Before we dive into this week's "American Idol" report card, we need to pause and award a special gold star to Steven Tyler, whose commentary on Wednesday night — replete with rhyming phrases, butchered metaphors and one instance of nonsensical, if oddly well-intentioned, racial profiling — keep us glued to the telly through some snooze-inducing performances. Who cares if his commendations didn't always line up with objective reality? We'd tune in any day of the week to hear the Aerosmith frontman suggest that one singer has a "sorcerer's grasp of melody" and highlight another singer's "ethnic what-it-is-ness."
Yet just as we hand out that gold star to Tyler — and plan to dole out a few more — there are far too many contestants who earned themselves some demerits on Wednesday. It doesn't matter if they were sick or sleepy or just simply misguided in their song choices from the year they were born — there's no hiding from our "Idol" report card. Let's get on with it!
Stefano Langone: On a generally weak evening in "Idol" land, Stefano finds himself at the top of the class, despite his pretaped diss of "Funky Cold Medina." Harsh! Stefano's got a silky smooth voice, confidence for days, and he popped off some top-notch runs during Simply Red's "If You Don't Know Me By Now." Then he went ahead and sealed the deal with that bear-hug with his mom. Now, all he's got to do is apologize to Tone Loc.
Pia Toscano: From judges to Jimmy Iovine to the voting public, everyone has been waiting for Pia to bust out something that isn't a capital-B ballad. Who knew the moment she'd finally go up-tempo-ish would be with a rendition of Whitney Houston's "Where Do Broken Hearts Go"? Sure, it had a bit of a cruise-ship cabaret feel, and her outfit would have been a better fit on "The Love Boat" than "American Idol," but her vocals were, as always, on point
Scotty McCreery: Iovine spoke up for an army of frustrated viewers when he said he's not trying to change Scotty, just have him grow and get better. If only! Nothing approaching growth took place during his version of Travis Tritt's "Can I Trust You With My Heart." One note at the end snuck out of Scotty's comfort zone before he reeled the vocals back in. The North Carolina native can probably coast into the finals without growing in any meaningful way, but where's the fun in that?
Lauren Alaina: Wacked-out on Nyquil though she may have been, Lauren showed no ill effects once she stepped up onstage (the same cannot be said for her pre-performance interview, when the only thing she seemed to be able to giggle-slur at Ryan Seacrest was, "Look at yooooooooooooou!"). Precocious and confident, Lauren bounced back from a subpar performance last week and solidified her fan-favorite status during Melissa Etheridge's "I'm the Only One."
James Durbin: He got off to a very shaky start and never really recovered; we blame the absurd tail/scarf thingamabob James once again attached to his hiney. Last week, when he left that piece of flair in his dressing room, the guy slayed us with an emotional ode to Paul McCartney. This time around, he split the difference between vulnerable rocker and hair-metal circus act, and it didn't work. Oh, and he seemed to hint that he'd be around until the finale several months down the road. Cocky ain't a good look. Be humble and be great. On Wednesday, James, you were neither.
Paul McDonald: We know Paul was sick, but was he also suffering from vertigo? Perhaps chronic dizziness is the key to explaining that marionette-meets-drunken-sailor dancing style. More distracting than those moves, though, were his lackluster vocals. He's still got the most distinctive voice on the show, and we hope he doesn't land in the bottom three this week. We hope by next week, Paul's on the mend and ready to wow us again as he did earlier in the month with Rod Stewart's "Maggie May."
Haley Reinhart: Randy Jackson echoed what we've been wondering for a while: What kind of artist is Haley? She seems the least fully-formed of anyone on the show. Perhaps the pressure of trying to figure out exactly who she is got to her. Haley was nervous from the get-go and couldn't keep up with the tempo of Whitney Houston's "I'm Your Baby Tonight." Will that lipstick debacle earn her some sympathy votes? Fingers crossed! Because we continue to think she's got a lot of potential and a beautiful instrument, and if she sticks around long enough, she just might surprise us one of these days.
Casey Abrams: Man, we loved the song choice of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" before we even heard a note. We thought we were in for a creative arrangement — perhaps something as inspired as Andrew Garcia's re-jiggering of "Straight Up" last year. What we got instead was a cover you'd hear in any basement in any suburb, where a bunch of middle-school kids are rocking out before dinnertime. We won't even get started on his singing, if we can call it that, because we're still haunted by that crazy-eyed look on his face as he raced to keep up with this grunge classic.
Naima Adedapo: Uh-oh. We've been rooting for Naima, if only because she offers up a sense of artistic unpredictability in a season that is sorely lacking it. We even defended her take last week on Rihanna's "Umbrella"; it was a mess, but at least it was a compelling mess. This week, her homage to Tina Turner was too sloppy to endorse, and we suspect she'll end up in the bottom three. Her flavor may be crazy, but her vocals, alas, are cuckoo.
Thia Megia: Back in the day, we used to fall asleep when someone popped "Pocahontas" into the living room VCR. Visions of those somnolent evenings came tip-toeing back to us when Thia voluntarily — voluntarily! — chose to sing a tune from that Disney flick. Last year, we used to ding Katie Stevens for insisting on becoming the oldest, mustiest teenager the world has ever seen. Thia is giving Stevens a run for her money in 2011. Oh, and enough with the ballads! We have a feeling she's safe for a few more weeks, so we hope she takes a cue from Pia and shows us some artistic range.
Karen Rodriguez: Looking like the lovechild of Snooki and General Zod, Karen insisted again on toggling between English and Spanish, as if lingual dexterity might mask her vocal shortcomings. After a trip to the bottom three last week, Karen just might be the odd woman out on elimination night.
Jacob Lusk: Listening to Jacob sing is like riding a rickety roller coaster: kinda fun, mostly terrifying. There's no denying he communicates genuine emotion while singing; the problem is that the emotion he often inspires in listeners is fear.
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