Three years ago—during a long-gone period known to some as the DeGeneres Era—the New Orleans crooner Harry Connick Jr. stopped by the show to counsel the hopefuls, who that week had been saddled with the catalog of Frank Sinatra. The singers crashed and burned, but Connick proved to be an excellent mentor, charming the viewers at home enough to spark rumors he would be joining the judging panel. He didn't, but last night he was back on the show, helping the still-intact Top Four take on songs from then and now.
Connick clearly knows a lot about vocal performance, as evidenced by the snippets we saw of his guidance last night. If only he'd come around earlier this season to offer basic instructions on singing like "understand the lyrics before you add any runs." (Poor Amber Holcomb, trying to recapture the magic by revisiting "My Funny Valentine," only to be flummoxed when Connick asked her to interpret the lyrics.) Who knows? Maybe he could have even saved Lazaro. OK, probably not, but it's nice to dream.
But Connick is also an odd fit for this particular Idol group, because of the implicit "women have to have gigantic voices in order to succeed" conceit of the show. His advice—focus on melodies and words, don't do runs for the sake of doing runs—is pretty much counter to everything the show holds dear. And it affected the contestants, too: Kree Harrison's performance of "Stormy Weather" was restrained not as a result of an artistic choice, per se, but more because she seemed caught between the two poles of treating the song reverentially and busting out a performance that would make Randy yawp about her being "in it to win it." The ideal outcome, of course, would blend both those tactics, but the universe of Idol is not a perfect one. Afterward Connick and the judges got into a minor argument about the peculiar Idol definition of "being yourself," which sometimes seems to mean "imitate this person in this specific way."
That spat wasn't the first fight in the gallery, either; Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey got into a tiff about chart-topping songs, which spilled over onto Twitter this afternoon. The mood of the show was somewhat sullen and unpleasant overall, perhaps because we've reached the point in the season when everyone is just tired and seemingly staggering to the finish line. Which is kind of a bummer timing-wise, given that this was the first chance the contestants were forced to operate in the idiom of current pop. Amber was probably the most clearly fatigued; her performance of the current No. 1 song on the Hot 100, the P!nk/Nate Ruess duet "Just Give Me A Reason," was lackluster, and her "My Funny Valentine" was merely okay (although the judges went bananas over it). Angie Miller was just manic, hitting a big bum note on "Diamonds" and pulling out the big-eyed pageant act on "Someone To Watch Over Me."
Candice Glover. Candice picked Bruno Mars's goopy "When I Was Your Man" as her current song, and thanks to legal reasons she couldn't flip the lyrics' gender. But she didn't let a minor detail like that stop her from delivering another crazy good performance; she's the only singer left (and was probably the only singer in the Top 10) who can fully inhabit a song, elevating the show way beyond its karaoke-bar trappings. For her standard she performed "You've Changed," turning in an elegant, restrained performance with only the most essential filigrees. (Somehow Randy interpreted those as "runs," which, whatever Randy.)
Kree Harrison. Taking on the current single by Idol winner Carrie Underwood is a risk—one misstep and the easy parallels can rise up and clobber you. But her performance of "See You Again" was incredible, showing how snugly she can fit into what's happening on pop-country radio right now (Also, has anyone noticed that "See" kind of bites a bit of melody from Baltimora's "Tarzan Boy"? Is it just me?) The low-energy "Stormy Weather" was unfortunate, but I wouldn't be surprised if the grousing between Connick and the judges afterward resulted in a slew of sympathy votes.
Amber Holcomb. One thing that I keep forgetting about Amber: She's pretty young! She only turned 19 in March. She certainly is styled older than Janelle, who's actually 23, was. Which explains her green performances on songs with emotional depth—you can't take on P!nk and not do a deep dive into the pool of Complicated Feelings About Life, but her "Just Give Me A Reason" only skimmed the surface. I could see her being a great pop star in a couple of years, but right now she needs more seasoning (and maybe a class or two on literary metaphor, given her sunny interpretation of "My Funny Valentine").
Angie Miller. Angie is basically the Idol contestant equivalent of those people who judge the romanticism of songs by their titles. She remade Rihanna's "Diamonds" for her current-hit pick and promised a revamping of it, but really that was just a way of saying that she was going to sit at the piano while the conga drums were miced to next week; the song plateaued early and just stayed there, the sing-song hook of "shine bright like a diamond" returning to the fore again and again. At least the bum note she hit at one point gave her performance a little bit of texture. (Also, as Top Idol points out, the song is about drugs, not about Being All You Can Be.) She sang "Someone To Watch Over Me" because her mother used to sing it to her when she was young (aww), but she pageantized that too; the only message I ever get from her when she sings is "Vote for meeeeee," and man is it wearying.
WHO I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: Candice. (Sorry if this part is boring you!)
WHO'S GOING HOME: This week's votes are being combined with last week's since there was no elimination, and Candice and Amber were in the bottom then. I'd say that Amber is the most likely to go home, unless the critiques she received from Connick and the judges spur her fanbase.
Tonight: David Cook!! And someone goes home.