American Idol: Songs Your Grandma Doesn’t Know

Perhaps in response to complaints that recent theme weeks have been overly familiar and have encouraged contestants to play it safe, American Idol went all space-age on us on Wednesday, with a show dedicated to music recorded in the 21st century. How daring! The responses of the final seven to this challenge weren’t as creative as we could have hoped, as most chose to stay safely within their boxes. But a couple of the exceptions might make this week’s results show more up-in-the-air than we might have supposed it would be.

Underdogs awaken?: Haley Reinhart and Stefano Langone are the remaining singers who have been in frequent jeopardy, but both helped themselves quite a bit this week, and arguably had the strongest performances of the bunch.

Haley did something very unusual for the show, taking on a song that’s still rising on the charts, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” It highlighted her biggest asset, her bluesy tone; but also her biggest weaknesses – inconsistent connection with the lyrics and a tendency to lose control on the higher notes. Still, she proved she could be at home on the radio right now, with a little work. Stefano got out of the male diva rut with Ne-Yo’s “Closer,” still a love song but not a straight ballad. He still has to find a way to convey passion without looking as if he’s giving birth onstage, but he came across as potentially marketable also. Did both do enough to stick around?

The safety dance: Jacob Lusk, on the other hand, did a song so old-fashioned, Luther Vandross’s  sentimental “Dance With My Father,” that I had trouble believing it was recorded in the 2000s. He had a really rough start complete with wonky vibrato (not helped by some apparent issues with his ear monitor), but his second half was pretty nice. For whatever reason, Randy Jackson keeps advising Jacob to go over the top vocally, and suggested he should definitely do it next week “if you’re still here.” Well, that doesn’t sound very confident…

About time: After such sins as forgetting his lyrics in Hollywood and phoning it in onstage for the last month, the judges finally had some negative things to say to Scotty McCreery. His very lazy song choice was “Swingin’,” which he identified as by Leann Rimes but is much better known as a massive quasi-novelty hit in the ‘80s for John Anderson. He was all pose, no feeling, and the judges (even Steven Tyler to a slight extent) basically told him he was coasting. Of course, if he winds up safe this week even after singing first and sucking, he’ll have the last laugh, won’t he?

Angry Casey is back: It’s pretty clear by now that America prefers Casey Abrams when he’s quirky and vaguely jazzy, not when he tries to rock, and I suspect his decision to get scowly again on Maroon 5’s “Harder to Breathe” is going to cost him. He looked very uncomfortable trying to work the crowd, and while his decision to plant a kiss on J. Lo’s cheek at the end made the performance memorable, it was a risk also. Keep in mind that this is a man who has technically been eliminated once before.

Probably safe, but …: James Durbin and Lauren Alaina are the ones (along with Scotty) who have yet to be in the bottom three, and that’s likely how it will stay (especially since Lauren got to close the show), but I was underwhelmed by both this week. Lauren showed a little more verve on a forgettable Sara Evans song, “Born to Fly,” but Idol seems bent on turning this lively teenager into a cookie-cutter country Barbie doll, complete with lousy makeup that ages her fifteen years. James turned Muse’s “Uprising” into a wacky production number complete with marching band drummers and an outfit from one of Madonna’s early-‘90s tours, but he was once again flat in the lower register and crazily outta-there when he went screechy on the chorus. At least it wasn’t boring.

Worst. Filler. Ever: To kill some time at the start of the show, we had something that I believe is unprecedented prior to a season finale: the six eliminated contestants came back for a performance. For some reason, the song choice was Pink’s “So What,” even though none of them have anything like Pink’s charisma or rock chops (remember, we’re talking about people like Thia Megia, Ashthon Jones, and Karen Rodriguez). Paul McDonald topped things off with a vocal so ravaged it sounded as if he’d spent the week since his elimination gargling with guillotine blades. Absolutely embarrassing for all concerned.

Bottom Three Prediction: Jacob, Casey, Haley.

Going Home: Jacob.