If there's one thing we've learned during our "American Idol" studies this season, it's not to get lost in the extraneous trappings of the show — the over-the-top theatrics, the couldn't-be-less-enlightening-if-they-tried judges' commentary, the schmaltzy video packages meant to tug heartstrings and sway votes. That's because voters have shown an admirable ability and initiative to go it alone, voting for the singers they believe in, the singers they feel are the best, and ignoring all the distractions. It's as if, with Simon Cowell gone and producers seemingly attempting to micromanage the competition like never before, each viewer has decided, To hell with it, I'm gonna trust my own gut this time.
And so as we dole out grades for Wednesday's show and attempt to predict who'll make it into the finale, we'll be careful not to read too much into judges' praise or dads shredding guitars up onstage. All that's just noise. Let's concentrate on how Scotty McCreery, Haley Reinhart and Lauren Alaina sang — and if they'll be around to sing in next week's show.
Haley Reinhart: "What Is and What Should Never Be"
This is how good Haley's cover of this Led Zeppelin tune was: so freaking good she could trip on a step, turn toward the judges and offer a fierce, "Baby!" and it all seemed in keeping with her energetic, leave-it-all-up-onstage performance. She flitted airily through early verses, stomped with a blues-rock sultriness through the chorus, and left us (as well as, oddly, Randy "I Don't Really Like Haley That Much and I Can't Hide It" Jackson) giving her standing ovation.
Scotty McCreery: "Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not?"
We trust the first thing Scotty did at the end of the show was go over and shake Jimmy Iovine's hand for giving him a song with a chorus that challenged all his fans at home, "Are you gonna kiss me or not?" Our guess is that after this hip-shaking rendition, in which Scotty played to the camera better than he has all season, viewers were popping off smooches in the form of votes for hours and hours.
Scotty McCreery: "Amazed"
If this Lonestar cover didn't rise to the level of "Gonna Kiss Me," it was only a narrow miss. Scotty showed an admirable affinity for melody and a true emotional connection to the song. And let's applaud the kid for reaching up for a higher register. This is his version of artistic growth: not in content (old-school country music flows through his veins) but in form. As if there could be any doubters at this point, Scotty's first two performances made clear the kid will be — and deserves to be — in the finale.
Lauren Alaina: "If I Die Young"
In our "Idol" preview on Wednesday, we hoped Lauren would grab hold of a mid-tempo country ditty, as those not-too-fast-not-too-slow songs offer the teenager the most room to show off her vocal gifts. There was something almost coquettish, yet somehow not off-putting or inappropriate, about the performance. Simply put, her confidence showed through as she glided along the song's lovely melody. Did she miss that key change? Yes, and that's perhaps the only thing keeping this song away from "excellent" territory.
Haley Reinhart: "Rhiannon"
Can we ignore that ridiculous wind machine? No, we can't — you're indoors, not on the bow of the Titanic next to Leonardo DiCaprio! Distractions aside, Haley connected so soulfully to the music, despite the way she had to battle with a particularly shrieky backup singer. While the performance faltered slightly once the tempo picked up, it left no confusion in our minds: Haley deserves to be in the finale.
Lauren Alaina: "I Hope You Dance"
In theory, this Lee Ann Womack song was the perfect fit for Lauren's country sweet spot. In practice, it was a little cheesy, even after she added some much-needed vocal oomph before and during the second chorus. With Scotty and Haley both delivering two top-notch performances, it'll be interesting to see how voters treat Lauren. We wouldn't be surprised if she's the odd singer out on Thursday's elimination show.
Haley Reinhart: "You Oughta Know"
Last season, Crystal Bowersox united with Alanis Morissette for a rousing rendition of this '90s smash. Haley's take on the tune was a pale imitation of that performance. She started off too quietly, struggled with her phrasing throughout, and even when the guitar kicked in and the energy picked up, the song never quite came together. We do appreciate, though, that she boldly ran up and down the stairs again after her earlier fall. Haley and Lauren are competing for the free spot next to Scotty next week, and it's anybody's guess how this weak performance will affect the final voting.
Scotty McCreery: "She Believes in Me"
Perhaps by the end of the two-hour show, Scotty's vocals needed a rest, because this performance was all sorts of nasal. He missed notes, he reminded us of a cruise ship country act, and still the judges drooled all over the kid. What's new?
Lauren Alaina: "Wild One"
Much like "Hope You Dance," Faith Hill's song fell right into Lauren's wheelhouse. And much like her final performance, this cover of "Wild One" fell oddly short. There were pitch problems and notes all over the place. Her foot-stomping confidence helped ease things somewhat, but at this stage in the competition, we're looking for something more; it might have been enough to score a "satisfactory" a month ago, but not when we're talking about the top three. If you ask us, Lauren is headed home, after which we'll be looking forward to her debut album.
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