Glue a wig to your head and put Eminem on speed dial because it's Elton John week on "American Idol X: Ballads Or Bust."
The Top 11 returned to primetime because Casey Abrams was saved last week. ("Saved" in the "Idol" sense, mind you. Lord knows if he's accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.) Producers were keen on trumping up the drama as much as possible, even going so far as recapping last week's results show with a graphic that mimicked a screenplay. "Hope has been renewed. But no more second chances," the Courier font typed out. Because if there's one thing us diehard "Idol" freaks love, it's having Nigel Lythgoe imply that last week's intense results were manufactured by a writer. Whoops!
The Top 11 also stopped by Entertainment Weekly for a photo shoot. Some of them even got makeovers. All that was missing from this "America's Next Top Model" homage was a campy egomaniac and an "I'm not here to make friends" declaration. (If only Simon Cowell and Ellen DeGeneres were still on the show!)
Before I go on a rant about how season three's Elton John theme gave us some of the worst performances in "Idol" history and why in the world would they dip their toe in that pool again, let's get to the performances.
Scotty McCreery (And His Grandmother)
Song: "Country Comfort (Extra-Country Remix)"
Verdict: Memaw Approved
Scotty blindly picked "Country Comfort" because it had the word "country" in it. Good thing it wasn't Nelly week because "Country Grammar" and Scotty would go together like singing and not smirking. Jimmy Iovine's team is still trying to give Scotty suggestions and Scotty is still politely telling them, "Have you forgotten about my nuts of wonder already? I'm Scotty Effing McCreery. Sit yo ass down and take a number. I'm unstoppable."
Not only did Scotty sing the controversial "grandma" verse that Iovine's producers urged him to skip, but he stopped strumming his guitar (Scarlet!) long enough to shout out his adorable grandma in the audience.
To reiterate, he sang a country song about his grandmother. Who was sitting in the audience. In a patterned blouse. He is going to win. All other arguments are invalid.
Song: "I'm Still Standing (Reggae Remix)"
Verdict: Jamaican She Crazy
While working with Naima, Jimmy Iovine confirmed what I've been suspecting all along. If he was in your group of friends, he'd be the one to tell you to jump over the barbed wire, drunk-text your ex, or, in this case, add a spoken word intro to your already bats--- reggae Elton John cover on "American Idol."
Kudos to Naima for taking another "boom fiyah" risk. Too bad she sounded like she was suppressing a burp the entire time. Or maybe that's just a side effect when you adopt a fake Jamaican accent? Oh, that accent. We can add Naima's "We be jammin, mon" delivery to Iovine's growing list of projects in which he probably should have told his artist to ditch the cray-cray voice. (See also: Eminem's Relapse album.)
The truth is I'd rather have Naima's unpredictability over the Pia/Thia belt-a-ballad brigade. Unfortunately, I think her magically-appearing accent might be too offbeat for America to support. If you have to beg the studio audience to stand during "I'm Still Standing," you in danger, girl.
Song: "Rocket Man (Whisper Remix)"
Verdict: We Have Lift Off!
Five years ago, a younger, skinnier Paul McDonald played "Rocket Man" with his band and it was a self-described disaster. McDonald's "Idol" version is worthy of a different "D" word: Damn. As in, "Damn, that was pretty damn good."
Last week's "Tracks of My Tears" showed his strength as a folk-rock frontman, and this week Paul McD showed a believable vulnerable side, which Randy nicknamed "The Tender Zone." (It's like Maverick and Goose's "Danger Zone," only raspier and with much less homoerotic tension.)
I'm shocked that Paul's final whispered "long tiiiiiime" didn’t give Steven Tyler a 15-minute long giggle fit. It did for me, and I wasn't the one who thought the flowers on Paul's suit were multiplying. Ahem.
Song: "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me (Repeat Remix)"
Verdict: Same Sh--, Different Week
Pia. Sang. Another. Ballad. Despite promising America a fast song this week. Pia's promises are as empty as Steven Tyler's critiques.
In Pia's defense, what else was she going to do on Elton John night? I doubt "Idol" would let her sing "The Bitch Is Back." Up-tempo Elton songs are harder to find than sweatpants in Pia's closet.
The big news is Pia actually showed a little spunk this week. First, she rolled around in broken glass backstage to help accessorize her dress. ("Beauty is pain! Pain is beauty!") Then, Pia sang while simultaneously walking. Gasp! Only a few steps at the beginning, mind you. Let's not go crazy. For next week's promised "River Deep, Mountain High" cover, she might even lift up her leg when she sings, as J. Lo suggested. Way to compare Pia to a dog, Jennifer. I got your number, hussy. (Also, since when are "Idol" contestants allowed to announce their future song choices? I guess when it's coming from a liar like Pia, all bets are off.)
Pia's "Don't Let the Sun" was yet another serviceable performance with the perfect big notes landing at precisely the right time. However, it was far from the "Axl Rose meets Fergie" that Iovine inexplicably demanded. (Do you normally put Hunt's ketchup packets on your dry-aged filet mignon, Jimmy?) The biggest revelation was that from certain angles, Pia looks exactly like Kara DioGuardi. And that, my friends, is why she will not win "American Idol."
Song: "Tiny Dancer (Live At The 1985 Tony Awards Remix)"
Stefano's idea of charming America was suggesting that he didn't need a makeover because he's already cute and then bragging that his photo shoot pants are tight. Get it? His penis is huge. Start speed-dialing, grandmas of America! (You too, Memaw McCreery.)
Seacrest teased that Stefano would have us all singing in our seats, but it's hard to sing along when the vocalist pronounces "ballerina" as "ballerinum" and makes viewers gag by holding Jennifer Lopez's hand for his grand finale. ("And for my next trick, I will be voted off!")
Did you notice the suspicious side-eye Papa Langone gave Howie Mandel in the audience? That was me when the judges blabbed about how Stefano finally "connected" with the viewers. Say huh?
If "connecting with the audience" means anticipating when a Steadi-cam is about to swoop around you, Stefano did it. If it means keeping an audience on the edge of their seats with your storytelling, however…
Song: "Candle In the Wind (Deer In Headlights Remix)"
Verdict: Where's My Snuffer?
At long last, America met "the softer side of Lauren Alaina," the side that doodles deep thoughts in the back of her "New Moon" Trapper Keeper. "Sometimes, I wish mom acted like a mom and not, like, you know, one of my friends. I mean, it's cool being able to share clothes and stuff but sometimes I want to be the only one in Juicy Couture sweat suits. Like, she can coordinate with me, if that's important to her. Like, if we both want to wear pink? But as long has her pink outfit is from Chico's or something."
In other words, that's how deep her "Candle In the Wind" got. At times, her faux-motional delivery reminded me of Carrie Underwood's perplexing "MacArthur Park" cover. Someone left the cake out in the rain, and somebody's trying their darndest to keep their inner teenage girl at bay. She's never looked better and she gave the song a beautifully subtle country flavor, but emotionally she channeled Marilyn Monroe ... in 2011.
Song: "Saturday's Alright for Fighting (Piano On Fire Remix)"
Verdict: Whirling Durbin
It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a ... Durbin. He's on the stairs, he's in the laps of audience members, he's on his knees, he's standing on a piano, he's in front of pyro. It's the kind of performance Simon Cowell would have dismissed as "manic" and "desperate" but this is "American Idol X: More More More More More More" and the more cool crap the director can put on his reel, the better.
You guys. There was a piano on fire.
But the real fireworks came after the song, when Durbin joked with Seacrest about avoiding a Michael Jackson hair-on-fire "Pepsi moment" on a Coca-Cola sponsored show, inadvertently bringing this nation back into the frightening throes of the Cola Wars. If Crystal Pepsi or Coke 2 return to our PathMark shelves, we now know who to
Song: "Daniel (For My Brother Remix)"
Verdict: Her Best One Yet!
Song: "Your Song (Hairless Remix)"
Verdict: Casey Sings!
Casey returned to Jimmy Iovine's one-on-one sessions with his tail between his legs. "Do you know what was wrong with [last week's] performance? Everything!" Obi Wan Iovine barked. One makeover montage later, Casey premiered his new look and new attitude.
Abrams' "Your Song" was the "awwwwww" heard 'round the world. Calmly singing (yes, singing!) a love song on a stool is a far cry from shouting in audience members' faces and threatening to "punch a baby," as Blake Lewis so eloquently put it during last week's "Idol Party Live."
It's curious that insiders are leaking "Casey and Haley" hookup rumors the same week Casey performed one of the sweetest love songs ever written. But his mid-song look-back and nod to skinny-minnie accompanist Michael Orland was filled with enough passion to fuel three dozen burly fan-fiction stories. ("And then Haley walked in…")
Abrams kept his angry face at bay until the very end, at which point the director instantly zoomed out so as to limit folks' nightmares. Unless they're scared of space and planetariums. In that case, they had a hell of a time trying to sleep last night.
Tyler Perry Presents Jacob Lusk
Song: "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word (Madea Remix)"
Verdict: Mary J. Blech
Mary J. Blige!
Sorry, I'm just testing the new theory that "Idol" purported during Tyler Perry Presents Jacob Lusk's rehearsal. Nigel Lythgoe would like you to believe that if you say Mary J's name, she will instantly appear to take an awkward closed-eyes fan pic with you. It didn't work for me just now, though. Maybe she’s like Beetlejuice and you have to say it three times?
Mary J. Blige! Mary J. Blige! Mary J. Blige!
Still nothing. Oh well.
Jimmy Iovine and Tricky were worried that Tyler Perry Presents Jacob Lusk would over-dramatize this Elton classic.
Cue the dry ice! Cue the fake crying! Cue the anaconda jaw! Cue the endless final note! Cue the histrionics that would make even Jennifer Holliday say, "Simmer, my child."
In other words, he nailed it?
My favorite moment of Tyler Perry Presents Jacob Lusk's hot mess performance was when his over-emotional phrasing turned the lyrics into "When Charo seems to be the hardest word." If only Charo appeared a la Mary J. Blige. If you're going to go that far over-the-top, you might as well have a little "cuchi cuchi," too.
Song: "Bennie and the Jets (She's Perfect And I Love Her And She Killed It Remix)"
Verdict: I'm a Jet All The Way
It's a glorious thing when the "Idol" planets align and an under-appreciated contestant lives up to his or her full potential. Go all the way back to season one for Christina Christian's "Ain't No Sunshine." Fast forward to season five for Elliott Yamin's "A Song For You." Jennifer Hudson's "Circle of Life." Jason Castro's "Hallelujah." You get the drift.
By the time the new "Idol" coronation song (co-written by Taio Cruz and a coach potato) is being mocked by fans coast to coast, Haley Reinhart's dazzling "Bennie and the Jets" should be remembered as one of the sickest performances of "American Idol X(XX): Just Succumb To the Power and Charm of Haley's Purr Already."
Reinhart threw herself into the song with a wild abandon yet showed Jedi-like control over her voice, which was so on point it helped me swallow that she turned a satirical song about the 1970's rock scene into "Come hither, Bennie. Bring your bandmates. I'm totes gonna do some sex stuff to you right now." (Apparently I'm not the only one who had dirty thoughts when I heard the words "hardcore bangage on the piano" in her pre-performance taped piece.) It was part "The Fabulous Baker Boys," part Koko Taylor, part Betty Boop, part "Thoroughly Modern Millie," part cobra, all infectious joy.
The growls, the yodels, the coos. Steven Tyler said it best. "You. Sing. Sexy."
Who were your faves tonight? What in the world could next week's theme be if Pia the Liar is going to sing "River Deep, Mountain High"? (Tina Turner songs? Universe, make that happen so Naima can rock "Private Dancer" as a Yiddish folk dance.) How relieved were you that Lauren Alaina didn't actually sing the best selling single in Billboard history? (That would be the Princess Diana version of "Candle in the Wind.") Can Howie Mandel go away already? And what do you think the key hanging around Steven Tyler's neck unlocks? Do I even want to know?
Leave a comment below and for more "Idol" insanity, follow me on Twitter @jambajim!