For the first time this season we have witnessed the Idol train pull out of the station, my friends. We viewers are probably far too quick to pick out every flaw we see, having no idea of the enormous amount of effort it no-doubt takes to pull of America's #1 show. In past seasons, contestants (and the judges/producers) had three long Top 24-to-12 semifinal rounds to find their grooves, where mediocrity was as expected a part of our Idol journey as Simon's verbal abuses.
But this season they dove right into go-mode, so we can't complain too much that it took until the fourth live week for everyone (contestants, producers & judges) to hit their strides. Tonight was a perfectly blended Idol brew-- contestants who are learning how to play the game, present some artistry and handle fame (kudos Lauren Alaina), producers who are creating much more live-performance friendly tracks and judge(s) (JLO) who are offering astute, constructive critiques. Hey, even the much-lauded transparency is kicking in-- hearing contestants' honest takes on their own foibles is quite refreshing.
So all in all, well played, American Idol. There's the show I've come to know and love! (Though my snark has to find a way to creep through-- was anyone else not feeling JLo's clown-themed, Manilla Luzon makeup tonight?) Girl glows (I totally get the perfume name now), she doesn't need all that caked mess. Also, do we really need to cut to JLo being "moved" by every performance, Paula Abdul style? How about the occasional Steven Tyler reaction shot, huh?
Now let's move onto the talent-- especially because this already tight race just got even tighter.
Pia Toscano: “All in Love Is Fair.” It's times like these where I find myself missing Simon, because lord knows he would have given Pia her diva propers for this performance (I really wish she had been around last season to eviscerate the competition and give Simon his yearly Celine-Whitney-Mariah eargasm). This performance was purely STUNNING. Sure, Pia needs to switch up her performance style (it's not the ballads that are hurting her, it's the similar delivery each week--even Scotty has found ways to serve the same old country french fries straight up, curly and steak style). But come on, powerhouse showings like these are the stuff that Idol is made of, and I wish the judges would have given Pia a bigger moment post-performance. All irrational attachment systems are a go-- I'm officially obsessed (bolstered by the knowledge that a close friend from college went to LaGuardia performing arts high school with Pia, and says, "Pia was born to sing Celine, and yes, she is every bit as sweet as she seems.") For some reason Pia's intensity, maturity and poise keeps bringing me back to Adam Lambert (despite their wildly different styles)-- Pia needs to take a page out of his book and have a "Mad World" moment to truly cement her frontrunner status.
Jacob Lusk: “You’re All I Need to Get By.” Despite the fact that Jacob's pre-performance package started with a sweaty demonstration of what the "Lusky Stank" might actually be, Jacob really pulled his ish together tonight. Ridiculously literal affectations aside (did he really have to "push up that hill"?), Jacob finally reigned in all that hot mess and channeled it into something truly rousing. I still have no idea where he'd fit in today's musical landscape (because he wouldn't), but we're early enough in the Idol game that a judge-sanctioned "moment" guarauntees safety (but really, they should've saved that standing-O/hug combo for Pia). Sidenote: anyone else find it refreshing that Jacob's obvious gayness (I mean, srsly gurl) has been completely overlooked due to his monstrous natural talent? Can I get an amen?
James Durbin: “Living for the City.” As much as I want to criticize James for his crowd-pimping antics, who can really blame the guy? Knowing how fleeting Idol fame can be, why the hell not soak every inch of it in while you sill can? That being said, I do think James gave an exciting (if not his best) showing tonight, making all the right rocker moves on his march to the Kodak. What seems especially important is James's ability to excite Jimmy/the producers/former rock legends, though. If he gets their musical mojo going, he's clearly doing something right.
Stefano Langone: “Hello.” Jennifer freakin' Lopez, delivering what I believe may be the BEST and most specifically pointed Idol advice ever uttered in 10 seasons: "I don't want the intensity to come from you wanting to do well, I want the intensity to come because your heart is breaking." Stefano has rightly been in do-or-die mode, but in the process of singing for his life, he has emerged as a frontrunner. So now he needs to learn to take the kind of artistic and emotional risks that Idol winners are born of-- and I think we all know he has the goods to do so. He's one tender, vulnerable, stripped down Kris Allen "Heartless" or David Cook "Hello" (ironically) away from locking onto the Kodak.
Lauren Alaina: “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” I found Lauren's candid admission of poorly handling both fame and the competition wildly endearing-- I mean, we all ask the world of these (literal) kids, so I applaud her declaration of self consciousness (even if it continues to come across as ungrateful stankness, sadly). The slow opening of Lauren's performance was glorious-- she's simply got a ridiculous voice. But the ensuing midtempo, unforgettable laziness makes me wish Lauren had waited just a few more years to hit the Idol stage, when she might have had a bit more fire in her belly (like Pia/Stefano/Naima/James). Methinks a 16-year-old can miss the enormity of this opportunity when they haven't even had the chance to fail at anything yet. Here's hoping Lauren pulls out a ballad or two before she burns out, because lord, do I wants to hear her sing something pretty.
Paul McDonald: “The Tracks of My Tears.” So while this was a vast improvement on Paul's previous showings, I've still got a bone to pick: as one Tyra Banks might say, Paul is relying on his pretty. Like a freshly plucked Top Model contestant, Paul has yet to dig down deep and deliver any kind of emotion besides "jolly" in his performances. I mean, "Tracks of my Tears" is a profoundly sad song (just ask Adam Lambert), but Paul delivered it with a totally mismatched, jaunty cheer. Sparkly charm and natural good-looks do not a Top Model-- err, American Idol, make. The good news: with that voice of his, all Paul has to do is crack the Top 7 or 8 to have a solid recording career, at this point (and indeed, it feels like that's what he's aiming for. Just ask Jason Castro).
Haley Reinhart:“You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me.” I listened back to Haley's performance with my eyes closed, and the experience was VASTLY improved. Minus all the awkward slinking and gratuitous stomping, Haley sounded freakin' fantastic. I'm having serious Jennifer Hudson flashbacks (hear me out!)-- despite her vocal chops, JHud's early Idol run was streaked with unfocused and erratic showings that landed her in the Bottom often (don't believe me? Go listen to her versions of "Heat Wave" and "Baby I Love You." Mad screechy, dawg). And then, out of nowhere/up above, came "Circle of Life" (which remains my favorite Idol moment of all time-- there, I said it!). All it took was one "a-ha" moment and everything changed for Jennifer. I really think Haley could do the same-- if she surprises everyone with a commanding and gut-wrenching delivery to match those considerable vocals, she's going to have it made. But she better do it quickly...
Naima Adedapo: “Dancing in the Street.” For better or worse, Naima fits right in talent-wise with the Rihanna/Katy Perry/Ke$ha crowd, with a delightful splash of originality. To Naima's credit, she shored up her pitch problems and brought back the much-needed dance interlude, but will that be enough for her to survive much longer? Methinks not. As Simon might say, I don't think Naima is destined for a pop career-- a stint on the Idol tour and a healthy gigging career after? Sure. But certianly not superstardom. Sad face.
Scotty McCreery: “For Once In My Life.” As charming as Scotty can be, I simply will not abide this rendition. I ADORE the Stevie Womer version, and this poorly phrased, overly forced showing was downright blasphemous. I even think Scotty fans would agree-- he's much, much better than this performance. But Scotty survived Motown week without compromising himself, which is ultimately more important at this stage in the game than just about anything.
Casey Abrams: “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Things I remember from this performance: 1) The sexy violinist girl group. Weild them bows, baby. 2) A backup singer who looks much like a young LeAnn Rimes. 3) Casey's creeptastic vibe and complete lack of melody and/or pitch. Seriously, what happened to the bass-slinging prodigy we heard back in Hollywood? Casey seems to be the only one not examining himself and showing growth on the Idol stage, and that makes him rife for early-elimination (dare I say, perhaps even this week)?
Thia Megia: "Heat Wave.” If last year's season-that-shall-not-be-named taught us anything, it's that if a contestant fails to deliver a relevant and/or emotionally stirring performance four times in a row, they're simply never going to (no matter how much you want them to). Thia performs competently every week, but there's simply nothing to get excited about. Which is why I'm completely confused as to who's voting for Thia. Bitter Jasmine Trias clingers? Blue-corn enthusiasts? Pocahontas fashionistas? (Girl really is killing it with the nude-colored dresses, though).
Precictions: This is going to be a really, really tough one to call-- but sadly, my gut is telling me Casey Abrams will the first guy to bite the dust (and the next to go). We're due for a surprise elimination, and Casey's monotone showings might get left behind as everyone turned up their volume this week. I also think Thia will come close to elimination (though I've incorrectly predicted her downfall twice before) and that Haley will once again brush with the Bottom 3. But as always, we shall see.
Brace yourselves, Idol nation. I have a feeling Thursday's broadcast will lead us into some choppy waters...