The Top 8 perform solos and duets; Randy switches his catchphrase from "in it to win it" to "gotta have it"

By Annie Barrett
Updated April 05, 2012 at 08:56 AM EDT
Fox

Randy Jackson really elevated his game last night by changing his verbal framing of an American Idol contestant’s potential and desire to remain in the competition from “[Tiny Teen] is in it to win it!” to “[Tiny Teen]’s gotta have it!” According to Randy, the singers who had to have it this week were Joshua Ledet, Jessica Sanchez, and Skylar Laine.

I’d also include Steven Tyler, who rolled into ’80s Night wearing a decidedly ’70s patchwork blouse with big flowers and white bell-bottom pants. Did he really need those red vertical stripes running down the pants to elongate even further his spaghetti legs?! He did. (As Steven himself put it, he “wasn’t all there” in the 1980s.)

So in the spirit of stepping it up and altering your entire worldview like Randy and Steven just did, I’m going to discuss the Top 8 performances in order of how I ranked them from best to worst instead of the order in which they occurred.

I THINK THIS GIRL WANTS IT TOO!

Jessica Sanchez and Joshua Ledet dueted on “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me” by Aretha Franklin and George Michael, and for me (for you?) this was the performance in which Jessica became her most gritty and alive. Having the almost cartoonish Joshua to play off of really helped her become less self-aware than usual and get into a groove. She had a bit of oomph here, you know?

I think Joshua wanted to pull even more interaction out of Jessica toward the end, but overall the two screamers looked and sounded amazing together. This would be something I’d want a non-American Idol viewer to land on while randomly flipping channels. It was just (sorry) good looking out for both of them.

I’d obviously want these imaginary, no good very bad non-American Idol TV watchers to land on Elise Testone and Phillip Phillips, who took on “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” by Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty. Idol‘s still dreaming of Stevie! I love it. Elise was fantastic here and I kept getting excited when they switched up the staging and I realized she had another solo verse to do.

Phillip looked uncomfortable at the beginning without his guitar and had to “creep around the stage feeling that jacket” according to a jealous Ryan. But as their voices began to blend superbly, P. Phil started to have fun. It seems like they like each other. Idol friends! No, not like that, Ryan. As musicians.

NEXT: ‘Joshua’s gotta have it, America!’

I was about to claim that I was the “biggest fan” of this Elise/Phillip performance, but then I watched it again and realized the contents of the Idol stage’s Stock Photography Come To Life Oval (partially pictured, right) would put me to shame.

I’m a sucker for a big ol’ cheesy Idol moment, so even though I firmly believe that Skylar Laine‘s cover of Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings” would not have seemed so majestic if she had sung, say, third, I’m still listing her solo first because she worked those vocals — giving a little, taking a little, and letting her poor rhinestone-studded heart break a little. The swelling finish to the song was a truly satisfying end to the story of this episode.

Clearly the producers put her last because of her bottom three scare last week. Jennifer Lopez, who gets goosies from even thinking about the movie Beaches, outlined the message Skylar wants to send to voters this week: “Do. Not. Count. Me. Out.”

“I THINK THIS GIRL WANTS IT, TOO!” bellowed Randy.

Esteemed Colleague Email Interlude:

The Hollywood Hells?

When I think of Joshua Ledet, I just see so much red: Guest mentor Gwen Stefani’s red blazer and dark pink lipstick (a killer combo, best of the night, I think this girl wants it too!), the hundreds of red candles flanking Joshua as he stepped out for Simply Red’s version of “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” and the three enormous bowls of red foodstuff so proudly displayed by his family members back home. My initial impression was “MAN that’s a lot of ziti,” but why would it be ziti? My educated guess is that it was crawfish.

Anyway, Joshua delivered the same heaping helping of vocal gymnastics we’ve come to expect from him, and he didn’t have to wipe his nose from crying too hard this time. “It wasn’t too much over-the-top and it was way over-the-top,” said Steven, who would understand such an accomplishment.

The judges flipped out after Joshua’s final wail (I love that the band stopped so we could hear him, but I wanted more) and gave him their first standing O of the night. “Crazy! Crazy!” Randy raved. He then launched into the aforementioned regime change. “Jennifer, Steven, Ryan, Ryan — I think we found someone tonight who’s gotta have it! Joshua’s gotta have it, America!”

Yo, RYAN! Both of you. Wake up! Why weren’t you listening to the Dawg?

NEXT: Elise Testone gets the ‘You look beautiful tonight’ kiss of death Jessica Sanchez, who used to sing to boxes, listed some of her favorite things to the camera: “Boys and males and…well, shopping.” Males? Maybe she meant emails and I heard it wrong. Anyway, the 16-year-old offered the same pitch perfection she always does on Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know” — her second Whitney cover of the season. Pulling off an awkward opening amidst a mess of awkward teens in the audience and not managing to let the giant cassette tapes that actually said “CASSETTE TAPES” (because what typical Idol viewer would recognize such relics?) overpower her vocal are no small feats.

Gwen Stefani called Jessica’s voice “shockingly good — it’s crazy how young she is.” Her suggestion that Jessica attempt to find a unique way to move her body was a good one, but I didn’t think Jessica delivered on that at all. She promised a different side of her Beyoncé-esque alter-ego B.B. Chez, but all we got were more literal interpretations of the lyrics, specifically “I try to phone” and “I feel weak.” I believe that she knows what the lyrics mean. But how will I know that she’s really loving it? I’m still getting a hyper-programmed vibe from this living doll — though she sounds fantastic.

Colton Dixon and Skylar Laine dueted on “Islands in the Stream” by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. Yep. This was just solid. I have nothing great or terrible to say about it, so I stuck it in the middle. Here it is. I agreed with J. Lo that Skylar knows exactly how hard to “bite into” a song — she could have overpowered Colton because country is her forte and not his, but she reined it in and they both sounded beautiful, just beautiful.

These two are NOT DATING. Who would even think that? Check Facebook. Colton Dixon is in a relationship with his hair.

Did I just say I agreed with J. Lo? I wanna know what a love/hate relationship is. I want you to show me the error of my ways. I pretty much wanted to murder that beeyotch when her first comment to Elise Testone after Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” was “Elise, you look beautiful tonight.” NO YOU DIDN’T.

I thought the judges were unfair to Elise — just because this wasn’t her best performance doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good one. Randy complained about pitch problems and Steven — who was completely in the zone and lovin’ Elise when they showed him a few times as she was singing — dismissed his soul sister by saying it was the wrong song choice. Sure, the song choice was disappointing, but I liked what she did with the runs and how she added a downward-sloping “oh-oh-oh-yeah” in there.

“Hallelujah” could have been a bigger moment for her (imagine if she’d gotten to close the show with that!) but she did her best with the song Gwen Stefani loved. The only things I could not get behind were the huge pocket watches floating by on the giant screens — perhaps to signify that with each passing moment, Grandma Elise is getting closer and closer to her American Idol expiration date. Maybe some of her notes were off, but if they were, they didn’t bother me because I find the nuances of her voice so attractive. I suspect the studio recording of this one is going to be amazing.

Thanks to reader Noa for this glass-half-full perspective on Elise’s performance:

Hot guitar player Brady Cohan (thanks to other reader Rachel for telling me his name) had returned to dazzle us!

NEXT: If you fall, Colton Dixon will catch you (but then his chicken legs will crumble) I wanted to like Colton Dixon‘s “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper more, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was trying to sound like Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong. Has he always been this nasally or was it a deliberate affectation this week? The “TIME. AFTER. TIME.”s and other assorted (gibberish?) block letters blinking behind him were also extremely distracting. But again, I wanted to like this more, so I gave it a second watch and admired how Colton interacted with all of the band members — that drummer!!! — and how he gave credit to the band Quietdrive for coming up with that arrangement of the song.

This was middle-of-the-road for me, so I didn’t quite understand the judges’ overblown praise — Steven said “You could do a record right now, man,” but seemed more impressed by the drummer to be honest, and Randy insisted, “You’re so current,” as he’s said to Colton in the past. What is it that I’m missing about him? Lying in my bed I hear Elise’s biological clock tick and I think about it, time after time.

After the show, I did end up appreciating that Colton chose such a flagship ’80s song. A lot of the other song choices this week were pretty blah. These kids are too young to have ’80s nostalgia, is the problem. (Either that or the song list was lame. Did they blow their Madonna budget last week or what?)

And I loved how Gwen Stefani and No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal reminisced about how whenever they sat down to write a song, they wished they could write “Time After Time.” Ahhhh! The ’80s!

What’s NOT blah is Colton’s new ambitious blonde hair. “Foil or one-step?” wondered Ryan.

Any excuse to get closer.

After a second viewing, I shifted Phillip Phillips‘ cover of “That’s All” by Genesis down from my original ranking last night. It wasn’t his best by a long shot and he didn’t do enough with the song to make is distinctively “his” version. Maybe I’m holding him to a higher standard now after Stevie Nicks’ whole “hey, you’re hot, follow me down a gypsy rabbit hole and come join Fleetwood Mac in 1975” speech from last week. Maybe the gold dust woman’s outpouring of confidence in him put too much pressure on Phil this week. He seemed unsure of himself onstage.

You know I love me a Phillip Phillips facial closeup, but as I tried to sail through the changing ocean tides of his sea-green peepers, the kid just looked terrified. Maybe he was in pain again? Something wasn’t right. I don’t think he’s in danger of going home — especially after the judges’ warm reaction — but it wasn’t the same. It’s just a shame, that’s all.

NEXT: No longer ‘so…scared,’ the Jessie Spano of American Idol gets his groove back Even if voters have never heard of “I Like It” by DeBarge, they might be inspired enough by DeAndre Brackensick‘s comeback arc to vote for him. Then again, he went first, and even though this was possibly his most confident performance to date, I didn’t remember it too well.

Upon a second viewing there are a lot of things I like — his ease of movement, the less frequent use of falsetto, and a general lack of scaredy-cat face. Is our adorable baby lion prince on his way to being king? He may not be my favorite contestant, but I’m digging Simba’s new problem-free philosophy and think he could be great a few years down the line.

No one is in more need of hakuna matata, though, than poor little sparkly wood nymph Hollie. DeAndre Brackensick and Hollie Cavanagh‘s duet of “I’m So Excited” was cute enough and proved she could sound good on an uptempo number, but Simba’s energy and confidence far overpowered Hollie’s. The discrepancy between the two performers made the whole thing a bit uncomfortable. Also, not much melody here.

But I did enjoy how DeAndre’s hair + Hollie’s nervous tension (“I have to sing!”) + “I’m So Excited” all added up to = this classic clip of Saved by the Bell.

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Jimmy Iovine passed on the Flashdance soundtrack. What a stupid feeling that must have been. He pretended to shoot himself in the head so we could get a better picture. Young Hollie Cavanagh tried to switch things up from her usual dirge-like ballads and go with Irene Cara’s upbeat “Flashdance…What a Feeling.” I don’t think she sounded nearly as bad as the judges implied, but the problem with Hollie is that she’s not having fun. Just nothing about that performance seemed fun for her, which is a shame because she had borrowed a gloriously ridiculous baby blue fringed frock from the Dancing With the Stars wardrobe department next door — plus, she was trotting around the entire stage for the first time.

Hollie has all the tools to make it on Idol; she just can’t seem to get out of her head and let her instincts propel her once she’s onstage.

In short, Hollie is like Maureen Cummings in Center Stage: “I’ve got the feet. I don’t have the heart.”

She’s gotta start draggin’ that heart around!

Show Hollie how it’s done, Stevie and Tommie….

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Who do you think goes home tonight? And should the judges use their save?

Follow @EWAnnieBarrett

Read more:

Was Skylar Laine’s ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ the best of the night?

‘American Idol’: 15 Best ’80s Songs — PHOTO GALLERY

Stevie Nicks tells Phillip Phillips he could have joined Fleetwood Mac in 1975

At home with the Top 9 in the ‘Idol’ mansion — EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS

Ask Annie anything about ‘Idol’ (or whatever) in the video player below. To see her answers to previous questions, click on the text links below the picture. This is *not live.*

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