Many of the Top 12 sounded screechy and off-key during their ''Birth Year Songs''
James Durbin Idol
Credit: Michael Becker/Fox/PictureGroup
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In between scripted therapy sessions with Jimmy Iovine, American Idols top 12 — all of whom are much, much younger than you — sang “Birth Year Songs” (2011’s updated lingo for the tried-and-true “Songs From The Year You Were Born”) on Wednesday’s disappointing performance show. The best contestants — Stefano, Pia, James, Scotty — stood out only because they were not as wretched as the others. They were more like kneel-outs than standouts. Maybe squat-outs. Squat it out, everyone! I am mostly talking to name-dropper Randy.

Exotic flower Naima Adedapo probably tried her best on Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” but an overwrought arrangement from Rodney Jerkins and Naima’s inability to remain on pitch rendered this opening number a disaster. Someone forgot to tell Steven. “You’ve got a sorcerer’s grasp of melody,” he raved. I suppose this could be true in the same way that Grandmother Tyler has a sorceress’ grasp of ladies’ fashion. Randy and J. Lo brought Mr. Wizard down to earth by confirming that Naima was indeed “consistently pitchy.” It’s because she feels it too much. Okay.

Rhinestone cowboy Paul McDonald came down with a cold this week, so he picked a song with a title that could properly convey both sadness and indifference: Elton John’s “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” It’s a great song, and Paul might have been able to hit it if he’d been patient instead of literally a patient. But his voice cracked, his wobble seemed unavoidable instead of deliberate, and who even knows where his beloved imaginary pet turtle (typically leashed on his wild left arm) might have ended up after such a crazy walk? About halfway through, Paul clearly gave up and lost all sense of rhythm — like a karaoke lifer at 3 a.m., desperate to cling to the last vestige of sobriety or just pass out and get it over with. Randy declined to give Paul a pass because he had a cold, but Steven, of course, loved it. “You define a cool dude in a loose mood,” he raved again. Grandmother Tyler simply could not stop finding ways to talk about herself! WE GOT A HOT COMPETITION, BABY!

Thia Megia picked everyone’s favorite song from 1995: Vanessa Williams’ “Colors of the Wind.” Ugh. Seriously? I know, I know, Pocahontas is a Disney movie and therefore sacred, but I’d argue that “Colors of the Wind” is the lamest of the made-for-Disney-movies songs performed by real people. It was definitely the most embarrassing one to sing along with on the radio. That one time. Fine, a billion. Anyway, Thia Ruxpin was singing perfectly in key, but the whole thing seemed rushed and some parts (especially the word never) came off as quite nasal. Like Paul, she seemed to be racing through it. Really boring stuff, but amazing Disney princess hair. Considering the night at large, I’d call this a win for Thia. Then again….

Esteemed Colleague Email of the Night:

NEXT: James starts a fire, Haley gets lippyJames Durbin ramped up the performance quality and stayed mostly on pitch in his rendition of Bon Jovi’s “I’ll Be There for You.” The way he clapped along and leaned into the electric guitarist was verging on Bono and the Edge territory, right down to James’ leather jacket. No purple shades for the Durbs? Oh, give him time. For now, James’ personalized dog-collar boot embellishments will have to do. He engaged with the audience, running a lap around the judges and doling out fives to all the ladies even though he is totally spoken for. (Check out the ring!) James continues to be the only person who can successfully execute the end-of-song split jump, and to honor that, the stage managers allowed him some significant pyro. Steven warned him, “Don’t get too poppy,” to which James cheekily replied that he wanted to wait until the finale to spoil Aerosmith. Challenge extended. And then good ol’ Grandmother Tyler spotted himself in his subject yet again: “That man up there has a rich vein of inner crazy. I’ll join him,” he promised. Challenge accepted! Steven then celebrated the duo’s future plans with at least five seconds of bleeped-out s—. Maybe more. Speaking of rich veins of inner crazy, are you guys aware of Steven Tyler’s Twitter feed? Proceed with caution.

I’m still on the Haley Reinhart train and will keep riding until the last stop. This stop could be tonight’s results show, or it could be a lap dance-y rendition of Paula Cole’s “Feelin’ Love” many weeks down the line. We just don’t know. What I do know is that Haley sang Whitney Houston’s “I’m Your Baby Tonight” in tune and gave it her own twist (another word for twist is sometimes growl), and that was enough to make her one of my favorites from last night. I think Randy’s getting a little weird with his “Who are you as an artist?” campaign against Haley. Isn’t this the point of the show, to workshop some different things and ultimately figure that out? She’s taking more distinctive risks than most of her competitors, and I like her more each week.

As for the Red Lipstick Massacre, I loved how the smeared makeup on Haley’s face inspired such different responses between the sexes. While my esteemed female colleague Kristen Baldwin claimed to be “So, so mortified” for Haley with all that lipstick on her teeth and chin, my esteemed male colleague Darren Franich was “OMFG freaking hypnotized…” (which strikes me as OMFG a little redundant) “…by Haley Reinhart’s messy makeup.” I think Haley eventually got off on the attention — she was certainly able to play up the makeup malfunction backstage. “Well, at least I let my mouth go with the flow!” she exclaimed in response to J. Lo’s comment that Haley didn’t move well. Ohhhhhh, sexy snap!

NEXT: Stefano hugs his mom, Pia the diva, Scotty the ElvisLikewise, I still really enjoy Stefano Langone, whose rendition of “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” was perhaps the best performance of last night. Granted, that’s like saying it was the king of low-carb beers, or in Brett Loewenstern-speak, a firm and juicy poison apple in a pile of bruised poison apples. Awww, Brett. But back to Stefano. I think he might need to stop bringing his mic down so quickly — I lost his voice a bit on “children” and we must never lose the children! I did like the way Stefano’s controlled diagonal kicks were as well-mannered as his contained fist pumps to himself after the final notes. He wasn’t showing off; he was just happy! A perpetually smiling cookie with the most beautiful cookie face. Randy took the liberty of turning into all three Dancing With the Stars judges and awarded Stefano three perfect 10s for his Olympian-esque feat. (“Tehhhhhhn!”) Steven Tyler gave the credit to Jimmy Iovine, telling Stefano he was going to make Jimmy “more famous, if that’s possible.” Doubt it. Finally, J. Lo suggested Stefano could “take this thing” and then raised her voice and demanded he go hug his mom. “GO HUG YOUR MOM,” she bellowed. Awww. Moms!

Pia Toscano has certainly toned it down from the little “I won’t behave unless you videotape me singing” diva she was as a child. I definitely maybe almost cried at the story about how she’d always sing to her grandpa, who would stare at her with “stars in his eyes” as she sang, until he passed away. “You definitely have an angel watching over you. You’re perfect every week.” J. Lo with the emotional home run! For her birth year (1988, we’ve got an oldie) performance, Pia was able to keep things energetic with the strangely uptempo remix of Whitney Houston’s “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” — even though her vocal strength was very nearly overpowered by her billowing white silk jumpsuit. Where Do Clouds Go to Die? Right in there. Pia is gorgeous, but that outfit must be torched at once. I’d like her to lose the pageant arm once and a while, but at least she’s hitting her notes! So what if she looks like she’s in pain? This isn’t supposed to be fun.

Former (?) Elvis impersonator Scotty McCreery, the most adorable fat, blue-eyed baby I’ve ever seen, chose Travis Tritt’s “Can I Trust You With My Heart” and stretched with all his might to perfectly hit a high note — or what humans commonly consider “a note.” Good for him! After that, I’m not sure who was more excited: the half-moon of various Circumference Girls (my classy update to the beloved term “Swaybots”) reaching onto the platform for the chance to be closer to Scotty’s halo of depth, or his group of boy pals called the Blue Crew. J. Lo did call him out for holding the high note longer during rehearsal.

NEXT: Karen submits to a rocky horror, Casey reaches nirvana

After Karen Rodriguez told Jimmy Iovine she wanted America to know she was more than “only the Spanish singer,” she went ahead and sang a few bars of Taylor Dayne’s “Love Will Lead You Back” in Spanish. Karen’s last few notes were on-key but that was about it. The rest was so, so weak. Randy wasn’t jumping up and down (serious question: has he ever?), but Steven admired Karen’s habit of breaking into her “ethnic what-is-it-ness.” Indeed, Mr. Wizard. ¿Qué es ethnic? It’s a question for the ages.

Thanks to reader Katie for telling me over Twitter, “Karen’s look reminded me of a less extreme version of Magenta at the end of Rocky Horror.” So true! My sister Meghan had a much lower-rent suggestion via email: “she looks like snooky tonight….unfortunately.” Oh, to be so ill-informed about MTV’s reality hit as to spell its star’s name with such reckless abandon! My sister is my hero. With the strength to carry on….

Casey Abrams, he of the older, hilariously non-camera-ready (in the best possible way) parents, had the audacity to try Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” First time it’s been on the Idol stage, yo. He took a risk! And the risk was screaming. Obviously he felt he had to — it’s Nirvana, after all — but even Kurt Cobain didn’t screech the whole time. We already knew Casey could scream — a toned-down, more melodic rendition à la Tori Amos (LOL) would have surprised us and, frankly, seemed like less of a stunt. As it was, Casey struck me as a stand-up comedian mimicking Nirvana — it made sense and was sort of funny, but the joke went on a little too long and besides, you really have to pee. Can you pee now, do you think? Will the comic think you’re rude? Will he call you out on your escape and force you to roll your eyes and announce “You’ve inspired me to go to the bathroom”? Maybe. Probably. Just go.

On the other hand, at least someone is screaming Nirvana onstage, right? Can you imagine how last night’s telecast would have played out if no one had screamed Nirvana? I might still be asleep, like Paul McDonald between the lines “rolling like thunder” and “under the covers.”

NEXT: Pitchy Power, Lusky Stank, same diff

At only 16 years old, Lauren Alaina appears to have already out-aged her extremely pink mom-ager. Technically, Lauren was very good on the vocals of Melissa Etheridge’s “I’m the Only One,” but she just didn’t seem…sassy enough, or really even into it at all. It was probably due to the flu (remember Ryan? with the masks? it was so hilarious! they’re such old friends!), but I do wonder if all of the outward PERSONALITY Lauren displays when speaking can translate into a compelling enough persona onstage? I’m sure it can over time; it’s just a question of how long that will take. The voice is obviously there. And this really just might be an age thing. I don’t think Lauren really understood why it might have been weird to flash her jack-o’-lantern grin at everyone while singing about the demons that you’re hiding from. J. Lo certainly looked confused…and then didn’t mention it.

This has been the second week the judges have praised Jacob Lusk after I thought he sounded pretty awful. The mama’s boy with a tremendous heart and a trembling face took on Heart’s “Alone” all by himself. It was about time someone on American Idol sang this, am I right?! Just kidding. Jimmy Iovine loved that Jacob was trying a rock song and compared him to Aretha freaking Franklin. (Side note: I’m still tickled/annoyed that my word-processor auto-corrects Aretha to Urethra.) Every time Jacob revved up the power during the song, though, he became more (ugh) pitchy. Pitchy power, “Lusky stank,” same diff. I want to maintain my high hopes for Jacob because he’s sweet and cute and super mega dramatic, but he’s just not delivering musically for me.

I will try to believe, though. After all, a hypnotizing wormhole screensaver behind Jacob during “Alone” let us know he just might be the gatekeeper to a better universe.

The producers decided to donate a portion of this week’s iTunes sales to the American Red Cross and their relief efforts in Japan. You can also text your donations during tonight’s show. This will make C. Crest, R. Jacks, J. Lo and S. Ty all very, very happy.

See you tomorrow, bright and early! Were you disappointed with Birth Year Songs, too? Are Jimmy and his team of producers getting too much in the way? And does anyone have prettier costume jewelry than Grandmother Tyler?

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