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American Idol Recap: A Rare, Shining Moment of Purity

In preparation for tonight's "Idol Gives Back" fund-raiser musical extravaganza, the theme of last night’s episode of American Idol was inspirational music. While having Idol fixate on an overtly emotional music genre and act like it's a twist is kind of like McDonald’s announcing a new cholesterol-themed menu, nothing that went down last night was too horribly weepy or trite. Which is odd, because there actually was weeping last night: Crystal’s (amazing) performance ended in tears, which is sure to fuel the whole “did Bowersox almost quit Idol/did Seacrest stop her?” rumor mill.

Guest mentor Alicia Keys offered advice to the remaining seven hopefuls, and although she uttered nary a word of criticism, it was clear from her “If [singer’s name] can manage to [succeed at what they’ve been consistently failing at], then they should be fine” that she had little faith in any of them.

First out of the gates was Casey James, the occasionally fantastic rocker who sadly returned to his safety zone with a white blues-rock take on Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop.” It was doomed to wallow in lameness from the start: The unabashed optimism of the original Fleetwood track works because on the Rumours album it’s sandwiched between two heartbreakers. But without some realism to temper the bouncy tune, Casey’s version just came across as Hallmark-style well-wishing.

Alicia Keys’s advice to Lee DeWyze was to “bring people inside of him,” and fortunately he was able to shake that uncomfortable imagery out of his head and deliver a successfully rough but heartfelt take on Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer.” While his voice didn’t quite gel with the backing string arrangement (he probably would have been better served just by an acoustic guitar), he managed to accomplish what the original song does so well: depressing you only to inspire you at the end with a hint of hope. Randy called it when he said, “I think you are a great artist ready to make great music, and I think you’re gonna have a great career, man.” What more could Lee want to hear (aside from the addition of an emphatic “Dawg, that was hot!”)?

Finally channeling a band that comes close to matching him for emotional fakery, Tim Urban sang the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Better Days.” There were a few catches in his voice throughout, and he was clearly straining to hit some of the bigger notes, but there have been worse performances this season (many of them his). In an ever-lengthening list of food-and-beverage-related metaphors, Ellen said Tim was like the Soup of the Day and she didn’t care for what the chef had whipped up this time. Seacrest said that if he were soup, he must be gazpacho, because he’s always so cool. Ryan Seacrest: matching the wit of Bob Hope and the food know-how of Emeril LaGasse. Or vice versa.

The fresh-faced, sweet Aaron Kelly sang “I Believe I Can Fly,” which was rather unsettling simply because the tune’s author has been accused of enjoying sex with and/or urinating on girls younger than the 17-year-old Idol hopeful. If you could get over that incongruity, you still had to deal with the fact that Aaron was singing a vocally epic song that was just barely within his range. The performance wasn’t believable, but he did have a good handle on the vocals, and the emotion he put into the lyrics didn’t come across as naïve … which is fantastic for a 17-year-old singing a song called “I Believe I Can Fly.”

Siobhan Magnus might have delivered her break-it versus make-it performance last night. She took on “When You Believe,” and even though it’s impressive that she wasn’t scared away from a song made famous by Whitney and Mariah, Alicia was right when she said Siobhan really had to “milk the money spot” in the song to make it work. It was clear from rehearsals (and a few past missteps) that Siobhan’s voice isn’t capable of excelling at those vocal diva notes; she doesn’t outright flub them, but her elongated syllables can sound quite strained and her high notes aren’t always clear enough. She’s better off with her beautiful-meets-bizarre approach to music, which she should indulge in even if the judges tire of her screeching — at least it’s something unique to Idol-dom. Her butterfly-laden flapper dress was phenomenal, though, and Kara was right to say, "I’d want to hang out with you more than buy your records."

While Michael Lynche’s decision to not sing an R&B tune for inspirational song week was initially surprising, his R&B recasting of Chad Kroeger’s power ballad “Hero” made clear that he was sticking to his emotionally overwrought guns. While his cover was less irritating than the original’s growly soft-rock-masquerading-as-hard-rock vibe, it wasn’t particularly fun or inspiring. The judges weren’t crazy about it, but it was hypocritical of Simon to dismiss the song because it “was about Spider-Man,” considering he’s repeatedly mocked Kara for demanding the contestants connect literally to a song’s lyrical content.

Crystal Bowersox sang the Impressions’ “People Get Ready,” performing without her guitar for the first time and genuinely impressing Alicia Keys, another first. Her acappella start made clear how unerringly commanding and comfortable she is with her craft, and when the backing band joined in you were more worried about them marring the vocals than her failing to deliver (thankfully, the arrangement was soulful as well as subdued).

Toward the end of the song it became clear Crystal wasn’t just emotionally connecting to the song: She was actually breaking into tears, though she managed to wrap up the song before truly letting loose. And her faltering, emotionally frayed voice at the end actually transformed the performance from great to sublime. Randy initiated a standing ovation for Mamasox, and Simon said it was nice to see some emotions from the typically stoic Bowersox, which was insensitive but true.

In a stunning display of restraint, Seacrest didn't mention the incident in which he claimed he talked her out of leaving the show a few weeks ago, but of course he wanted an explanation for those tears. Crystal offered, “My dad’s here, and it’s the first time he’s been here … thank the Lord for my family.” She then tried to wipe her eyes with Seacrest’s pocket square only to reveal that — gasp! — it wasn’t a handkerchief at all. It was just a piece of cloth taped to his suit! Real emotion meets a fake accessory: Now there's a closing metaphor for you.

Tonight’s show is the two-hour "Idol Gives Back" special with performances by Alicia Keys, the Black Eyed Peas, Annie Lennox, Joss Stone, Jeff Beck, and Sir Elton John. Oh, and Aaron or Tim will get kicked off, depending on whether the all-Madonna episode of Glee distracted the tweens or the moms more.


Other Recaps:
Entertainment Weekly's Michael Slezak was irked that "Idol insists on showing dress-rehearsal footage instead of going to the instant replay of the actual live performance ... it wouldn't surprise me if casual viewers see a clear discrepancy like Crystal's tears suddenly evaporating during the instant replay and wonder if the fix is in."
The AV Club's Claire Zulkey declared Crystal was "the only person of the night who sang within the parameters of the theme but didn't go all cheeseball."

Photo: Michael Becker/FOX