Two months into its 10th season, "American Idol" is finally about to begin. After scores of multi-city auditions, Hollywood Week and pre-taped shows at a Los Angeles soundstage, the reality competition is set, at long last, to unleash a live performance episode on Wednesday (March 16). This is the "Idol" we know (and sometimes love), and it'll be interesting to see how the reality of live TV affects the contestants as well as the judges.
This week's 12 remaining hopefuls will be taking on songs from the years they were born — a theme last explored in 2009, when Adam Lambert wowed with Tears for Fears' "Mad World" and Scott MacIntyre got the boot for a schmaltzy version of Survivor's "The Search Is Over." Will Casey Abrams and Pia Toscano cement their status as front-runners? Can Karen Rodriguez and Haley Reinhart avoid another trip to the bottom three? Those are among the questions lingering as we head into the show.
The front-runner has made two trips to the hospital this season to deal with severe stomach pains, but he's back in "Idol" land now and apparently feeling good. What exactly he missed in terms of preparation and how it will affect his performance remains to be seen. Casey's task will be to break out of his established pattern — exceedingly average beginnings, followed by excitingly free-flowing conclusions — and show us he's got more in his repertoire than twists and growl-shouts.
The 20-year-old is perhaps the show's least developed artist. One week she's reaching like a diva for Alicia Keys' "Fallin'," the next she's uncorking yodels that make her sound like a walrus with a tummy ache. Thing is, Haley does have a rich and soulful voice. The problem is that she's had two decades to figure out her artistic identity and still doesn't seem to have come up with anything. What are the chances she'll do so in the midst of "Idol" madness? Unless Haley pulls off a stunning performance on Wednesday, she'll likely be in the bottom three once again.
Let's just pretend last week didn't happen, OK? OK! Whatever song he chooses from his birth year this week, he'd best take it for a walk through the gospel-and soul-tinged late '70s or early '80s — that's how he found such soaring success earlier this month. After his WTF-take on R. Kelly last week, we have a feeling anything recorded since Lusk was born may not be his best bet.
We only want two things from you this week, James. One, don't you dare pin that ridiculous scarf on your bum. Two, don't you dare revert back to delusions that you're the second coming of Ozzy Osbourne, because your sweet spot is as a sensitive rocker, as we learned during last week's take on Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed." Do those two things, James, and shoot, you can bust out that dime-store Lambert squeal all you want.
Our advice begins and ends with this: You are not J. Lo, so don't try to be J. Lo, or J. Lo won't be the only judge telling you she just wasn't feeling your performance. No matter what Karen does or who she tries to imitate this week, she's going to have a hard time avoiding the bottom three once again. She's lacking in vocal power and has suffered from more pitch problems than Wembley Stadium after a weeklong rainstorm.
The key for Lauren will be to see how she bounces back from her first-ever negative assessment. After the judges gave her poor marks, the 16-year-old looked as if she'd collapse in tears right next to Ryan Seacrest. She's continually made strong song choices, busting out country-rock-pop performances, but last week her tune was lacking in the youthful, happy-go-lucky energy she's so adept at exuding. We'll be keeping an eye out for her return to form. And she'd better get there, because a few more weeks of middling performances and she'll sacrifice her spot as a fan favorite.
We honestly have no idea what Naima is going to do on Wednesday, and that's mostly a good thing. She's easily the most artistically interesting contestant, yet there's something undoubtedly schizophrenic about her recent performances: Is she a radio-friendly R&B queen or a throwback chanteuse with jazzy blues running through her veins? Voters seemed to like her Rihanna shtick better (she avoided the bottom three last week, after being saved by the judges' wild card the week before), so she'd be wise to keep things upbeat and pop radio-oriented. How someone born in the mid-'80s can manage that, given this week's theme, is anybody's guess.
After rag doll-dancing his way to the front of the "Idol" pack earlier this month, McDonald flopped on his face last week like Buzz Lightyear when a human walks in the room. We'd advise him to ditch the wacky dance moves and concentrate on his vocals. Another mid-'80s born contestant, McDonald has the opportunity to have loads of fun with a nostalgic tune he gives a 21st-century glean to. And as we saw during his take on Rod Stewart's "Maggie May," when Paul's having fun, America is having fun.
This head-of-the-classer didn't take our advice last week, so we doubt she will this week. But we can hope! There can be no doubting Pia's got a serious set of pipes on her — girl can sing her "Idol" non-disclosure agreement and it'd sound killer. What we need to see and hear is an ability to sing something other than a ballad. Go up-tempo and show us something fresh.
We've stopped waiting for Scotty to show some genre range and now are simply keeping our fingers crossed for some creativity. Instead of presenting familiar versions of hit country songs, why not take a pop radio tune and give it a country makeover? The point is, Scotty's got to show us something new, because a month from now, he's going to be so predictable we'll be taking bathroom breaks during his time onstage.
Like Naima, Stefano catapulted himself from the judges' wild card to bottom three-avoiding territory last week. Unlike Naima, he seems to have a firm idea of what kind of artist he is, even if his vocals aren't always there to carry him through (see his take on Bruno Mars' "Just the Way You Are"). Last week's cheesy arrangement of Stevie Wonder's "Lately" did him no favors, so this week we'd like to see him strip down a tune and showcase smooth vocals, not to mention his head-of-the-class onstage personality.
Why Thia hasn't tackled something by Duffy or Adele, rather than drenching an '80s tune in sticky-sweet innocence, is a question we can't answer. At least that decade is off-limits to the 16-year-old this week. While she's got a seriously beautiful voice, she's got an artistic sensibility that is the stuff of teen dreams more than anything else. No matter what she sings this week and how much the judges try to convince us she's a keeper, Thia could be in trouble this week.
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