The now-annual ‘American Idol‘ episode that focuses on “inspirational” songs is always a difficult one to navigate. It’s for a good cause, so you want to be nice! And the word “inspirational” is one of those ‘Idol’ terms that’s vague enough for some of the song choices to cross over into kind of interesting territory! But tonight’s episode was full of muffed performances and poor song choices, not to mention way too much inspiration from the guttural voices of post-grunge singers like Chad Kroeger. At least we all had Crystal Bowersox to bring things home at night’s end — and almost make us forget about what hadn’t inspired us during the 55 minutes that preceded her performance.
1. Crystal Bowersox. Tonight, this season’s front-runner shed her guitar and broke out the soul classic “People Get Ready,” and she absolutely slayed it, bringing home the best performance of this admittedly lacking season — she was the only singer all evening who had even a shred of “professional” in her, leading the band the whole way through until she broke down in tears on the last phrase. And yet! That outpouring of emotion was not only in keeping with her performance, it had more poise than pretty much any other person onstage all night. Including Ryan.
2. Michael Lynche. If I could put in extra line breaks between Crystal and the rest of the pack as a visual representation of just how far ahead she was, I would. (Although if I were to do so to scale, it would result in every one of you having to scroll a lot.) Michael has apparently been planning for his ‘Idol’ moment for a while, collecting songs that he could sing — over 200 of them if he’s to be believed, although the unimaginative song choices put forth this season make me wonder if he overshot his necessary quota by about 1000%. Perhaps if he’d been a little more selective, we wouldn’t have had to hear the awful post-grunge ballad “Hero,” originally sung by Chad Kroeger (of Nickelback) and Josey Scott (of Saliva). Mike’s version was fine, strident when it needed to be and thankfully not as phlegmatic as some of the other male voices on display this evening. That it was the best of the night until Crystal went up to sing, though, should tell you about the quality of the performances overall.
3. Siobhan Magnus. The tattooed and sometimes-mohawked outsider singing a Whitney/Mariah duet? Oh, sure, why not, given the rest of the things that have happened this year. Siobhan’s take on “When You Believe” hit some of its high notes ably, and I actually liked the butterflies that were affixed to various parts of her getup. (The strapped-to-next-week shoes, not so much.) But that odd hollowness in her voice still crept in at times, and she seemed sort of overmatched by the song at times — although if this performance had come in, say, season three, it might not have stuck out as much as it, because the context of her other, more daring performances from previous weeks would likely be very different.
4. Lee DeWyze. Ranking the next four — well, three — singers has been difficult for me, because they all were sort of in a struggling clump, when all was said and done. So if you want to get overly technical, you can read the next three singers as 4a, 4b, and 4c. Let’s start with Lee, whose version of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” was wildly overpraised by the judges for reasons that are still mysterious to me. He used about half his allotted time to sing the song’s wordless bits — a trick that, you may remember, he pulled off while accompanied by a bagpipe a few weeks ago — and he did so in such an overwrought way that was absolutely painful, especially given the way guest mentor Alicia Keys praised his understanding of the lyrics. I would love to have heard more of that interpreting, for real!
5. Tim Urban. If any contestant this season was meant to sing the Goo Goo Dolls, it was Tim — he has the windblown hair and pouty lips of lead Goo Johnny Rzeznik. His vocals on ‘Better Days’ wavered at times, and he could probably use another six months or so of seasoning before he’s truly ready for pop-idol prime time. But after the back-to-back neo-grunge stylings of Lee and Casey, his more understated vocals were a bit of a balm to these ears.
6. Aaron Kelly. In any other season, Aaron’s shaky version of “I Believe I Can Fly” would have sent him home. In this one? Anything can happen! He’s been around this long, right?
7. Casey James. Oh Casey. You showed so much potential with your vulnerable take on “Jealous Guy” two (long) weeks ago — but your version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” once again revealed that you should stick to the guitar playing. You seem so much more comfortable in those moments!
WHO I VOTED FOR: Crystal.
WHO SHOULD GO HOME: Everyone else! Well, no. (But wouldn’t it be great to just see Crystal match wits with, say, Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson and other former ‘Idol’ standouts over the next seven weeks?) Judging strictly by tonight’s performance I’d say Casey should be the next to go.
WHO VERY WELL MIGHT GO HOME: But Tim might be the one to leave, even if his worst-to-not-worst story is really the most “inspirational” of the season that doesn’t involve Crystal Bowersox completely steamrolling the competition in honor of her kid, her dad, and that lamp-adorned mic stand she brought along tonight.
JUDGING THE JUDGES: My favorite line of the night was Simon’s chiding of Michael picking “Hero” by sneering “that was about Spider-Man, wasn’t it?” Someone’s maybe regretting his save! What made it even better was that same someone’s failing to remember that not half an hour prior, Aaron Kelly sang a song about Michael Jordan and the Looney-Tunes characters. Playing basketball. In space.
NEXT UP: Are you ready for two hours of telethon mania? You’d better be, since the Idol Gives Back extravaganza comes to your screen tomorrow! And even though it’s for a good cause, there’s no way it won’t end in sadness, since the judges’ save has already been brought out this season.