‘American Idol’s’ Ode to Billy Joel: Who Was a Big Shot and Who Felt the Pressure?

by | March 21, 2012 at 10:27 PM | American Idol, RealityTV, Recap

Phillip Phillips on "American Idol" (FOX)

Billy Joel is the perfect songbook for “American Idol.” Easily adaptable to almost any voice, and firmly rooted in the ’70s/’80s-lite-rock-balladry that “Idol” contestants can’t resist. As Steven Tyler said at the top of the night, “If you can’t sing Billy Joel, then you can’t sing at all.”

Overall it was the best night of the competition, with several of the contestants having one of those so-called “moments.” The rest were a bit samey but still pretty good. Only two were total failures.

Judging was more specific than usual tonight, as well. Jennifer Lopez in particular gave some thoughtful constructive criticism (which she seemed to be reading from what? Notes she jotted during the performance? A teleprompter in her table?).

However, the judging was still confusing as ever in relation to the advice of Jimmy Iovine and tonight’s guest mentor, P. Diddy—and, to some extent, fashion consultant Tommy Hilfiger. In the preview videos, each gave the contestants some very useful advice about how to reach the audience better, break out of their almost-sealed boxes, and maybe liven up the wardrobe a bit. Some listened, and impressed the judges with their adaptability. Others did only what they wanted to do, and impressed the judges with their individuality and resolve.

The “Moments”

Erika Van Pelt was the first one to wow, not only because of her insanely powerful vocals on “New York State of Mind,” but because of her hot new Pink-inspired hairdo. Also, dressed in black leather-jackety ensemble, she broke out of that ill-fitting prom gown phase and looked like she was in command of her appearance. She owes a lot to Tommy Hilfiger. For Erika, it was her first standout performance since Hollywood Week.

Elise Testone let loose some of her inner crazy during her take on “Vienna” and the judges gave her a standing ovation for it. Which actually felt a bit like overkill. It seems they are trying to do what they can to convince the audience to like this strangely unlikable contestant. Still, her jazzy-growly performance was just as good as last week’s, if not better, showing that no matter how cold and detached, she’s willing to work hard to make up for it.

Joshua Ledet, after last week’s triumph, came back with another soul-rattling performance, this time on “She’s Got a Way.” And even though he tried to tone it down at the start, by the end, the gospel choir was out in full force and it was fantastic. But could it be too much of a good thing? The judges were harsher on him than they’ve ever been, with Jennifer saying he didn’t connect to the lyrics.

Highlights, Midlights and Lowlights

Skylar Laine, Phillip Phillips and Jessica Sanchez all played to their strengths this week and were as good as they usually are. Skylar did her cute and sassy country twang on “Shameless,” Phillip did his guitar-and-growl thing on “Movin’ Out,” and Jessica did another monster ballad, “Everybody Has a Dream” (also garnering a standing-o from the judges).

Phillip, interestingly, chose not to use any tips from any of the mentors this week, instead opting to continue to hide behind his guitar and do some dark, introverted and troubadorish take on a familiar song, while wearing gray on gray. The judges praised him for not bending to the pressures of expert advice, but we’ll see if his blatant defiance didn’t come across as cocky tomorrow night when the votes are tallied.

Hollie Cavanagh, whom I have generally hated till now, actually displayed a bit more of a connection to her song tonight, even though she had no reason to. As Jimmy put it, “Honesty” is about being jaded by deception, whereas Hollie looks “like you were brought in on a bouquet of roses.” And then there’s the mystery of her not-quite-British, not-quite-placeable accent, which her brother does not seem to share based on a video message he sent her. Anyway, despite me slightly coming around to her tonight, Hollie got her first criticism of the season for being pitchy. Go figure.

Colton Dixon returned to the piano (good idea) to sing a nasally, whiny, utterly annoying version of “Piano Man,” (bad idea), which the judges purported to love. He also complained about Tommy Hilfiger suggesting he change up his ugly skunkhawk. And then explained that God used him to make him ruin Billy Joel’s best song and wear that ugly skunkhawk.

And DeAndre Brackensick seems to have lost his footing altogether, doing a cheesy bop-dance throughout “Only the Good Die Young.” As Steven Tyler put it, “I thought it was a little too happy.” He hasn’t had a good performance in weeks, which means his time might have run out.

And then there was Heejun

Heejun Han tried to fake us out tonight, starting a few chords of a ballad, before stopping the pianist and ripping off his tux to reveal a colorful t-shirt, and trying to sing while appearing happy at the same time on a dreadful rendition of “My Life.” Now that he’s safely contracted to go on tour, he can basically do what he wants, which includes sassing Tommy Hilfiger and singing as bad as he possibly can. It’s like Sanjaya Malakar all over again.

Rankings

After last week’s surprisingly sensible elimination of Shannon Magrane, my faith in America is restored. Let’s lose the rest of the dead weight. This week, that’d be Heejun Han, DeAndrew Brackensick and Colton Dixon—my choices for the Bottom Three.