Thursday, March 10, 2011

AI Top 13 Recap: Idol Worship from the Idols

So after the highs and lows of last week's Top 24 performances, the cruelest cuts (wherefore art thou, Robbie and Kendra?) and the questionable saves (Ashthon, I'm looking at you), it's time for the Top 13 to perform!

This week's theme was "Songs from Your Idols," which, loosely translated, meant "Songs by People the Judges Told Me I Sounded Like" or "Songs I Just Felt Like Singing So I Conveniently Worship the Singer." J.Lo was on the scene with super-red lips, like one of Robert Palmer's band members in the "Addicted to Love" video.

Lauren started off the night by sharing that Shania Twain was her idol and she'd be singing Any Man of Mine (attempted last season by Siobhan Magnus). Lauren wanted a song that "showed off her personality" and explained that Shania was the first country diva, and "hopefully I'll be a country diva someday." The producers she worked with stuck to their producer-approved script reminded us what an amazing singer and talent Lauren was.

The performance, sadly, was just blah. Sure, it probably did show off her personality but not her voice, and she seemed out of breath on some of the notes. The judges, while somewhat disappointed (Steven hoped for a "more kickass" performance), told us how amazing Lauren is (J.Lo broke out her first lie of the evening, telling Lauren "you always sound amazing") and how "crazy talented" she is. Lauren pouted through the judges' criticisms, saying "I didn't want to do a ballad like everyone else does" and then said "Steven, I'm sorry." And then she called Ryan "Peaches" again. (A public service announcement for Lauren: For reasons I've not quite figured out, you're clearly one of the producers' serious favorites. But if your attitude keeps up, your fans won't. Other contestants who have been pimped in previous seasons smiled and took the criticism. Stop pandering to the judges and the host. It's creepy when Karen does it, too.)

Joe Cocker is Casey's idol. In his typically self-deprecating way, Casey explained that Joe Cocker "didn't look that hot either" but has an amazing way of feeling songs, and Casey "just wants to be felt." He started out singing With A Little Help from My Friends sitting on the stairs, and when he got to the first "with a little help from my friends" line, several backup singers came out and stood near him. It was a really quirky, at-times-brilliant performance, but he needs to watch the shouting. As I've said with other contestants, just because you can do it doesn't mean you always need to. I'd love to see him dial it down a bit in the intensity department next week, but he's amazing.

The judges were wowed. J.Lo said that at one time in the performance she grabbed Randy and asked "What am I watching?" and then realized "I'm watching somebody important." Randy switched back to his old irrelevant self for a moment (the two sides of Randy went to war quite a bit last night) and told J.Lo "she was watching American Idol, Season 10, The Remix!" Steven praised Casey's "rainbow of talent" and said he showed a "plethora of passion." It's better than Paula Abdul, y'all.

And then came Ashthon who, not surprisingly, claimed Diana Ross as her idol. (Not surprisingly when the judges said last week she should sing Diana Ross.) The pre-performance footage had Ashthon claiming that she "had never sung this high before," which had my dog running to hide. (Can't quite figure out why Jimmy Iovine would invite Berry Gordy to watch this performance, unless he's plotting a takeover of Motown, but I digress.) Clad in a silver gown from the opening number of the pageant in Miss Congeniality (minus the Statue of Liberty crown), she sang When You Tell Me That You Love Me. (Fortunately, there were no scary high notes.)

It just wasn't good, no matter how the judges tried to pretend it wasn't-but-was. Randy praised the song as a "safe move" and said he "saw [her] grow, even through the sharp(!) and flat(!) notes." Steven said that "there was still a lot more inside Ashthon she could show us" and J.Lo called her "elegant, amazing and awesome." (I took notes, I swear.) If she's not in the bottom three tonight, I may hit a high note I've never hit before.

Alt-rock god Ryan Adams is Paul's idol. (Quick show of hands: how many of you cringed inwardly when you thought he said Bryan Adams?) He sang Come Pick Me Up while doing his trippy dance all over the stage (which looks good on Paul, but when Ryan tried it afterward he looked like a marionette) dressed in an outfit from Target's upcoming "Remember the Alamo" collection. (I kid.) Paul's performance was, well, quirky. And bad. But I'm guessing it was true to who Paul is as a performer. The judges struggled but praised his voice and his uniqueness, with both J.Lo and Randy saying that they hoped America "got" his performance. While I think Ashthon should go home before Paul, if he wants to stay on the show, he needs to kick it up a bit.

Pia decided to continue her power-ballad streak with an AI standard, Celine Dion's version of All By Myself. (Pia, did you read my recap from last week comparing your performance to Latoya London's rendition of that song? If so, you're welcome.) Although I didn't get the beige cape on the back of her dress, I thought Pia was pretty fantastic. What I liked the best was that she knows which notes she can hit and sustain, and which ones she shouldn't linger on that long. J.Lo said she wondered what Pia could do to top her performance last week but thought she did, Steven said she "polished the apple" with that performance and Randy broke out the holy Whitney/Mariah/Celine triptych, saying you shouldn't sing them if you can't, but she "hit the notes dead on" and gave a "hot, dope, cool" performance. (Old Randy strikes again.)

As an aside, is it necessary to have commercials with Jennifer Lopez during the show?

Our resident screamer, James, shared that "Paul McCartney from The Beatles" was his idol. He chose to tone it down with Maybe I'm Amazed, a song I freaking love. And tone it down he did—both in dress (only one scarf, one dangling chain and one earring) and in vocals. Yes, there was a little howling, but it worked so well. This may have been my favorite performance of the night. The judges loved it too—Randy, after reminding everyone he used to be a member of Journey, said "Yo, this dude is amazing. James Durben is dangerous because this dude can sing!" Steven praised his melodic quality and J.Lo, after praising his amazing performance, reminded James of what is probably her mantra: "If they want to clap, let 'em clap."

Haley decided to change it up, singing LeAnn Rimes' Blue. (Anyone wanna guess what color dress she wore?) Haley laid off the vocal gimmicks and let the beauty of the song come through, and her voice was dead on with the yodeling, although parts were a little low for her. Steven said it was "so, so fine," comparing it to Rimes' original recording. J.Lo praised Haley for the "special things she does with [her] voice," but Randy disagreed. He called it a "sleepy" and "boring" performance, comparing it to something you'd hear at a luau. (I guess someone got Simon's book of similes and metaphors upon his departure.) Sadly, however, Haley decided to answer Randy's criticism, although her baby-doll-after-a-shot-of-whiskey voice wasn't audible without the microphone. I just wish they'd tell the contestants it wins them no points when they argue with the judges. Even Justin Guarini (remember him?) apologized for backtalking to the judges.

And then came Jacob. To quote my friend Leah, "Is Jacob always on 10? Can't he dial it down a bit? Maybe to 8?" Well, that wasn't going to happen here. Jacob mentioned that R. Kelly was his idol, and he'd be singing I Believe I Can Fly. (Bonus points for nine-year-old Jacob's Kid & Play-inspired haircut.) It started out fine (despite the backdrop like you were free falling from a plane) but then the gospel choir came out (a friend on Facebook asked if it was time for the Ruben Studdard finale again) and Jacob started shrieking. Oh, and not on key, either. Egads. This, to me, encapsulates everything I don't like about him, because it was so over the top it left the top in the dust.

Steven said Jacob's performance was "pure music, pure passion, so good it couldn't be judged," J.Lo said how she gets asked who's going to win the competition and she says it's anyone's game but Jacob is "at the top of the list," and Randy's new alter ego said that Jacob "hit some sharp notes" but it didn't matter. (It mattered later, though.)

Our little young'un, Thia, was up next. She grabbed a page out of Ashthon's book—Randy's comparison of her vocal tone to Michael Jackson's last week compelled her to sing Smile this week. (You know, the song by "Charlie Chapman." Oy.) The song started out beautifully, but then the producers added some jazzy bits in the middle, where Thia wasn't as strong vocally, but she closed the song quite well. Which brings me to a fundamental question: how much should the contestants be criticized for the arranging of a song? Discuss.

The judges again praised Thia's vocal tone, but called her out for being pitchy in the middle. In the "confession cam" later, Thia broke down crying, asking America to "keep the dream alive for me" because she could do "a lot more better." Break, heart.

Stefano was up next, and he worked with a producer on a new arrangement of Stevie Wonder's Lately. It was sort of soul-meets-disco and while I didn't love the arrangement, I thought Stefano was nearly impeccable vocally. The judges agreed—J.Lo, after calling Stefano "baby" (better watch out, Mark...a younger and fresher model is underfoot) she told him he sounded great, and Randy, after invoking the whole "Stevie is hard to sing" mantra, said he wondered "Where's dawg taking it," but absolutely loved it.

Here's a news flash: Karen's idol is Selena. Shocker. I'm trying to decide whether it's endearing or creepy that she has Selena barbie dolls and everything. Anyway, Karen decided to sing I Could Fall in Love but promised a "Beyonce pop/rock vibe." What she didn't promise was a fairly lackluster performance. You knew she was in trouble when J.Lo opened her feedback with the damning "You look so beautiful." She said that she sensed Karen was "uncomfortable with the notes" but she's usually spot on, and she's "one of our strongest girls." (Really? Maybe 6th strongest?) Randy said it seemed like she was "fighting the song." Oh, and by the way, her bizarre outfit, which she designed herself, was "inspired by J.Lo and Selena." Ugh.

I didn't think our Josh Turner-loving Scotty would choose Josh Turner as his idol, so I wasn't surprised he chose Garth Brooks. He sang The River and, as he told Jimmy Iovine, he planned to change a little bit of the song but mostly leave it the way it was. And he was terrific. Scotty has a fantastic voice and a charming personality, and the spareness of the song worked really well for him. The judges and the audience went understandably wild. Randy told Scotty he could put this out as a record (what's a record?), J.Lo said that she saw Scotty "open up as a performer," and Steven? Well, Steven quoted an Elton John song called Roy Rogers, saying "There's a song that goes 'The carpet's all paid for, God bless the TV, let's go shoot a hole in the moon. And Roy Rogers is riding tonight.' Well, you're riding tonight." (No clue what that meant, but where does he come up with this stuff?) Ryan then forgot Simon was gone, as he started making snide comments about the backdrop when Scotty was singing, saying it was a picture "from Randy's trip to the Ozarks."

Naima closed the show, choosing to sing Rihanna's Umbrella. (She worked with Rihanna's original producer.) Complete with rain graphics as her backdrop, Naima sang, danced and even broke into an original rap in the middle. (Oh, and wearing a Jamaican flag-inspired neckerchief.) She's a really cool performer, but not quite ready for singing and dancing, as she lost her breath during some of the phrases. I still think that Naima isn't sure of who she is as a performer (do I sound like Kara?) but the show definitely benefits from her being in it. Her biggest fan, Steven, admitted there were pitch problems but said she was "crazy good." J.Lo explained that Naima was on fire, so she "didn't care" whether she was pitchy. Randy suddenly got defensive and said he does care about pitch, but still enjoyed the performance, and said that Naima could record a reggae version of the song. Naima dedicated the performance to her husband and then explained that the judges made complete sense, and she "overstands" their criticism. (Is that a deeper understanding?)

All in all, it was a pretty good show. I think the bottom three should be Lauren, Ashthon and Karen, but I think the bottom three will probably be Ashthon, Karen and Haley, with Paul a possibility.

We'll see after tonight's results show, or as I like to call it, "53 minutes of filler and trickery, and 7 minutes of substance."

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