Thursday, April 7, 2011

AI Top 9 Recap: It's (Not Quite) Rock and Roll to Me...

It’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Week! Ryan promised us “some of the greatest songs ever” performed by “some of the most dynamic singers and entertainers.” What he didn’t warn us about were heinous crimes of fashion, the incoherent ramblings of, and a world where following your moral convictions means it’s ok to thrust your hips.

But I digress.

Apparently Gwen Stefani dressed the remaining female contestants in her cast-offs L.A.M.B. collection. (Somewhere, you know Naima is praising the Lord she’s missing this.) Now, either Stefani’s clothes look best on Harujuku girls or she’s still bitter that Sanjaya ruined Bathwater in season 6, because these were some hideous clothes.

J.Lo clearly threatened that Gwen better not touch her clothes did her own thing, as she looked fantastic. Randy Jackson broke out his best pleather jacket and Steven’s animal print suit has put him on Bindi Irwin’s most wanted list.

Good news. In addition to Jimmy Iovine, this week the contestants will be “mentored” by, from the Black-Eyed Peas. Now, he isn’t known for his actual singing, mind you, but why focus on the negative?

Jacob was first up. He started out singing Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get it On (I’ll admit I threw up a little in my mouth when I heard that) and we got a taste of the caterwauling to come. Jimmy promised “an explosion of babies born nine months after this performance” (gross) if he did it right. Then, suddenly, Jacob felt like the song wasn’t right for him and who he is, so instead he chose to sing Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror, which Kris Allen did so well in Season 8. Jimmy and Will (I am not typing the name with the periods over and over again) were surprised, but praised him for sticking by his decision. Then, in one of the most outright displays of hubris I’ve ever seen, Jacob said, “If I make bottom three, it won’t be because I sang the song bad, or sang the song wrong. It’s because America isn’t ready to look themselves in the mirror.” Dude, you’re a contestant on a singing competition. Regardless of what the judges have told (and will tell) you, you are not the second coming of Luther Vandross. There have certainly been contestants on this show with huge egos (cough, Casey, cough) but this was ridiculous.

Dressed like a Good Humor man or a surgeon just reporting to work (white vest, white shirt, white pants, silver shoes), his performance was slightly less histrionic but not in any way different than the original. Siedah Garrett, who wrote the song with Glen Ballard, sang backup, and Jacob proceeded to thrust his hips nearly against her several times. All in all, it was just meh. But the judges didn’t care. After telling him “Every time you sing you bring another piece of you to the party,” (guess which judge said that), and that the performance was “perfect in every way” (seriously), the judges spent the rest of their critique time telling Jacob he was proof that “if you believe in yourself you can succeed.” Randy told Jacob he was so proud he stood by his “moral convictions” and chose a song he felt more comfortable doing, and ended with “Dude, that was hot!” (Far be it from me to quibble, but I think Mother Teresa had moral convictions. Choosing a Michael Jackson song instead of a Marvin Gaye song doesn’t show moral convictions.)

When they announced that Haley was singing Janis Joplin, I figured she’d break out Piece of My Heart, and I was right. Given that the judges keeping throwing Janis at her, I was glad to see she threw it back at them, although I wish she would have picked something a little less obvious. (In seasons past, the song has been performed by Candice Coleman in season 2 (check out how Ryan used to dress on the show), Carrie Underwood and Asia’h Epperson in season 7.) In one of his few coherent pieces of advice, Will told Haley that she “sounds like an artist” but the song had no feeling. He encouraged her to sing the song to the boyfriend that did her wrong. I thought she did a great job, with some terrific runs toward the end, and she seemed a little less awkward on stage. I’d like her to dial back the growl just a little sometimes, because her voice is great by itself, but I’m glad to see her do well. J.Lo told Haley that she was off to a strong start and showed that she’s a true contender, and then said that she should “be around for a minute.” (I’m sure that’s cool person talk, right?) Randy praised himself for calling out Janis Joplin and said, “Yo, look at Haley go! Welcome back back back!” Steven said he “couldn’t find nothing wrong with it” and told her she brought back Janis Joplin for him.

After Casey’s subdued performance last week, he planned to sing The Police’s Every Little Thing She Does (is Magic) but then decided he couldn’t give it more than 80 percent, so he went with CCR’s Have You Ever Seen the Rain?. Upright bass, well, in hand, I thought he did a really good job, accompanied by the rain graphics that Naima used for her performance of Umbrella a few weeks back. I like Casey’s voice and I felt that, to use a Randy phrase we’ll hear a few times, “while I wasn’t jumping out of my chair (or off my couch, really),” I enjoyed his performance. Speaking of the Dawg, he told Casey he did “well justice” to the “great song by John Fogerty and CCR.” And then he got on a tangent where he told Casey he was making the upright bass cool (did you know Randy played the upright bass?) and kept saying Casey was “revolutionary.” Steven called Casey a true musician, and J.Lo said “This is where you belong, and I’m paying top dollar to sit in the front row.”

Lauren chose to sing Aretha Franklin’s (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, also known as the song that sold me on Kelly Clarkson. Lauren was the biggest victim of Gwen Stefani’s “fashion advice,” as she was wearing really ill-fitting shorts(!) in a black-and-white check pattern with a jacket that didn’t quite fit. And the hair. Lord have mercy. But anyway, Jimmy and Will told Lauren this song would be a “natural” for her, as the marriage of country and soul (which Will dubbed “countroul”) is a beautiful one. Lauren said she’s been getting her confidence back, week after week, and soon her personality will come out in full force. (Wait, this is Lauren at half-strength?) It was good but not great. I don’t know if it was the outfit or something else, but Lauren seemed a bit off, especially after her brilliant performance last week. She has a great voice, and you heard that in pieces, but I feel overall she missed her target. Steven called her “a natural-born woman,” while Randy said she did a good job, although he “wasn’t jumping out of his chair.” (His pleather jacket could create sparks.) He also said that “people on the show in previous years have done better.”

Leading into commercials, along with a cheering Christian Slater (plugging his new show), Ryan promised “a very different James Durbin.” James decided to take it down a few notches and sing George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Will and Jimmy cautioned James about singing a ballad on a “rocking” week like this one (Jimmy warned it could turn into “While My Guitar Gently Sleeps”), but James felt it was important to show a different side of him. Watching James perform I realized that to sit still on a stool and sing quietly must be pretty tough for someone with Tourette’s and Asperger’s, which is probably one reason he tends to favor the more manic performances. While I thought (sacrilege) the song was a little sleepy, he hit (and held) a phenomenal note toward the end of the song. I just love watching him every week and the joy he obviously feels when singing. His performance made him cry, and it unhinged J.Lo, who told him, “You showed us that thing, that place, that dimension. We needed to see your emotional side and get engaged.” Randy praised him for the chances he took as an artist and said, “good job, dawg!” James started explaining that he was emotional because of his family, and said something about working on this song for five years, and it sort of drifted off. And then there was this weird encounter between Ryan and the judges (Randy asked him “How are the balls of your feet?” while Steven asked if he was wearing deodorant), which reminds me that the producers haven’t told the judges the show isn’t about them.

As revealed in a previous show, Scotty’s childhood idol was Elvis, so he chose to sing That’s All Right, Mama. He promised “not just country Scotty.” Vocally, the song was very good, but I feel his performances are still a bit strange. He combined his nearly-trademark lean-and-point with some hip hop-influenced hand motions (which J.Lo called him out on), but it was definitely an upbeat performance. And then a group of girls were bribed by Nigel Lythgoe to run ran onstage to hug Scotty and squeal, while Ryan pretended he didn’t know what was going on. A far cry from when they called security after a fan came onstage during season 1 and gave Kelly Clarkson a flower. Randy said that Scotty proved he wasn’t a one-trick pony and showed everyone a “new Scotty.” (Really?) Oh, and “Scotty is in it to win it!” J.Lo told Scotty he looked like he was having fun, and despite the hand motions, showed “a little bit of flavor.” I think he’s super-talented but don’t think he’s done one truly different performance ever.

Ryan spent a little time chatting up Christian Slater, who pretended he was a fan of the show plugged his new show, which was airing after AI. And Christian’s daughter is rooting for Pia (and Lauren), so, coincidentally, Pia came next!

Pia made good on her promise to sing an up-tempo song this week, choosing Tina Turner’s River Deep, Mountain High. (Of course, Celine sang this, too. Just sayin’.) Jimmy told her to “get pissed off” and show the judges how well she could do. Her black-and-white jumpsuit reminded me of a cow, and she wore a necklace of coils I swear I’ve seen in an issue of National Geographic (no disrespect intended). Vocally, I felt Pia was again at the top of her game, but I felt like she wasn’t truly comfortable moving around onstage. Of course, the killer stilettos she was wearing probably didn’t help. But she just seemed a little awkward, although, as a friend of mine mentioned this morning, Carrie Underwood had little-if-any stage presence in her season, and look at her now. Steven started his critique by screaming, “Murderer! You killed it!” He then told Pia that “there are a million guys in a million bars having a million drinks over you tonight.” J.Lo told Pia that she really liked it and thought vocally it was “beyond excellent,” but encouraged her to watch and study classic performances to get more comfortable moving around. Randy agreed with her, although he made sure Pia knew he wasn’t criticizing her when he said he wanted her to sing an up-tempo song every now and again. While I don’t think J.Lo is wrong in her advice, I feel like they hold Pia to a different standard than other contestants. If Jacob’s performance was “perfect in every way” and Scotty is “in it to win it,” Pia deserves more praise than she’s getting.

Todd Rundgren was introduced, and then it was Stefano’s turn. (Does Ryan’s exaggerated fake-Italian accent whenever he says “Stefano” bother anyone else? It’s not like he’s first-generation American.) Stefano decided to massacre Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman. (Sadly, years and years later, I still can’t get Michael Bolton’s version of this song out of my head.) He started out sitting on the stairs in a lone spotlight, and sang the first few bars in a warbly falsetto, and then broke into full-on Stefano, beating every note into submission. His enunciation was much better this time, but I didn’t feel any of the emotional connection J.Lo said she did. Randy called the first part of the song “jerky,” and said that Stefano doesn’t always have to counterpunch vocally, but should let the melody marinate a bit before ripping it to shreds. (Maybe I paraphrased a little.) Because Randy spoke the truth on this performance, J.Lo and Steven tried to shush him. Steven said he liked where Stefano took the song, although he hoped he had taken it farther.

Paul got to close the show, selecting Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues. (I get so excited when a contestant performs a song that has never been sung on the show.) Jimmy told him to sing it like he’s “out of [his] f—king mind.” I think we got a hybrid of fun Paul and crazy Paul on this song. He threw in some gravelly notes and some terrific showmanship, although it was a little off-putting to see his pearly whites grinning while singing “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” But I think with a group of musicians, behind a guitar, Paul is in his comfort zone. Short on time, Randy said “Three words: I LOVED IT!” Steven called Paul his “perfect imperfect boy” and said he rocked the house, and J.Lo concurred, saying it was the perfect way to end the show. And then Ryan decided to end his part of the show in manic Paul style, which involved his jumping up and down as if on a pogo stick.

All in all, I felt this show was very good and while I have my bottom three, I have no idea what the voters will do.

Who should be in the bottom three: Jacob, Lauren, Stefano
Who will be in the bottom three: Stefano, Lauren, Haley (I just don’t know if the voters are as tired of Jacob as I am. Paul, despite not deserving it, could wind up here too.)

Should be interesting. Hopefully not painfully shocking.

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