Wednesday, April 20, 2011

American Idol Top 7

Just watched Idol a short while ago, and here is my take on the episode. It was not really all that exciting for me, but perhaps a night off from the intensity of Chicago playoff sports is a good thing this week. As per usual this season, I had the contestants bunched together pretty closely. When I look at my rankings though, I am somewhat surprised to see the names I have both towards the top and towards the bottom. I thought everyone was at least average or a little better tonight, but nothing all that spectacular. The judges seemed to be forcing themselves to be a little more critical tonight than they had been, but I was surprised in a couple instances that they liked a performance as much as they did, and vice versa in at least one other.

Perhaps one of the reasons I was not totally in love with this week was the theme: "Songs from the 21st Century." Of the seven tunes performed tonight in the competition, I either did not know them at all or am not a fan of the song enough to ever take any time to listen to it on the radio. I suppose that is because I am either listening to conservative or sports talk radio or surfing the FM dial for the hits of the '80's and '90's.

As an opening act, Idol brought back all the eliminated finalists to this point for a group number of Pink's "So What." The show is now even recycling group numbers from previous seasons. I have to say, that I thought it was pretty bad. The five girls, including Pia Toscano, just did not sound good or blend together well. Then, just when we (and probably he too) thought he was done with Idol for a while, out comes the only booted male, Paul McDonald, who was even worse. Talk about a non-sensical performance!

Then, it was time for the actual round of competition to get under way, and as usual,. I tried to judge the performances as if it were the first time I had ever seen any of these contestants.

1. Scotty McCreery- "Swingin'"

A front-runner in the competition, Scotty comes across as funny and likable in the video pieces, which this week had the kids making fun of each other and themselves. He seems pretty good natured about his weird facial expressions when performing and the flute-like way he holds the microphone. For Scotty, it was good that America got to see that side of him, because leading off the round this week, he did not have that great of a vocal performance.

While not a train-wreck musically, I absolutely hated whatever country song Scotty sang and I think a ton of people will also hate it. It was both "too safe" and overly cheesy. His fan base will almost certainly keep him from being eliminated, but didn't we also think that about Pia?

It is true that Scotty just needs to stay in his lane musically to advance for now, but the longer it goes on, the more backlash will continue to develop against him as a "one trick pony" which could ultimately prevent him from winning. He has a great voice for country music, but if this were the first time I ever heard him sing, I would have thought it was even worse than it was.

This was a missed opportunity for Scotty to take a well-known, current song, either from the R&B or pop charts, and do a re-arranged, country acoustic guitar version of it. Scotty might have had to do another ballad this week, instead of what he did, but he would have gotten praise for innovation. The most recent white guy with guitar winners; David Cook, Kris Allen, and even Lee DeWyze, were able to win their seasons, because they did just exactly that. Grade: B-

2. James Durbin- "Uprising"

Every week, since the Finals began, I have had high praise for James and his old school hair metal/power ballad stylings. This week, while the judges seemed to completely love it, I thought he went off the rails and gave his weakest performance to date on a Muse song.

While not all bad, the high notes seemed too shrill and screamy to me, and it just did not feel like it is the kind of musical vibe he is best at. I would have preferred he pick a ballad, even if he had to dial back the vocal firepower. The performance was too theatrical, from the outfit he wore to the way he moved around the stage. All season, James has been dealing (perhaps negatively, perhaps positively) with comparisons to Season Eight runner-up Adam Lambert among Idol fans. I have found lots of ways to differentiate them, (usually coming down in favor of James), but this week, the whole thing did remind me too much of the post-Idol Lambert. I want James to stay as far away from that as possible, especially after the musical and moral abomination that was Glambert's American Music Awards performance last year. Grade: B

3. Haley Reinhart- "Rolling in the Deep"

Based on the video intro piece that included the kids talking about each other, there are some negative issues between Haley and Stefano Langone. Maybe that story I read online from one of the British tabloids was right all along.

Earlier this season, I had no idea what Haley was doing in the Finals. Gradually, she did grow on me a bit,and while she did not deliver a flawless vocal tonight, I thought it was her best performance and the most viable contemporary effort of the night. It was a song that suited her style quite well.

Haley did her take on the very current Adele hit while seated behind the judging panel. She is either gaining valuable confidence, performing experience, or just benefited from not having to move around on stage, but it was free of her often awkwardness. Nobody might be truly safe this season, but after her highly touted jazz duet on last week's result show and what I thought was a very strong performance tonight, Haley may really have some momentum. Grade: B+

4. Jacob Lusk- "Dance With My Father"

Based on his performance style and some otherwise diva-esque and unfortunate attitude the past couple of weeks, Jacob has seemed to be living on borrowed time. Tonight, while the judges were surprisingly hard on him, I thought he gave one of his strongest performances, and perhaps made one of the smartest song choices in the history of American Idol. I would be extremely surprised if he gets eliminated this week on the basis of that.

Throughout the season, Jacob has been compared vocally to the late Luther Vandross. People have probably been waiting to see him actually do one of his songs. Also, Jacob sadly lost his father at a young age, so this particular Luther song had a lot of emotional meaning to him and to many others. Before he sang, Jacob dedicated it to all those who had lost a father, or who never knew one or is missing one. America is (appropriately) a very sentimental country, so I think this tore at the heartstrings of many,and probably allowed Jacob to get some votes from those who had not previously supported him.

Just as he began, Jacob hesitated for a moment into the song. There was apparently an issue with the backing track being off, but at first I thought he was already struggling to not break down emotionally. Besides for that one moment, I thought Jacob gave a very fine vocal. It is similar to the kinds of songs he had done before, but it seemed as if he was able to make the needed emotional connection, and not over sing it. I completely disagreed with Randy Jackson, who criticized Jacob for showing too much restraint. It would have been a big mistake if he had gotten too crazy with the song. Grade: A-

5. Casey Abrams- "Harder To Breathe"

People may be talking about this performance tomorrow. Playing the electric guitar, I thought Casey did a pretty credible job on a Maroon 5 number. It was such a different vibe from last week's jazz performance, and I liked this week better, even though I do not think Casey is going to find much mainstream success after the show doing these kinds of songs. You have to give credit though to someone who can cover as varied artists as Nat King Cole to Nirvana, and look like he enjoys doing them all.

Vocally, and performance wise, I thought was fairly decent tonight. The big moment at the end, came when Casey came down from the stage and sang for about the final ten seconds with his face just inches away from the face of J.Lo, "The Most Beautiful Woman in the World." That takes some chutzpah! She seemed to get a little bashful and turned her head, and while I do not know if she knew what was coming, Casey finished it off by giving her a quick peck. Kissing the judges during a performance has to be another Idol first. That move might generate some dislike for Casey, but at least he might have a story to tell his grandchildren one day. Grade: B+

Seacrest then came out to give the numbers, complete with a fake Casey beard, which the impulsive contestant proceeded to painfully pull off of Ryan's face. The host then said there was a joke to be made somewhere about him and a beard. I wonder what Julianne Hough thinks about that. I wonder what Simon Cowell would have had to say about that!

6. Stefano Langone- "Closer"

Apparently, Stefano is a big flirt, who would try to put the moves on a piece of paper that might potentially contain estrogen. That's going to be bad news for him on the Idol Summer Tour, because he can now expect a bevy of very large middle-age women concert-goers to think they have a chance of hooking up with him.

I liked that he chose to do an upbeat R&B number this week, and his performance of the Nee-Yo song was decent enough I suppose vocally. There was also a lot of dance moves and "swagger" involved and a lot of his fans probably loved that. To me, I think it came across as if he were trying too hard to be cool once again. He still has a good voice, but I think it paled in comparison to the original. Grade: B

7. Lauren Alaina- "Born To Fly"

The back-half of country-music bookends tonight, Lauren and Scotty both have to start considering the possibility of a split country fan vote hurting them both. It is possible that one of them may make their first appearance in the Bottom Three.

While I was far from blown away by this performance, I enjoyed Lauren's country song a lot better than Scotty's. It was a good decision for her to do something youthful and fun on stage, as opposed to the serious ballads she has been doing for a while. The judges liked it, but did not seem to love it as well. Lauren is really close to having the capacity for a breakout performance on the stage, but she still has stuff to work on in regards to taking advantage of her spotlight. One thing she should do, is stop saying "thank you", immediately after her last note. She should sing her heart out to the end, and let the audience appreciation develop. Grade: B

Here are my rankings this week from weakest vocally to strongest, judged as if I had never heard them again, and had no other opinion beyond what I heard come out of their mouths for 90 seconds tonight. As I said at the outset, I feel sorta funny about it this week, but whatever:

7. Scotty McCreery
6. James Durbin
5. Stefano Langone
4. Lauren Alaina
3. Casey Abrams
2. Haley Reinhart
1. Jacob Lusk

With just seven singers left, I think any of them could potentially be in the "Bottom Three" tomorrow night. It is very hard to guess who might get cut. A lot of people might expect Jacob to run out of time, but I think his song choice tonight probably will buy him another week. Haley continues to live dangerously in the Bottom Three most weeks, but she also had a pretty strong night. There could be some anxious moments once again tomorrow for Casey, but if I am forced to make a prediction, I would say that Stefano will be the one to run out of escapes from elimination.

I also would not be shocked if Stefano avoids the Bottom Three altogether this week. It's just that kind of season and should make for good television, whenever I get around to watching it, when all the basketball and hockey have ended on Thursday night.