What a schizophrenic "American Idol" school year it has been, and our report cards have been correspondingly all over the place. One week Casey Abrams is up, a few later, he's collapsing into Ryan Seacrest's tender embrace after narrowly avoiding a trip home. Jacob Lusk and Stefano Langone have each taken their place at the head of the class, only to tumble to the low end of the grading curve.
What to make of all this GPA upheaval? Well, "Idol" is a damn hard class. Consistency from performance to performance is just as important as excellence on any given evening. And excellence we most certainly had on Wednesday, as the contestants took on Elton John's oeuvre. So too, of course, did we have singers who either didn't study hard enough or who just couldn't quite grasp the night's curriculum. Too bad. Our "Idol" report card suffers no fools. Let's get to it!
Pia Toscano: As we explained in our preview, there was no way Pia was going to go with anything uptempo, despite everyone's pleas over the weeks. Hey, if Scotty McCreery doesn't have to ditch his country twang, should she be compelled to give up residency in Balladsville? That's a matter for debate, but during her take on "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," it was hard to complain about anything. What a voice. Seriously, what a voice!
Haley Reinhart: Let's put aside her rather amusing pre-performance reference to "hard-core bangage" and concentrate on what she accomplished during her time onstage. She killed it! As surprised as we were, she freaking killed it! She finally, fully embraced those wonderful bluesy tones and growled her way toward glory during "Bennie and the Jets." Our only fear is that it's too late for Haley to turn the tide and stick around for more than a few weeks.
Scotty McCreery: We're not going to say we get it, but perhaps we're starting to enjoy it. To wit, we've ditched any notion Scotty has a desire to even shout in the direction of a country-free genre. Nor were we surprised to hear his song selection process involved nothing more than finding an Elton tune with "country" in the title. Thusly prepared, we were able to sit back and enjoy the country comfort he was selling. His fluency in the genre, at such a young age, is truly impressive. Whether or not he wins "Idol," Scotty is going to sell millions of records.
Paul McDonald: Paul learned his lesson well last week: Play the guitar, don't dance. Hooray! Sure, his "Rocket Man" started off a little slurry, and the guy has a tendency to come off creepy when he's trying to go smoldery, but we never tire of the tone of his voice. That being said, his voice simply didn't have the oomph to hit those notes that bring out goose bumps.
Lauren Alaina: We've been saying for a while Lauren is at her best when she's not racing through fast-paced tunes, attempting to keep up while jigging and jagging across the stage. In this sense, "Candle in the Wind" was a smart choice, and the arrangement gave the tune some country flavoring that washed away any residual, Princess Di-induced cheesiness. The slowed-down performance gave Lauren a chance to build, getting better as she went and finally finishing on a strong note.
Casey Abrams: Goodbye, bushy beard. Hello, reborn Casey. If there were one singer to nail the emotional aspects of Elton's music, it was Casey. Restrained, tender, satisfying. Coming off the judges' save, he followed Tom Hanks' advice in "Saving Private Ryan": "Earn this!" Earn it he did. Now keep it up, kid!
Naima Adedapo: Her faux-Jamaican accent was the least of her problems. Jimmy Iovine gave the game away when he wondered if Naima could stay in tune: No, no she couldn't. The accent was a bold choice — bolder even than slapping some reggae swag on "I'm Still Standing." But while we felt the song sounded fine with its new arrangement, her accent smacked of gimmickry, a ploy to distract us. We don't think it'll work.
Thia Megia: The 16-year-old avoids a lower grade, if only because the judges have been deeply unfair to her for a few weeks in a row. Other bottom-of-the-barrel singers come in for wild praise no matter how dreadfully they perform. The judges, meanwhile, have absolutely no use for Thia; their condescension is painful to hear and unfair to air. OK, so her take on "Daniel" was pitchy as hell, with phrasing messier than a daycare playroom after snack time, and she couldn't swoop down to hit those low notes if her life depended on it. OK, so she's probably going home on Thursday. But if the judges truly don't like what she does, what the heck is she doing here in the first place?
Jacob Lusk: There's a difference between singing with emotion and singing whilst on the verge of tears — a difference Jacob doesn't seem to grasp. He's uncomfortable to watch, and not nearly pleasant enough to hear. We wanted to step slowly away from the television during his rendition of "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word." All that progress from last week, tossed out the window.
Stefano Langone: The first thing Stefano had to contend with was a brutal intro package in which Jimmy all but announced the kid was going to bomb. The second thing he had to contend with was "Tiny Dancer"; the diminutive singer just didn't have the vocal power the tune demanded, or at least deserved. His phrasings were muddled, but at least his eyes were (mostly) open. Not that it matters much. Stefano's in trouble.
James Durbin: Not even a five-alarm fire can distract us from the fact that James' performance was fun and energetic, but useless as an example of his musical talents. He gets a freaking flaming piano? Someone's playing favorites with the contestants. Also, that reference to a Pepsi moment? Yikes! Thought shalt not speak ill of the deceased, especially not the King of Pop.
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