Last night the American Idol contestants were actually given the chance to prove their mettle as present-day pop hopefuls by singing songs from the current decade. After all the preseason scuttlebutt about the show being wrenched away from Simon Cowell's slightly dusty aesthetic and thrust into the hands of Jimmy Iovine and his Universal Music Group cronies, you'd think this transformation would have happened somewhere around, oh, Top 24 week or so, but instead we had to be trotted through Important Music Historyland first. It's too bad, really; the performance of P!nk's "So What" by the booted members of the Top 13 at the show's outset made it plain that some of the singers (Naima Adedapo!!) would have thrived a little bit more were they not placed in boxes that had been sitting on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's shelves for years and years. (Although poor Paul McDonald, who was given the most to sing and who let loose a big old croak; something tells me that he was resting his voice to give the nodules on his vocal cords a break up until the very last possible minute.)
Also notable about last night: Steven Tyler had a big pair of lips scrawled onto his cheek, which I'm pretty sure was done in honor of the evening; after all, what pop star better honors his Toxic Twins legacy than the sleazed-out, devil-may-care Ke$ha, whose penchant for smearing MAC products all over her face is well-documented by many a concert photographer and paparazzo? Well played, Steven, although you did have me wishing for a second that one of the singers would show some balls and do a tender-moment version of "Your Love Is My Drug."
The rundown of last night's performances:
7. Scotty McCreery. I still can't believe this kid is the front-runner. Seriously? He's so corny! He has a great voice but watching him perform, ugh. He makes me very uncomfortable with his walking around the stage and his eyebrow-wiggling and his utter misunderstanding of songs that are clearly way past his age. The judges finally dinged him for singing yet another song well within his comfort zone--he had 11 years and change worth of all sorts of songs to choose from, and he picked a song that was originally recorded in 1983!--although given that this is the first week in a while that he didn't do a song simply because the word "country" was in its title, this particular criticism seems a bit tardy.
6. Casey Abrams. I want to like Casey, I do, and his performance of Maroon 5's "Harder To Breathe" sounded good until he started scatting the guitar solo. (Dude. Dude.) But he needs to be shot like a rock band frontman, and not like a pinup; all the online scuttlebutt about him contorting his face while he sings frustrates me because it's like, sure, this is American Idol, but when a person with lofty artistic ambitions like Mr. Abrams over here sings they're going to focus on how they sound, not how they look. Related: Casey's stalking around the stage with his guitar made me wonder if all the preseason talk about putting an emphasis on choreography was still a real thing, unlike every other change to the show that was teased before things started going. He certainly wasn't the only singer to awkwardly dance around tonight, but the fact that he did so while his guitar was flung over his shoulder made it seem even odder.
5. Haley Reinhart. So Adele's "Rolling In The Deep" is one of the best singles of 2011, and it's nice that a show molding current pop stars actually paid tribute to something happening in music at the moment. Haley's most annoying tics were on display at the song's outset, with some hand gestures and karaoke-bar-worthy arm flourishes that brought to mind the old Simon Cowell sobriquet "cruise ship." She hit most of her marks and would seem to be among the front-runners at this point, but the fact that I was wondering how the two backup singers would sound on lead probably says a lot.
4. James Durbin. James sang Muse because he felt that it would be his first chance to be modern all competition, which, a, people like Naima and Paul didn't seem to have a problem with this in previous weeks, and b, Muse's super-bombastic British arena rock is a throwback to the '90s at the very latest. (Not to mention that his outfit looked like he'd stumbled in from My Chemical Romance's summer-stock production of Oliver!, and he was accompanied by a drumline this week after getting the Zakk Wylde assist last week. The producers really want him to stick around, no?) He had a couple of bum notes before he started screeching the chorus, and his performance left me wondering one thing: How hard do you think he lobbied to sing Adam Lambert's "For Your Entertainment"?
3. Stefano Langone. Remember when I called this kid a Bruno Mars in training all those weeks ago? Pretty sure his well-calibrated, high-energy performance of Ne-Yo's "Closer" proved that hypothesis. I would definitely buy a Stefano Langone record.
2. Jacob Lusk. I'm in the tank for this guy, but c'mon! After his whole earpiece issue at the outset, he absolutely did Luther Vandross justice, singing the emotion-filled "Dance With My Father" simply and well, adding just the right amount of his own attitude. His performance got a couple of constructive-criticism comments from the judges and prompted Randy to say, "Critique really helps everyone, really," which, sure, Randy, why don't you just ask the version of yourself that's thought everything has been hunky dory for the past however-many weeks what he thinks of that particular statement.
1. Lauren Alaina. Her high-energy performance of Sara Evans' "Born To Fly" was definitely her best of the competition, and it caused me to finally get her pop-country appeal after having it shoved down my throat by the judges, Nigel Lythgoe, and other Idol viewers all these weeks. She's still very young and the way she barked out "yeah" when Ryan Seacrest asked her post-performance if she could make the subtle improvements to her overall aesthetic that were suggested by the judges makes me wonder just how much her brain melts down when she gets freaked out by the possibility of failure. (It was pretty astounding to watch Jimmy Iovine be useful and bring in the Miley Cyrus collaborators Rock Mafia in order to force-feed her into not melting down under pressure.)
WHO I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: Jacob and Stefano, obv.
WHO SHOULD GO HOME: Imagine if someone put Good Ol' Scotty on a bus to the bad side of town a la Axl Rose in the opening scenes of the "Welcome To The Jungle" video? That would change his tune right quick.
WHO PROBABLY WILL GO HOME: Casey. Scatting two weeks in a row?
Tonight: Katy Perry. Oh boy. Oh, and David Cook! That's nice. I've missed him quite a bit.