It was an evening of surprises on "American Idol" Wednesday night (March 16). From the first song by grunge icons Nirvana to a show-closing gospel throw-down on a tune by Heart, leading contenders Pia Toscano, Jacob Lusk and Casey Abrams continued their winning ways, while teen Lauren Alaina appeared to get back in the groove after an off week.
The theme this week was songs from the year you were born, and first up was Naima Adedapo, who worked up Tina Turner's comeback hit "What's Love Got to do With It." Slinking down the steps in one of her signature colorful getups, Adedapo struggled a bit to find the melody over the rocked-up, percussive track produced by Rodney Jerkins. The performance had plenty of attitude but failed to really show off Naima's range.
In his first attempt at live feedback, Steven Tyler blasted off, whooping it up and telling the singer she had a "sorcerer's grasp for melody." Jennifer Lopez admitted that she gave Naima a pass last week on her pitchiness, but said she was starting to worry it was not a one-time thing and encouraged Adedapo to kick it up a notch. Randy Jackson agreed, saying it was just kind of a mess and all over the place.
Another 1984 baby, bearded rocker Paul McDonald, went with Elton John's subtle ballad "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues." Sounding even more hoarse than usual, McDonald tried to get the crowd behind him while he did his rag-doll dance and croaked his way through a bland version of the song, always seemingly half a beat behind the tempo.
Lopez could sense Paul's struggle with a cold, but said his star quality overwhelmed it, though Randy was not as charitable, saying Paul was pitchy but still found a way to put his unique spin on the song. "But get the notes right!" Randy added, as Steven opined that McD defines "a cool dude in a loose mood."
Thia Megia is one of the babies of the bunch, born in 1995, the same year the Disney movie "Pocahontas" was released, featuring "Colors of the Wind" by Vanessa Williams. Backed by a gently plucked acoustic guitar and a string quartet, Megia came off a bit pageanty with her long, golden dress as she sang the song's corny lyrics, but once again her vocals were incredibly clear and precise for someone her age.
For Randy, the singing was just OK, but his real problem was the predictable, safe nature of her song choices from week to week. Though he praised her vocals, Steven wondered, "Is that song who you think you are?"
Resident rocker James Durbin, born in 1989, went with Bon Jovi's "I'll Be There for You," not exactly the Jersey band's most notable hit. Doing his best Axl Rose-meets-Jon Bon snarl, Durbin worked the stage like an arena-rock veteran, swinging his mic stand, leaning in for some shoulder-to-shoulder with the guitar player, doling out audience high-fives and ending it all with a rock jump and what host Ryan Seacrest referred to as "JV pyro."
You knew Tyler was gonna dig it. "I got leftover sandwiches under my bed older than that, how do you do that?" he marveled at Durbin's young talent, while warning him to avoid getting too poppy. Jennifer said a great performer makes you want to sing along with them, and she said JD is definitely one of those singers.
Haley Reinhart was born in 1990 into a musical family, and she paid homage by getting back in her R&B groove with a swing at "I'm Your Baby Tonight" by Whitney Houston. Producer Ron Fair's funked-up, new-wave arrangement seemed to throw her at first, but then Haley laid into a Christina Aguilera-like groove, growling and emoting her way through the song, which fit her style way better than last week's detour into country territory.
In what is emerging as her signature sweet putdown, J.Lo told Haley she looked beautiful and has a beautiful voice but that she seems tense and unsure onstage. "Do what you feel, don't force anything, do what comes naturally," she counseled. Jackson said Haley's hopscotching from style to style is making it hard to pin her musical personality down.
Stefano Langone (1989) was right in the pocket with Simply Red's soul-stirring "If You Don't Know Me by Now." He confidently sang the goopy ballad as if working the crowd at a wedding (or office karaoke party), showing off the range, emotion and vocal clarity that earned him a wild-card berth.
"The best performance of the night so far!" Randy raved, handing out an Olympic-gymnastics-style 10-10-10 rating. Steven loved the phrasing, and Lopez said it was the perfect song choice that could win him the whole thing — as long as he locked eyes with her a bit more while he performed.
After emerging as a potential winner a few weeks ago, Pia Toscano (1988) also knows what works, which is why she chose Houston's "Where Do Broken Hearts Go." Working her magic over the thumping disco-lite track, Toscano gave it her glitter-ball best, tossing up emotion and solid vocals but falling a bit short in the stagecraft department.
"You are why this show is called 'American Idol,' " Tyler said, clearly impressed with Pia despite what he referred to as a "retro" arrangement. Jennifer was psyched to hear PT try out an uptempo song for once, and Randy put the other 11 singers on notice that Toscano is in it to win it.
Bullfrog-voiced country crooner Scotty McCreery (1993) stayed firmly in his lane with Travis Tritt's "Can I Trust You With My Heart." He was, once again, spot-on, coming off as a seasoned country veteran with all the right shading and phrasing to deliver the song's emotion. But you have to wonder: How many weeks can he essentially do the same thing and still advance?
It felt to Lopez like he pushed his vocal range out a bit more with this song, and the panel agreed that he'd shown enough growth to justify another week in the game.
Born in 1989, Karen Rodriguez went diva with Taylor Dayne's other hit, "Love Will Lead You Back." Wearing a kind of "Austin Powers" silver space miniskirt, Rodriguez had passion and again threw in some Spanish lyrics, but in the words of ex-judge Simon Cowell, it all felt a bit louche hotel lounge.
It started rough for Randy, who said it was better than last week but still not all that. Jennifer sensed some fear at first, but praised Rodriguez for sticking to her guns and attacking the song. "If you are nervous about certain notes, don't go there," she said. "As a professional, you never have to. Never expose your weaknesses; play to your strengths."
After a second trip this season to the hospital, unlikely hirsute sex symbol Casey Abrams (1991) notched a couple of milestones on Wednesday night when he played electric bass while performing the first-ever song by grunge gods Nirvana on the show. He transformed the nearly untouchable "Smells Like Teen Spirit" into a dark-funk rave-up, busting out his best crazy eyes and screeching and screaming a bit more than usual, while putting lots of energy into the bizarre, horn-laden cover of the modern-rock classic.
"You're so crazy and you're so talented," said Tyler, who knows of what he speaks. "That's the goop that great stuff is made of, and you got it." Randy said he appreciated Abrams' willingness to take risks and put art before commerce and always switch things up.
The other 16-year-old finalist, Lauren Alaina (1994), was also battling the flu and a poor performance last week. She dug into "I'm the Only One" by Melissa Etheridge, putting some of her deep-voiced country sass on the tune and putting up some powerful, nuanced vocals, despite her illness.
After singing along during the performance, Lopez gave Alaina props for sticking to the frame of the song while putting her own imprint on it, and Randy said if that's how she sounds with a cold, she should have one every week.
The final slot of the night belonged to Jacob Lusk (1987), who went way off the path by choosing the ballad "Alone" by female rock duo Heart. After a tentative opening, he exploded into the chorus, throwing down his gospel power and vibrato into the tune, which got a bit frantic at times but definitely highlighted his intensity.
Randy appreciated the attempt to step out of his comfort zone, even if the vocals went a bit wobbly in the middle and nodded to Jacob's decision to go subtle instead of bombastic at the end.
The show opened with Tyler, Lopez and Jackson announcing that proceeds from the sale of the second weekly "Idol" download album would go to the Red Cross' efforts to help the people of Japan in the wake of last week's devastating earthquake and tsunami.
Thursday night's results show will feature the return of last year's winner, Lee DeWyze, who will be on hand to sing his new single, "Beautiful Like You," along with the Black Eyed Peas, who will perform their latest, "Just Can't Get Enough."
Who did you think killed it Wednesday night? Let us know in comments below!
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