Harry Connick Jr. takes control of song arrangements, but the contestants fail to live up to the Sinatra swagger

By Michael Slezak
Updated May 05, 2010 at 04:00 PM EDT
Michael Becker/PictureGroup

American Idol

S9 E36
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Fact: A New York Times story earlier this year reported that there have been at least six murders over the last decade in the Philippines related to people performing karaoke renditions of Frank Sinatra’s ”My Way.” Tonight, however, as American Idol‘s Top 5 contestants took the stage to perform hits from Ol’ Blue Eyes’ songbook, it was hard to imagine their limp performances inspiring enough passion to instigate a strongly worded e-mail, let alone a full-scale murder.

And yet, suddenly, here I am getting the urge to do exactly that. Um, not commit an Idol-related homicide! Do I really take the show that seriously? (Don’t answer that.) No, Idoloonies, I speak of the time-honored tradition of firing off bold, slightly cantankerous missives. In fact, without further ado, I’m going to write seven of ’em right now.

Dear Idol Stylists,

If I wanted to watch Nova: Journey Into Simon Cowell’s Dense Thicket of Chest Hair, I’d be tuning into PBS in Hell. Okay, I realize you’re not at the top of the American Idol power structure, but if you could just get us to the point where the cranky British judge is unbuttoning his Henleys down to, say, Florida, instead of all the way to South America…

Oh, and while I’m nitpicking about fashion, can I ask why three out of four male contestants tonight went all Dapper Don from the waist up, but failed to make the same commitment to formalwear in the pants department? I’m just getting over a flu bug and too tired tonight to go back and check the videos for all their season 9 performances, but I can’t recall a single instance where Big Mike, Lee DeWyze, and Aaron Kelly performed in anything but jeans. I mean, say what you want about Siobhan Magnus and her many moths, at least she kept it interesting.

Dear Lee DeWyze,

Kara was right: You do have a chance to inherit Kris Allen’s tiara and sash — but no one wants to see you claim your title by default. In other words, it’s not enough to outperform your season 9 competitors; you have to perform with the heart and soul and innovation and pitch perfection of the Idol winners who came before you. And right now, you’re coming up a tad short in that department, even if Harry Connick Jr. thinks you’re a ”new and improved version” of him.

Don’t get me wrong, your rendition of ”That’s Life” was absolutely solid, the best of the night, in fact — thanks in part to an organ-heavy arrangement that was pure hipster throwback. Unlike last week’s ”You’re Still the One,” you stayed in tune at least 80 percent of the time, and you imbued Sinatra’s tale of hardscrabble scrapping with a bluster that bordered on (intentionally?) boozy. (Bonus points for working in the line ”some people get their kicks stomping on a dream.”) But on occasion, your enunciation gets a little hinky, and tonight you clipped some notes just a little too close, going for the double axel instead of the triple, aiming for a ”very good” and not a ”great.” Maybe that’s smart. Maybe that’s knowing the outer limits of your vocal range and working within its boundaries. But if Simon’s going to give you credit for giving ”110 percent,” I’d like to see you putting to rest any nagging doubts about your overall vocal technique. Do you think you can work on that for next week? (‘Cause you’ll totally still be here next week.) Sounds like a plan!

NEXT: The other AI

Dear Aaron Kelly,

You’re a high school student, so I know you know about YouTube. Or maybe there’s some other cooler site where youths go to watch video these days. Either way, if you’re going to act on Kara’s very astute critique that you have to learn how to fill up the stage and show more charisma during your performances, then it’s high time you hopped on a computer and watched playback of your 11 live performances to date. Here are some things you might want to avoid in the future: passing the mic back and forth between your hands with metronome-like predictability; wearing vests that taper from double-breasted to single-button with no apparent rhyme or reason (please tell me this Y-button-formation is not an emerging look for menfolk, Idoloonies!); reciting your lyrics with all the zest and conviction with which you’d review a grocery list; and placing your hand over your heart while singing (in a possible attempt to show ”emotion”).

That latter move was a little too Haley Joel Osment in AI. And no, Aaron, Haley Joel Osment is not a precursor to John Stevens, Will Makar, and Kevin Covais, but rather a popular film actor of the late ’90s. Nor does the AI to which I refer have anything to do with Fox’s mega-popular TV series. It was a 2001 Steven Spielberg flick. Okay, kid, now you’re making me feel old. Just watch this clip.

Dear Michael ”Big Mike” Lynche,

Thank you for dialing back on some of the shamelessly self-congratulatory tics that have become your hallmark over the last 11 weeks. Now, it’s time to drop the bizarre, two-handed, straight-out-of-a-Disney-animated-flick, up-and-down wave. Argh. I sound like a nitpicking nitwit when I say that, but seriously, you won’t lose any fans if you ditch that fool move.

But let’s get past the superficial and dish your performance on ”The Way You Look Tonight,” especially as it compares to Kris Allen’s rendition of the same song on Rat Pack Week in season 8. Note per note, Big Mike, yours was probably the cleaner vocal, and yet at the same time, it was less effective emotionally. Kara may be right that you took us up and down and on a journey while still sounding like yourself, but not every musical trip is worth taking. I’m not sure if I can quite put my finger on it, but there’s a showboat-iness to your delivery, a lack of (made-up word alert!) necessariness to your frequent and grandiose runs that makes even the most romantic lyrics seem a little bit hollow. It’s entirely possible that I’ve simply reached a point in my contestant/viewer relationship with you where I’ll never truly be able to warm up to you, but I cringed a little when you threw in that ”ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh” slice of ham right after the ”tearing my fears apart” line. I mean, didn’t Harry tell you not to mess with the melody? Kris’s rendition last season may not have been as meaty, but sometimes, all you need for dinner is a regular chicken breast, not the entire 10-pound bird. Hey! Look at me, managing to make less sense than Randy Jackson with his ”in it to win it! eyes on Mike!” clichés. Moving right along…

NEXT: What Crystal can learn from, gasp, Tim Urban

Dear Casey James,

It’s not gonna happen, dude, this Idol thing. Even though you have really lustrous hair. Even though you have a super-cute mom with sparkly eyeshadow who mouths ”we love you, Casey!” from the audience when Simon says mean things. Even though there’s maybe a 50-50 chance it’ll be Aaron packing his bags on Wednesday and not you. You’re never going to win this thing because you’re a shining, breathing example of ”one step up, two steps back.” [Cue Bruce Springsteen’s ditty getting stuck in my head.]

What I mean by that is your Shania Twain cover last week was vulnerable and potent and made it seem like you were a potential artist, not an outclassed competitor in a televised singing competition. But tonight’s rendition of ”Blue Skies” went down like an oversized vitamin without a corresponding sip of water. You stepped up and tried to get your Sinatra on, knowing all the while that you were destined to choke. Everything about your time on the Idol stage pointed to a suffocating lack of buzz and the stench of inevitable failure: Your mentor getting in your face and kiddingly shouting ”Don’t screw it up!” Your admission to Ryan that even though you’ve cracked season 9’s Top 5, you still have gigging buddies who are unaware of your Idol run. Ryan’s tawdry introduction of ”Casey James, ladies.” (Insert audible gagging sound here.) The way your intro package alerted the viewing audience that you’re not really paying attention to the words of your songs. The way you aimed for bluesy, but ended up algae green. The way your Carmen Rasmusen Goat Bleat (TM) kicked into full gear on the big notes — to such unpleasant effect that Kara compared you to a lamb. The way Simon alluded to a future of playing $50 gigs (with free dinners, though). That last one had to sting.

On the plus side, I dug that raspberry sherbet shirt! Way to liven the palette on a night where slate-gray represented a dashing color choice.

Dear Crystal Bowersox,

You seem like a cool chick, and if you were living inside a Paula Abdul song, it’d definitely be ”I’m Just Here for the Music.” In other words, you’re not afraid to engage in a little verbal repartee with the judges if it means you can help them better understand your artistic point of view.

But here’s the thing — a thing I never imagined myself saying. You could learn a thing or 10 from Tim Urban. You got a whopping two minutes to present your musical case to the voting jury on ”Summer Wind.” When you finished, four ”expert” witnesses got called to the stand to testify. And it doesn’t matter if you objected, if you thought all of ’em were off the mark. And it doesn’t matter that there was no judge on hand to bang his gavel and yell ”order in the court!” You needed to plaster on a nice big smile, nod your head, and accept the panelists’ critiques with the humility and grace of an industry amateur trying to land herself a major-label record deal. Because until you’re standing under a flood of confetti at the Nokia, singing ”This Is My Now/Chance to Hand Over Half My Lifetime Earnings to the Suits at 19,” then that’s just what you are.

NEXT: ”My Way” or the highway

I don’t care if Ryan asked you to explain your musical choices. If you’d kept your lips zipped and your ears open, you might’ve taken home some potentially helpful information from Randy, Ellen, and — oh, who am I kidding? But while it’s true that there’s not much in the way of constructive criticism coming from the judges, the fact remains that the opening verse of your performance sounded more tentative than subtle, more quavery than jazzy, and that even when you opened up and let loose at the midway point, your vocals still lacked the power and polish we’ve come to expect at Team MamaSox HQ. I agreed with the point you were trying to make — ”I don’t feel I should sing really big notes just because I’m on American Idol” — but save that discussion for your Idolatry interview — which hopefully won’t happen till late May.

Yeah, that’s right, Crystal: I’m still chanting ”Bow-er-sox!” In my book, in fact, you’d have to take the name of Fantasia Barrino in vain, reveal your secret love of America’s Got Talent, and kick David Archuleta in the teeth to disqualify yourself from automatic inclusion in the season 9 finale. But Simon Cowell and His Miracle-Gro Chest Hair were right that now is not the time for lukewarm performances. Adam Lambert absolutely slayed ”Feeling Good” on Top 5 night last year and wound up in the bottom two, so don’t assume you’re automatically going to sail to safety yourself.

Dear Harry Connick, Jr.

Man, thanks for coming to the show, bro, and thanks for hanging with the kids, yeah, and y’know, arranging the music and all that cool-cat stuff. But next time, I say we put control of the musical arrangements back in the Idols’ hands. Because, really, in the end, you should be the supporting player in the stories of Crystal, Lee, Mike, Casey, and Aaron — not the other way around. But as a token of my appreciation for your efforts, I’ve written you a song to the tune of ”My Way.” Enjoy!

And now the end is near

Siobhan has faced the final curtain

My friend I’ll say it clear

If you can hear o’er Kara’s blurtin’

Top five, we’re down to that

They all sang Frank, it was a good day

For help, went with Connick

Instead of Buble

And finally, tonight’s scorecard:

Lee DeWyze: B+

Michael Lynche: B

Crystal Bowersox: B-

Aaron Kelly: C-

Casey James: D

What did you think of tonight’s show? Who was best? Who’s going home on Wednesday? And will Big Mike ever wear anything but black on top, dark jeans on bottom?

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