Leave it to a breathless J. Lo, looking virginal in white with a flower in her hair that evoked shades of Billie Holiday to sum up the performances by tonight’s five finalists.
“For the first time, I’m glad it’s up to America and not up to me,” she said, summing up a night of fab performances that did little to separate those vying for the title of your “American Idol.” “I don’t want to see any of them go.” Come on Jen, toughen up. Someone has to – actually, four of ‘em have to.
As we head into Thursday night’s results show, where five will be whittled to four, the front-runners have become pretty clear. The two horses who picked up the most momentum tonight had to be James Durbin and Scotty McCreery, setting up a fascinating referendum on rock vs. country, though you can’t count out pre-show favorite Lauren Alaina, either. And who knows, maybe Randy will rehire LaToya Jackson. Oops, wrong show.
In addition to Alaina, Haley Reinhart used her closing spot for a scintillating version of the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun,” including an a cappella intro at the suggestion of guest artist Sheryl Crow, while Jacob Lusk stepped away from his comfort zone to turn in an affecting version of Nazareth’s arena-rock staple “Love Hurts,” and you have a five-way race that is still probably too close to call. (Yeah, I know, I called it in the paragraph above – Durbin vs. McCreery. But who knows.)
With the night’s theme Songs from Now and Then, each of the five remaining “Idol” contenders sang two numbers apiece, one from the ‘60s and ‘70s along with a contemporary track, working with both Jimmy Iovine and Crow as mentors. (I wish Iovine was a bit tougher.)
Durbin opened with a version of 30 Seconds to Mars’ “Closer to the Edge” which solidified his credentials as an honest-to-goodness, larger-than-life rock star, simultaneously rousing and high-fiving the audience just like the band’s messianic lead singer Jared Leto. Iovine told him, “You fit the material better than you fit in ‘80s rock, which is really promising for your future.” It was a charismatic turn, one that had Steven Tyler saying; “You kicked that song’s ass. You’re ready for Freddie.” Did he mean Mercury? Lopez raved: “You’ve been showing us that you want it. I know America is feeling it. It’s yours to take, James.” Added Randy Jackson: “Now you’ve shown us where you can go as an artist. He wants it!”
It was his second song, though, an unlikely version of Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” where Durbin started to separate himself from the pack, an emotional, tear-filled performance which he dedicated to his family. “Something in those lyrics moved him,” said Iovine. “The reason I’m doing this is to provide a better life for my family,” said Durbin, once again evoking his moving back story. Randy could feel the emotion about his family and the journey it took to get here. “This is your competition to lose,” he said, reiterating J. Lo’s early endorsement. “When you let a song get the best of you, that’s crazy,” said Tyler. “Your emotions are incredible.” Nodding and smiling during the performance, Lopez raved: “You have the heart and soul to back it up. You are a true, true artist. It takes a lot to control your emotions and deliver what you just did.” Durbin summed up his approach: “Every single week, I leave everything on the stage…everything.” Indeed, he does, which is why he’s a front-runner heading into the final month.
Jacob Lusk admits he feels like the underdog in the competition. “To get out of Compton and show the positive side of my city, I think it’s amazing,” he said. For his first song, he chose “No Air” by former Idol winner Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown. “It’s hard to do,” said Iovine, who put him together with Harvey Mason, who produced the original. “But Jacob is going for it and I think we should be proud of him.” It was a performance that left the judges slightly underwhelmed. “Your voice is one of the best that’s been on this stage,” said J. Lo. “But it’s important that you pick songs that represent who you are and what you want to sing.” Randy also called him “one of the greatest singers on this stage,” but found the rendition “ a little corny… You’re voice is way bigger than those two.” Even Tyler admitted, “We’re waiting for you to find that niche, that certain something that’s you.”
Lusk’s unorthodox choice of Nazareth’s “Love Hurts” proved more successful. Said Iovine: “If he does another Vandross or gospel number, he’ll be in trouble.” But after his tender version of the arena-rocker, he got better reviews. “I’m a sucker for passion,” said Tyler. “Everyone got lost in the song because they got lost in you.” Even Randy was impressed. “You redeemed yourself. That might have been the highest note ever sung on this stage.” Whether it was enough to buy the Compton, CA, spa concierge another week is another story.
Lauren Alaina went traditional with her contemporary selection, covering another former “Idol” winner, Carrie Underwood’s “Flat on the Floor.” Said Iovine: “I’m proud of Lauren. She’s taken all the constructive criticism in and she’s used it as fuel. She’s coming to fight tonight.” All three judges gave her a thumbs up. “That is the direction for you,” said Randy. “I love you showing that fun, energetic side.” Tyler continued to be smitten: “The way you find your niche is as good as it gets. The sky’s the limit. You’re the one.” J. Lo was also impressed: “You ate that up. We’re looking to see who’s rising to the top. That’s what you have to do. Just like that every time.”
Still, it was an emotional cover of the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” as her oldie that truly moved Jimmy Iovine. “Lauren takes this song and re-translates it into what it means to her.” J. Lo simply said: “Nothing to judge there. A beautiful song sung beautifully.” Randy agreed. “This girl can sing like a bird. I like seeing the other side of you. A very tender moment.” “I could listen to you all night,” said Tyler. “You’re just beautiful.” However you look at it, Alaina is going to be a tough out.
Scotty McCreery continues to do what he does best—sing the sh*t out of his country songs, this time tackling Montgomery Gentry’s “Gone,” showing a more upbeat, rocking side than he has in the past. “I think this is the right song for Scotty to sing,” offered Iovine. “It’s got grit, angst, intensity and a rock feel to it. I think people are going to be really moved tonight.” Tyler liked the new, urgent Scotty the Hotty. “Up to now, you’ve been a puritan,” he said. “But I swear to God, I saw you dance with the devil tonight and that’s a good thing.” “Who knew you could rock the stage like you did tonight,” marveled Randy. “This guy is in it to win it, too.”
For his classic, McCreery went back to the King, his idol Elvis Presley, for “Always on My Mind,” a predictably emotional highlight. “I can’t wait until he comes to Nashville and has a big career that I can somehow horn in on,” beamed Sheryl Crow, who makes her home in Music City. Needless to say, even if Scotty doesn’t win this competition, he will be a huge country music star. “You show us what a well-rounded artist you are,” said Lopez. “Amazing, beautiful. You’re so comfortable in your own skin and a true performer.” Even Randy was captivated. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I’m happy to see you do the tender moments. I loved it, dude.” Tyler added: “America loves your voice and you’re taking us up and down the trail. I can’t pick that apart.”
Haley Reinhart remains a potent dark horse who continues her charge from behind. She took a major risk covering an unreleased Lady Gaga song, “You and I,” that must be from her upcoming Born This Way album, because Interscope ruler Iovine suggested she do it. “She just laces it and shows where she can go,” said Jimmy. “This is just another way of proving she’s got it.” The judges weren’t as enthusiastic. “I’m just not sure Jimmy gave you the best advice,” said J. Lo. “It would’ve been better to pick something everyone knew.” Randy compared her to Joss Stone: “I don’t think the song did you any favors.” Tyler, on the other hand, was infatuated, as he has been about Haley since her first audition. “When someone can take a song nobody knows and make it work, it’s a beautiful thing,” he said. “You’re one perfect song away from being an ‘American Idol.’”
Haley made a strong recovery with the final song of the night, a cover of the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun,” which she began, thanks to a suggestion by Crow, with an a cappella intro, gradually soaring to a typically throaty, bluesy climax. “I think people will be shocked,” said Crow. “She’s interpreting the song in a way that’s never been done before.” Indeed, Randy called it “the best performance of the night,” while Tyler said, “Sweet and sour, raspy. I can really relate to that. You sold that song.” J. Lo admired the fact she came out with a chip on her shoulder. “That song has never been sung like that before.”
And so tomorrow, the Fab Five will be cut down to the Formidable Four, as we enter the stretch run. Here’s my Power Rankings after tonight’s show.
1. James Durbin: The dude has it all, charisma, chops, a sense of drama and a heartwarming back story that informs his every note. But will the American public vote for the rocker over the heartland comforts of country? We’ll soon see.
2. Scotty McCreery: The Boy Who Would Be King seems to have a hold on the teenage girl voting audience, and after tonight’s “Always on My Mind” he may well be set to take the “Idol” crown.
3. Lauren Alaina: Don’t count her out just yet. This crowd-pleasing 16-year-old could follow in Carrie Underwood’s footsteps as the next female country “Idol.” Her confidence is growing weekly and her followers seem to have a way with a speed dial.
4. Haley Reinhart: Her Lady Gaga misstep was more than made up for with an impressive “House of the Rising Sun” that keeps her hanging out at the periphery of the competition.
ON THIN ICE
5. Jacob Lusk: He keeps hanging on, and this week’s impressive cover of “Love Hurts” has solidified his post-“Idol” possibilities, showing he’s more than just a church singer. That said, it will be a real surprise if he’s not eliminated tomorrow night.