American Idol recap: Let's Hear It for the '90s
The contestants choose "songs from their idols" for the Top 13 performance night
Babies, I’m amazed at the way J. Lo’s red lipstick matched the Coke bubbles.
Maybe I’m afraid of the way I love Ryan’s dance moves.
Judges, I’m amazed at the way you pull compliments out of thin air,
Hang them on your lies.
Maybe I’m amazed at the way I love/hate Randy simultaneously.
Oh! (Oh.) Oh! (Oh.) Oh! Yeah yeah yeah…
Last night, the Top 13 figured out who their musical heroes were and, with Jimmy Iovine’s help, proceeded to copy them. Songs from the mid-’90s — the era in which most of these kids had first begun to fully grasp the concept of a “song” — ruled the school. Seacrest kept thanking us profusely for sticking with American Idol, as if we were ever going to change the channel. At least that’s what his mouth appeared to be saying as I sped through his segments on my DVR. Naima Adedapo proved she can dance, and Jacob Lusk became the new James Durbin. These things happen. Let us proceed.
Lauren Alaina surprisingly underwhelmed on Shania Twain’s “Any Man of Mine” — was the band drowning her out, or was it just first-of-the-night syndrome? Either way, her outfit needed more (preferably all) denim to achieve that authentic 1995 pop-country vibe we all knew and loved. Not sure what the stylists were going for with that sea-foam feather duster over black leggings. I ended up being more interested in the two anonymous blond backup singers standing stoically behind Lauren, shrouded in darkness and fear. The judges didn’t lash out at Lauren at all (if anything, J. Lo and Randy rehashed exactly what they’d told her in the past), but that didn’t stop her from pouting and rolling her eyes because Steven said he wished her performance “had been a little more kick-ass.” Seriously? I know Lauren’s only 16, but has no one ever told her “You can do better”? Someone needs a clue. Girl, we can ALL do better, all of the time. Get used to it.
Casey Abrams followed Jimmy Iovine’s advice to look right at the judges during the opening of Joe Cocker’s version of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends.” He did it — but it wasn’t the judges’ mere seatedness that he craved. Casey Abrams wanted to be felt. And after his growling, choir-backed, Wonder Years-inspired performance, J. Lo was ready to feel that 19-year-old. She was so blown away that at one point she grabbed Randy (the horror!) and thought, “What am I watching right now? I am watching somebody important!” It couldn’t be American Idol, you silly goose, Randy Remix. No way.
Steven brought everyone back to earth by calling Casey “a rainbow of talent” and “a plethora of passion.” You know, one day, when American Idol and Dancing With the Stars both finally croak, Steven Tyler and Bruno Tonioli will cohost a spin-off series of just them talking. The title will change each week and be vaguely sexual, something like Enter My Garden or Plethora of Passion, or more simply, What? I can’t wait for that. Anyway, Casey should feel free to use the following lyrical sequence from last night’s performance in his future romantic relationships as well. “Whatchu talkin’ bout, girl? I’ma get high!” The ladies will love it.
NEXT: Yo, judges, do your jobsAshthon Jones sang terribly as her 15 coats of silver eye shadow struggled to find a distinct voice against her silver Statue of Liberty gown. As Randy learned this week, when you tell Ashthon that you love how she sounds like Diana Ross, Ashthon will decide that Diana Ross is her idol and sing “When You Tell Me That You Love Me” by Diana Ross. The 1991 hit was the perfect song choice for this 2011 singing competition. Not! It was so bad. Even worse, the judges refused to say anything negative about Ashthon’s performance. Randy claimed she “grew as a singer” when she went sharp or flat. What?! Just say she was sharp and flat the whole time and never hit a note correctly. “You kept your composure and you did it,” raved J. Lo. Yeah, in spite of how awful it was, she finished the song! Excellent. “I think there’s a lot more in there than you’re showing us, and you’re going to,” said Steven. Judges: Look alive! The day is today. Please, for the love of Ryan Seacrest, say something about what just happened.
Paul McDonald is completely lost without his guitar and has decided to just full-on imitate Coldplay’s Chris Martin, live in concert. This week, Paul and his imaginary turtle came out to take a one-footed hop around the stage while Paul whispered an almost unrecognizable version of Ryan-with-an-R Adams’ “Come Pick Me Up.” Paul really kept us guessing by refusing to use the consonants in complicated words like “letter” and “again.” (Not to mention this safe-for-TV edit: from F— me up/ Steal my records/ Screw all my friends/ They’re all full of s— to …. Mess me up/ Steal my records/ I lose all my friends/ They’re all full of it.) I like Paul’s fashion sense and the quality of his raspy voice, but let’s face it, last night he looked and sounded like the drunk guy groovin’ by himself in the corner at someone’s wedding. Your friend’s drunk uncle, maybe. I shall call him Drunkle Paul. He’s fun! But a few more watered-down White Russians and enough is enough.
Pia Toscano, who endearingly reminds me of Modern Family‘s middle child Alex when she wears her glasses, stepped it up with Celine Dion’s 1996 version of Eric Carmen’s 1975 power ballad “All by Myself.” I liked it and thought she hit all the notes, but wonder if her performances will start to seem a bit too scientific for me. You know what I mean? Power! Pull back. Power! Pull back. Now do the runs. Power! And so on. We’ll see. For now, she’s one of the few consistent performers with a pleasant personality, and that’s more than good enough for me on week 2. Randy was a bit more enthused than I was. “You have such a natural gift that, dude, I love it,” he said. “Every time I’m like, Yo, what’s she gonna sing now. Very hot, dope, cool performance.” Yikes! Now, now, Randy. Just keep rehearsing. Follow Pia’s advice, stick with your study group, and you can build something great. I just know it.
NEXT: The emperor has no tail
James Durbin and his lone dangly earring impressed me on Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,” which quite frankly does amaze me. I mean, Paul McCartney is the greatest and James Durbin is a noted screecher. But the guy is growing, in every area except his tail. (R.I.P. tail.) By releasing his tempered wails in the middle of the song, James was able to end on a vulnerable note, with “Maybe I’m afraid of the way I love you” sung softly and with one hand outstretched toward the audience. Good choice. The judges too appreciated James’ restraint. “Dude, dude, yo, yo,” said Randy. “You have taken everything you’ve ever felt and kicked it to the middle of next week,” said Steven, who has such a way with words. I’m not even joking this time. Sometimes he whacks me with these big-picture visualizations of what is really going on, man, and I’m crazy about this. Steven may not be mean enough to tell the truth, but the wise old loon sure can wield an abstraction! For that, he is my idol. I will now perform “Crazy” all by myself. Oh, and I also loved J. Lo’s contribution here. “Let ’em clap, baby, when they want to clap.” That is so her domain.
The production duo Rock Mafia (did anyone else think “lobster!” here?) urged Haley Reinhart to reinvent LeAnn Rimes’ breakout 1996 single, “Blue.” Bill Mack had originally written the song for Patsy Cline in the early ’60s, as Steven pointed out. “If you listen real close, you can hear the country-Western part of America roaring,” said Steven, his ear firmly suctioned onto his Coke cup. Not really. Randy rather rudely couldn’t stop laughing to himself after the other judges spoke in support of Haley. He called her performance “sleepy” twice and “boring” thrice and then finally came up with an apt description: “You know, like I’m at a luau.” Okay, ready for some major Idol controversy here? I’m gonna have to go ahead and agree with J. Lo and S. Ty on this one, dawg. Sure, the yodeling and a strange navy red-carpet gown were odd choices, but I could listen to Haley’s “Blue” again and again. And to be fair, yodeling was part of the original. She growled sparingly, she reined it in with natural timing, and I especially liked that despite her vocal energy, she stood perfectly still the entire time. I like weird voices, you guys, and I like her musicality. Strong is great, but weird is greater, and weird yet pitch-perfect is the best. Call me crazy, but I think Haley has the potential to be that.
On the other hand, Jacob Lusk was an uneven, wild, rarely-on-key mess on R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly.” (High School Student Aaron Kelly, we hardly knew ye.) I had such high hopes for Jacob and his red-and-white-patterned tie and red pocket square. He looked great. He began to warble. Then suddenly there were gospel singers everywhere, and Jacob just didn’t mesh with them at all. His antics seemed entirely disconnected from anything else happening on stage, not to mention the scary screensaver behind Jacob that looked like it had been shot from the nose of an airplane hurtling straight for the sun. Too much! Much too much. J. Lo and S. Ty refused to judge him — the former because Jacob made her feel too much (horror?) when he sang and the latter because Jacob was too good to be judged. Only Randy suggested that Jacob had “kind of lost it” on a specific verse. Randy was right in that Jacob’s voice is easily recognizable, but can this instrument be tamed? I have serious doubts. Only one thing is for certain: Michael Jordan will return to the NBA! Get ready to jam.
NEXT: Thia rewrites HIStory, Stefano develops disco fever, Karen chokesThia Megia had never heard of Charlie Chaplin (“Chapman?”), but the jury’s still out on whether Thia Megia had known who Michael Jackson was before Randy compared her to him last week. Our 15-year-old robot sang a bizarre, jazzed-out “Smile” (Jackson’s 1995 version, the same one Celine Dion sang at this year’s Oscars) that would have been a lot better without the tempo change midway through. Jimmy Iovine was the one to suggest that the front of the song be more intimate and softer than the rest (perhaps his red headphones had whispered the idea into both ears), and the judges unanimously agreed that she should have stuck with that. Even Thia agreed. Later, she cried. She wants this so badly. I predict an explosive system failure when this all crashes and burns. I did enjoy the way Thia feminized the notes of Jackson’s “Smile,” which I’ve always found a bit too lengthy and stagnant. Nice to have a lilt in there for a change. But the rewriting of HIStory was just too severe on the whole.
Similarly, Stefano Langone let himself be heavily influenced by the new Idol producing team, but this producer-singer pairing was much more copacetic. I liked how Polow Da Don sought out Stefano as a “star artist” and came up with a totally random disco-fever spin on Stevie Wonder’s “Lately.” The title alone is hilarious if you think about it — Wonder released the song in 1981, and normally 2011 wouldn’t be caught dead near any of the green-and-purple laser light show/roller-rink madness we witnessed on stage. I’m guessing most people hated this arrangement, but the middle-aged gay man in me (and J. Lo) loved it for its unexpected ridiculata quotient and the way the lovable Stefano was able to throw himself emotionally into the dance remix of a classic song. Thank you, Stefano, for inspiring me to dig deep into the hallowed halls of my iTunes library and listen to the Studio 54 movie soundtrack while writing this recap. I’m feeling mighty real right now. You made me!
As soon as I heard her tinny first note, I knew that Karen Rodriguez’s stupidly long chandelier earrings and sparkly pantsuit would overpower Karen Rodriguez. Of course she sang “I Could Fall in Love” by Selena, and of course J. Lo’s instinct was to let her down easy by telling her she looked beautiful, “shining like a star” up there. The key word is “like.” Karen’s voice was so weak throughout the song — she could barely hit even a few notes, so when she did, it was almost like what’s the point? I liked how Iovine had provided a bit of foreshadowing when he warned Karen during their sit-down interview that she shouldn’t sing, talk on the phone, or even e-mail that night. So get this, dawg, yo yo: Randy summed up my feelings perfectly when he said it felt like Karen was “kind of fighting the song.” And cheers to J. Lo for keeping it real with this unintentionally hilarious snippet: “I could tell you were a bit uncomfortable with the lower notes, and some of the higher notes.” She went on, but I will not.
NEXT: Was I dying to hear Naima sing En Vogue? Of course.Scotty McCreery performed Garth Brooks’ “The River” competently bordering on perfectly. It was no surprise. I wonder if anything Scotty does will ever be a surprise. But again, it’s only week 2. There’s no need to speculate. We can expect great things and expect to become bored of expecting great things from him for months to come. (And I do think he’ll stick around if not win the whole darn thing.) Without his guitar to keep his hands busy and anchor his cutesy facial expressions, “River” Scotty was definitely something I’d rather hear than see. The opposite is probably true for Stefano’s performance, but that’s exactly why I liked Stefano’s. Remember, kids, you’re on TV, and Mama needs to be entertained. Show some respect!
Finally, So You Think You Can Dance crossover contestant Naima Adedapo scored the final spot in last night’s show with a cover of Rihanna’s 2007 hit “Umbrella.” Tricky Stewart, who produced the original “Umbrella,” happened to be Naima’s producer, and Naima’s idol happened to be Rihanna. What are the chances?! Seriously, though, this performance livened up a snoozy night for me, even if Naima had pitch issues due to breathlessness. (Have any of these people ever heard Rihanna sing live?) Naima’s wacky side pony, unexpected moves, and original rap-reggae interlude (yep, she wrote it) planted her firmly in the present day. Am I dying to hear her sing En Vogue? Yes, and that would have fit in stunningly with the night’s mid-’90s theme. But am I sorry she picked Rihanna instead? Absolutely not. She was smart. I liked seeing her come alive while collaborating with the producers in the mysterious little magic-making booth. There’s more natural spunk to Naima than the others, I suspect. I can’t tell if she’s completely devoted to her own little universe or if she touches down on earth once in a while, but this performance suggested the latter (or just good guidance). And seconds later, Naima’s confounding use of the nonword “overstand” changed everything. Again! Who is she? What the hell is going on? I love it.
Your turn. Discussion questions: Who performed the best last night, and who’s going home tonight? Will you be calling season 10 “the remix”? Do you think Steven Tyler dreams about anklets? Why or why not?
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Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.