And then there were four. On Wednesday (May 11) night's "American Idol" performance show, the final four were tasked with picking a song that inspired them and then choosing a tune from the formidable songbook of legendary songwriting team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller ("Stand By Me," "Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock").
Oh, and Lady Gaga popped in to mentor them. So, like, no pressure.
James Durbin busted out of the gate with Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," as his inspirational song. It was fine. He hit some high notes and had the right bar rock atmospherics, but it felt a bit karaoke and not quite as special as his previous efforts.
Jennifer Lopez, though, called it "amazing," loved the song choice and found nothing to fault James with. Randy Jackson (who everyone repeatedly mentioned had performed the song countless times while playing in Journey) also loved it, slathered some love on his homeys in the classic rock band and labeled James' performance, um, the "highest degree of difficulty."
For Haley Reinhart it was Michael Jackson's environmental anthem, "Earth Song." Not one of his strongest compositions, the song didn't do Haley any favors, as she sounded hoarse and out of tune and somewhat lost in a schmaltzy arrangement that didn't let her show off her chops. When she got to the part where the gospel choir backed her up, Reinhart brought out the bluesy growl, but it just kind of sounded like atonal shouting.
The judges were not into it at all, with Lopez saying she could feel the inspiration, but after Durbin apparently set the bar and got people on their feet, she felt Haley dropped the ball with a song that didn't hype the room. "The song doesn't really suit you," Jackson said, slamming Haley for not being able to reach the proper notes to sell the performance. "The song needed you to deliver it ... I felt like you were just screaming at the end over and over."
A defiant Reinhart practically cut Jackson off and visibly disagreed with his comments as Steven Tyler jumped to her defense and said, "They're both wrong ... that song showed me that you can ... don't believe them."
After that battle royale, Scotty McCreery brought everyone together again with Alan Jackson's "Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning." Like Durbin's brown-nosing choice, it was a savvy pick in light of the recent killing of terror master Osama bin Laden and lyrics about the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Strumming an acoustic and accompanied by a lonesome fiddle, McCreery did it again, hitting all the right sweet spots with a sincere, deep-voiced rendition of the ballad about war, love and Jesus.
"I think it's the perfect song choice for where we are now as a country," said a somber Jackson. "Those lyrics to that song, just a simple guy singing simple songs, I hope that you keep that because I think you've set your mark on this stage this season. You're ready for superstardom dude and I hope you make it." Tyler agreed, calling it beautiful and applauding the sincere near tear in Scotty's eye as he sang the dramatic tune. And J.Lo? She's just plain in love and said Scotty's honesty is a mark of someone who was born to be a star.
It was "Anyway" by Martina McBride for Lauren Alaina, who also went topical with a song she sent out to the people in her hometown who were affected by the recent tornados. With lyrics about devastating storms and, yes, God, Alaina, dressed in a flowing burgundy prom gown, belted the song out like a champ, hitting a couple of scaling notes that had the power and confidence that mentor Jimmy Iovine has been pushing her to find all season.
"You did it again, you broke my heart," Tyler said, calling her voice pure, perfect and right on pitch, and then comparing her to a "blue plate special." Lopez agreed that Lauren is clearly taking their advice and Randy said after a shaky week last week, Alaina was, yes, "back in it to win it."
"You know what was wrong with that performance?" he shouted. "Absolutely nothing!"
The second round brought out Gaga, who was done up like a gothic Muppet, with a black leather leotard with a silver zipper-dripping collar, skunk-stripe bob wig, a giant black dot on her cheek and exaggerated eye makeup. Haley was up first with "I Who Have Nothing," a tune she needed to kill in order to get back in the game. Gaga encouraged Reinhart to go crazy with the vocals and bring the over-the-top drama.
Backed by a full string section, Reinhart went into full diva mode, mixing musical theater bombast with Celine Dion-like theatrics and that special touch of desperation that Gaga suggested. It got her a standing ovation from the judges and the crowd. "This is why we can't take it easy on you, baby!" Lopez howled. "Look what you're capable of! We will never take it easy on you ... one of the best performances of the year." With everyone needing "a moment" to shine, Jackson said Reinhart found hers and potentially launched herself back into contention.
Gaga liked how the Coasters' "Young Blood" showed the humor in Scotty's voice, but she pushed him to get more emotional and let loose. Going casual in jeans and flannel, McCreery stared pop-eyed into the camera like a character from the old country variety show "Hee-Haw" and definitely had fun, and though the performance was entertaining, it came off a bit silly and lightweight.
Randy liked how Scotty went from serious in round one to goofy in round two. "I think we just saw both sides of a Scotty concert," he said, dubbing McC ready for the big time. "You made Gaga's yaya go lala," Tyler added cryptically about the odd chemistry between Scotty and Gaga.
Lauren Alaina picked Elvis' "Trouble," and after scaring Scotty enough to make him kiss his crucifix, Gaga told the good ol' girl not to be hung up on the word "evil" and just get into character. Wearing a gold lamé dress and matching spangly jacket, Lauren gave Haley a run for her money in the blues-mama race, and then kicked it up a notch and busted into a quickstep portion of the tune before finishing with some more growly notes and a playful yelp.
Lopez saw an attacking, mature, sexy performance persona in 16-year-old Alaina that she hadn't seen before and Jackson said, like Scotty, it showed a more fun side of the teenager.
Durbin closed the show with "Love Potion No. 9," with Gaga telling him to get his hips into it and shake his rump. Turning the song into a Bad Company-like rocker, James took the advice, getting down on his knees, wiggling his legs, strutting out into the audience and ending with a pregnant pause and a pair of Robert Plant-like wails.
"You know what that showed me, James? That you can sing anything," said Lopez, who wasn't expecting Durbin to be able to pull it off. "You take any song and you put that James thing on it." Using a sports metaphor, Randy said James is peaking at just the right time.
Who do you think killed it on Wednesday night? Let us know in the comments below!
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