Usher showed up on American Idol last night to advise the top ten as to how they might prolong their singing careers past this season’s finale on May 26. The evening’s theme was soul and R&B, and the reigning king of the genre promised not to go easy on this year’s paltry crop of performers with his critiques. He even followed through on that, stopping a few of the egregiously mediocre singers mid-moan and demanding they try again. His efforts were mostly fruitless, but hey, it’s not his fault the judges were thinking about something else when they handpicked this season’s talent.
The main surprise of the night was how painless most of the performances were. A few of the floundering male singers made minor comebacks, while Lee DeWyze displayed legitimate potential as a viable recording artist for the first time.
Here’s who bombed, who soared, and who bored:
• With the show beginning to resemble a competition at long last, the usually fascinating Siobhan Magnus picked a bad night to flatline. While singing Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire,” her voice never found a comfortable spot in the lower register, which was surprising since she’s nailed the soft and stormy stuff before. On the plus side, we got a pretty good look at her awesome Edward Gorey alphabet-of-dead-children tattoo.
• Casey Jones initially forgot the lyrics while singing Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’” to Usher, but when he took the stage he fleshed out the verses with a Blues Brothers–worthy soul growl and didn’t lean on the sing-along, catchy chorus as a crutch. In the words of Ush: “He’s a guy who I would definitely keep my eye on whether he wins or not.”
• Usher gave Michael Lynche some much-needed advice when he told him to sing to the people in the furthest reaches of the room — too often Big Mike acts like he’s trying to convince the entire front row to bear his children. Mike’s seated, acoustic version of India.Arie’s “Ready for Love” was the first time he actually showed restraint and the result was simple, mysterious, and even alluring — and this from season nine’s hammiest showman. Simon told him, “I can actually take you seriously as an artist,” and Ryan noted, “That’s a big grin on Big Mike.” Can he please pre-script some of his dialogue or at least pass out cyanide tablets to the audience?
• Didi Benami’s instantly forgettable run-through of Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” was clearly doomed from the start — she couldn’t even make it through a measure before breaking into tears in front of Usher. After the judges tore her apart, Seacrest the Sadist fruitlessly prodded Didi to reveal the weepy details behind why the song hit her so hard. (Then again, what doesn't?) Thanks, Ryan: It wasn’t depressing enough the first time she almost lost it.
• Tim Urban opined that he’s been dubbed “Teflon Tim” because he keeps getting beat up by the judges, but doggone it, he keeps on smiling! Right, kid. Tim looked deep into the camera with all his plastic deer-in-a-headlights love while slaughtering Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love," and Kara seemed genuinely stymied as to why he keeps chuckling when the judges roundly inform him he sucks the life out of every song. Simon knows better: “I don’t think he really cares,” he said bemusedly, and predicted that Tim will flash his comes-with-the-picture-frame smile, the tweens (and Vote for the Worst contingent) will vote for him, and then they can repeat this sham next week. Then Simon guffawed heartily, reassured by the knowledge that in two months this will all be over.
• Prodigal son Andrew Garcia returned from the hinterlands of mediocrity this week by turning Chris Brown’s “Forever” into a well-phrased, satisfying acoustic jam. The judges lavished praise upon him, but honestly, when you are turning to Chris Brown to make yourself more likable, it's probably game over, man.
• Katie reminded Usher she met him once before at Epcot Center, but his bodyguard shooed her away before she could get a pic to prove it to her Teen Girl Squad. Didi sings tributes to a dead friend, Andrew's dad broke free of gang life, Mike has a newborn baby, and Katie wants to win over America with a story about how her family vacations at Disney? You gotta do better than that; at least have a sob story about how you waited and waited for the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure but never got in. Anyway, she hit all the right notes on Aretha’s “Chain of Fools,” but her head flicks and vocal sass came across more like posturing than real soul.
• Lee DeWyze’s voice was always radio-ready in the technical sense, but he’s usually far too MOR to make you really interested in him as a singer. All that changed last night with his fantastically energetic cover of Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose’s “Treat Her Like a Lady.” He kept it reserved and twangy during the verses and went big on the chorus, attacking the melody with a real rock kick. Even Simon was smitten, informing him that after his performance, “Your life could have changed forever.”
• The surprise Crystal Bowersox promised last week was that she ditched her ever-present guitar for — gasp! — a piano. Her second non-shocker was that her performance of Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia” was sublime as usual. Not her greatest, but considering she delivers a new personal best nearly every other week, why complain? Usher, for the first time, seemed wholly honest when he told her, “You got a real shot kid, for real.”
• Aaron Kelly — sporting an inadvisable Tintin faux-hawk — wrapped up the night with Bill Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine,” which just may top the list of Idol-overkill tunes. The singing was fine, but at this point, it would almost be easier to listen to someone slaughter a left-field song choice than someone going through the “Ain’t No Sunshine” motions for the millionth time.
The AV Club's Claire Zulkey decided that when Simon told Lee his "life might have changed forever ... It didn’t seem so ridiculous at that precise moment but just try saying that out loud to someone tomorrow."
Entertainment Weekly's Michael Slezak feels "Lee Dewyze transformed into a legitimate front-runner (even if he's still totally unaware of it)."