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American Idol Recap: The Judges Try to Pretend Crystal Bowersox Isn’t a Sure Thing on Shania Twain Night

Siobhan Magnus, moments before shrieking.

After watching last night’s American Idol, one has to wonder if the four judges had a preshow parley and decided they needed to build up the inferior contestants in order to pretend season nine’s Bowersox-DeWyze victory isn’t as inevitable as everyone suspects it is. After all, those slipping ratings won't hike themselves.

To the top six’s credit, not one performance was a dud (which was almost shocking given that four dudes sang Shania Twain tunes). But like any other episode this season, only half of the singers delivered anything memorable, leaving one to suspect ulterior motives when the judges roundly applauded acceptable, but generic singing and tried to bring down this year’s reigning champ with reluctant praise, as if to make us believe Crystal may not have the competition licked just yet.

Hell, at one point Ellen seemed to be reading off of Seacrest’s TelePrompTer: “Tomorrow is going to be real tough,” she assured us after letting out an appreciative whistle in tribute to the night’s performances.

Last night's more interesting moments came courtesy of Shania, who served as this week’s mentor in addition to lending Idol her songbook. Shania’s effervescent, jittery persona brought to mind shades of Paula Abdul, except all of her fervent hand-clapping remained tastefully below the neckline. Twain often came across as the kooky aunt who loves you even though she’s never fully paying attention to what you're doing. That being said, she did give the contestants some of the more concise, useful bits of advice they’ve gotten all season.

Man! I Feel Like a Showdown! But we got this instead:

• Lee DeWyze opened the night with the wedding-dance standby “You’re Still the One,” putting his alt-rock growl to the sappy-ballad test without sacrificing too much of his easygoing cool. The judges maligned the song's slow start, but it actually served the performance quite well: By beginning with a sad, depressed moan and working up to the slick, radio-ready ending, he made it sound like he actually had bested the odds when he sang “look how far we’ve come.” Aside from their one quibble, the judges loved it, though Kara interrupted Simon’s critique, much to his ire. Instead of finishing his sentence, the soon-to-take-flight judge glared straight ahead until someone cued the Idol theme. Sadly, it was not the first time a commercial break came in handy last night.

• Michael Lynche once again alighted on the smooth-sailing, sensitive R&B cloud that should help him float his way into the top five (though it’s hard to say how much further it can take him). While rehearsing “It Only Hurts When I’m Breathing,” Shania gave Big Mike some genuinely useful advice when she told him, “You have to make that connection and not just be another great voice.” Taking her advice to heart, Mike gave his best performance since covering “This Woman’s Work,” although there was no doubt he sounded a bit strained when going for the big notes and was slightly off-pitch when going for the hushy, breathy notes.

Kara, Ellen, and Randy loved it, but Simon called the performance "wet." After much confused prodding by fellow judges and Big Mike's BFF Ryan, Simon explained he meant the song was "a bit girlie," which was hardly a fair critique given the night’s theme. And does anyone recall him having problems with Siobhan or Crystal for sounding “too masculine” on Stones night? But then again, what do you expect? This is a man who lives, eats, and sleeps in muscle shirts.

• After slumming it in the bottom three last week, a much humbler Casey James admitted that upon reflection, his take on Fleetwood Mac was him treading water. It was refreshing to hear such guileless honesty, but sadly his bottom three stint seemed to have adversely affected his confidence. Although his vocals were appropriately yearning and heartfelt when singing “Don’t!,” the whole affair failed to leave much of an impression.

Still, the judges did their best to pretend they had been knocked clear out of their socks: Kara told him if he kept mining the same territory “you’ll be at the front of this competition,” and Simon was so enthralled he told Casey to get down from his stage and give Shania a kiss. (What in the world has true love done to TV’s favorite grouch?) Casey and Shania settled for an awkward hug instead.

• For the first time in the history of ever, not one of the judges went wild about Crystal Bowersox’s performance. Of course, this makes sense if they really are trying to level out the playing field to keep ratings up until this season wraps, but it was a shame since Crystal delivered one of her more interesting performances to date. There’s no doubt her version of “No One Needs to Know” was a minor entry in the Bowersox canon, but there was something refreshing about hearing a small, cute song from the typically commanding Bowersox — she often goes for the most popular songs and the boldest vocal deliveries, so it boded well for her future as an artist to hear that she can do playful tunes as well.

Plus, who wasn’t charmed by the fact that she was using the song’s lyrics as a not-so-subtle way of telling her boyfriend (who was in the audience) to propose to her? “I’m just dropping hints here and there … he’ll man up one of these days,” she said in her video.

• Aaron Kelly sang “You’ve Got a Way” and the auntlike Shania gave him her enthusiastic support. Although the slow-building big ballad was one of his best vocal performances to date, the song itself came across as a bit flat. The judges praised it anyway, though Kara made things really uncomfortable when she complimented him for removing a line in the song about making love because, you know, he probably hasn’t done IT yet. I mean, right? Look at that sweet face! After realizing she just brought up the embarrassing subject of a 17-year-old’s virginity on national television, she flapped her hands a bit and Randy told her to clam up.

Bringing things to a new level of awkwardness in the way only a chew-toy-size teenager can, Aaron assured Kara he was singing the song about his mom. After that, we were treated to the most welcome commercial break of the season.

• Siobhan Magnus wrapped up the night with Shania’s first No. 1 country hit, “Any Man of Mine,” which was actually the tune that Mandisa sang back in season five before getting the boot. Although Siobhan looked like a hipster barista turned rockabilly punk (watch it below), she actually delivered the most arena-ready country pop of the evening. There were hands-in-the-air clapping, crunchy guitar riffs, and plenty of cowgirl prancing. While it wasn’t the most vocally impressive performance, the whole thing was more about ’tude than skill anyway, and Siobhan commanded the stage like a pro.

Siobhan also brought back the ten-second screeching money note at the end and it was a welcome return; even if it is a bit gimmicky, it puts a well-earned smile on your face after an hour of adequate but underwhelming singing. All the judges complimented her, including Simon, though he likened her money note to the sound of a woman giving birth. Which is another way of saying, “If you'd like to be actually impressed, stick around to see Kristin Chenoweth on Glee!"

Other Recaps:
The AV Club's Claire Zulkey opined that Shania Twain's tunes are "much less interesting when sung by somebody who doesn't look like a supermodel."
Entertainment Weekly's Michael Slezak felt that if Idol's producers "get smart and try to reboot the judges’ panel for season ten, they’ve already got a guaranteed winner in Ms. Twain."
MTV's Jim Cantiello, on the other hand, was less impressed: "Shania practically begged Idol producers to give her Paula’s old seat. Not only did she tell Big Mike he could 'sing the phone book,' but she also swayed like a wackadoo during his performance and then got weepy after."

Photo: Michael Becker/FOX