The preliminaries are over, and now it is down to serious business as American Idol hits its weekly perform-and-eliminate finals run. It will be an unlucky 13 for one of our season 10 finalists as they perform songs by their personal idols – but who?
Scoring the contestants
Whatever the judges keep telling us, American Idol is not just a singing contest. The charts are full of mediocre singers. Talent matters, but so do personality, great song-writers, production, marketing and many other factors. Similarly, the winner of Idol is rarely the best technical singer – Clay Aiken, Katharine McPhee, Melinda Doolittle, Adam Lambert – but the best overall ‘package’. Sometimes you don’t even need to be that, ahem, Kris Allen.
I’m a great believer that song choice is as important as the actual vocal performance, allowing a contestant to connect with the audience and positioning the kind of recording artist they want to be. A so-so singer can progress a long way by making great selections (case in point: season six finalist Blake Lewis).
As a result, I’ve graded each contestant’s song choice and performance, to give a combined weekly score out of ten. So, without further ado, here’s my play-by-play review of this week’s performances and the reactions of our three judges S-Ty, J-Lo and R-Jack.
Lauren Alaina: Any Man of Mine – Shania Twain
Song choice: 3/5. An astutely selected country/pop crossover which reinforces her choice of Reba McEntire last week, but a bit too obvious and safe for my liking.
Performance: 3/5. There is nothing wrong with Lauren’s performance, but it all feels too controlled and flat. She said she chose the song because it would be fun and allow her to bring her personality across, but it feels more like she is holding back and content to cruise along in second gear, safe in the knowledge she is one of the favourites. Not a patch on last week, where she outshone the original. Here she just sings the song.
I love that song but I wish it had just been a little bit more kick-ass.
Casey Abrams: With A Little Help From My Friends – Joe Cocker
Song choice: 5/5. Perfect for his voice, perfect for his personality.
Performance: 4/5. Very nicely pitched. Casey is a great showman but needs to be careful not to be too theatrical every week, and this performance walks the line well. The arrangement allows him to show off the control in his voice while projecting just the right amount of character and live performance vibe. In fact, it is everything that Lauren’s performance wasn’t. He even has S-Ty referring to him as “a rainbow of talent” and “a plethora of passion”.
What Jen was watching is Idol season 10: the remix. You were so unbelievable and so exciting, you make listening to you sing fun.
Ashthon Jones: When You Tell Me That You Love Me – Diana Ross
Song choice: 2/5. Last week R-Jack told Ashthon she reminded him of Diana Ross. So she goes the whole nine yards by taking on a Ross classic. Risky.
Performance: 2/5. Not good. The start is breathy and pitchy, and although she actually has quite a good voice its limitations are brutally exposed here. She lacks punch on the power notes, subtlety in the quieter passages and has a few pitchy moments to boot. Basically, it pales awfully compared to the original. The judges watch on stony-faced. They’re not feeling it. Neither am I.
You’re so elegant up there. There were moments where it was getting away from you.
Oh dear. That’s the first appearance of the old Paula Abdul damning-with-faint-praise staple: when in doubt, compliment the contestant’s wardrobe choice. That tells you everything you need to know.
Paul McDonald: Come Pick Me Up – Ryan Adams
Song choice: 3/5. Seriously, Ryan Adams is your idol? It’s not a terrible selection, but it’s disappointing to see Paul make such a middle-of-the-road choice when I think he really needs to keep picking more off-beat songs to stand out from the crowd.
Performance: 2/5. I don’t like this at all. It’s a bit talky, a bit James Blunt even. Whenever he starts moving around the stage he drifts off-key which, added to his bizarre hand and leg motions – someone really needs to tie his non-mike hand behind his back – makes for a very disjointed performance. It’s as middle-of-the-road as his song selection, really. A complete waste of the competition’s most ‘different’ voice.
You’re so unique. I hope America gets it.
I’m not sure they do. Paul is in danger of turning into this year’s Blake Lewis – a mediocre singer totally dependent on making inspired song choices. Mind you, Blake finished season six as runner-up.
Pia Toscano: All By Myself – Celine Dion
Song choice: 4/5. “Ever since I was eight years old, I’ve loved Celine Dion.” Oh dear. Actually, this is a pretty good choice for her, firmly establishing her as this season’s big-lunged balladeer.
Performance: 2/5. The execution of the song, however, is disappointing, and not even close to matching last week’s version of I’ll Stand By You. The performance never seems to flow smoothly. She makes a complete hash of the chorus, and veers into shoutiness and then sharpness on the glory notes. Nonetheless, she gets a huge ovation from the audience. Really?
I think a lot of people were thinking what you were going to do to top last week – there it is.
To be honest, it left me feeling like I wanted to top myself. All By Myself has always been a hide-all-the-sharp-objects kind of song, and I found this performance in no way uplifting. A let-down.
James Durbin: Maybe I’m Amazed – Paul McCartney
Song choice: 5/5. Take a relatively little-known Paul McCartney track. Put a rock spin on it. Sprinkle with a light dusting of signature falsetto. Leave to simmer. James takes a fairly plain song and makes it his own. The best song choice of the night.
Performance: 4/5. Another strong week for Lambert-Lite™. James hits all the notes perfectly, and again avoids the trap of allowing his falsetto and rock scream to overwhelm the song. There’s also a more emotional, sensitive edge to his vocal here that we hadn’t really seen previously. But I do find it a bit distracting just how much he looks like England footballer Wayne Rooney.
You have taken everything you’ve ever felt and kicked it into the middle of next week.
Haley Reinhart: Blue – LeAnn Rimes
Song choice: 1/5. I’m not sure that taking on Lauren in the country girl stakes is a good move strategically. And if she’s going to do it, please stop picking such suicide-inducingly dreary songs. The original is dull enough, and it reminds me exactly why I dislike the vast majority of country music so much. Worse still, she has now done Alicia Keys and LeAnn Rimes back-to-back. I have no idea what kind of artist she wants to be.
Performance: 1/5. Starts badly, gets worse. Haley is flat right from the off and never quite seems to be able to wrap her not inconsiderable voice around the melody. And as for the yodeling towards the end? I was half expecting the von Trapp family to appear on backing vocals.
For me it was a little boring, a little sleepy.
I was certainly feeling sleepy by the end of it.
Jacob Lusk: I Believe I Can Fly – R Kelly
Song choice: 2/5. A clichéd choice of song. This one’s been done to death.
Performance: 2/5. I love Jacob’s voice, I really do. I’ve said previously that he may have the best pure voice Idol has ever seen, but after this performance I am withdrawing that statement. He misses a few notes – both slightly flat and slightly sharp – disguised somewhat by the way he swoops all around the melody without ever actually singing the original notes. It’s show-off vocal gymnastics for the sake of it, and there is a real danger of Jacob becoming a caricature of his previous outstanding performances. Way too much vibrato – so much that I think I shook a filling loose just watching him. And as for the two-tone police siren screech at the end, well, let’s just say it was odd.
When you went to the B-verse you kind of fell off. It was a rough change then it went kind of sharp. You kind of lost it.
Jacob’s not in danger yet, but he can ill afford more misjudged performances like this one.
Thia Megia: Smile – Michael Jackson
Song choice: 1/5. Hmm, Randy somewhat randomly compared you to Michael Jackson last week – and now he’s your idol, is he? Liar. Being shown mis-stating Charlie Chaplin as ‘Charlie Chapman‘ and having to be corrected? Epic fail. All that aside, it’s a desperately dreary song. As with Haley, I have no idea what kind of an artist Thia wants to be – and I suspect neither does she.
Performance: 2/5. The jazz arrangement doesn’t work for me at all. Add that to a touch of pitchiness and the bizarre keyboard backing, and this is all over the place. I’m also starting to doubt whether she will ever perform a song which requires her to move. A great voice technically, but her statuesque movement means you can see her visibly shrinking before your eyes on a big stage. Top five vocally, bottom five performance-wise. And she really needs to do something about her facial expressions when she receives even the slightest criticism – looking like you’ve just been slapped in the face with a wet fish wrapped in a an iron block which has just been removed from a furnace isn’t going to endear you to anyone, love.
A little pitchy in the middle there.
That’s as interesting as it got.
Stefano Langone: Lately – Stevie Wonder
Song choice: 3/5. Meh. Another song which has been done to death.
Performance: 2/5. Mentor Jimmy Iovine picks up Stefano on his habit of singing with his eyes closed – which I thought was just constipation – and bless him, he makes a real effort here. The performance is okay, but the arrangement is weird, flip-flopping repeatedly between slow ballad and a pumped-up dance version. It’s a bit like flipping a vinyl LP between 33 and 45 rpm. It’s just weird. And I hate it, because it totally distracts the viewer from the singer’s performance.
It started off a little rocky for me. By the middle of the song you were soaring.
Karen Rodriguez: I Could Fall In Love – Selena
Song choice: 2/5. The good bit: staying firmly within her lane in the Hispanic market, and clearly positioning herself as the next Gloria Estefan. The bad bit: a dull, dull, dull, dirge of a one-paced song.
Performance: 2/5. Not so much I Could Fall In Love as I Could Fall Asleep. K-Rod is a good singer with an inoffensive and technically solid voice. But there is no hook to hang your interest on as a listener. There is nothing distinctive or memorable about either the song or her rendition of it. In fact, I’ve forgotten it already by the time she finishes. It is an utterly unexceptional performance – one of those times you start looking and hoping for the shooter behind the grassy knoll. Randy looks like he’s nodding off too.
You look so beautiful tonight. [Uh oh.] I could tell you were a little bit uncomfortable with some of the notes.
So were we, Jennifer. So were we.
Scotty McCreery: The River – Garth Brooks
Song choice: 4/5. No surprises. A country song for the country boy – and at least it’s a change from Josh Turner. Like I said last week, expect him to do a country song no matter what the weekly theme is. Song from the year he was born in? Country. Disco week? Country. The songs of Aerosmith? A country arrangement.
Performance: 3/5. It’s merely okay by his standards. The song (or at least the arrangement) doesn’t really do much to showcase his voice, but he does well and we all know what he can do when he reaches down into his baritone and hits those big long notes. Like Thia, he’s not a natural stage performer, though.
I saw you open up as a performer.
Really? If he opened up, then all we saw was a slightly nervous and uncertain kid. Sit him back down and let him play his guitar, I say.
Naima Adedapo: Umbrella – Rihanna
Song choice: 1/5. Did Naima learn nothing from Tatynisa Wilson‘s disastrous performance last week? Like Only Girl, Umbrella is not a song you want to be attempting if you want to be taken seriously as a vocalist. I’m now completely confused as to what Naima wants to be. Is she an old-fashioned throwback? Is she contemporary but left-of-centre R&B? Does she even know?
Performance: 2/5. This is a real Marmite performance – people will either love it or hate it, and that’s not a good place to be when you’re the last performer of the night who only just scraped in as a wild card. I’m sure many people will have loved her bravery at completely reworking the song, but for me it was more like adding lots of random extra ingredients to a bad recipe in the hope that it will somehow turn out okay. The robotic dancing is odd. The reggae section is interesting. And I don’t quite know what to make of the sudden switch to rap. To top it all off she completely loses control of her vocal performance. To say she is pitchy is putting it mildly.
A little pitchy. I’ll tell you what, you brought flavour tonight.
For me, sadly, that flavour was more bitter than sweet. I really like Naima. But I fear her days are numbered. And that number may be one.
Overall, this was not a good night at all for the girls. Lauren and Pia were both far less impressive than they were last week. And there were severe flaws in each of Ashthon, Haley, Thia, Karen and Naima’s performances. A big nod to James, though, who gave the performance of the night. On merit, he and Casey were streets ahead of everyone else for me. But I’m still backing Lauren for the final.
Anyhow, here’s how I see the current ranking order, taking into account performances, perceived popularity et cetera.
Safe as houses: Lauren, Casey, Pia, James, Jacob, Scotty
Stuck in the middle: Paul, Thia, Stefano, Karen
Bottom three: Ashthon, Haley, Naima – with Naima going home.
Tune in tomorrow to see just how catastrophically wrong I was with my predictions.
American Idol posts
Auditions: New Jersey, New Orleans, Milwaukee, Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles, San Francisco
Hollywood Week: Solo auditions, Group round, Final round
Las Vegas & Green Mile: Las Vegas & Green Mile part 1, Green Mile part 2
Semi-finals: Boys, Girls, Results/wild cards
Link: American Idol website