‘American Idol’ Top 12 Night

Back in Season 7 on “American Idol,” Fox made a big deal about the show’s contestants finally having permission to sing long-forbidden Beatles tunes. “Idol” execs were so delighted by this development, in fact, that they dedicated not one but two nights to the Lennon/McCartney songbook. Well, I was just glad that it was just two days–not the proverbial eight days a week–because “Idol’s” infamous Fab Four episodes were not so fab. In short, most of the contestants showed the Mersey band’s songs no mercy, and as a result they had John and George and maybe even little-known fifth Beatle Stu Sutcliffe spinning in their respective graves. (Kristy Lee Cook’s ill-advised bluegrass deconstruction of “Eight Days a Week” was particularly blasphemous.)

So this week, when intrepid “Idol” producers ignored their past errors and decided to forge ahead with plans to have the Season 9 contestants–arguably a weaker cast overall than Season 7’s–interpret the music of that other legendary, seemingly untouchable ’60s rock ‘n’ roll combo, the almighty Rolling Stones. I was understandably skittish. Would it be late Stones founder Brian Jones’s turn to grave-spin? I expected as much–and braced myself for the worst. I even prepared to loosely quote such handy Stones lyrics as “I can’t no satisfaction,” “wild horses couldn’t drag me (to watch this show),” and “it’s only rock ‘n’ roll–but I (don’t) like it.” My expectations were especially low considering last week’s triple-bummer elimination of promising contestants Lilly Scott, Alex Lambert, and Katelyn Epperly, all of whom probably would have done Jagger & Richards proud. But you know what? The top 12 got into a real Stone groove this week. I was pleasantly surprised. And it all came down to good song selection, song selection, song selection.

Michael Lynche – Working his falsetto to the max on an R&B update of the Stones-do-disco ’70s hit “Miss You,” Big Mike managed to maintain the original song’s slinky vibe while still sounding modern and relevant to today’s pop marketplace. In a way, this was an impressive urban/rock distillation of two of Michael’s past memorable performances: Maxwell’s “This Woman’s Work” and Maroon 5’s “This Love.” His rockin’ performance was also full of Jagger swagger; the guy certainly wasn’t shy about moving around this week’s new, supersized stage. Simon Cowell thought Mike’s dancing was “verging on desperate at times” and “corny,” but you know what else was corny? That very un-Stonesy Mr. Rogers cardigan Simon was wearing. (A cozy gray cardigan, not his usual black V-neck? That’s just more evidence that Simon has already given up on this show. Simon will NEVER wear a grandpa sweater on his new show “X Factor,” I bet.) Anyway, the other judges disagreed with Simon, of course: Randy Jackson told Mike he “slayed it”; Ellen DeGeneres called him “amazing” and “good, good, good”; and Kara DioGuardi told him he was “hot onstage.” I personally thought it was a great way to kick off the show–and the perfect song choice for a singer like Mike who often straddles the rock/R&B line. Mike, I’d certainly “miss you” if you got voted off.

Didi Benami – The soft-spoken/soft-hearted songstress, who cries so easily she makes Brooke White look like Amanda Overmyer, attempted to toughen up her sweetie-pie image by growling her way through the dark, sinister ballad “Play With Fire” while rocking a Cher-in-Mask lingerie top and biker-chick skintight jeans. I thought that by, playing with fire, Didi was going to get burned–and she kind of did for a minute, when her famously frayed nerves got the better of her, and she nearly messed up the lyrics. (“I thought you were going to lose it 30 seconds in,” a pessimistic Simon later admitted.) But Didi held it together–Ellen praised Didi’s the-show-must-go-on gumption, although that comment may have only drawn extra attention to Didi’s brief error–and for the most part Didi was convincing. “I think, for the first time in weeks, you’re on fire tonight!” raved Randy. Kara praised the newfound intensity with which Didi attacked the against-type song choice, telling her, “There’s something very compelling about the darkness of the song with the sweetness of your voice.” Simon was less effusive, as usual, calling it a “solid, not brilliant, performance,” but considering how rough he’s been on this poor girl recently, this was high praise for Didi, yes indeedy. At least she didn’t cry tonight.

Casey James – Season 9’s resident himbo heartthrob wailed on blues guitar on the early Stones’ classic “It’s All Over Now,” and based on this performance, it won’t be all over for Casey anytime soon. First of all, besides his undeniable good looks and golden-boy/good-ol’-boy charisma, he’s the closest thing to a country artist that this season can count on, with his Jonny Lang/Kenny Wayne Shepherd axe-slinger vibe. He was really in his element Tuesday night, and this was my favorite Casey performance yet. It was Kara’s favorite too–she’s run hot and cold with her off/on crush this season, but I guess it’s back on again–with Kara telling Casey, “Before, I said you were trying to be a rock star. Tonight, you were a rock star!” Ellen’s critique was the most credible one, however, since she’s not one to be as easily swayed by Casey’s Greek-god features or chiseled pectorals. “For most women, their hearts are going to start racing just looking at you,” she slyly began. “But then for people like me–blondes–I thought it was fantastic!” As a redhead, I thought Casey was pretty good myself.

Lacey Brown – Given Kara’s previous advice to Lacey that she should sing Sundays and Sixpence None the Richer songs, I kind of expected Lacey to go with the Sundays’ version of “Wild Horses” this week. But then again, her Sixpence cover this season wasn’t exactly the stuff of legend, so perhaps Lacey was wise to ignore Kara’s counsel. Instead, she warbled “Ruby Tuesday” this Tuesday. It was a nice performance–she was hardly a vocal powerhouse (that’s not what Lacey is all about, anyway), but the song suited her. Too bad she sat down midway through. Again. Why is Lacey always sitting down? Is she tired because the “Idol” caterers aren’t providing her with enough protein? Are the “Idol” stylists making her wear uncomfortable shoes? Her seeming inability to remain upright for the duration of an entire song makes her every performance a bit of a downer, and if she makes it to the top 10 this could prove a problem on the grueling Idols Live tour. (“You like to sit on the edge of things; don’t go to the Grand Canyon!” quipped Ellen, who was in fine comedic form this evening.) But anyway, Lacey’s performance had no “wow moments,” but was one of her more valiant efforts. “I wasn’t jumping up and down about it vocally, but I was pleasantly surprised,” Randy said mildly. “You kind of held it together.” Ellen called it “a tiny bit sleepy,” while Simon advised Lacey to stop “perform like an actress” and “overthinking” her performances, otherwise she’ll be “in danger of doing the same thing week after week.” That’s assuming Lacey even survives a few more weeks, of course. An underwhelmed Kara once again criticized Lacey’s performance while insisting, “I know you can do better”–but really, how many chances will Lacey have to live up to her early promise? The judges seem to be hearing something I’m not, and while I’m still slighty interested in seeing Lacey develop, I’m kind of frustrated with her at this point.

Andrew Garcia – Speaking of not living up to early hype, former frontrunner Andrew floundered again this week with one of the worst song choices of the night, the challenging vocal workout “Gimme Shelter.” This is a song a real diva could go buckwild on (if there had been a Stones Night in Season 3, Fantasia would have KILLED it on this tune), but Andrew simply didn’t have the chops to handle this song’s dramatic, bombastic chorus. “That was pitchy everywhere. It wasn’t great, dude,” Randy grimly said. Kara griped about Andrew’s lack of connection to the subject matter, saying he didn’t bring enough intensity to this song about war, but Simon, in an unusually sympathetic mood, countered with, “What was he supposed to do? Go onstage with a tank?” Simon insisted that Andrew had been better during rehearsal and said he hoped Andrew would survive this week. (Simon’s been nicer than usual all season, come to think of it, further proving my aforementioned theory that this lame-duck judge isn’t even trying anymore.) Ellen was the kindest judge, however, exclaiming, “What do I know? I think that was your best performance yet.” But then again, many detractors have argued repeatedly that Ellen doesn’t know much about music at all, so that self-deprecating critique probably didn’t impress anyone or help Andrew.

Katie Stevens – Channeling Season 5’s Katharine McPhee with her shampoo-commercial hair and theater-schooled cabaret rendition of “Wild Horses” (SO not the Sundays’ version), this pageanty teen sang her song well, but once again failed to wow me. I just don’t get Katie’s appeal, although I admit I’m still bitter over her snagging the last spot in the top 12 instead of my girl Lilly Scott. But the judges seemed to get Katie this week. Randy praised her “very strong performance,” Kara liked her “nice variation on the melody,” and Simon declared, “This is the only week when you’ve actually chosen a really strong song.” But of course he liked the song: It gave him the ideal opportunity to plug his star client Susan Boyle, who had a big hit last year with her own version. It remains to be seen if Katie can be as big a platinum-selling phenomenon as SuBo, though.

Tim Urban – The “comeback kid,” as Ryan Seacrest called him, took a risk by performing a reggae-tinged, Jason Mrazzy version of “Under My Thumb.” I actually enjoyed it–and I’ve never really enjoyed Tim Urban before. (Yes, I’m still bitter about him making the top 12 instead of Alex Lambert. So?) Tim came across as confident and current, and his remake sounded like something I’d hear on the radio. But oddly, none of the judges agreed with me. “I didn’t get that, dude.” Randy groaned. “It was very bizarre.” Added Simon, “It didn’t work, and a lot of people who are Rolling Stones fans would be turning their television sets off at that point. It was a crazy decision.” Only Kara gave Tim credit for “doing something so incredibly different with the song.” I still have my reservations regarding Tim, but this was the first time he impressed me at all this season.

Siobhan Magnus – Okaaaay. Now we’re talking. HERE’S a contestant truly worthy of the “Idol” title. First of all, she just might be THE coolest chick to ever grace the “AI” stage. Her flesh is bedecked with Edward Gorey, Hanson, and Hole tattoos. Her cute little nostril is bedecked with a nose ring. Her arty parents used to hang out with punk band Black Flag. Her uncle plays bass for Stryper. Yep, as soon as Lilly Scott was out of the running, my allegiance fully switched to Siobhan, and thankfully she did not disappoint me this week. From the moment she began intoning “Paint It Black,” she had a real “Lambert moment” (that crimson staircase seemed like it was lifted straight off the Season 8 soundstage, and Kara later said she experienced an Adam flashback), and her performance was powerful and thrilling and MEMORABLE. And dang–that last note was not even human! They’d need to invent a new musical scale just to document it. Both Kara and Simon agreed this was the top performance of the night. Ellen even made a cross-reality-TV pop culture reference by telling Siobhan, “You rise above, like Snooki’s pouf!” Yes, I give Siobhan a giant fist-pump, for sure.

Lee Dewyze – Simon and “Idol” powers-that-be seem to be trying to sell Lee as this season’s David Cook or Kris Allen, and I suppose this singer-songwriter’s Bonnaroo-ready rendition of “Beast of Burden” was in that vein. (Randy compared it to the Dave Matthews Band and Rob Thomas.) But Simon expressed the same complaint I’ve always had about Lee: The guy has the muted personality of Joe Jonas doing an “Idol” guest-judge spot. Ellen was also a little underwhelmed by Lee, telling him his performance “didn’t quite come together–like a hospital gown.” (Weird similes tonight, Ellen!) Kara praised Lee’s rapid artistic growth and Simon praised Lee’s voice, but the zero-personality thing might hinder this Hinder-ish singer in the long run.

Paige Miles – I didn’t expect Paige to survive last week after her frown-inducing “Smile” performance, and to be honest, I didn’t really think she deserved to make the top 12 over Katelyn or Lilly. But after hearing her belt out “Honky Tonk Woman” while suffering from laryngitis, I must say I was impressed by Paige this week. She looked good, and more importantly, she sounded good. She didn’t even get special treatment because she was ailing (unlike sickly Crystal Bowersox two weeks ago, cough), but she didn’t whine or moan about that. She just went out there and sang like a real pro, a real trooper. I would have never guessed that she had throat issues at all, if Ellen hadn’t brought it up. “The Paige that we fell in love with is back!” declared Kara. Well, I was never in love with Paige in the first place, but after this performance, I like her a lot more.

Aaron Kelly – Aaron is only 16, and he looks about 12, so I really, really didn’t think an angst-ridden breakup ballad like “Angie” would suit him. But whaddya know, I was wrong. And more importantly, so was Simon! “I did fear for you this week, but you chose absolutely, 100 percent the right song,” Simon confessed. Aaron looked more modern with his new look (Ellen teased him about mimicking her spiky hairdo) and his own set of illuminated Lambert stairs, and he sounded surprisingly mature and emotive on this tune. “You were born to sing!” shouted Randy. “I beat you up good last week, but you showed me!” Kara exclaimed. Aw, little Aaron is growing up right before our eyes.

Crystal Bowersox – This year’s frontrunner crooned a soulful version of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” But you know what? Yes, you CAN. You can get a good performance on “American Idol” Season 9! Along with Siobhan, Crystal was my favorite of the night; her subway-singer acoustic take on this poignant number was pure Crystalline perfection. Ellen and Kara appreciated Crystal’s newly playful personality on the scatty song (I guess Crystal is feeling healthier and more vivacious than she has the last couple weeks), and Randy openly declared his undying love for Crystal. Only Simon had misgivings, warning Crystal not to assume she had this competition in the bag and flatly telling her, “This is the first time that I think you were beaten by somebody, and that’s Siobhan.” I agreed with Simon–Siobhan was better, in my opinion–but Crystal was a close second, and she scored extra points with me for wearing a peacock feather in her hair in honor of fallen castmate Lilly. Sigh.

So now it’s prediction time. Who will be the first contestant cut from the top 12? That’s a tough call, since so many singers that I’d already written off actually delivered unexpectedly solid performances this week. But I’m going to go with either Andrew Garcia, who peaked too early (as opposed to the others, who are peaking right about now), or Lacey Brown, who has pretty much flatlined throughout her peakless season. But given last week’s bombshell results (none of which I predicted correctly), I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen Wednesday night. It’s stil anybody’s game.

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Posted in American Idol.

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