After more than three months, who will win this year’s “American Idol” is still up in the air as the seven finalists took the stage to sing “Music of the 21st Century.”
Why was this night different from all other “Idol” nights? Let us count the ways.
It was a night when Casey Abrams topped off his performance by kissing a blushing J. Lo, prompting Steven Tyler to marvel: “You just did what I’ve been trying to do for four months.” Later, he again sang Casey’s praises: “God says all men are created equal, only some are more equal than others.”
Jacob Lusk remembered his late dad with a moving version of Luther Vandross’ “Dancing with My Father,” paying tribute to the singer he’s most often compared to.
James Durbin dragged his classic-rock howl into the future with a version of Muse’s “Uprising,” the same song the U.K. band did on the recent Grammys.
Haley Reinhart dared to take on Adele’s current smash, “Rolling in the Deep,” and solidified her role as a plucky survivor.
Lauren Alaina and Scotty McCreery solidified their country roots, while underdog Stefano Langone proved to be the group’s suave ladies man with his patented smooth R&B.
And when the evening ended, the judges were just as confused as the rest of us. Who’ll be voted off tomorrow night from what is turning out to be a Magnificent Seven? This race could well turn out to be a referendum on the current state of music—with McCreery and Alaina representing country, Durbin heavy metal, Stefano smooth R&B, Lusk the gospel/soul tradition, Reinhart the female blues-rocker and Casey the idiosyncratic indie-jazz-rocker.
Let me tell you how the show unfolded:
The evening got off to a rousing start, as five of the eliminated finalists—Pia Toscano, Thia Megia, Naima Adedap, Ashthon Jones and last week’s victim, Paul McDonald—reunited to perform Pink’s “So What,” with its telling line, “I’m alright, I’m just fine,” solidifying the notion that this year’s contestants were a special lot indeed.
“You just made American think twice about their decision,” blurted Tyler after they were done, and it’s just that kind of controversy which has kept people talking about the show this year.
Front-runner Scotty McCreery had the lead-off spot, and played it safe with LeAnn Rimes’ “Swingin’,” and received a less-than-enthusiastic response. “The audience can become complacent,” warned Jimmy. “This is a contest.” After his fellow contestants made fun of the way he cocked his head and held the mic at an angle with his finger, McCreery’s shtick suddenly appeared just that. “You have to boot scoot a little more,” suggested Steven. “Like you’re chasing your girlfriend.” J. Lo loved his “story-telling quality,” but insisted “You have to push past your comfort zone. We were expecting more.” Randy agreed: “That was safe and kind of boring.”
The hyperkinetic James Durbin is anything but boring, and his take on the Muse song proved right up his alley. “We have to find a way to keep you true to yourself and in the same vein, but also move you forward.” Joined by a martial drum corps, Durbin killed in his patented style, and wowed the panel. “I’m going out on a limb to say that’s going to be, theatrically, the best performance of the night,” said J. Lo. “That’s the highest we’ve ever heard you sing.” After saying Muse was one of his favorite acts (who knew?), the Big Dawg praised Durbin’s choice of material. “I hope you follow that direction when you record,” also dubbing it “the best performance of the night.” With his “Mad Max meets storm trooper on Melrose” outfit, Durban had Steven Tyler warning him to “stay out of my closet… I love that you’re out of your mind…beautifully so.”
Haley Reinhart was up next with the nerviest choice of the night, Adele’s smash “Rolling in the Deep,” and to my mind, she kept herself in the race. “Let’s bring out the anger, that rejection,” insisted Jimmy, and while she didn’t exactly do that, it was a performance that put some of her own grit and growl into it. “That’s the perfect direction for you,” admired Randy, calling it a “great performance.” Steven Tyler remains smitten, as he has from the start. “You did what you do best.” J. Lo had encouraging words, too. “It takes a lot of guys to take on a record that everyone knows so well. You brought a little bit of Haley to it, and that’s when you shined.”
Jacob Lusk recovered from a couple of sub-par weeks with a moving version of “Dancing with My Father,” which he dedicated to his dad, who died when he was 12. During rehearsals, he had to wipe the tears from his eyes, while Jimmy Iovine admitted he lost his father at an early age, too. “Everyone knows Jacob can sing by now. Now they’re going to find out if he can feel. He picked a song that has a lot of meaning for him.”
Lusk kept it pretty reined in, though, which had at least a couple of the judges wondering why he was holding back. While they all agreed it was emotionally beautiful, Randy missed the old Jacob. “It’s like a racehorse with restraints on,” he said. “Every now and then, there’s a bright point where you hit the high notes.” Steven was more enthusiastic. “You remind me of the reason I love music. You pulled through and your daddy was up there listening.” J. Lo said “You want to bare your soul, but at the same time, you need the control.”
Casey Abrams picked up a guitar and rocked out Maroon 5’s “Hard to Breathe” in what was arguably the best performance of the night. From “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to “Nature Boy” to Maroon 5, Casey remains unpredictable, and that’s what the judges, who clearly adore him, love about him – and what makes him stand out like a top artist. Song to song, you never know if you’ll get mere excellence or memorable brilliance. “Casey is as stubborn as one of my sons,” said Jimmy Iovine, who knows about temperamental artists. “You’ve got to let Casey go, let him to his own thing.”
After the J. Lo buss, all hell broke loose. “See now Casey’s not playin’ fair,” blurted J. Lo. “Casey’s got soft lips. You brought all your Casey-isms to it.” Randy loved the surprise element in Abrams’ performances. “Continue to take chances. I can’t wait to see what you’re going to do.” Tyler dubbed him “already a cult hero,” in an expletive-deleted rant that had Ryan Seacrest lamenting, “The wheels have fallen off.” Seacrest then stuck on a phony Casey Abrams beard and said he had a great line he wasn’t gong to use, making fun of everyone who ever called the affable host gay.
Stefano Langone remains a long-shot, but don’t count this smooth crooner out. His version of Ne-Yo’s “Closer” demonstrated some nifty dance steps and a growing confidence that had his fellow contestants dubbing him “a flirt,” and, as Scotty put it, “so confident about himself, he’s not afraid to go to the pool and take his shirt off slowly.” Iovine told him to use that sex appeal when he performs. “It’s not whining, It’s not begging, it’s sexy,” he said. “This guy can move, so why is he stalking the stage pleading. He’s a good-looking guy. And I know because I wasn’t one in high school.” Randy was turned around by the performance, fearing it would turn into bad karaoke. “You smoothed it out and took your time singing the verses. We know you have the power to slay it in the end.” “I thought you had your swag going on,” said J. Lo, who has been enamored of the handsome Langone from the start. “you owned the song.”
Lauren Alaina was up next, and while she didn’t stray from her country roots with Sara Evans’ “Born to Fly,” she is showing more maturity, overcoming what Jimmy Iovine termed the 16-year-old southern belle’s “pulling back from a fear of failure… If she gets over that hurdle and risks it, she could win.” Steven Tyler agreed, saying, in his own inscrutable manner, “Anybody who doesn’t know that they can fail is bound to win,” and requested her taking on Alison Krauss, Faith Hill or Shania Twain next. J. Lo admired her “special voice… It has so much color and character. You can sing those big notes. Let it out and see how far and long you can hold it.” Randy also encouraged her to push her boundaries. “When we first heard you, you were singing with Steven in Nashville. I don’t think you know how good you are. You can grow by leaps and bounds. Challenge yourself.”
The challenge is for everyone who has a rooting interest in this “American Idol” to get out there and vote for your favorite. Because right now, the race is way too close to call.
1. James Durbin: Can a rocker win this thing? Perhaps the closest comparison is Adam Lambert, but this year’s model has everything going for him—glass-shattering vocals, dynamic stage presence, soap opera back story and a larger-than-life personality made for TV.
2. Casey Abrams: That J. Lo kiss could be a game-changer… unless his teenage following get jealous, then watch out. You never know what he’s going to do, which makes for a compelling performer, if not an “Idol” winner.
3. Haley Reinhart: Darn, she just keeps hanging on, but this week’s Adele cover could just help break the jinx that has seen four girls eliminated so far, with only one guy.
4. Scotty McCreery: Still a front-runner, but he better find another horse. His country shtick, while incredibly polished, is starting to wear a bit thin.
5. Lauren Alaina: The poor man’s Carrie Underwood, she still has to be considered dangerous, with a strong southern roots following. Growing every week, the real question remains, does she have the temperament and maturity to pull it off?
6. Jacob Lusk: Channeling Luther Vandross was his best move, but he seems to be losing a bit of momentum. Is he in danger of dropping into bottom three tomorrow night?
7. Stefano Langone: The Italian charmer has gotten last-second reprieves two weeks in a row, can he make it three? It’s a credit to the talent level here that he’s not completely out of the hunt.