"American Idol" has been mired in the past for weeks, trudging from Motown tunes to Elton John cuts to rock and roll classics. Wednesday night's (April 20) theme, however, will drag the reality show kicking and screaming into the present. Welcome to 21st Century Night on "Idol."
Yet as we enter this new century and hope to learn something of what the contestants might sound like outside the forced theatrics of the "Idol" bubble, we must pause briefly to remember Paul McDonald. He may not have been comfortable belting out covers week after week. He perhaps has been as invested in his new gal pal, "Twilight" star Nikki Reed, as in actually being crowned "Idol" champ. But let's give credit where it's due: The guy's no hipster doofus, but a genuine artist with one of the most unique vocal tones we've ever seen on the show. His rendition of Rod Stewart's "Maggie May" remains one of the most memorable of the season.
Alas, Paul's now gone, and surely none of the remaining seven singers wants to follow him out the door. Here's what we'll be looking for them to deliver when the show goes live. And like last week, we've asked Jim Cantiello — whose "Idol Party Live" hits MTV.com on Thursday at noon ET — to add in his own song picks.
While we remain unconvinced Casey is some pop-jazz guru on the level of Adele and Michael Bublé, the judges have no such reservations. After Randy Jackson and his cohorts hyped up his "educational" cover of "Nature Boy" last week, Casey's got no choice but to embrace his newfound persona as a jazz legend-in-waiting (we continue to prefer his soul and gospel stylings, but hey, at least he's not going in for any more grunge). He'll have to pick up the pace, though, because although we appreciate the risk he took last week, a sleepy lounge-lizard tune won't work a second time around.
Jim's Pick: The Black Keys' "Howlin' for You"
We learned two big things from Haley last week. One, her turnaround from a bottom-three fixture to a contestant capable of wowing judges and voters may have been, quite sadly, a fleeting reality-show quirk rather than evidence that she's gained a legitimate fanbase of her own. And two, voters may not be savvy enough to ignore unjust criticism from the judges. We'll learn a third thing after Wednesday's show: Can Haley bounce back from that subpar performance (the only one the judges didn't slobber over), recall how her bluesy musicality fueled her comeback and deliver a showstopper? We hope so.
Jim's Pick: Feist's "1234"
Jacob seems to be in the position that Haley was last month: confused, conflicted and tentative. One week he's brash, the next he's pouty. The only thing that has been consistent as of late from Jacob are performances that aren't what we expect from someone who's survived the competition for so long. Yet survive he has, falling into the bottom three only once. Jacob clearly has a solid, vote-every-week fanbase, and he should give 'em what they crave: a big, bold number.
Jim's Pick: Janelle Monáe's "Tightrope"
He may have wowed the crowd with his metal-rific performance last week, but we think most of the credit goes to guitar god Zakk Wylde rather than Durbin's vocals. While we'd like to see the 22-year-old tone down the heavy-metal circus and show off his sensitive-rocker side, we have a feeling he'll be encouraged by America's willingness to give metal a chance. It certainly seems to be working for the kid; he can seemingly do no wrong.
Jim's Pick: The Darkness' "I Believe in a Thing Called Love"
For a few weeks now, we've felt a distinct lack of country flavor in Lauren's musical stew. Everyone seems to be expecting the twangy teen to pop off a Taylor Swift tune this week, showing the world what kind of recording artist she'd be, but we say that's simply too obvious a choice. We'll be looking for some country-rock originality, rather than Swift 2.0.
Jim's Pick: Avril Lavigne's "Girlfriend"
There's really nothing to say at this point, is there? Scotty's going to keep doing his country-radio thing and keep doing it exceptionally well. "American Idol" is his to lose, so it seems, and he'd be foolish to stray far from a genre in which he's so proficient. So too would it be silly to hope for something even a touch unexpected. So Scotty, keep doing what you're doing!
Jim's Pick: Josh Turner's "Your Man."
There's a Stefano almost every season on "Idol": a singer who manages to sneak through week after week until we stop wondering how the heck he or she keeps avoiding elimination and simply marvel at an against-all-odds survival story. Is this the week Stefano finally succumbs to the inevitable? Who knows? The key for him will be to build on his free-spirited take on "End of the Road" from last week and show us he's not on please-don't-send-me-home-or-blame-me-for-Pia's-ouster autopilot.
Jim's Pick: Alicia Keys' "No One"
Don't miss "Idol Party Live" every Thursday at noon on MTV.com for analysis, celebrity guests and even some karaoke — get in the conversation by tweeting with the hashtag #idolparty! In the meantime, get your "Idol" fix on MTV News' "American Idol" page, where you'll find all the latest news, interviews and opinions.