Thursday, April 21, 2011

AI Top 7 Recap: It's Getting Harder and Harder to Breathe (and Watch)...

American Idol this season reminds me a little bit of when I used to watch As the World Turns and Days of Our Lives during college. I enjoyed myself, felt a little guilty that I could be spending my time on something a little more useful, got frustrated occasionally at the machinations of some characters, and ultimately, I was ready to move on to something else. Wow, it actually reminds me completely of that time, except I'm not watching the show in my friend Helene's dorm room, eating Doritos and bean dip. (Good times.)

The theme of this week's show is "Music of the 21st Century," and some of the contestants actually sang current stuff. (And one contestant sang a song from 1983. But why quibble?)

The World's Most Beautiful Woman looked as if she was dressed for a workout at a gym on Rodeo Drive (or a lap dance), complete with sequined shirt and short-shorts. Steven and Randy wore their usual crap. (Seriously, with the amount of money Randy gets paid for this show, shouldn't he be able to afford a few more sweaters? I mean, I like my black-and-white striped Lacoste shirt, but I don't wear it everywhere.) Oh, wait, here's a "Steven, Walk this Way" sign. How original.

In an effort to fill the 90 minutes allotted for only seven singers reunite us with some of our favorite contestants who left us too early, the eliminated contestants were brought out to sing Pink's So What. Never before has a song title utterly summed up how I felt about a performance. Naima broke out her Wisconsin Jamaican accent and threw her jacket on the camera, Ashthon's microphone was louder than everyone else's, Karen looked like Shirley Temple meets the Pussycat Dolls and they even made Thia look a little trampy. And then Paul trotted out in one of his floral suits and was as manic and off-key as ever. Even Pia sounded bad. Oh wait, her microphone didn't work. WTF? But Mark Ballas and his dad were there to cheer her on, so who cares?

The judges slipped into their familiar non-criticism groove, telling the rejects how fantastic they were. Randy babbled something about Ashthon making a transformation (it's just a different wig, dawg) and then Steven said, "You just made America think twice about their decisions." Oh, yeah. Maybe I'm questioning my decision to rope myself into watching this fiasco week after week, but that's about it.

As an extra little bonus with the pre-performance footage, the contestants shared what they thought about each other. Scotty had the lead-off spot, and the contestants all made fun of the way he handles the microphone and wags his eyebrows. He chose to sing Swingin', which he attributed to LeAnn Rimes, despite the fact that John Anderson recorded the song in 1983(!). But of course, this is Idol-land, where Vehicle (a la Bo Bice) and Holding Out for a Hero (a la Fantasia) were considered disco songs, and The Beatles' Something could be considered a current Billboard hit in season 5 because it was on an album on the catalogue charts. So let's pretend that LeAnn Rimes originated this one, kay?

Jimmy tried to encourage him to put a little bit of a rock spin on the song, but I guess Scotty knows he'll probably win this season or at least finish second, so he doesn't have to listen to anyone like Jimmy Iovine. To me, Scotty's performances are becoming rote—he hits low notes, he hits slightly higher notes, he points to the girls in the audience, he tilts his head to the side, etc. The song did him no favors vocally, and I think he's becoming a bit cheesy. (It would have been fun to let Simon Cowell loose on this performance.) Steven praised Scotty for "doin' what he does," and told him that "people who don't love country music are voting for you." (The man doesn't even know what day it is, I doubt he knows that.) He did tell Scotty that he wished he "boot scooted a little more, like you did from your last girlfriend." J.Lo praised his storytelling ability, but told Scotty that she expected more from him, since we're down to the top seven, and she wanted him to push himself. Randy agreed, telling Scotty he thought it was safe and kind of boring. (I'd imagine the judges got a stiff talking to from Uncle Nigel during the commercials, reminding them of his plans for a Scotty-Lauren final.) Scotty seemed like he could care less what the judges had to say because he knows who is voting for him; in fact, in the post-performance camera time, Lauren told him, "Fifteen million little girls are putting their finger up at Randy right now."

Ryan talked to James about where the ideas come from for the spectacle of his performances, and he explained that they all start out in his head. (I understand, man. My head is a scary place, too.) The other contestants made fun of his bending backward when he hits high notes and they mocked his scarves. He chose to sing Muse's Uprising (one of my favorite songs), and Jimmy praised his choice, explaining that some of the songs James has sung have been "fluff"(!) and he needed to show he was more than the "clichéd metal guy."

Wow. What a performance. He entered offstage, accompanied by several drummers. While I thought the song was a little too low for him at the beginning, he hit some fantastically powerful high notes and really did a great job. J.Lo said she could predict that theatrically it would be the best performance of the night, and praised him for hitting the highest notes they'd ever heard him (or anyone) hit. Randy told us that Muse is one of his favorite bands (wow, he's musically diverse; last week he mentioned he thought Miley Cyrus' The Climb was a great song), and he told James he hoped that he will choose songs like Muse's when he records his album. Randy also called this performance the best of the night (which sort of put a damper on everything else, you know?) and then shared that apparently Muse's lead singer, Matt Bellamy, had emailed James when he heard he was singing Uprising, and he challenged James to sing the last verse one octave higher than it was written. James did, and "he slayed it, baby!" Steven once again admonished James to "stay of out [his] closet," calling his outfit "Mad Max meets Stormtroopers on Melrose." (I can't do better than that.) He also called James "crazy good," saying "you're out of your mind, and beautifully so."

Even though it appears none of her fellow contestants like her, their comments on Haley were fairly innocuous, except Stefano, who "joked" that they didn't get along and had sort of a brother-sister relationship. It seemed a little awkward to be staged, and I don't think these producers are that good. I was really excited when she chose Adele's Rolling in the Deep—I love this song and love both John Legend and David Cook's recent covers are fantastic. Jimmy cautioned Haley about needing to see more of an emotional connection from her when she sang this song, and said, somewhat ominously, “if she delivers short of perfect, the audience rejects her.” Nice pep talk, man.

Haley sang the beginning of the song perched on a stool behind the judges’ table, which had the judges clustered around either side. She looked very 1940s—she wore a red and white polka-dot dress and the hair was sophisticated. (I’m no fashionista, that’s for sure.) I thought there were some fantastic moments in this song for Haley, but it didn’t wow me, and that made me sad. I think she is (to use a Randy-ism) crazy mad talented, as witnessed by her results show duet with Casey last week, but I don’t know if she knows she’s fighting a losing battle or what. Randy went into his whole “at this point in the season we need to see who’s gonna win and what kind of record you’re going to make,” which I thought was a setup for a big slam, but he told Haley he was thrilled she chose Adele, and “that’s the vibe” she needs. Of course, there were some sharp notes (not that Scotty and James weren’t pitchy, but, hey) but overall, it’s the perfect direction for her and he thought it was great. (His voice said “great,” his mannerisms said “meh.”) J.Lo praised the “moments you brought Haley into the song,” saying it was difficult to sing a song so current by such a great singer, but at times she even “forgot about Adele, not that anyone could forget Adele, as we all love her.” (Catfight.) Even Steven’s praise was tepid (for Steven), saying he absolutely loved it, but it “started slow.” (Dude, that’s the song.)

Surprise! All of his fellow competitors think Jacob is a diva. (But a “cool diva,” apparently.) To paraphrase a line from Will and Grace, a blind and deaf man would know Jacob is a diva. Jacob chose a song by Luther Vandross (surprise!) because the judges have compared him to Luther. Oh, and it’s Luther’s birthday today (surprise!), so hopefully he is “smiling down” on Jacob.

For this week’s “Songs That Teach Us Something About Ourselves” portion of the show, Jacob is singing Dance with My Father, which is important to him because he lost his father at a young age. Apparently, so did Jimmy, so we had a tender, crying moment that set off every cynical synapse in my body. (I thought all of the “dead relative” cards got played during the auditions and Hollywood week. Now someone slap me.) Then Jacob dedicated his performance to his father, and everyone who has lost a father, and all of the fathers out there. (And I momentarily lost the ability to speak or write...Ok, better now.) At the start of the performance it appeared he was having trouble with his earpiece, and I actually thought he’d do a Brooke White from season 7 and start over, but after another grimace, he pulled the earpiece out and sang. Given what I expected from the lead-up to the song, it was fairly controlled (for Jacob) but not very emotional—or exciting.

Steven continued his inability to see anything wrong with Jacob’s performances, calling him “Luther Lusk” and (of course) telling him “Daddy was up there listening to you.” J.Lo sympathized with Jacob, saying she knew how difficult it must have been to sing a song that meant so much to him emotionally, and called it an “emotionally beautiful” performance, but wasn’t wowed by the singing. Randy agreed with J.Lo and then explained how important critique is to everyone (lies), so he told Jacob his performance was good but he “wasn’t jumping up and down out of his chair.” (This wouldn’t be the song to do it on anyway, would it?) He then gave Jacob the world’s worst advice, telling him he wanted the “old Jacob” back, that he should “go through the roof and not hold back,” because it seems like he is a racehorse that someone put restraints on. (Yes, dawg, the judges did, and it was one of the few smart things you did early on this season.) He said he missed the “church kid.” Ryan tried to get more sympathy votes for Jacob ask Jacob if it was, as J.Lo said, difficult singing a song that had such an emotional connection, and instead Jacob took that time to complain about other music coming in through his earpiece, so J.Lo actually got a little defensive. Never a dull moment.

Ryan spoke to Dancing with the Stars’ Mark Ballas, and asked him who he was pulling for. Mark said he was a big fan of Casey’s, and Ryan acted surprised, as if he expected him to praise a contestant who had left the show. (For those of you out of the Hollywood gossip circle, apparently Pia and Mark Ballas are dating, and in fact, Pia will be singing on that show next week, I think. See? This recap is educational as well.)

Casey was teased by his competitors as being a goofball and, of course, for his beard. A few of them wore a fake beard (unlike the one Ryan is dating—SNAP!) and Casey appeared to be jokingly (I think) offended by the teasing. He decided to sing Harder to Breathe by Maroon 5, and Jimmy promised something “totally different” from Casey on this song, because he was playing the guitar. (Yeah?) The start of the song was really cool and different vocally, but around the chorus, we had the return of Mr. McGrowly-Pants, who stomped around the stage, high-fiving the audience and making the rest of the song a complete karaoke fest. And then at the end of the song, in a “spontaneous” move (spontaneous like the girls rushing Scotty onstage), he kissed J.Lo on the cheek, and she pretended to be shocked. J.Lo teased him, saying “Casey isn’t playing fair” (but praised his soft lips), and then said he did a great job, that all the “Casey-isms” really worked. (Funny, but when she lectured Casey after the judges’ save, instead of "Casey-isms" she used the word “antics,” and cautioned him against them. How quickly the World’s Most Beautiful Woman forgets.) You know what Randy loves about Casey, man? He loves that Casey “takes chances every week,” and “is totally Casey.” Steven told Casey, “you already are a cult hero,” and said he has “already pissed millions of people off because you’re so f—king good.” (Yes, he used the “f” word, which caused a lot of flailing and faux shock from Randy. J.Lo at one point looked into the camera and mouthed, “What is happening here?”) Ryan tried to take charge, saying that “the wheels have fallen off this show,” but wearing the fake beard he looked like a twee extra from Witness rather than the media mogul he is.

Stefano was next up, and his fellow contestants said he thinks of himself as a total ladies’ man. As Jacob put it, “Stefano would flirt with a piece of paper. If he found out there was a trace of estrogen in it, he would totally flirt with a piece of paper.” (Brilliant line, Luther.) Strangely, Haley didn’t really appear in his segment. Weird. Anyway, Stefano decided to “get his swagger on” and sing Ne-Yo’s Closer. At one point, Jimmy got angry with the way he was singing it in rehearsal, ranting, “He’s a good looking guy, why is he standing on the stage pleading?”

The performance started out dramatic with Stefano’s best sexy face, which looked like Jack Nicholson’s in The Shining. (Probably not the effect he was going for.) I thought this was awful karaoke, nearly as bad as Jordan Dorsey’s top 24 take on OMG, only Jordan didn’t wear red suspenders. (Are suspenders back in again? Will my Mork and Mindy suspenders work? I loved them.) Stefano did more posing and dancing than actual singing, although, to use an Italian cooking reference, it seemed like he was just throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what in the performance would stick. The judges praised the performance, liking his swagger and dance moves, but not mentioning his vocals at all. J.Lo spoke “for all the girls and ladies in the audience,” and told him, “great job, baby.”

Ryan mentioned that members of the casts of Glee, Fringe and Breaking In were in the audience, but obviously none of the bigger stars, or he would have talked to them. We definitely had time.

Our courageous 16-year-old, Lauren had the pimp slot this week. Given all of the songs the contestants had to choose from, she decided to stay in her wheelhouse and sing Sara Evans’ Born to Fly. We had the opportunity to relive Jimmy’s declaring Lauren a better singer than Miley Cyrus last week, and he explained it was a way to give her confidence in herself. “She could win this whole thing” if she just believes she can, Jimmy told us. Lauren pretended said she didn’t have a lot of confidence in her ability to hit “crazy” notes like her fellow competitors, and that lack of self-confidence may be holding her back. (I get a lot of vibes from Lauren, but “lack of self-confidence” ain’t one of them.)

Her performance was perfectly fine. It was melodic, she hit a few runs, and it was enjoyable. But it wasn’t all that memorable, either. The judges all fell into their pre-assigned roles. Steven’s fortune cookie said, “Anyone who doesn’t know they could fail is bound to win,” and he told Lauren that he loves her, although he wishes she would sing some Alison Krauss, Faith Hill and/or Shania Twain. J.Lo lectured Lauren about her supposed fear of hitting big notes, encouraging her to try—“in your closet, in the shower”—and if she fails, “that’s fine and no one will know.” Randy once again drew the “tell everyone how much we loved Lauren during the auditions" card, and said that “when we saw you [during the auditions] we knew you were better than you thought you were, but you were riffing with Steven and singing all sorts of things.” I’m guessing we’re working up to some magical drama, where suddenly in the next week or two Lauren will suddenly regain her confidence and deliver a “moment” (genuine or not), which she will be able to ride all the way to the Nokia Theater. I think Lauren is talented—in fact, her rendition of Candle in the Wind remains one of my favorites from the season—but I think this whole story arc of her not having confidence is utter crap.

After the review of everyone’s performances, Ryan asked the judges how America will be able to vote, when every one of them is “so exceptional” and has really “turned it up.” J.Lo told us again, “It’s crazy, because every one of them can win it.” (Except Haley.) Steven told Casey, “All men are created equal, but some men are more equal than others.” (Casey looked embarrassed, or he learned how to act embarrassed at film camp.)

Much like every week, for me, the show was good, not great. James did have the performance of the show for me, although I liked Haley and Lauren, too.

Who should be in the bottom three: Scotty, Jacob, Stefano
Who will be in the bottom three: Haley, Stefano and Jacob or Casey

I believe unless his fan base was revved up by his icky performance, that Stefano will go home, although Haley could go home any week, sadly. Casey could wind up in the bottom three if the voters saw through the judges, and despite the sympathy angle, Jacob could as well. Or, if Nigel wants to manipulate, then Lauren might “appear” to be in the bottom three, all the better to build the path to the finals…

The suspense—and the dreams of another hopeful—ends tonight.

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