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'American Idol' recap: It's Reigning Men!

Kris, Adam, and Danny make their cases for a season-finale slot, while the judges reach new levels of idiocy

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Kris Allen, Adam Lambert, ...
Frank Micelotta/Fox(2)

American Idol

TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, Ryan Seacrest
Reality TV

Let’s begin our recap of American Idol‘s eighth-season Top 3 performance night with a quiz:

Which of the following unexpected events and scenes did NOT play out during tonight’s Idol telecast?
A. A fearsome howler monkey wrestled the mic away from a backup singer and offered aggressive, unwanted support to Adam Lambert as he performed Aerosmith’s ”Cryin’.”
B. Kris Allen swiped some nailpolish off the top of Adam’s dresser.
C. Simon upgraded from bargain-store undershirt to an elegant, tailored suit.
D. Randy was the least annoying member of the judges’ panel.
E. Ryan’s play-by-play included the exclamation: ”Paula’s just punched Simon in the left breast.”

I know, I know…even if you missed tonight’s episode, the correct answer (C) was too easy. (Simon never wears a suit until the season finale! Duh.) But the thing that impresses me about my favorite show on television is that with only three contestants and three episodes remaining before the lights go out at the Nokia, it manages to avoid settling into a predictable groove. I mean, just after I reach a point where I feel safe promising on an Idolatry episode that I’ll dye my hair (gulp) to Iraheta Red if Adam doesn’t take home the season 8 crown, along come those nagging winds of uncertainty. Was there a slight yet certain disturbance in Glambert’s swagger? Was Danny’s voice beginning to show the strain of 10 weeks of getting run through the unforgiving Idol machinery? And did Kris manage to have a moment despite/because of his decision to cover a song by Kanye West?

But wait. Before we start debating the performances on the ”most physically aggressive episode of Idol ever,” and before we begin our impassioned calls for a Kris-Adam or Adam-Danny or Danny-Kris finale, let’s all agree on two things, shall we? First off, the first Allison-free week of the season 8 finals was a little less fun, a little less fearless, and a lot less fuchsia. And secondly, Idol‘s producers have officially lost sight of the fact that it’s the vocal performances of a merry band of superstar wannabes, and not the self-impressed blatherings of a panel of has-beens and never-wases, that keep their show’s engine purring.

Think I’m being overly harsh? Let’s flash back to Top 3 night on Season 7, when we got a whopping nine performances. We had David Cook tackling ”The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” ”Dare You to Move,” and ”I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” David Archuleta attempting ”And So It Goes,” ”With You,” and ”Longer,” and Syesha Mercado pulling out ”If I Ain’t Got You,” ”Fever,” and that song by the animated penguins. Granted, the ”Producers’ Choice” round of 2008 did not yield stellar results — Armageddon love theme + Dan Fogelberg schlock + Happy Feet album cut = a sudden and terrifying urge to grab the remote and find out about this thing called NCIS) — but did Idol‘s producers really think it was cool to leave us with only six performances and a few seconds’ worth of hometown visit footage on which to choose our finale participants? Especially on a night where if Kara’s combined critiques had been tossed in the dumpster, Adam, Kris, and Danny would’ve almost had time to respectively perform ”Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” ”Alice’s Restaurant,” and ”American Pie” in their entirety.

Heck, even if the producers were acting from a non-boneheaded place as they prepped this milestone 300th episode, even if they decided to cut back on the performances to preserve the remaining finalists’ overworked voices for that last final onslaught of recordings and rehearsals and public appearances, something doesn’t compute. Cutting back the singing from a Top 3 show would be like filming the 300th episode of CSI: Miami and taking away David Caruso’s sunglasses! (Dial 1-800-RAY-BANNED!)

NEXT: A heartfelt “Heartless”

But enough unvarnished negativity — well, after acknowledging that every shot of a Kardashian in the audience tonight was like a squirt of lemon juice to the eye. Instead, let’s count down the night’s performances, from the best to the worst. And, obviously, our countdown must begin with…

Kris Allen and the Sparkly Black Henleys, ”Heartless” I have to be honest, the first thing that went through my mind tonight as Kris announced he was tackling a Kanye West song was this: ”He took a bold risk, and it paid off.” But those thoughts were solely focused on the Arkansas native’s daring, glittery shirt, which looked like it had dashed over from Maksim Chmerkovskiy’s wardrobe at the goofy dancing show that’s housed next door to Idoldome. (Which reminds me: There won’t be an On the Scene at Idol report on PopWatch today, but fret not: Adam B. Vary will be back in business tonight, and filing his typically juicy in-the-studio observations on PopWatch on Thursday morning.) Right on the heels of my fashion flight of fancy, though, my next thought was a less enthusiastic, ”Kris covering Kanye? Please don’t let this be a hot wreck!”

Well, my suspicions were half right. ”Heartless” wasn’t just ”hot,” it was, to recall a popular season-7 Randy-ism, a molten-hot lava bomb! Like I’d suggested on Tuesday’s edition of Idolatry, Kris’ only chance to crack the final two was to ditch the aggressive Idol band and perform either acoustically or a capella, to have a Bo Bice-ian ”In a Dream”-type moment. And you could tell from Kris’ sly grin going into the final chorus, he achieved exactly what he set out to do musically, making the words of Kanye’s composition come to life in a way they never could through the cold filter of a vocoder.

Perhaps just as important as the triumph of ”Heartless” as a solitary performance, though, was the fact that it helped dispel two silly myths about Kris that have lingered through much of season 8. First is the fallacy of Kris’ supposed lack of a killer instinct, a squishiness that Simon has contended makes him unfit to wear the Idol crown, and which was reiterated several times tonight by Ryan during interview packages. But au contraire, what kind of stones does it take to cover a song that not only climbed to No. 2 on Billboard‘s chart within the last year, but was performed by the original artist right there on the Idol stage during a results-night telecast only two months prior? Kris doesn’t need to tell us he has swagger when he’s up there on the stage proving it in bold-faced, all-cap letters — Kanye style! Secondly, there’s the myth that would have us dismiss Kris’ voice as a reedy trifle — a myth that Simon continued to hammer home on Fox News’ Fox and Friends on Monday by insisting that Kris isn’t a good enough singer to compete with Adam, and that only an Adam-Danny finale will work for TV. To which I say, if there was a flaw in Kris’ pitch on ”Heartless,” if his big notes lacked support, or his phrasing lacked originality, I defy you to prove it. Which did not stop Simon, even while praising Kris’s vocal, from referring back to Kris’ first performance, and sneaking in the phrases ”lame song choice” and ”written you out of this competition.”

But trying to convince Simon that ”good” and ”enormous” don’t have to be one and the same would be like trying to teach Kara the inner workings of the show on which she’s a judge. Did she really ask ”Why didn’t you do that with ‘Apologize’?” after Kris finished ”Heartless”? Oh, yeah, because dude would’ve really shown his versatility by doing back-to-back stripped-down arrangements on the same night? (Side note: Yes, The Fray does an acoustic version of ”Heartless.” No, it doesn’t remotely sound like Kris’ rendition. And guess what? Kris’s is vastly superior!) Moving on…

NEXT: It’s a sabotage?

Adam Lambert and the Backup Singer from Hell, ”Cryin” Imagine you’re at work, and one of your colleagues decides to shadow your every move, mimicking your words, your motions, your every action. (Actually, if, like me, you’re a fan of ABC’s Better Off Ted, then you’ve witnessed this scenario in sitcom format.) That’s kind of what happened to Adam as he navigated his way through the soaring chorus of what Kara still probably thinks is an ”early Aerosmith” ballad, hounded at every step by a ”supporting” vocalist who kept trying to outwit, outlast, and eventually consume whole the melody Adam was throwing down. But as with many of Adam’s best performances, by the end, I found myself laughing and clapping along. Whether or not you ”get” Adam, I think you have to admire the sheer audacity of what he tries to create each week on the Idol stage. The risks and liberties he takes with melodies are extravagant in the extreme: If vocal performances were bank heists, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, & Co, could take notes on Adam for their climactic scene in Ocean’s Fourteen. This one moved Kris’ family to their feet — before Adam said anything about how it was an honor to share the stage with the two other remaining finalists.

Oh, and before we move to the next performance, I have to make note of some of the ridiculata surrounding Glambert’s number. First, there was the loaded-with-subtext quip from Ryan that Adam had already covered Cher and Queen during earlier parts of the season. Oh, Ryan, you coy little piece of fluff! Whatever could you be grinningly trying to imply? And speaking of fluff, how about Paula’s comment of Adam soaring so much and so often that he needs to ”collect frequent flier miles”? Let’s have a show of hands: How many of you think Paula had pre-scripted that quip, stored it in her brain (or written on her hand) for a day or two, and served it up the first moment she had a chance to use it? Either way, I found it interesting how Simon ended his critique by reminding viewers not to assume Adam would be safe in this week’s voting, even though I’d bet every cent in my wallet that he will be.

Kris Allen and the Oddly Positioned Piano, ”Apologize” Wait! Press pause, please. Was that chipped, blue nail polish on Kris’ thumb when he got the text telling him Kara and Randy had picked One Republic’s ”Apologize” as his Judges’ Choice slot? (Sorry, I’m in Ryan mode…the burning urge to keep it shallow and frivolous became all-consuming for a moment.) And how come Kris’ piano was positioned in a way that made it almost impossible for the camera crew to get a direct and flattering shot of his face? And do I need to quit it already with the ”Idol is out to sabotage Kris” conspiracy theories?

Anyhoo…as Simon correctly pointed out, Kris gave a totally competent vocal on this number that came close to, but did not exceed, the original. Simon’s critique, of course, exposed him as someone who was just playing mind games with Kara when he criticized her (as well as Randy) for choosing a song for Kris but failing to tell him how to rearrange it. (As if that wouldn’t be totally frowned upon by the production as a whole!) But then again, seeing how Randy and Kara were droning on about Kris’ ”range” — something I wouldn’t put at the top of his list of attributes — would he really have benefited from their advice anyway? Poor Kara tried to have a ”Paula moment” at the end of the critique, by placing her hand over Simon’s mouth and yelling ”don’t listen to him” in Kris’ direction, but honestly, I was just grossed out by the whole sight of it. Hand-to-mouth contact is an intimate move even in its most casual incarnation, and I don’t think Simon and Kara are close enough to pull it off. Thankfully, Kara’s massive ring gave me something else to fixate on besides Simon’s desperate, gagging eyes.

NEXT: Randy’s (imagined) take on Adam

Danny Gokey and the Camera to Nowhere, ”Dance Little Sister” Is Idol still the No. 1 show on TV? Because you wouldn’t know it from all the camera gaffes and technical ickiness that are casting a pall over the live performance episodes this season. Like, for example, that cutaway to an empty part of the stage when Danny and the saxophonist were jamming out on the Terence Trent D’Arby bridge. Then again, maybe the camera operator couldn’t help himself but cut away from Danny’s stilted dancing and overall maniacal body language. (The jeans tucked into the undone boots could not have helped in the dexterity department.)

As for the vocal itself, well, it was typical Danny (Manic Setting) as he was belting full-throttle from the first note to the last, hitting most of his technical marks but frustratingly dropping the ends of his lines, with ”Hang on to tomorrow/ don’t give up your stay” morphing into ””Hang on to tomorrow/ don’t mr-uh-m-ay.” More problematic than Danny’s lack of vocal dexterity was the fact that his bulldozer approach seemed to erase the light, funky touch of Terence Trent D’Arby’s original. Where D’Arby’s ”doo doo doos” skipped across the top of the water, Danny’s went kerplunk into the mix.

I’m not exactly sure what happened off-camera following Danny’s critique, with Simon groping and covering Paula’s mouth, but I think the less attention we pay to the attention-seeking children, the better, no?

Adam Lambert and the Missing Melodies, ”One” Yo, yo, yo. What’s goin’ down? What’s goin’ down? I don’t know, dawg. For me for you — Side note: anyone notice, actually, Randy has backed off ”for me for you” for the last couple weeks? Yay! — but for me for you, this started out kind of touching and tender and lovely, and then something went haywire. The SwayBots got activated — I thought they were dead, but they’re like pony-tailed, rhythm-less terminators — and then your voice got a little strained, and the more that happened, the harder you went for it. And then the SwayBots, they ate the crumbs you’d been sprinkling behind you, and you couldn’t find your way back to the path to the melody, Dawg. It ended up kind of putting the ”arg” in ”gargantuan.” It was not a gold medal in the Throat Olympics, but you can really sing, baby. You can definitely sing. This just was not hot for me. Also, why must all ballads be bathed in blue light?

[Okay, my Randy Jackson impression is ludicrous, but no more than him telling Adam he was ”one of hottest three in this competition” — a competition where only three people remain! How much does this man get paid? Then again, Randy was the only one to correctly point out that Adam’s liberties with the melody didn’t really work this week.]

NEXT: Gokey’s “masterclass”

Danny Gokey and the Ghost of Idols Past, ”You Are So Beautiful” Oh, Simon! A ”vocal masterclass”? Masterclass in what? How to support your notes like bricks resting in hammocks made from damp paper towels? A masterclass in how to insult Elliott Yamin, the previous recipient of this compliment from you back in Idol‘s fifth season? A masterclass in sticking to a pre-ordained Danny-vs.-Adam script you and Paula have been flogging since mid-March? No, sir, this will not stand…not when we’re talking about the night’s most tepid vocal.

Seriously, I know I’ve never been Danny’s biggest fan, but I don’t understand how the judges went wild for a song that opened with a breathy, awkwardly paced, and frequently flat verse, which then switched into a full-on ”adult contemporary, back when Michael Bolton was contemporary” arrangement, only to finish with such grim effort and ridiculous riffing that it was as if Danny was singing while single-handedly carrying a refrigerator up four flights of (narrow, twisty, uneven) stairs. And what was with the ”your love turned this boy into a man” riff? A sly cover for missed lyrics, or just some bizarre bit of whimsy that conjured up all kinds of awkward voice-changing incidents.

And yet there was Randy yelping ”you showed you are here because you can really, really, really sing.” And there was Paula uttering the phrase ”do magic to it,” and there was Danny, post-performance, telling us he’d been thinking to himself all day, ”I have to just do what I do best. I’m not gonna worry about all the oh-pinions.” And there’s me thinking, ”Taylor Hicks covered this very song back in season 5, during Top 3 week, and his version was far more sincere and sexy and pitch-perfect, and yet the Idol machine wants us to think he’s a metal tub of Krakus Ham, and that Danny is pork tenderloin in a white-wine and truffle-oil reduction. Well, y’know what, judges? I’m not swallowing what you’re putting on the plate.

And now, our letter grades for the night…
Kris’ ”Heartless”: A
Adam’s ”Cryin”’: B+
Kris’ ”Apologize”: B
Danny’s ”Dance Little Sister”: B
Adam’s ”One”: B-
Danny’s ”You Are So Beautiful”: C+

What did you think of Top 3 night? Who will go home tomorrow? Who should go home? Did the judges’ antics fill you with rage? And who benefited most from his ”judges’ choice” pick? Let us know in the comments section below, and then make your pick in this week’s EW.com Idol Prediction Challenge!