Jessica and Joshua deliver season highs. There's no, no, no way you're living without the Top 4, "our favorite swingers"

By Annie Barrett
May 10, 2012 at 09:37 AM EDT
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“Listen something.” –Randy Jackson

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R. Yo summed up American Idol‘s Top 4 performance show pretty perfectly right there, but I suppose I can do my part to expand on things. This week, Jessica, Joshua, Phillip, and “even Hollie” — J. Lo, you are EVIL — took on two new random themes. For “California Dreamin’,” they could sing any song by any artist who had ever been aware of the state of California. For “The Song I Wish I Wrote,” they could sing any song. Pretty good themes! I predict next week’s will be “Songs.” Really, there’s no need to confuse us. We get it. They’re singing songs.

The Updos I Wish I Revoked

Even Phillip Phillips‘ brother-in-law thought last week‘s “Time of the Season” sounded pretty rough. Maybe he should be a judge. “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” was an all-around average Phillip performance, though I was struck at how much more engaged he seems with his music when sexy jazz sax maestro Mindi Abair (a.k.a. She Bangs) is in town. Phillip was able to interact with her and Beach Hat Organist pretty well, even though he was planted pretty far away from them.

If this had just been Phillip, his guitar, and stock footage of surfers on the giant oval, I might have dozed off. I never knew that “the rain comin’ down over me” was intended to represent a gnarly wave. Clearly I need to work on my California Dreamin’!

J. Lo said Phillip’s “Rain” had a “Joe kinda Cocker quality” to it that she hadn’t heard before. It’s like she’s never seen an episode. That’s so weird. I thought she was one of the judges.

NEXT: Caterphillar Phillips matures into a butterfly Phillip’s second performance, Damien Rice’s “Volcano,” had the stripped-down feel (ooooooooh yeah) and total-darkness setting (mmm-hmm) I’d been waiting for from him. The vocal itself might not have been anything to write your baby a letter about, but the staging made up for that and transformed the performance into an artistic experience.

Like Steven, I loved the cellist and the backup singer — and as a viewer, I liked how all three players shared the screen on an equal scale. It made the whole song seem almost like a even-keeled braid weaving itself together through the power of the music. Oh wow, have I just become Steven Tyler? I hope so. He has better hair. Anyway, the judges’ verbal volcano runneth over with lava-ish praise. “Few people could have pulled that off on a competition show like this,” raved J. Lo. Hmm. Copying a beautiful song in the darkness? I’m pretty sure it’s happened.

Little Hollie Cavanagh (#holliepops) — wearing a messy high school girls basketball bun and an uncharacteristic gray work shirt straight out of Phillip’s closet — took us on a journey back to her teary season 10 audition. Suddenly there she was, all glammed up on her capital-J Idol Journey to take on “Faithfully.” A generic empty road rolled out behind her in the dreaded oval. After a few solid verses, Hollie really came alive in her final series of “I’m still yourrrrrrrrs” — so much power! We need that oomph from Hollie, otherwise her performances feel lacking.

That’s what was wrong with “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” I think. J. Lo tried to pin the problem on Hollie’s lack of experience in heartbreaks, which was just so off the mark. The real problem was that Hollie had been instructed by snapping turtle Jimmy Iovine, “DON’T OVERSING it.” That’s when she should have switched her song choice. I wish there had been a looping malfunction with Hollie’s iPod this week wherein Bonnie Raitt could warn Hollie over and over, I’ll feel the power — but you won’t. As soon as Hollie sang that line live, I realized it was true: Hollie herself was clearly overcome with emotion during the song, but the song couldn’t provide the dynamic range that would let the audience feel Hollie’s power in any way. I actually agreed with Randy [bloodcurdling scream] when he told her the song “gave you nowhere to go” and reminded her that at this stage in the season, “you need moments.”

NEXT: Joshua Ledet is having a moment I loved seeing the profound difference between Joshua Ledet‘s season 10 and season 11 auditions — he was all sheepish and shy the first go-round (only Steven thought he’d be ready after “a little groomin'”) and then sauntered in with an easy smile and his head held high the second time. We couldn’t really hear him in that footage, but the idea that he truly wasn’t ready (as Joshua himself admitted) makes me respect him more for whatever he worked out in the interim. There’s so much conviction in what Joshua does today — the fact that he had to dig deep and find that instead of floating through life as a pitch-perfect mimic of other singers really appeals to me. There’s a lot of action swarming around in that peaceful little head of his.

I guess my point is that I’m liking Joshua more and more. That moment during rehearsal footage when Jimmy told him to call him with any questions and Joshua started giggling and had to explain “I ain’t got your phone number” was genuinely hilarious.

Anyway, Joshua’s first song, Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up,” was okay — a little cheesy for my tastes with the elevating platform and gospel choir. I think the confined space might have ended up limiting him vocally. He seemed a little preoccupied with the physical element of the performance, much like he had when he was trying to remember the choreography in last week‘s “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” I much prefer when Joshua gets to slink around the stage on his own. And in round two, I certainly got my wish.

He’s got 15 pieces of flair and a flower ain’t one.

Joshua’s take on James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” oozed with compassion, sensuality, and an all-around awareness beyond his years. This time he was truly feelin’ it and so were the all-female band members (I’m still a sucker for a string section) enveloping him as the main event. But he’d be nothing, nothing, without a woman or a girl. It was a smart and poignant move to dedicate “Man’s World” to his mom, “the backbone of the family,” just before Mother’s Day.

Joshua can tend to go overboard, but what I loved about this song and arrangement was that just when he got really riled up, spitting into the microphone and growailing (new word?) out a high note, the swelling stopped and the orchestra took a beat before seeping in again. I love songs that do this. It was like we got to hit the reset button on his momentum from our living rooms — yet Joshua was the one in complete control. SO GOOD.

This got the first standing O of the night, which shouldn’t matter, but maybe it does. “That was sickening,” snarled J. Lo, who was so grossed out that she had to start complimenting him in Spanish.

“One of the best performances in the history of ANY singing show, INCLUDING ours!” cried the ice cream man.

NEXT: Jessica Sanchez cries, you cry, we all cry for Randy Jackson’s ice cream Jessica Sanchez “literally can’t do anything but sing,” she told us. Stop selling yourself short, girl! You also look excellent stepping into seven-inch heels that Ryan Seacrest has laid out for you. (Do they plan on replaying that footage once per every registered foot fetishist in America?)

This time, for round one, Jessica wore pants. But she made up for the tame outfit with suggestive material: “Steal Away” by Etta James. I’m surprised J. Lo didn’t grill her afterwards on how many sex partners she’s had. But who am I kidding, this isn’t Hollie. Anyway, I liked the song choice and Jessica sounded growly and great, like she’s been practicing this one for years. “I am 65 years old and have been singing all my life,” Jessica explained to us backstage. Shhhhh. It’s a secret.

Jessica’s brilliant cover of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls was mind-blowing in that the girl had nothing with her up there — no company save one inexplicable pink sleeve and the deadly smoke monster creeping at her feet — and she still managed to make the stage feel like a wet ‘n’ wild amusement park. There’s a time and a place for oversinging, and “a monster of a song” in the pimp spot of American Idol‘s Top 4 night is it.

I’m so happy Jessica finally got to do this, but I was frustrated for Hollie, who should have chosen a similar power anthem. Imagine if she’d picked something different — last night’s second round of songs might have been the best streak of Top 4 performances ever. Alas, their song choices afforded only Jessica — not Hollie — the opportunity to age up. “I don’t know where you find the experience,” Randy marveled, “but dude, you are phenomenal.” Oh dawg, I think we all know the “experience” was “listening to/watching the song over and over for years.” Pretty weird double standard for the night. But that shouldn’t diminish Jessica’s performance.

The best moment of the show was when J. Ugh started gushing over the emotional quality of Jessica’s performance and just as she said “it was probably just ripping your soul apart,” a single tear rolled down Jessica’s cheek. She was crying! I was crying. NO ONE could have orchestrated that any better. But I’m sure Nigel Lythgoe patted himself on the back or got Aaron the bodyguard to do it for him. Just ask Steven: Nigel takes credit for everything.

By the way, those ‘6’ pins Ryan, Randy, and Steven were wearing were in support of Got Your Six, Michelle Obama’s new initiative to help veterans. Next week: rainbow flags. Even you, J. Lo. Make it happen.

Is Hollie heading home tonight? Would you buy ice cream from Randy Jackson? Do you wish they’d cut it out with the duets or did you get as big a kick out of Phillip and Joshua’s “This Love” as I did? Discuss!

Follow @EWAnnieBarrett

Read more:

‘Idol’: Top 4’s Best and Worst — PHOTO GALLERY

‘American Idol’: Name your Top 4 Power List!

The week in ‘Idol’: Top 4 going back to Cali, Kris Allen shut down on the pier, and more

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*!

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.
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