The question heading into Wednesday's "American Idol" was no longer why Pia Toscano was booted off so prematurely, but whether the judges would learn a much-needed lesson from her departure. Would Randy, Jennifer and Steven realize their jobs are to dole out expert critiques and sagacious notes, shaping public opinion and letting contestants know what's working and what needs overhauling?
Any hope the judges had recalibrated their critical approach was pretty much lost when J.Lo announced, after a competent but hardly revelatory tune from Scotty McCreery, "Everybody wants us to be tough with you guys, but the truth is y'all are so damn good. All I really want to say is wow." And our last bit of optimism was flushed away as Lopez, during her review of Haley Reinhart, essentially exposed herself as a judge who will place sentiment (in this case, mealy-mouthed girl-power favoritism) ahead of objective reality. In past seasons, even when Simon Cowell would confess to personally liking an "Idol" hopeful, he'd still have no problem laying down some hard truths.
No wonder, as Ryan Seacrest put it last night, this season is clouded by an "insane level of uncertainty." But there's nothing ambiguous about our "Idol" report card. The fact is, Wednesday's night show — theme: songs of the cinema — wasn't much to behold. No one bombed, but no one blew us away either. If the judges won't lay down some truth, we will.
Lauren Alaina: We're not sure what Miley Cyrus did to earn Jimmy Iovine's enmity, but the guy seemed almost as concerned with ripping the Disney starlet as he was with anointing Lauren as a superstar. In any event, saying Lauren is better than Miley is kind of a backhanded compliment, no? During "The Climb," she struggled with some pitch problems but showed off an emotive voice and been-doing-this-all-my-life comfort level onstage. One question though: What happened to the country-infused Lauren we've come to know? We dig the ballads, but we want that light Southern twang back in the mix. In the end, Lauren lands a top grade, not because her performance was astonishing but because a) she was a pleasure to listen to, and b) there's no way James Durbin gets an "excellent" just because he shared the stage with shred-master Zakk Wylde.
Scotty McCreery: Let's put aside the laughable thesis that Scotty was returning to his country roots on Wednesday, because he's showed next to no genre growth all season. That's not meant as a knock. In fact, he presents quite an interesting "Idol" model: the fully formed artist who does one thing so well, there's little reason to test uncharted artistic waters. And hey, during his George Strait tune, Scotty let his vocals stretch further than they have on the show, even holding one note long enough for us to think, "Geez, he's actually holding a note."
James Durbin: We knew this was coming. James couldn't be expected to go all sensitive-rocker for a second consecutive week, even though we continue to argue that's when he's at his best. Alas, his heavy metal take on Sammy Hagar left us feeling much as we did during his cover of Elton John's "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" a few weeks ago: tons of fun to watch, but useless as an example of vocal expertise — something he has hardly established he possesses. Haley getting beat up for not giving her vocals an opportunity to sparkle while James didn't is a deep injustice, a sign that some singers continue to get free passes while others can't catch a break.
Paul McDonald: We knew we should worry as soon as Paul showed up onstage without a guitar and was free to wobble around like that spinning top from "Inception." It never works out well, does it? Paul's energy was high and his ability to pump up a crowd remained intact, but we just didn't get a very good chance to assess Paul the singer, rather than Paul the showman. We fear he'll end up in the bottom three this week; we hope he doesn't get sent home.
Haley Reinhart: Haley! Haley! Why? Why Blondie's "Call Me" and why that arrangement? Listen, we actually enjoyed it. Or maybe we just enjoy her. But the judges were correct that the song didn't allow Haley to showcase her vocals — those great soulful growls. Any momentum she had accrued over the last few weeks likely fizzled away, perhaps not because her performance was worse than anyone else's (it wasn't, not by a long shot), but because she doesn't seem to have worked her way into a permanent, do-no-wrong place in the judges' hearts. How can she possibly be the only contestant to get slammed, when no one else gets so much as an unkind word tossed his or her way? We can only hope voters see through the judges' transparent cheerleading for everyone and bullying of Haley and give her enough support to rediscover her artistic sweet spot.
Stefano Langone: This one's tricky. Was Stefano's take on Boyz II Men's "End of the Road" his finest performance of the season — a notch above his surprising showstopper last month of Simply Red's "If You Don't Know Me By Now"? That's up for debate. What is clear is Stefano showed more vocal and emotional abandon on Wednesday night than he has since coming on the show. Yet it's also clear he generally doesn't possess a particularly powerful instrument. The judges did their best to make Haley this week's fall gal, but there's no doubting who is the more compelling artist between the two. Hint: It ain't Stefano.
Casey Abrams: Did we fall asleep and miss five weeks of this competition? Since when did Casey remake his artistic identity into some pop-jazz fusion of Adele and Michael Bublé? Because according to the judges, that's who he is, and as far as we can tell, up until Wednesday night he's shown himself to be a gospel, blues and soul cat. Remember Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Joe Cocker and Marvin Gaye? It's almost as if the judges have no idea what they're talking about! (LOL!) Anyway, Casey's cover of "Nature Boy" started off slow and creepy (what's new?) and then graduated into something free flowing, but instead of giving in to the growls, he tried out some skatting (points for creativity?). It was perfectly pleasant, yet we remain confused. How does a song like that not receive a lick of criticism and — out of nowhere — remake Casey into the lovechild of two multi-platinum artists?
Jacob Lusk: You could say Jacob showed up a changed man, humbled by Jimmy Iovine's comments that preaching to America is deeply uncool. Or you could say Jacob entered this week a pouty little kid whose toys have been taken away from him. During his pre-performance package, Jacob couldn't muster up much enthusiasm for anything. And his cover of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" began so uncertainly, we feared he'd forgotten the lyrics. He recovered, eventually, finding the melody and finishing with a doozy of a sustain. That big finish, though, can't change the fact that the first five-sixths of the tune was a mess.
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