It's a well-worn cliché, yes, but this is the point in the "American Idol" season where the men (and the few remaining women) are separated from the boys. It's do-or-die time and if there was any artist whose oeuvre was going to challenge and force the top six to step up their game, it was Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Carole King.
It's safe to say most of the remaining half-dozen "Idol" contestants had either never heard of King, were sorely unfamiliar with her work or, in the case of Scotty McCreery, likely to face an uphill battle finding their groove in her Brill Building pop stylings.
Bouncing back from the bottom three, Jacob Lusk was first out of the gate with "Oh No, Not My Baby" and from the looks of his rehearsals, he struggled to nail it. Wearing a bizarrely colorful ensemble that include a blue-and-white checked jacket, electric blue vest, yellow shirt and purple bowtie, Lusk put his gospel stank on the song and threw in one of his power falsetto wails, not to mention some funky scat runs for a spirited performance that he seemed happy with.
"We all knew you could sing, it's just about time you shook your tail feathers," enthused perpetually cheerful and positive Steven Tyler. Admiring his decision to stick with a difficult song, Jennifer Lopez said there were a few sharp spots, but felt his vocals won out.
Mentor Jimmy Iovine has gone on record saying he thinks teen Lauren Alaina sings Miley Cyrus better than Miley does so he brought "Hannah Montana" herself in to give Lauren a pep talk about not listening to haters and believing in yourself. Pumped up, Lauren happily bopped through the "Gilmore Girls" theme song "Where You Lead (I Will Follow)," pushing into her upper range and working the audience with her usual confidence and sass.
Lopez encouraged the audience to clap and said she was proud of Alaina for pushing through. "Those barriers are hard to break for performers," she said. "You have your insecurities, you have people in your ear, you have everybody telling you ... you only take the negative sometimes." Randy Jackson didn't love the song — which he deemed safe and boring — but definitely sensed the extra swagger and the hard push to win from the slight break in Lauren's voice as she gave it that extra something. "Lauren, continue to go hard for it!" he yelped.
"Idol" producers clearly sense a special chemistry between bearded growler Casey Abrams and Haley Reinhart. In an un-judged performance, the pair hooked up for the classic "I Feel the Earth Move." To quote ex-judge Simon Cowell, it was very karaoke and safe, with Abrams bringing out all his twitchy quirks and both employing unnatural-looking, cheesy walk-and-sing stage moves.
Steven loved it, of course, praising the clear chemistry between them, while suggesting they were more than just musical mates.
After one of the first weeks in which he got tepid remarks, country kid Scotty McCreery picked the soft rock staple "You've Got a Friend," which Iovine said needed a subtlety and poignancy to come across. Singing along to trite Spanish guitar and string section accompaniment, McCreery veered into Glen Campbell/ John Denver territory with smarmy vocals and a seated performance that had a touch of (manufactured) emotion, but lacked star-quality spark.
Jackson was feeling the "tender moment thing" and liked how the song opened with a buttery tenor, but counseled McC not to not fall off the high notes so quickly. "Scotty wants to win it!" he yelled. Tyler said McCreery never sang better and Lopez thought he told the story of the song beautifully.
He's shown us his bombastic side, but rocker James Durbin decided to go with the Shirelles' girl-group smash "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" to give another side of his personality. Strapping on his electric guitar and opening mostly a cappella, Durbin revved up the crowd with his keening doo-wop falsetto and got J.Lo shaking when the band kicked in and he turned the tune into a yearning surf-rock tour de force and another high point in his "Idol" journey.
"You hear that?" Steven asked amid the crowd's screams. "You had me sold on it from the beginning ... it was so beautiful." While he didn't love the rock part at first, Tyler said it grew on him, and J.Lo dubbed it "totally magical" from the beginning and predicted JD would be the night's star. The important thing James did, according to Randy, was that he proved he's not just a great rock singer, but a great singer, period. He went further, predicting that James might just win the whole thing.
The night's other time-filling duet was the third vocal hookup between teens McCreery and Alaina, though the pair awkwardly denied host Ryan Seacrest's suggestions that they were more than singing partners. They did look comfortable singing the swaying "Up on the Roof," giving the airy tune a country twang. Jennifer thought they were in perfect harmony and complimented each other well.
Abrams chose an obscure, hard-to-sing tune, "Hi-De-Ho," with a melody Iovine said was not ambitious, requiring Casey to really bring it. Wearing a jazz-cat porkpie hat and doing his best bluesy scat man act, Abrams grunted and growled through the horn-heavy blues arrangement while displaying all his signature off-putting stage moves and barely finding a melody to grab hold of.
The judges, however, continued to shower praise on him. Randy loved how Casey always keeps it fresh and said he brings something entertaining every week and the effort was apparently so great it made Tyler's scalp itch. Lopez liked seeing Casey interact with the musicians and work the stage, but she suggested he needed to loosen his legs up a bit and move more fluidly.
Taking the all-important pimp spot, Haley Reinhart picked the Beatles-esque ballad "Beautiful." And after a bit of a technical glitch, she offered up another solid, if unspectacular performance that had some emotional range and bounce, but not many vocal fireworks.
"Haley, you are as beautiful as all that song is," Steven gushed, adding, "I just saw God, I heard God in your voice ... you nailed it just now!" For J.Lo, it was simply beautiful, with an added note that she thinks Reinhart has one of the best voices in the competition.
The show ended with an awkward duet on "I'm Into Something Good" between Durbin and Lusk, who were as skeptical as the rest of us about how it might turn out. And, well, it was very "Glee" and not that great, down to the white pants and goofy local theater production stagecraft.
Thursday night's elimination show will feature performances from Bruno Mars and last year's runner-up, Crystal Bowersox.
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.