‘American Idol’: Final Nine Pursue Their Own Fame Game

by | April 6, 2011 at 10:40 PM | American Idol, Eye on Idol

American Idol's Top Nine (FOX)

American Idol's Top Nine (FOX)

For Rock and Roll Hall of Fame week, the nine remaining “American Idol” contenders hoped to dip into the past to create their own future stardom.

Pia Toscano finally sang an uptempo song (Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High”), and James Durbin a slow one (George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”). Haley Reinhart discovered her inner Janis Joplin, and Casey Abrams took the stand-up bass to a Creedence Clearwater song. Scotty McCreery paid tribute to his idol Elvis Presley, while Jacob Lusk eschewed Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” as too sexual for Michael Jackson’s utopian “Man in the Mirror.” Lauren Alaina combined country and soul in “Natural Woman,” Stefano Langone once more gave J. Lo “goosepimples” with Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” and Paul McDonald laughed while insisting he shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

Now it’s up to you America, as the nine finalists will get cut down to an Elite Eight by tomorrow night, and this is where the hard part comes in.

We didn’t get much help from the judges, either. J. Lo and Steven Tyler seemed to like everybody, while Randy wasn’t jumping up and down, though he liked both Alaina and Langone. As the process becomes tougher, “Idol” is missing the acerbic Simon Cowell, who could cut down a hopeful’s hopes with one snide remark.

Watch Highlights From Last Week’s Results Show:

Executive producer Nigel Lythgoe’s kinder, gentler “Idol” will make winnowing down this group a lot more difficult, but the favorites are starting to assert themselves.

Jacob Lusk was shown consulting with Jimmy Iovine and special guest will.i.am on performing “Let’s Get It On,” but expressed reservations about singing a song about “doing the nasty,” so he shifted to what, for him, turned out to be the better choice, “Man in the Mirror,” where he was joined by Siedah Garrett, who co-wrote the original with Glen Ballard. Dressed in all white, the Jackson cover provided enough of those patented Lusky stank moments to wow the judges, with the lyrics, “I’m going to make a change/for once in my life,” particularly apt. Tyler offered, “Every time you sing, you bring another piece of yourself to the party,” while J. Lo was impressed with his switching horses in midstream. “You make everybody know, if you believe in yourself and stick to what’s right for you that you can do anything in this world… That was a beautiful performance, perfect on every emotional level.” Randy also mentioned Jacob’s “moral conviction… I’m so proud of you. There were Jacob moments all over that song.” Lusk remains one of the front-runners, with only his slightly quirky personality a possible drawback down the line.

Haley Reinhart’s choice of Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” was all-too-predictable, but damn if this feisty underdog didn’t do it justice. It was hard to tell what will.i.am was talking about in his cryptic advice, but he did suggest, “When you’re singing the words, you’re not feeling the words,” suggesting she think of the boyfriend that did her wrong when she performed. That turned out to be wise counsel, as Reinhart put herself on the short list of contenders with this performance. “You’re a contender,” confirmed J. Lo. “If you keep that up, you’re going to be around for a minute.” Randy liked “that bluesy, soulful thing… That’s the Haley we loved from the start.” The clearly smitten Tyler was short and to the point, even if ungrammatical. “I couldn’t find nothing wrong with that.”

Casey Abrams remains the most intriguing candidate, a polarizing performer capable of impressive highs and, as we’ve seen, some pretty low lows. After turning down will.i.am’s suggestion to do a rumba version of the Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” which Iovine termed “too Las Vegas,” Abrams took on John Fogerty’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” on stand-up bass, with a smooth, sexy version that was cool rather than his usual overheated. Bass-player Randy was only too happy to acknowledge Abrams making the upright cool again, while Tyler suggested he “Put wheels on that and ride it all over town… You are a true musician, and it’s not just about the voice.” J. Lo once again expressed how I feel about Casey—he’s an all-around entertainer. “I’m paying top dollar to be in the first row to see you perform.” Turns out the judges’ save could’ve been the best thing for him, calming him down and forcing him to tone down his shtick. Abrams remains an impressive dark horse.

Lauren Alaina decided to tackle “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” a good choice, even if she did credit it to Aretha Franklin, who did the most memorable version, instead of its real writers, Gerry Goffin and Carole King. “Combining R&B and country together is magic,” said Iovine, while will.i.am coined a new word, “coun-troul,” to describe how she had to attack the song. “Be in the moment and don’t anticipate what’s coming up in the next eight bars,” he said, one of the few coherent piece of advice he gave. With hair piled up like a country diva, Alaina certainly appeared to have gotten her mojo back. Said Tyler: “You know I love you…Two months ago, you came here as a young girl. Tonight you are a natural-born woman.” J. Lo thought it was “amazing,” and Randy said she did a good job, though “I’m not jumping up and down,” was the harshest critique anyone delivered all night. Alaina remains on the outside, but capable of moving into the front ranks over the next few weeks.

James Durbin subverted expectations with an insinuating version of “When My Guitar Gently Weeps” that he dedicated to his family, which simmered until climaxing with one of the rocker’s patented high-pitched, glass-shattering crescendos. “You gotta make sure you end with a sting,” said will.i.am. “Otherwise, you’ll lose the audience.” “It’ll be ‘While My Guitar Gently Sleeps,’ chided Jimmy. The performance had all the judges lathering up their superlatives. “It’s nice to see that other side of you,” said J. Lo. “That’s what makes the rock and roll side work. It’s so special to watch you show that vulnerable side.” Randy also liked seeing “the real true emotions… You have to take chances to be an artist and you won.” Said Tyler: “It’s good to see not only your guitar gently weep, but you gently weep. It’s a real proud moment for you.” Durbin’s gamble showed his versatility moving forward. He can’t be counted out.

Scotty McCreery went back to his childhood idol, Elvis Presley, for a take on “That’s Alright Mama” which proved he’s got at least a little rock & roll in him. Will.i.am referred to it as “country-rock… combining two things that don’t go together that taste good when they go together.” With his swagger and charisma, it’s hard to believe the aw-shucks All-American boy is only 16. At the end, he was mobbed by a clutch of girls from the audience that caused even a nonplussed Ryan Seacrest to momentarily lose his cool. “Scotty’s in it to win it,” declared Randy, the first of two times he’d use the expression (the other was for Pia). “Anyone who thought you were a one-trick pony was proven wrong.” “I thought you were all hat and no cattle,” said Tyler. “I hope that this type of music comes into play again.” J. Lo appreciated his sense of humor and asked if he’d been watching any rap and hip-hop videos. “You’re funny. I feel that flava in there. I love it.” McCreery remains a strong contender for the crown.

Pia Toscano earned a number of points with her version of “River Deep, Mountain High” that clearly kept her in the top rank. “Pia has to get pissed off tonight and shut everybody up,” said Jimmy, while will.i.am pointed to “personality, performance, ability… turn that on and wow/pow ‘em.” “I want to shock everybody,” said Pia. With her hoop earrings, African style necklaces and high heels, Pia is a beauty who can actually sing. Tyler was ecstatic: “You killed it! There’s a million guys in a million bars having a million drinks to you tonight.” J. Lo called it “amazing… You are really special. When I see greatness, I want to help it along,” suggesting Toscano study some of the greats to take her to the next level. Randy also said she should work on her stage movements, but “it wasn’t just about proving Randy wrong, but you showed you can deliver on an up-tempo number.”

Stefano Langone dipped into the R&B songbook for Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” and delivered a perfectly fine performance. “Get in front of the song and lead it,” said Jimmy, while will.i.am demonstrated how he should take his time, consulting his cell phone in between verses. Langone didn’t hurt his chances, but he’s still in danger of elimination. J. Lo, as she’s been from the beginning, remains in his corner. “I knew you had it in you. That was beautiful. I really felt for the first time that other layer of emotion. You were singing it about someone.” Maybe even J. Lo herself, methinks. Tyler liked that “old-timey feel.. You’ve got a great range and it has a lot of passion. Keep playing with that.” Randy wasn’t jumping up and down, but “I liked it. Let it marinate, then counter-punch.”

Paul McDonald took the biggest risk of all, deciding to tackle the deep-voiced Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” with his own hoarse vocal, and while it got over on the judges, IMHO, it didn’t do him any good in the bigger picture race. Just hard to compare Cash’s hard-bitten original—even though it’s clearly every bit a fiction—with McDonald’s shuffling, everybody-join-together blithe spirit. “Sing it like you’re out of your f***ing mind,” suggested Iovine, but you can’t imagine the controlled McDonald going crazy like that. “Did you see the movie?” wondered Jimmy. “He was such a passionate, push-the-boundaries guy and that’s what you have to do.” Randy was direct and to the point. “Three words… I loved it.” Tyler said, “You’re such a crazy character, a perfect imperfect boy.” J. Lo thought the song choice was “right in your lane.” This week will tell the tale for McDonald, who is just hoping for a “get out of jail free” card and another shot.

FINAL 9 POWER RANKINGS

FAVORITES
1. Pia Toscano: The front-runner proved she could do an up-tempo number as well as a ballad, and while she’s no Tina Turner, there was enough heat in the performance to keep her in the lead.

2. James Durbin: Showing he could be both vulnerable and emotional, the rocker should have the competition weeping after his game-changing take on the Beatles classic.

3. Scotty McCreery: Is he the next Elvis? This country crooner has a powerful appeal. Could this cat in the hat be the next “American Idol”?

4. Jacob Lusk: There’s no question the man had the pipes, but will his squeaky-clean image help or hurt him in the long run?

CONTENDERS

5. Haley Reinhart: The throaty girl-next-door had momentum on her side, as she tackled Joplin with surprisingly effective results. Don’t count her out.

6. Casey Abrams: He’s recovered nicely now for two straight weeks, but is it enough to offset his quirkiness to make him a most unlikely “Idol”?

7. Lauren Alaina: Nothing wrong with this youngster as she gains confidence and grows before our eyes, but this field may prove too formidable.

ON THIN ICE

8. Stefano Langone: It seems like he’s been living on borrowed time for a few weeks now, but he may have bought himself one more turn after a moving “When a Man Loves a Woman,” or should we say, “When J. Lo Loves a Contestant”?

GOODBYE, HE’S LEAVING

9. Paul McDonald: I admire the balls to turn “Folsom Prison Blues” into a feel-good audience participation number, but it may be that this likeable guitar-strumming troubadour will “Walk the Line” tomorrow night.