The theme on Wednesday's (April 20) "American Idol" top-seven performance night was music from the 21st century, and while James Durbin blew it out with a Muse extravaganza, Jacob Lusk took it down for a touching Luther Vandross tribute and teens Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina played it close to the vest with traditional country tunes.
First up was McCreery, who sang "Swingin' " by LeAnn Rimes, giving it his usual dose of country comfort. Backed by a four-piece horn section, McCreery brought the whole arsenal: the bizarre sideways-mic technique, the George W. Bush-esque facial tics and the "down-home" charm. For the first time this season, though, McCreery's shtick seemed a bit phoned-in and fell a bit flat, lacking his usual appeal.
While the crowd ate it up, Steven Tyler suggested Scotty move his body a bit more when he performs and Jennifer Lopez said it was that time in the competition for Scotty to move beyond his comfort zone and show America his full range. "It's time to pull out the big guns," she said, noting that McC had a whole decade of music to choose from and picked a tame song. "We were expecting more from Scotty on that one. Randy Jackson served up the ultimate "Idol" judge's dis, calling the song choice "safe."
Looking like a rock and roll shock trooper in an all-black ensemble, James Durbin went truly contemporary by picking Muse's bombastic "Uprising." Mentor Jimmy Iovine loved the song choice and Durbin delivered, coming out alongside a marching band drum section and wearing a post-apocalyptic shredded black overcoat. Though tentative at first, Durbin leaned into the chorus and showed nice vocal control, swinging his truncated mic stand in the classic fashion of late Queen singer Freddie Mercury and not being shy with his glass-shattering upper register.
J.Lo was blown away. "I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that that theatrically, this is going to be the best performance of the night," she said, marveling at how high his voice reached. Randy hopes JD follows that direction on his album and mixes the pomp with metal, predicting (correctly, as it turned out) that it could be the best performance of the night.
You can't really go wrong by picking a song from the best-selling album of 2011 to date, so Haley Reinhart's take on Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" was probably her best choice so far. Iovine counseled her to tap into the tune's heartache, and wearing a throwback red and white polka-dot dress, Reinhart busted out her signature growl and put bluesy emotion into the tune, but at times still came off a bit too chipper.
Randy said he's not only looking for a winner, but also trying to figure out what direction the singers might go in after the show and he praised Haley's choice, even if the falsetto was a bit wobbly at times. Tyler loved it, even with the slow start and Lopez said it took guts to take on such a well-known song. "There were moments when you did ... you brought a little bit of Haley to it in certain moments," she said.
After all the comparisons, Jacob Lusk wisely went with the Luther Vandross classic "Dance With my Father," (on the late R&B great's birthday, no less), reaching deep for memories of his own long-departed father. Looking like he was straining to keep it together, Lusk sat serenely on stool center-stage and sang the uplifting tune in his breathy falsetto, bringing power and grit without his usual over-emoting.
"Luther Lusk!" Tyler enthused. "You remind me all the time the reason I love music." After a few weeks of bland platitudes, Lopez served up another of her useful real-life artist comments, telling Jacob that part of being an artist is tapping into the emotion of a track without losing control. Randy agreed and said the vocals were good, but it didn't excite him and encouraged Lusk to "go for it" next week.
Casey Abrams chose Maroon 5's "Harder to Breathe," strapping on an electric guitar and tapping into his blue-eyed soul man for the bouncy white-funk tune. Moving spastically across the stage slapping hands with the audience, Abrams gave a performance that was manic at points, as he flashed his unfortunate scary face a few too many times, ending the song by getting uncomfortably close to Lopez's face and then planting a kiss on her cheek.
"I loved it," Lopez blushed, clarifying that she was talking about the performance, not the soft-lips kiss and praising Abrams for taking a pop tune into the rock zone. With memories of the disastrous Nirvana performance from earlier in the season, Jackson was worried the Maroon 5 song wouldn't pan out, but said the risk-taking worked and said Casey should continue pushing the envelope. "There's millions of people in America that are really angry because you piss them off because you're so f---ing good," Tyler said, eliciting wide-eyed looks from his fellow judges and some nimble-fingered dead air from the network censors.
He's well-acquainted with the bottom three, so Iovine said Stefano Langone needed "Closer" by Ne-Yo to have the right sex appeal and strut, without coming off like begging. Wearing a romper-stomper pseudo-punk outfit complete with drooping red suspenders, Langone served up another cheesy, vocally weak performance that felt more like an over-eager high school musical solo than the work of the next "American Idol."
Expecting it to be jerky, bad karaoke, Jackson said Stefano pulled it off and smartly took his time on the early verses, even working in a few nice dance steps. Speaking for the ladies, Lopez said Langone had his swag on and worked the audience.
Thursday night's pimp spot belonged to teen Lauren Alaina, who sang Sara Evans' "Born to Fly" with some help from Miley Cyrus' producers, Rock Mafia. Iovine picked them to once again motivate Alaina to bring her best and not shrink away from the pressure. Working the stage like a pro, Alaina shimmied and strutted her way through the fiddle-tastic song that most of America was probably not familiar with. It was a bit of a generic arrangement and though Alaina came off confident and brassy, the song lacked the kind of dynamics needed to show off her vocal talent.
Tyler suggested some Faith Hill or Shania Twain next time, while Lopez praised the color in the 16-year-old's voice and encouraged her to go for the big notes she hears the other singers trying. "You can do that, do that next time," Lopez said. "Try it. Try it at home by yourself. Scream, yell, in the shower, in the closet ... just let it out and see how far and how long you can hold it ... because you can do that!"
In a huge switch from past years, when eliminated contestants who left "Idol" were rarely heard from again, the show opened with all of this year's booted singers doing a group sing on Pink's "So What," with Pia Toscano, Naima Adedapo, Karen Rodriguez, Thia Megia and Ashthon Jones.
Thursday's results show will feature the return of season-seven winner David Cook singing his new single "The Last Goodbye," and Katy Perry beaming in for "E.T."
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