A journey through the Lennon-McCartney songbook brings out improved performances from the season's remaining contestants

By Michael Slezak
Updated April 07, 2010 at 04:00 PM EDT

American Idol

S9 E28
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Tonight’s installment of American Idol felt a little bit like walking through the exhibition hall of a county fair. ”Oh look, it’s a didgeridoo! And over there’s a bagpipe! Hey, now they’re trotting out Sir Paul McCartney for a quick and not-entirely-convincing cameo! And in the front, there are those pretty actors from BONNNN-ZZZZZZ!” All that was missing were the jars of raspberry jam and two rows of prize-winning cows.

Which isn’t to say that I’m likening season 9’s top 9 contestants to livestock — Lord knows, we don’t want Ken Warwick getting the idea that branding and ear-tagging should be a required rite of passage for next year’s crop of finalists. But there’s no denying that an utterly random, often amusing vibe permeated the telecast — and, lo and behold, it brought out solid performances from more than half of the remaining singers. Then again, maybe it was Randy’s sage advice at the top of the show — ”No excuses. Come on. Bring it.” — that made all the difference. Um, yeah, right.

In keeping with the pervasive anything-goes tone, let’s review the night’s nine performances in chronological order:

Aaron ”Yoda” Kelly Look, given that season 7 featured not one but two weeks’ worth of Beatles tunes, it was inevitable we’d hear some repeat song choices tonight. But if Aaron is really such a wise old sage, why on earth would he choose ”The Long and Winding Road,” a number previously covered on Idol by David Archuleta, the contestant whose footsteps he’s so clearly (and yet not so successfully) trying to follow? That’d be kind of like serving a stale Little Debbie snack cake as a chaser to a slice of rich, homemade dessert. And I say this as someone who never quite warmed to Archie-brand confections back in season 7.

In all seriousness, though, what Aaron is attempting to do on the Idol stage — putting vocals front and center without any real attempt at song rearrangement or performance theatrics — requires a level of pitch perfection and vocal horsepower that he’s nowhere close to achieving. Standing there in a modified raincoat — double-breasted, short-sleeved, and utterly bizarre — Aaron performed the first verse with such an oddly congested bleat, I half expected to look toward the rafters and see the Mucinex spokesphlegm on backup. And it didn’t add to the enjoyment that Aaron lethargically planted himself at center stage, occasionally listing to the left or right like a buoy in moderately choppy waters. Heck, even the kid’s signature ”raised hand” move felt glum and half-hearted tonight. You know you’ve had a bad run when Randy kicks off your critique with a chuckle and the words ”Yo, yo.” Having both Kara and Simon call you ”Sweetie,” though, just seemed too cruel by half. Next stop: The bottom three!

Vote for Katie, get some Thin Mints! Oh, if only…

”Seventeen-year-old Katie Stevens” By sheer force of will, and the power invested in her by the legislative branch of her student government, Katie Stevens is going to make you like her, dammit! Or at least the girl in the chalky pink dress, the seven pounds of jewelry, and whip-like pony tail is going to try! And, whattaya know, to a small degree at least, Katie’s plan worked on me this week. Sure, I’m a sucker for anyone who shamelessly attempts Beyoncé’s ”Single Ladies” dance routine — the more times the merrier — and Katie’s admission that she’ll attend prom with whichever boy power-votes her most aggressively toward her inevitable sixth- or seventh-place finish displayed the kind of killer Idol instinct that’s been lacking from too many contestants this season.

Dial for Katie in the next 15 minutes, and we’ll throw in a box of Thin Mints Girl Scout cookies! Offer good while supplies last! Employees of Fox Broadcasting Co. and its affiliates are not eligible for this special offer! Voting sadly not limited to viewers 18 years of age and older!

But what’s that, Randy? It’s a singing competition? Well, yes, it is. And tonight, Katie’s ”Let It Be,” set to a sparse piano arrangement, was restrained and in tune, and as Simon noted, not robotic, either. For the first time since Hollywood Week, Katie made the case that she has a right to be on the Idol stage, and while I can’t lie and say I’m ever going to root for her, I’m actually glad (for her and for the season at large) that she raised her game tonight. Do I wish Ellen hadn’t declared Katie safe from the bottom three after only two performances? Sure. Do I wish Simon hadn’t tried to drive home the fiction that Katie’s performance had a country slant? Of course. Would it have all been less uncomfortable if Ryan Seacrest hadn’t veered from his cue-cards and told Katie ”you have grown physically since last week”? Totally. Will this rank above Kris Allen and Brooke White as the seminal ”Let It Be” in Idol history? Absolutely not. But note that Kara helped rewrite Katie’s story of season 9 underperformance by using the word ”blossoming,” a word Katie so astutely repeated after saying she’d had ”a blast,” then holding two fingers in the air and begging ”please, please, please” vote for her.

Andrew ”I had fun!” Garcia ”If that was corny, damn I’m corny,” said Andrew, after putting a slightly Big Bopper-esque twist on ”Can’t Buy Me Love.” Thank goodness he said it, so I don’t need to search the supermarket aisles for a metaphor involving Fritos, Corn Flakes, or Mazola.

Still, Andrew’s ”unique” spin on the Beatles’ jaunty ditty wouldn’t have been quite as bad had he at least sung it potently. Instead, our guy botched his big note so thoroughly that he pulled the mic away from his mouth to disguise it. And is it just me, or does Andrew often sound like he’s holding a burp in his throat when he’s extending a note? Mrs. Garcia and Andrew’s fellow contestants can perform an entire operetta extolling the virtues of the bespectacled contestant’s personality, but they’ll never convince me he’s a good enough singer to take home the season 9 crown. Which is exactly why I think Andrew will end up in the bottom two with Aaron and inevitably go home on Wednesday.

NEXT: Please, someone, give Randy and Kara their Snausages

Michael ”Glee already has a football coach” Lynche Just when you went and thought I was so entrenched in my season 9 script that I’d never say anything nice about anyone other than Crystal Bowersox and a half-dozen previously booted contestants — who’s gonna watch If I Can Dream with Alex Lambert on Hulu today? — here comes Big Mike with the week’s best vocal. On a song previously covered by the delectable David Cook. (True confessions time: ”Eleanor Rigby” was quite possibly my least favorite Cookie moment of season 7. There, I said it! But don’t unfollow me on Twitter until I deliver some scoop involving the season 7 champ later in the week, okay?)

But wait a minute! I was supposed to be talking about season 9! Not Google Image Searching former Idol champs. Oh, but look at this. And this. And this. Awwww!

Um, OKAY. Big Mike! Here was one of those performances Beatles purists are totally allowed to hate, but which I thought completely worked not in spite of but because of its bombast and drama. First off, Michael didn’t miss a single note during his performance — not unexpected, but no small feat considering the liberties he took with the melody. And to me, the way the burly personal trainer surrounded himself with the strings section, the way he wailed away on the chorus, completely fit with the hauntingly dramatic story he was telling. More importantly, though, Big Mike shaped the week’s theme to fit his own vocal style — a lesson I dearly wish Didi Benami would’ve learned during R&B week. Kara was right, the performance was fire — dare I say fi-yah? probs not, but… — and I’m not really sure why Randy used the word ”blossoming” (except for that he’d just heard it used twice during the previous round of critiques) or why Simon had to draw a ridiculous parallel to Glee (except for the fact dude probably got some kind of massive bonus for making such a cross-promotional, synergistic reference). That said, even though I didn’t agree with Simon, how come Randy and Kara had to yip through his critique like hyperactive terriers who’ve been kenneled up all day and want to be taken out to go pee and then hand-fed a box of Snausages? (Yeah, I know, too much metaphor.) But seriously, Simon never interrupts them — even though someone somewhere ought to speed up the ”yo yo yos” — so how come they won’t let him get his critique on?

Final notes on Big Mike: I love, love, loved the giant circular logo on the back of his jacket, which vaguely reminded me of the backdrop of a wall-mounted fountain in a high-end apartment complex. I did not love at all the way dude challenged Simon to a pec contest under mild encouragement from Ryan. Wouldn’t we all prefer an additional 30 seconds of singing per contestant as opposed to added minutes of strained jocularity and hijinks behind the judges table?

NEXT: MamaSox and the Kraken!

Crystal ”didgeriwho? didgeriwha?” Bowersox Look, you all know I am a founding member of the ”Bow!Er!Sox!” movement. And if I’m being totally truthful, there’s part of me that always ends up feeling like the Earth Goddess of Ohio is operating on a different plane than the rest of her season 9 cohorts. But tonight, I thought the judges were way too effusive with their praise of a nicely sung performance that contained obviously botched lyrics (note how Crystal pulled the mic away from her mouth as she searched for her words), several botched notes, and only a soupcon of originality. Yes, in the Idol ”Come Together” pantheon, I’d have to rank it Carly Smithson > Kris Allen > MamaSox.

Granted, that isn’t much of a dis, considering the general awesomeness of Carly’s Beatles cover, and the underrated rockin’-ness of Kris’. And Kara was right, Crystal’s rendition had a Bonnie Raitt slinkiness to it. (But can’t the same be said of all of Crystal’s numbers?) It’s just that by this time next week, I’m going to remember Crystal’s post-performance love-fest with Ernie the didgeridoo player more so than I do her actual musical performance. And no, Simon, of all MamaSox’s season 9 hits, this isn’t the one I’d expect to hear on the radio. (No, no you can’t always get what you want…)

Side note: Let’s make ”Bring out the didgeridoo player!” the new ”Release the Kraken!”

Tim ”0 to 100 smile” Urban Look, I won’t lie: If I ran the Idol universe, I’d send Tim home with a lifetime supply of Rice-a-Roni and a brand new Wii Fit, and swap in Jermaine Purifory as a last-minute substitution. But the kid is in the picture. The judges put him there and the people (or more likely the SwayBots, who all contain internal text-drives or some such gizmos) have kept him there. So I’m not sure where Randy got off being so condescending and telling the guy he wasn’t judging him alongside his fellow eight contestants, but rather on a scale of ”Is it a good Tim performance?” What next? Is Randy going to set off a gong midway through Tim’s next routine?

Let’s just say this about the upbeat guy with the mountains of lustrous brown hair: He really seemed to try to make something of ”All My Loving” tonight. Tim threw in one or two little vocal runs, and his guitar playing was competent enough that I didn’t really take much notice of it. Sure, like an electric train set, Tim’s Beatles cover went round and round and round without every going anywhere, but that beats a gory, 10-car pileup, doesn’t it?

Casey ”Trevor, Fabio” James Brace yourselves, Casey fans, because as was the case with Big Mike, I finally have something nice to say about the man who inspires soap-opera names such as Fabio (courtesy of Crystal) and Trevor (courtesy of Lee, who I suspect has never seen a soap opera).

Casey’s take on John Lennon’s ”Jealous Guy” was more indie film than daytime sudser, though, as the sparse arrangement of his acoustic guitar paired with a single cello created an aura of intimacy unmatched by any other contestant this week. Kara was right: This was exactly what the heretofore competent-but-sleepy heartthrob needed to do to remind the nation that he’s got the potential to be a legitimate recording artist. Yeah, there were three or four wonky notes that Randy correctly pointed out, and yes, when Casey isn’t flat-out belting, his voice has a tendency to take on an unpleasant bleating quality, but in a theme week where song rearrangement was a huge potential risk, his was a performance that paid huge dividends. Plus, his occasional vocal resemblance to Bob Seger is a good thing in my book. (Sue me: I’m a child of the ’70s!) Oh, and bonus points to Casey for deflecting Ryan’s idiotic question about what or who was on his mind as he sang. ”I was thinking about being a jealous guy,” Goldie Locks responded, with just enough edge to warn off any pesky followup.

The night’s weirdest transition? ”If you want to vote for Casey and his authenticity…”

NEXT: Those are some pipes, Lee

Siobhan ”please, Ryan, don’t let the audience touch the contestants” Magnus I know I keep saying positive things about Kara, but we’re all at a point where that’s not super-troubling anymore, right? Okay, good. Because I thought her feedback about needing time to digest and process Siobhan’s ”Across the Universe” was a moment of rare, unself-conscious honesty from behind the judges’ table.

Let’s be honest: Singing is an art form. Art is subjective. And it’s crazy to think that in the course of judging 100 or so performances per season, we almost never hear the kind of uncertainty Kara confessed. I felt the same way. On one hand, we desperately needed Siobhan to show some restraint, to remind us of the lovely lilt in her voice, to connect emotionally with her material. And in that sense, it was mission accomplished. But clad in what looked to be a wedding gown that got caught in the Jumpin’ Jack Flash shredder (with un-matching gray vest), Siobhan cut a rather jarring picture, and the fact that she maintained a somnambulant pace and super-deliberate phrasing from beginning to end the whole thing slightly inaccessible — or ”sleepy,” as Randy would say it. With a couple hours to (Gokey reference) ”meditate on it,” I’m not sure this is a performance I’ll play back again and again, but it erased some of the shrill memories of ”Through the Fire” and reestablished The Glassblower as a legit season 9 contender.

Lee ”Why not [a bagpipe], man?” Dewyze HEY LOOK AT ME I HIT THE CAPS-LOCK BUTTON AND I AM BALANCING A STACK OF BOOKS ON MY HEAD WHILE I TYPE THIS VERY EXCITING SENTENCE, WHICH IS EXCITING BECAUSE OF THOSE BOOKS AND BECAUSE I’M TELLING YOU IT’S EXCITING!

Uh, no dice. Ditto for Lee’s ”Hey Jude,” which the resident rocker tried to salvage with the introduction of a bagpipe player (marching down a set of steps!) midway through his performance. But it wouldn’t have mattered if Lee had trotted out a full gospel chorus and the entire cast of Riverdance to wildly cacophonous effect — not as long as we were getting access to the live audio feed that highlighted Lee’s high number of botched notes and dropped phrases. Yes, Lee went ”last” (which, in season 9, is no longer proving to be shorthand for ”best”), and yes, he went ”loud” (which the crowd seemed to like), but he also went a little hinky.

Finally, my scorecard for the night:

Michael Lynche: B+

Casey James: B

Crystal Bowersox: B

Siobhan Magnus: B

Katie Stevens: B

Lee Dewyze: C+

Tim Urban: C

Andrew Garcia: C

Aaron Kelly: C-

What did you think of tonight’s show? What did you make of Crystal’s joke about Lee and Andrew teaming up to create Baby Gokeys? Did anyone else want to give Ryan a time out on the naughty step after his ”that is a pathetic answer!” retort to Simon? And finally, who will (and should) be in the bottom three, and who will (and should) go home?

Episode Recaps

American Idol

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.
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