The music of Billy Joel might not be the most obvious choice for a competition designed to create a recording star in 2012. His last pop album came a good 19 years ago, which helps to explain why so many of this year’s American Idol contestants seemed thoroughly unfamiliar with his body of work (not to mention Idol judges – Steven Tyler admitted he had never heard the not exactly obscure “She’s Got a Way,” released back when the Aerosmith singer was at his substance-abusing depths).
But Joel proved to be a decent test for the 10 remaining Idolizers. His music provides opportunities to reinterpret for those so inclined, but his strong but simple melodies are also a pitfall for those who don’t really know how to approach singing on Idol except via vocal bludgeoning. And I think at least two of our supposed major contenders showed some evidence Wednesday that they may not have the finesse to go the distance.
Despite the totally superfluous contributions of new Idol style guru Tommy Hilfiger, who made his debut this week, and the who-the-hell-thought-this-up mentoring of noted Joel maven Diddy, it wasn’t such a bad night after all. Even the two songs that had obvious problems were at least bad in a way that entertained. Up at the top is our frequent bottom three denizen …
Elise Testone: Not surprising that someone who is old enough to possibly remember when Joel still made hits was easily tops of the night. Neither Jimmy Iovine nor Diddy were thrilled by her decision to go with the album cut “Vienna,” and it might not have been the best idea for the vote-challenged Elise to choose a relatively unfamiliar song. But this was a rare case on Idol where you could tell someone was genuinely dialed in to a song’s lyrics, and wasn’t just performing. She brought all her experience to bear, and it was nice to see the judges acknowledge how good this was. A couple of Elise’s young vocal students were brought on stage to cry with joy along with her, but I will be the one weeping if this is all too subtle for America, or if she’s done in by another lousy performance spot (fifth of ten). B+
Jessica Sanchez: It was back to the ballads this week, and a thoroughly boring one: “Everybody Has a Dream.” It’s never a good thing when one of your songs can be mistaken for an Idol coronation number. Jimmy and Diddy seem concerned that she oversings too much and doesn’t connect with viewers, but I can see why she retreated to what she knows best after getting hammered a week ago, and this was a terrific vocal exercise, one weakened only slightly by too much cheese at the end. If you could combine her youth and sheer power with Elise’s nuance, you’d have an unbeatable singer, albeit someone who wouldn’t need Idol. B
Erika Van Pelt: So what do you do when it is frequently observed that your styling leaves you looking frumpy and older than your 26 years? Why naturally, you get a new hair color and cut that leaves you resembling the fiftysomething Kris Jenner. Nope, not a fan of Erika’s new look, but this was a tasteful version of “New York State of Mind,” which she managed to connect to without falling into the cruise ship trap that looms as a danger with this song. I’m not sure why voters have had such trouble warming up to her, because she can belt while still displaying subtlety where it’s needed. This Red Sox fan might need some Big Apple vote support this week. B
Phillip Phillips: If you knew Phillip was going to do “Movin’ Out,” you could probably guess how it would sound, and that’s both his strength and his weakness. His fans know who he is, but he’s not the most versatile guy out there, despite his superficial skill at rearranging songs to fit his vibe (there was no way he was going along with Diddy’s suggestion to lose the guitar, or Tommy’s advice to abandon his gray color palette). He sounded a little less winded a week removed from his surgery, but just once I’d like to see him try to work with a song as is instead of “Phillip Phillipsing it,” to use Steven’s term. B-
Skylar Laine: Aren’t we one big melting pot: Mississippi country girl Skylar was so happy to meet Diddy! She probably wasn’t too thrilled to see this week’s featured artist, though. Skylar managed to pick the one Joel song with a prominent country cover version, “Shameless,” which was a sizable hit for Garth Brooks. I never believed she was comfortable on this song, but unlike Joshua (see below), she did a better job of covering that up. Once she got past the too-low opening verse, she started connecting, and she’s a strong enough performer to sell music she doesn’t necessarily like. Skylar really hasn’t had an ideal theme week yet, but not much has slowed her down. B-
Colton Dixon: He selected the iconic “Piano Man,” sang it at the piano, and got to close the show, so clearly this was supposed to be this week’s Moment. But mostly, Colton reminded me of all the reasons I’m probably going to spend May hoping someone else wins Season 11. There was his shameless shout-out to God in his interview with Ryan Seacrest. There was his bragging about how “edgy” he is to Tommy – uh, dude: you’re on American Idol. Most of all, it was that little whine he does whenever he’s trying to convey emotion, which hits my ears like nails on a chalkboard. The arrangement was fine, and telling Tommy to stuff it in regards to his hair advice is OK with me (not that I disagree with Tommy), but this guy isn’t connecting with me. C+
Hollie Cavanagh: The test for Hollie this week was that while Joel has plenty of ballads to choose from, they aren’t the kind of songs that fit her belty style, and many of them come from a place of adult disillusionment, such as “Honesty,” which is what she ended up choosing. Surprisingly, Diddy tried to clue her in to the lyrical nuances here, but it wound up being standard Hollie, with the only difference being that her unfamiliarity with the song led her to miss more than a few notes. To top it off, Tommy took note of her outdated styling to this point, and proceeded to make matters worse. Hollie is beginning to look ominously limited in what she can do, though you have to admit she does that one thing really well. C+
Joshua Ledet: Joshua seemed to psych himself out from the jump, essentially admitting that he can’t sing without throwing gospel ruffles and flourishes into everything. There aren’t many Joel songs where this will work, and it sure didn’t work on “She’s Got a Way.” He looked literally nauseous while singing, and the tacked-on gospel choir just underscored what an ill fit this all was. Jennifer Lopez seemed to be saying (without actually saying it) that Joshua isn’t believable singing about romantic love, so he might want to work on that. He is probably fine based on his excellent job last week, but Joshua’s inability to handle the melody here isn’t a good sign for him going forward. C
DeAndre Brackensick: Zac Efron may be dropping condoms all over L.A. these days, but there’s a reason High School Musical didn’t contain any songs about taking a girl’s virginity. This version of “Only the Good Die Young” was so misguided all you could do was laugh, with DeAndre hopping all over the stage and showing no appreciation of the sarcastic lyrics. Though the decision to limit his falsetto was a wise one, he sounded more gravelly than we’ve heard him. This isn’t the first time DeAndre has shown difficulty connecting to an unfamiliar song; add in that he performed first on the night, and it’s a recipe for real trouble on Thursday. C
Heejun Han: Here’s my theory about Heejun: as the competition has gone on, and especially after taking his first major criticism last week, he has come to realize he doesn’t really have a chance to win. So he’s now decided to go all comedy, all the time. It was obvious Diddy didn’t know what to make of him, and when Tommy asked him who his style hero was, he gave the deadpan answer “Jessica Sanchez.” He started out as if he was going to do another ballad before stopping the pianist, tearing off his jacket, and launching into a campy “My Life.” Yeah, this was the uptempo Heejun I’ve been asking for, but it basically proved he can’t sing this material – shouty and with a lower register that disappeared. Jennifer and Randy Jackson at least gave him thumbs up for comedy, but Steven seemed offended by Heejun revealing himself as someone who isn’t taking Idol seriously anymore. Usually that’s a killer with voters, but I would be stunned to see him going already. D for singing, B for humor
Shoulda taken it to eBay: Steven threw one of his iconic scarves to Phillip … who promptly tossed it to a fan in the audience.
Oh yeah. Him: J. Lo slipped up at one point and referred to her ex by the name he was using back when they were together, “Puffy.”
Randy’s moment of Zen: To Phillip: “Those that do, should. You just did because you do, and you know who you are.”
Bottom Three prediction: DeAndre, Elise, Erika.
Going Home: Erika.