It's all been building to this, we suppose, an episode of "American Idol" so chock-full of judges' clichés and producers' out-of-nowhere talking points that the show almost became a parody of itself. Suddenly and jarringly on Wednesday, the focus was on nothing but what type of recording artist each singer might become, at nearly the complete expense of critical performance evaluation. And goodness — the reality-show gibberish! All the night, the talk was about who's in it to win it, who's leaving it all up onstage, who's just having fun up there, who's not broke and thus not in need of fixing. Steven Tyler said "it's a beautiful thing" so many times, the phrase almost transcended its own vapidity and became a commentary of "American Idol" itself.
Yet all this is just background noise (however grating it is to hear) and shouldn't distract us from the main attraction: Haley Reinhart owned it last night. Boom! We'd end our "Idol" report card right there, giving her two "excellents" and the rest of the competition incompletes. But that's not the way things work around here. Nor is it the way things work out there in the land of finicky "Idol' voters. Everyone must stand up and be judged (even if the judges themselves don't understand that).
Haley Reinhart, "The House of the Rising Sun": We'll get to the mind-boggling critique of her first song in a second, but for now let's just salute Haley for bouncing back and giving arguably her finest performance of the season with this Animals tune. As the song rose from gentle a cappella intro to full-throated emotional release, the human-hear-me-roar aggression in her voice gave us goose bumps. It was too good for even the judges to slam.
Haley Reinhart, "You and I": Here's the thing: This may have been a Lady Gaga song, but this was certainly not a Lady Gaga performance. And in the judges' insistence that Haley was attempting to reinvent herself as Gaga Lite, we saw the absurdity of their insistence to make the entire show about what kind of recording artist everyone will be. Haley was doing no such thing. If anything, she infused some heavy Janis Joplin into this beautiful and jazzy performance, bringing out Gaga's inherent bluesy-ness in the process. The judges should be ashamed of themselves for this one.
Lauren Alaina, "Flat on the Floor": We're reluctant to say anything as formulaic as, "She's back, baby!," but it's hard to ignore how much more confident Lauren was on Wednesday, compared to her performances over the last month. She was in her country comfort zone with Carrie Underwood's song, stomping around the stage like a cowgirl, and sounding darn good doing it.
Scotty McCreery, "Gone": Look at good ol' Scotty getting his swagger up! This was a more hard-charging performance than we've ever seen from him. He jumped, he skipped, he engaged in a fun call-and-response with his backup singers. What is there to say about his vocals? Not much, since they're always on point.
Lauren Alaina, "Unchained Melody": While this familiar tune didn't outdo her first performance, it was very well done. She dropped the country twang and sang a straightforward ballad, hitting the notes she needed to but not reaching for ones outside her vocal range. And the judges? The judges threw up their hands, abdicated their responsibility and fawned over Lauren like she was one part Carrie Underwood, one part Jesus of Nazareth.
Scotty McCreery, "Always on My Mind": We couldn't expect Scotty to get semi-experimental twice, could we? For his second song, he was back in familiar territory. Elvis Presley, again. We probably wouldn't complain if the song weren't so sleepy. He just plodded along, a bit drearily, a bit tenderly. After the top-notch first performance, this one was a letdown.
Jacob Lusk, "Love Hurts": Love, much like this performance, can be painful. There was something borderline schizophrenic about the way his vocals slipped and slid from one end of the musical scale to the other. And while the judges applauded the way he brought the song to a conclusion, we'll just say this: We're not sure what happened at the end of "Love Hurts," but it didn't correspond to recognizable human activity.
James Durbin, "Without You": This was a big improvement over his earlier performance, which we'll address below. We always like James better when he's going slow and sensitive. What we're unsure about is all that Lusk-like emotion he displayed during the performance. Is he laying it on too thick, or are we just being cynical? Perhaps both. What we are certain about is there's not a sharp note the judges can't dismiss with empty talk about artistry and emotion.
James Durbin, "Closer to the Edge": In a word: weird! James' vocals began weak and low, then graduated to a sort of pitch-dizzy warbling. This was Adam Lambert with strep throat. We do, however, think 30 Seconds to Mars is a good artistic fit for James. Nonetheless, this performance just didn't work, even if Randy Jackson insisted that, yes, James is in it to win it.
Jacob Lusk, "No Air": As he has all season, Jacob struggled with his phrasing and his dance moves during "No Air." He was shouty, he was pitchy and his diva boogying — which, honestly, we've done our best not to comment on all season — was out of control as he undulated like one of those flailing inflatable men looming over used car dealerships. Thank goodness for Randy, who offered up a reality-based critique after Jennifer Lopez hailed the performance. Jacob, it's been a blast watching you each week, but I think even you can agree, it's time to pack your bags and head home.
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.