‘American Idol’ Night: Good, But Not Great, Things Come In Threes

Last season this time of year, the top three show was a real game-changing episode for “American Idol.” It was the fateful night when dark horse Kris Allen stole the show from presumed front-runners Danny Gokey and Adam Lambert with his inspired cover of Kanye West’s “Heartless,” thus unexpectedly landing a spot in the finale and shutting out golden boy Gokey. (Although I could also blame Danny’s downfall on the obscure Terence Trent D’Arby song Paula Abdul forced him to sing.) Anyway, some might even argue it was that “Heartless” cover that helped underdog Kris win the entire season in the end. Well, what a difference a year makes. This Tuesday, the Season 9 top three — Casey James, Crystal Bowersox, and Lee DeWyze — competed for the coveted two spots in the May 25 showdown. And while there were some very solid performances, sadly, there were no watercooler-worthy, “Heartless”-style wow moments — even if the overexcited judges tried their darnedest to convince viewers otherwise.

On Tuesday, the contestants sang two songs apiece: one they picked themselves, and one selected by the judges. Some of these song choices were choicer than others. Here’s how it all panned out:

Casey James

Okay, the conspiracy theorist in me suspects that it was no accident that Casey performed in the disadvantaged first spot this week, just as I suspected that it was no accident that he had to duet with Michael Lynche last week while his most direct competition, Lee, had the advantage of singing with a female duet partner. I also could argue that it was the judges’ obvious desire to orchestrate a Lee-Crystal finale that led to their odd song choice for Casey this week (more on that later). But how to explain Casey’s risky personal song choice, the little-known Eric Hutchinson song “OK It’s Alright With Me”? On the one hand, I admired Casey for taking a chance — I usually dig it when contestants make an artistic choice, whether it’s Chris Sligh doing MuteMath, Taylor Hicks doing Ray LaMontagne, Adam Lambert doing Gary Jules, or Kris Allen doing the Swell Season. I’m just not sure this Hutchinson song was fantastic enough to make an impression, although Casey sang it well with a minimum of lamb-like bleating. It just seemed like a wasted opportunity on Casey “I’m Just Glad To Be Here” James’s part to go with such a throwaway tune. “When you pick something that is a first listen for most people, you can’t take it to the next level and make it your own,” explained Kara DioGuardi in her most astute comment of the night. “That title is funny, because that song was kind of just all right with me too,” shrugged an underwhelmed Randy Jackson. And said Simon Cowell of the “dud” song choice, “If you were having dinner, that was like the salad.” Well, at least Simon admitted that Casey sounded good. And what’s wrong with salad?

[PHOTOS: “American Idol” Season 9 Performances]

As for the song the judges (Randy and Kara, specifically) chose for Casey, it was John Mayer’s midtempo, limited-range ballad, “Daughters.” Ryan Seacrest asked them, “Why did you pick this song for Casey?” And if they were honest, they would have said, “To make sure Casey doesn’t make it to the finale,” because this certainly wasn’t the song of a champion. But Kara gave a good answer: “[Casey’s] audience is women and girls, and that’s who this song is talking to.” Fair enough. We all know it’s the moms and daughters who’ve kept Casey in the game this long. Anyway, Casey did fine with what he had to work with, delivering a nice performance with a pleasantly bluesy guitar solo toward the end, but this definitely wasn’t the number everyone will be talking about on Wednesday morning. Randy and Kara of course stood by their song choice. Randy told Casey, “This fits you like a glove” and “I hope you continue in this direction”; Kara raved, “This showed the more artistic side to you!” Simon, as usual, was the voice of dissent, calling the arrangement “lazy,” complaining that the “climax was a quite limp guitar solo,” and blaming Randy and Kara for not giving Casey a “much bigger vocal moment.” Simon was right, of course — but then again, giving Casey a bigger vocal moment might have run the risk of him overshadowing Season 9 pets Crystal and Lee, and I’m sure Simon wouldn’t have appreciated that.

Crystal Bowersox

For her personal choice, this season’s resident hippie chick went with the most obvious song ever: “Come To My Window” by her own personal idol, Melissa Etheridge. I thought this was a total copout. Yes, Crystal sang it well. Of course she sang it well — she’s probably been performing it in coffeehouses and in front of subway stations for years now, and I couldn’t imagine a song more deeply ensconced in her comfort zone. I felt the judges went way too easy on her here — all season long they’ve encouraged all of the contestants to take risks outside of their predictable genres (come to think of it, Crystal never did take Simon up on his suggestion that she cover David Bowie), yet this week when Crystal performed such a safe song, Ellen DeGeneres praised her with, “That’s the exact kind of song you’d want to sing, so in your comfort zone!” Even Simon told Crystal, “You haven’t compromised yourself as an artist. I have a lot of respect for you for that. It was an honest performance. Congratulations.” Eh. I thought such congratulations were premature.

[PHOTOS: “American Idol” Season 9 Guest Performers]

Crystal fared much better on her second song, Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,” chosen for her by Ellen. It was one of Ellen’s smarter moves of the season. Crystal dug into the song vocally, belting it out with an intensity I’d never witnessed from her all season and finally making some effort, like she actually wants to win this thing after all. I had no idea she had it in her, really. I thought it was one of her best vocals of the season. “You really showed parts of your voice I don’t think we’ve heard,” exclaimed Kara, to which Crystal replied, “Me either!” And Simon told Crystal, “What you’ve proved after that performance is you’ve got soul. You may be thanking Ellen next week for putting you in the finale.” This was a performance worthy of congratulations. Thanks, Ellen.

Lee DeWyze

Lee may be a simple man, but this paint salesman knows that that’s precisely his appeal with mainstream America. For his first song, he was wise to choose a heartland-friendly Lynyrd Skynyrd song, “Simple Man,” and do his very best to try to turn it into a Hinder album track. He succeeded. It sounded like a song that could be heard on rock radio today. Is that a compliment? Coming from me, not really; I thought it was a little generic. But I have little doubt that many viewers ate it up. And I must say, Lee’s vocals did sound spot-on, and his confidence, which has been gradually building all season, seemed at an all-time high. “I can see you making a record like this; brilliant song choice!” said Randy. “You showed us everything you got…round one goes to Lee!” declared Kara. “I don’t think you won round one; you just crushed the other two,” added Simon. Ellen then offered some farm-animal metaphor that made no sense, likening Lee to a lamb that had metamorphosed into a gazelle (or something like that), but at least she didn’t tell him he was a ripening banana or a Soup of the Day.

[Sound off on your favorite Season 9 “Idol” contestants here.]

Lee’s second song, which (pimping alert!) closed the entire show, was selected by Simon: Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Gee, like we’ve never heard that song on “Idol” before. But Simon assured viewers they were in for a treat. “We’ve heard this song before, but I don’t think we’ve heard it like Lee can do it,” he intoned, thus effectively dissing poor Jason Castro. Lee did do a fine job with the song–his vocals were strong, and perhaps more importantly, he seemed in it to win it. (“I’ve been waiting all season to see who’s gonna throw down the gauntlet!” howled Randy.) But the whole spectacle, from the choir that accompanied him to the over-the-top praise the judges lavished on him like he was the second coming of Daughtry, seemed way too forced. To me, it seemed like the show was trying way too hard to create a “moment” where there was none. It was hardly the best version of the song I’d heard on “Idol” (I still prefer Jason Castro’s), and when Kara started screaming stuff like, “You are what this show is all about” and “You just owned the entire night” and “You are the heart of this season,” I really wanted her to give it a rest. Methinks the judges doth proclaim too much. Lee was good, but he wasn’t that good.

So now it is prediction time. Who’s going to make it to the finale? Well, the obvious guess is Casey — he’s been in the bottom three several times, while Lee and Crystal never have; he performed in the problematic first spot this week; he received the most lukewarm critiques from the judges; and his performances probably were the most forgettable of the night. But I wouldn’t say Lee and Crystal are shoo-ins; Casey certainly has his fanbase, and as past seasons of “Idol” have taught us, anything can happen on this show. So be prepared for a possible upset on Wednesday.

Posted in American Idol.

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