They may have been dressed like they were going to a prom in the 1980s, but the top seven finalists on "American Idol" finally dragged themselves into the present on Wednesday (April 11) for the "Songs From This Decade" theme night. With a playlist of tunes released between 2010 and this year, they had help from guest mentor Akon on a night that featured hits by everyone from Eminem to Pink, Bruno Mars, Kelly Clarkson and Maroon 5.
After crushing it last week and cementing her status as a front-runner, country girl Skylar Laine played some small ball with the lesser-known Kellie Pickler tune "Didn't You Know How Much I Loved You." Akon was blown away, saying he couldn't stop thinking about Laine's voice, which was a good sign.
On a stage dressed up with flaming hobo barrel fires, Laine busted out her acoustic guitar and turned an obscure tune into another twangy tour-de-force, raising her gritty vocals skyward to match the bursts of pyro from the stage props. "This is what you should do, you could have a hit with a song like that," said Randy Jackson, who dubbed it "crazy hot and crazy good," not to mention pitch perfect. Steven Tyler offered up one of his all-time head-scratching compliments, praising the ladies of season 11 as only he can with the line, "the crows may crow, but the hens deliver the goods." Right, what he said.
Jimmy Iovine said Colton Dixon needed to step out of Phillip Phillips' shadow, so he encouraged the Tennessee titan to up the ante on the song co-written for Eminem by Skylar Grey, "Love the Way You Lie." Posting up behind a white grand piano and accompanied by a string section, Colton hit his falsetto repeatedly to up the drama. And while the big note in the middle was impressive, the soft rock arrangement came off as a bit, well, limp.
As usual, though, the ladies loved it and Jennifer Lopez was again impressed with how Colton coaxed his own unique notes out the tune, which she wished would have been "more of a song." Tyler thought it was so flawless that it could go out as a single right now, with no overdubs.
At first, low-key pawn shop worker Phillips didn't impress Akon and Jimmy with his attempt to do something a "bit different" with a strummy, DMB-ified cover of Maroon 5's "Give a Little More." Saxophone assist or not, Phillips managed to turn the pop tune into another one of his signature scatty, fratty jam rockers.
Despite the sameness of nearly all his performances, Steven praised Phil's melodic evolution on the show, inexplicably comparing the singer to a mix of late tough-guy actor Steve McQueen and country icon Johnny Cash. "It was a little bit underwhelming," said Lopez, still yearning to hear Phil Squared break out and do something different.
Jimmy drew a blank on "Stuttering," the Jazmine Sullivan tune chosen by California girl Jessica Sanchez. But he and Akon were blown away by the teen's power and control, which 'Kon — who predicted she'd go far before the live shows started — dubbed "crazy."
Her confidence paid off, as Sanchez killed the sultry ballad, showing shades of everyone from Alicia Keys to Jennifer Hudson in a controlled, silky smooth performance that mixed elements of jazz, soul and timeless R&B. Randy loved the arrangement and said BeBe Chez set the bar at the "highest degree." Lopez could feel Sanchez digging into the story behind the song in the middle and said the high schooler had a chance to take the "Idol" audience on a ride they've never been on before as next month's finale approaches.
Joshua "Mantasia" Ledet got a 20th birthday shout-out from season 3 "Idol" winner Fantasia and celebrated being almost legal by exiting the ballad barrio and rocking it out to Bruno Mars' "Runaway Baby." Rolling his hips, strutting his stuff and showing off some previously hidden ladies'-man moves, Ledet proved that he's got just as much soul and grit singing uptempo as he does on the slow jams.
Cleary it worked, since he got the night's first standing O from the judges, with Tyler gushing, "you can sell us all like a work of art." Jackson said the performance was, simply, "unbelievable," from the fly white jacket and pink socks to the utter command of the stage.
It was do-or-die week for bottom three staple Texas firecracker Hollie Cavanagh, who hoped to turn things around with Pink's "Perfect." Akon and Jimmy said she has the vocals, but just needs to cross the chasm from an amateur to a confident professional. Singing to an acoustic guitar, Cavanagh finally combined her powerful pipes with some controlled, heart-tugging emotion, ending with a gigantic diva-rific note that slammed an exclamation mark on the performance.
"I feel you fighting. ... You sang beautifully tonight," said Lopez, though Tyler rebutted that it wasn't, in fact, perfect, but a bit flat.
Resident rocker Elise Testone closed the night with the Lady Gaga tune "Yoü and I." She planned on opening on drums, but Jimmy and Akon immediately nixed that idea as too gimmicky. Conscious of not letting her emotions get the most of her again, she started out at the piano and eased her way through the tune with her patented honeyed growl, busting out some serious blues power on the choruses.
"America, Elise is back!" Randy yelled, dubbing it Testone's big comeback.
The show also featured a trio of non-competition performances. Phillips was again paired with Elise Testone for a plinky, waltz-like duet on Gotye's "Somebody That I Used To Know" that bubbled, but never really rose above a simmer. Fake couple Laine and Dixon hooked up for another dramatic country duet, Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson's "Don't You Wanna Stay." Despite Tyler's icky comment about them musically "making love" on stage, their chemistry was ... more like cold fusion.
Finally, besties Cavanagh and Ledet were joined by Sanchez for a shaky run through Clarkson's "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)" whose individual, showy parts never quite added up to a coherent whole.
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