Jamie Foxx tries to get the Top 4 to perform ''without boundaries,'' but the show's producers set up the contestants for failure with a list of lame-o songs

By Michael Slezak
Updated May 12, 2010 at 04:00 PM EDT
Michael Becker/Fox

American Idol

S9 E38
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This just in: The producers of American Idol are about to take control of all your favorite reality shows. On Top Chef, contestants will be asked to create a tempting amuse-bouche made from clams, pearl onions, and at least three flavors of Skittles. On Project Runway, the designers will be making functional evening gowns for their mothers using fetid animal hides and barbed wire. And on America’s Next Top Model, the girls will carry flaming batons while they walk a fashion tightrope that’s hoisted over a giant, kerosene-filled pool.

You’ll love these changes, America, because at the end of the day, there’s nothing more entertaining than seeing a group of ambitious and talented young people get set up for abject failure! Or, then again, maybe not.

Which might explain why I’m feeling so low after watching tonight’s cinematic-themed Idol telecast, in which season 9’s Top 4 contestants faced off against an army of the lamest tunes ever to appear on a movie soundtrack. And just in case you think I’m exaggerating, do head over to iTunes and check out the the 50 suggested ”Songs of the Cinema” currently streaming under the American Idol banner. You’ll find everything from dated Lite-FM fare (”My Heart Will Go On,” ”It Might Be You”) to Disney Princess themes (”Beauty and the Beast,” ”A Whole New World”), from kooky camp classics (”Ghostbusters,” ”Jai Ho”) to songs covered earlier this season by Aaron Kelly (”I Believe I Can Fly,” ”I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”).

To be fair, the contestants can, in fact, ask the show’s producers to try to get additional songs cleared, but given the show’s breakneck scheduling, is it any wonder that each and every one of the six songs performed tonight was culled from the aforementioned list?

And that’s why, on a lot of levels, it seemed unfair tonight to hear the judges repeatedly take the contestants to task over song selection; Simon Cowell himself flapped his gums about the contestants having ”thousands” of tracks to choose from. Surely, he knows that’s not entirely truthful.

I mean, dude, come on. Don’t put your jockey on the back of a mule, then complain when he doesn’t win the Kentucky Derby.

But I digress. Because at the end of the day, we pick up our phones and vote (or don’t) to try to find the next young singer to follow in the footsteps of Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and David Cook. And to do that, he or she has to treat the competition like a video game, advancing through the 14 rounds — three weeks of semifinals; 11 levels of finals — until the screen flashes, the confetti falls, and the whole thing reboots for another season. So let’s see who’s racking up the points, who’s running out of extra lives, and who deserved an ”Artist” t-shirt from non-starter mentor Jamie Foxx.

NEXT: Lee’s outfit and song battle it out in a race to the bottom

Lee DeWyze, ”Kiss From a Rose,” It pains me to give any credit to Randy Jackson, especially when we’re talking about his threadbare ”in it to win it” mantra, but the Dawg got it right tonight that Lee didn’t do anything special with his rendition of Seal’s Batman Forever soundtrack cut.

What struck me as strange about the performance — aside from the way Lee kept swallowing his words like a child pretending not to have a mouthful of Halloween candy — was the way the season 9 rocker was giving me flashbacks to the listless performance style he favored back in the semifinal rounds. Clad in an outfit unworthy of description beyond the fact that it could be found in any outlet mall in America, Lee stood in his favorite center-stage stance, nervously tapped his left foot, and darted his eyes shiftily around the Idol set. I suspect dude might’ve looked more authentically cool, and might’ve relaxed a little more, too, had he invited a few members of the band down from the shadowy balcony to jam out with him, to fill the cavernous space on the stage he so staunchly refused to fill. Either that, or Lee could’ve jettisoned Bandzilla altogether and relied only on support from his own acoustic guitar, thereby shrinking the circumference of the stage down to the circle of spotlight that surrounded him.

Michael Lynche, ”Will You Be There” So to reiterate, it pains me to give any credit to Randy Jackson, and thankfully, in the case of Big Mike’s triple-decker ham sandwich, I don’t have to. Yep, Randy’s interjection (”cool song!”) rendered him even less relevant than the sometimes funny blonde lady who cracked a joke about Free Willy being one of the ”classic great movies of all time.” In all seriousness, in this instance, it was better to skip the critique and go for the funnybone than to try to heap praise on a soundtrack cut from a movie about the unlikely friendship between a boy and his orca.

It didn’t help matters that the song began in too low a key for Big Mike, nor that by the time he got to the bottom of the Idol Steps, the burly fella broke free from the melody and began riffing like a marine mammal’s life depended on it. That final word/note (phonetically spelled ”ooh-OOH-ah-AHH-ah-ooh-oh–OH-oh!”) was dragged out with such stadium-filling significance, I was surprised it didn’t begin a spontaneous outburst of ”the wave” in the Swaybot pit. And not even a full team of backup-chorus members could put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Or something like that. Whatever the case, Jamie Foxx may have had his most astute moment this season when he tried to give Michael the ”contestant” T-shirt instead of the ”artist” one. If America disagrees with Big Mike’s on-camera prediction (”I’m gonna be great tonight!”) will he finally accept the lesser frock as a consolation prize for not making it to the Top 3 and his much-craved hometown visit?

NEXT: What’s that you say, Joe DiMaggio

Casey James, ”Mrs. Robinson” Oh dear. Did you hear the one about the bleating bar singer who put on an aquamarine leather jacket and grabbed his mandolin, ventured out to the edge of the Swaybot pit, closed his eyes really tightly, and tried to pull off a verrrry sleepy rendition of ”Mrs. Robinson” by selling it as an homage to his cougar fans? I agreed with Simon that the performance had none of the substance required for a contestant serious about cracking Idol‘s final three; to me, it was as twee and anemic as Big Mike’s solo performance was overworked and bombastic. So if I had the power in my hands to decided which of the two goes packing on Wednesday night, my answer would probably depend on my sensory environment at the given time.

That said, I suspect ”Mrs. Robinson” will be one of those divisive Idol performances that’ll keep the EW.com comments section lit up for days. Kara seemed thrilled with Casey’s spin on Simon and Garfunkel, noting ”for me, this is you fighting to stay in the competition” and praising him for showing his vulnerability.

The thing is, though, and I might be widely mocked for saying it, but I’ve never thought ”Mrs. Robinson” was a song about seduction, even though it’s off the soundtrack to a movie (The Graduate) in which an older woman of the same name seduces a young college grad. To me (and forgive my foray into college term-paper territory) it’s about a housewife in the ’60s, barely managing to hold her life together while grappling with the rapidly changing mores of the era. In which case, perhaps Casey and his mentor and the panel of judges all get giant red Xs, America’s Got Talent-style, and we can move on to the next paragraph.

Crystal Bowersox, ”I’m Alright” The best solo performance of the night, hands down, still can’t score too high a grade because, well, it was centered around a Kenny Loggins jam so dated that it comes complete with its own polyester suit, and because Our Lady of Awesome Mic Stand started getting a little sharp as she riffed over the chorus at the end of her performance. All that aside, however, Kara and Ellen were right that Crystal actually improved on the original rendition of the Caddyshack soundtrack cut, infusing it with a hint of twang and a little bit of southern-fried grit that made it sound like something you might hear in the middle of an Allman Brothers concert rather than in an episode of Yacht Rock. (How come none of the judges ever give Crystal props for her unique arrangements?) Plus, I kind of enjoyed Crystal’s subtle tweaks to the lyrics, the better to poke back at her detractors and to perhaps question the swaying power held by Simon, Kara, Ellen, and Randy: ”I do what I like, doing it naturally/ But if it’s too easy, then they’re gonna disagree/ Who do you want, who’s it gonna be today?/ And who is it really makin’ up your mind?”

Oh, MamaSox, we see what you did there. But I really hope next week, when you’ll hopefully get to pick at least one song unencumbered by theme, judge, or Clive Davis, you’ll give us another undeniable, all-cylinders-firing, ”Me and Bobby McGee”-type Idol Moment, something you’ve fallen just short of since Top 11 week. I still remember that hippy chick who lit up the stage with ”(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” during Hollywood Week, and I’ve got to admit I’m missing the soaringly positive vibe she utilized to make me forget about the other 100 or so cats remaining at that stage of the competition. Let’s forget about Idol politics next week and get back to the music. Might I suggest Guns n’ Roses’ ”Paradise City”? Or if you’re in a more contemplative mood, how about Jewel’s ”Foolish Games”? (Judges/Clive, I won’t be offended if you ”borrow” these ideas, either.)

NEXT: At least Ellen made a joke…

On that note, folks, I’ll warn you that I’m going to keep my descriptions of this week’s duets to a minimum. I’m grappling with severe nausea from some wonky vindaloo and I’m worried my internal metaphor generator is on the brink of collapse. Also, I don’t want this recap to run over into Glee‘s timeslot and have your DVRs cut off some Sue Sylvester gem or crucial bit of plot development. So here goes…

Crystal Bowersox and Lee DeWyze, ”Falling Slowly”: I can’t say I was as excited as the grown-ass woman sitting behind Simon who went completely berserk when he got to the crux of his critique — ”I don’t know if I’d call that a good song… I’d call it a fantastic song!” — but this was one of the few moments from tonight’s episode that I’m betting I’ll remember vividly by this time next season. Crystal brought just a hint of lilting flirtatiousness to the number, which provided a lovely counterpoint to Lee’s gruff tone. Yeah, a little bit of the longing and intimacy was lost in the amped-up arrangement — and in Lee and Crystal’s more aggressive delivery — but if any contestants could be accused of taking this sinking boat and pointing it home tonight, it was Ms. Bowersox and Mr. DeWyze.

[Side note: Would it have killed Randy, Kara, and/or Simon to point out that Kris Allen scored one of his greatest Idol moments in season 8 by introducing the clueless panel to the ”obscure” Oscar-winning ditty? Or is it possible Fox has expanded George Carlin’s ”seven dirty words” list to include the name of last season’s champ? Discuss!]

Michael Lynche and Casey James, ”Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman” As the judges pointed out, this was another case of the duet being greater than either of its participants’ solo numbers, although the fact remains that the most impressive part of the performance was Casey’s adept guitar work. On the down side, Casey had some ”screaming of the lambs” moments on his solo verse, and even Big Mike seemed to be hitting his fair share of flat notes on this super-sized slice of Bryan Adams treacle. The one real winner here, shockingly enough, was Ellen DeGeneres, who summed things up rather succinctly by declaring: ”As a matter of fact, yes, I have loved a woman!” Okay, Ellen, if you’re going to completely and utterly shirk the job you were presumably hired to do, you might as well keep us laughing.

Tonight’s Scorecard

Crystal and Lee duet: B+

Crystal solo: B

Big Mike and Casey duet: B-

Casey solo: C+

Big Mike solo: C+

Lee solo: C

What did you think of tonight’s performances? Were you disappointed with the song choices? How does Ellen maintain a tranquil expression sitting next to Randy while he obnoxiously yells ”BOO! BOO!” during Simon’s intro? What did you think of Jamie Foxx as a mentor? (I don’t think he really brought much to the proceedings — aside from those t-shirts.) And who do you think will and should go home? (I’d vote Casey and Casey.)

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