decided to hit an arbitrary backbeat on the their vintage ’80s Casio. In this case, it becomes frantic and frenzied, with Stefano racing to keep up. First the synthesizer mad-man pressed the 2X key. Then he presses 3X. And Stefano’s just stumbling along, dragged by the musical leash. Notes-wise? Sounds good. Song-wise? He could almost be singing anything by the end.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: “You pulled it off,” says Tyler. He says that Stefano was “soaring like a volcano.” J-Lo was digging the dance remix. It started rocky for Randy, but by the middle Stefano was soaring for him.

Singer: Karen Rodriguez
Song: “I Could Fall in Love”
My Take: If you think that Karen is affected and pageant-y now, a clip package proves that Karen has been like this since she was six. The beginning of this Selena cover is brutal. It’s too low and she doesn’t sound confident at all. And after a brief hint that things might improve, it goes downhill again on the chorus, where Karen again sounds distracted. She doesn’t make things better by emoting as if she’s singing bigger and better than she is. None of the runs are on-point, but Karen’s eyes are clenched like she’s Beyonced the heck out of it. I don’t think Karen had any margin for error and this is a big error.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: J-Lo says Karen looks beautiful. Uh-oh. J-Lo says that Karen wasn’t on on either the high notes or the low notes. J-Lo, terrified, backtracks and talks about Karen’s overall strength. Randy thought Karen was a little sleep. He wants excitement. And Tyler also didn’t feel there was enough energy. Karen attempts to get in one last piece of pandering by saying that Selena and J-Lo inspired her outfit. J-Lo smiles nervously.

Singer: Scotty McCreery
Song: “The River”
My Take: Scotty’s whole clip package is dedicated to his commitment to being himself. He’s gone a bit more up-tempo with this Garth Brooks song. The arrangement is too big for Scotty (not his fault) and on the chorus he’s trying to be heard over the background singers. On the second chorus, the overbearing music drops out and it’s the best Scotty sounds the whole song. Less is more with this kid. Not with his cross, apparently. With the cross, more is more. He knows what his fans like. He’s young, but he’s wise.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: “If it ain’t broke, don’t even think about fixing it” is Randy’s advice for Scotty. “This is exactly where you belong,” Randy tells him, repeatedly. “You did the Garth justice,” Steven says. “You know what I loved about this performance,” J-Lo begins… Uh-oh. Randy’s rubbing off on her. That’s a Dawg line. But you know what J-Lo loves about Scotty? He got to open up his performance, she reckons.

Singer: Naima Adedapo
Song: “Umbrella”
My Take: Nope. This is not what I’d have expected from Naima in a hundred years, nor what I’d have expected from anybody after last week’s Tatynisa disappointment. Rihanna doesn’t really sing, so why would you think to sing Rihanna in a singing competition? Ah. So this is what Naima meant when she told me that she was looking forward to showing her dancing and her hip-hop swagga. When this song came out, there was a whole meme of popular artists doing cover songs, but Naima is mostly doing the Rihanna version. But there’s so much energy and even intensity to what she’s doing. It comes from the dancing. It comes from the reggae-rapping bridge. It comes from the “rain” in the background. It comes from the lighting. There’s very little singing to speak of and the transitions between elements are abrupt, but as an overall performance, it’s… well, Tyra Banks would call it “fierce.” It’s definitely aggressive, by far the night’s most high-effort performance.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: Tyler adores Naima for bringing “flavor,” but points out the pitch problems. “You got fire, girl,” raves J-Lo. “You’re doin’ it like stars do it,” J-Lo continues, before telling her she needs to work on her control. Randy loved “the whole reggae thing,” though he has some issues with her “cut-offs.” It has to do with the combination of singing and dancing. “I over-stand what they’re saying,” Naima acknowledges.

TONIGHT’S BEST: There were a lot of OK performances tonight, but I’m not sure who the stand-outs were. Pia succeeded by reaffirming the surprise of her Top 24 performance. James Durbin succeeded by doing something 180 degrees from his Top 24 performance. Naima succeeded by giving us a performance that people will actually remember and possibly talk about. Casey succeeded by mentioning “The Wonder Years” and not wallowing in Joe Cockerness. Scotty McCreery succeeded by giving his people what they want. None of that is the same as “best.”

TONIGHT’S WORST: Karen Rodriguez gave the night’s worst performance, but Paul McDonald wasn’t far off.

IN DANGER: As I said earlier, Karen didn’t have a margin for error. She’ll be in trouble. Paul has a fanbase in place, but he’ll suffer from doing bad work on a song that many viewers won’t know. But if I had to guess? I’m thinking Ashthon goes home for being only average on a less-familiar Diana Ross song. But what do I know?

Who did you like? Who did you dislike? And who’s going home?