Last night American Idol showcased the top five performers of season nine having a go at tunes made popular by Frank Sinatra. Given that most fans and commentators have dubbed this season a disappointment, Tuesday’s episode was not the sacrilegious disaster most people probably expected it to be. Hell, if you prefer singers who coast by without making much of an impression, you may have even enjoyed last night’s performances — barring one unmitigated musical failure.
To tutor the top five in the swingin’ style of Ol' Blue Eyes, Harry Connick Jr. stepped in as this week’s guest mentor. While his level of involvement in the show was impressive (he arranged each contestant’s song and played alongside them on the ivories), he negated that awesomeness with his irritating attempts at sounding hip to the slang of last decade’s youth. (“For real” and “bro” were the jumping-off points for most of his sentences.)
Last night’s big winner was probably Simon Cowell, who received a hankie autographed by his all-time favorite singer. No, the cranky judge didn’t get a piece of Grace Jones memorabilia — Nancy and Tina Sinatra stopped by to deliver a kerchief autographed by their velvet-voiced dad, presumably signed pre-death.
The night began with Aaron Kelly, who naturally picked one of the most-likely-to-be-heard-on-a-commercial Sinatra tunes, “Fly Me to the Moon.” His typically spiky mall-rat hair was slicked back for the occasion and somehow that made him look even younger than usual.
Vocally, Aaron did well with the material. Even when his performances lack character and personal style, he knows his way around a vocal-pop standard and rarely embarrasses himself. Randy and Ellen were all for it, but they’re kidding themselves if they think anyone would pay to hear that cover once Aaron is off Idol. In a few years he might have something going on, but for now he’s an adequate connect-the-dots vocalist in an uphill battle.
Next up was Casey: You could tell something was amiss from the moment you saw how weird his flowing mane of hair looked pulled back into a ponytail. Disaster was confirmed when he announced he would be singing “Blue Skies,” a song that does few vocalists any favors since it's more of a “hey nonny nonny” vaudeville ditty to begin with.
Casey laughed with maniacal nervousness while Connick coached him. Harry Jr. inexplicably concluded that he dug Casey’s vibe and “sometimes it’s not about the lyrics,” even though he began the show by declaring that the most important thing with Sinatra night was to make people believe in the lyrics.
The performance was hopelessly hammy, but Casey’s stilted singing wasn’t the only culprit; Connick’s arrangement was boring and slow at the beginning, and goofy and outdated at the end. Randy said it was his worst night yet, Kara said he sounded like a bleating lamb, and Simon indicated he thought Casey was on the way out. Given the gutter quality of that performance, it’s hard to imagine Casey surviving tomorrow night’s cut. In fact, he was lucky not to get pulled offstage with a long hooked cane mid-performance.
On the winning end of the new-hairdo spectrum, Crystal Bowersox hid her dreads behind a fetching bouffant and donned an elegant dress that made her look suddenly ... well, sexy. She sang Frank’s “Summer Wind,” and although it was clear her voice isn’t made for orchestral-pop standards (but really, name a currently relevant artist whose voice is), she fully inhabited the song with a sense of subdued contemplation.
The judges all regurgitated their feedback from last week, damning this more reserved version of Crystal with faint praise. They want that show-stopping Janis Joplin disciple back! They want her to prove she’s “in it to win it”! In short, they want drama as the season draws to a close, and they seem intent on taking her down three notches in order to put her and Lee DeWyze on the same level.
Particularly absurd was Simon’s “I expect better” comment, considering he of all the judges harps on how Idol is primarily a singing competition. Bowersox’s vocal phrasing was easily the best of the night, and if anyone has proven they can adapt to a variety of styles, it’s her. Even when other singers are more rousing (as Lee was last night), no one can make the most out of each syllable like Crystal.
If Bowersox loses this season to DeWyze, it will be because the judges reward his great performances while taking her excellence for granted. That or the fact that Crystal is increasingly petulant when the judges say anything negative about her. Regardless of her intentions, it comes across as a bit arrogant that she has to refute every critique thrown her way (even though she was totally right to say she shouldn’t make every performance big just because she’s on Idol).
Michael Lynche sang “The Way You Look Tonight,” and Harry Connick Jr. advised Big Mike to “Think about your girl, bro” while singing the thirties tune. In case the lyrics were too outdated for Mike to understand, he further explained that this song was a way of telling your lover “you look frickin’ gorgeous,” which still might be confusing to some young viewers since he spoke the words instead of texting them.
Dressed in his “In the Wee Small Hours” finest, Mike started slowly before speeding up the tempo and indulging in some of that swingin’ cool-cat vocal phrasing that is admittedly lame but still wholly appropriate for Sinatra night.
On the plus side, he had great vocal control over the tune and, as Simon pointed out, he seems to be one of the few performers who listens to the band as they sing and changes pace to keep the whole thing sounding organic. Still, he wasn’t good enough to justify the laurels the judges showered him with. Randy declared Mike was “in it to win it!” (he’ll get third at best) and Ellen said he is much more comfortable onstage than everyone else. While that may be true, it only makes sense when you think back to high school and recall the kids who were most at home on the stage were the ones you never wanted to be around.
Lee sang Sinatra’s “That’s Life” to Connick, but Harry was more focused on turning their interaction into an awkward skit than actually giving him feedback. Apparently Harry’s wife has a crush on Lee, and so he told the former paint salesman that he was “like a new and improved version of me.”
Then he tried to make a joke about Lee being hot, but wait, not really, because that would mean Harry Connick Jr. is gay, and he’s not. But that’s the joke: If a man thought another man was hot, that would be funny, because it would mean he’s gay. See the humor now? Yes, the joke played even more awkwardly than that explanation and Harry also made some weird faces to the camera when he was hugging Lee good-bye. It was probably meant as good-natured razzing, but it worked better as an impetus to wish they'd cut to Glee early.
As for Lee’s performance, it won the night in terms of sheer pleasure. The arrangement Connick gave Lee was swingin’ without sounding outdated, although the cheesy organ that opened the song was totally needless. Lee’s voice fits vocal jazz surprisingly well, although not as perfectly as the judges would have us think; he certainly had some pitch problems the judges were significantly mum about.
Ellen told him, “If this was the last night, you would have just won this whole thing,” which is probably only true if people keep being wowed by the fact that Lee used to be mediocre but is now great. No slur on his talent, but he has yet to display the kind of vocal control or inherent understanding of different genres that makes Crystal the clear star of this season. Truthfully, if Lee does take this season’s top seat, it will be because the judges went out of their way to build him up while pretending her more developed skills are to be taken for granted.
Other evening highlights:
• After he announced he would be advising and arranging songs for the top five this week, Harry jovially dissed last week’s guest mentor: “You think Shania Twain was up here doing this?”
• After Aaron said that singing with a trio was fun, Harry mock-peevishly pounced on the little lad: “It’s more than fun. It’s my life.”
• Seacrest questionably used Connick’s starring role in Hope Floats as evidence of HCJ being a “classic triple threat.”
• Miserable performance aside, Casey did recount a great story about a TV-less friend of his who called and asked if Casey would want to sing at a gig on Tuesday night for “50 bucks and a free meal.”
And two unnecessary moments of judicial kindness:
1. Post-performance, Simon told Casey to buck up since he at least had a new gig lined up for the following week. Instead of sticking to his realistic guns, Simon unconvincingly assured the audience he meant the comment as “a joke, a joke.”
2. Kara gave Aaron’s “Fly Me to the Moon” the thumbs down but then told him, “This is constructive criticism, honey.”
C’mon, judges: They seem like a nice bunch of kids, but these are allegedly the best five singers you picked out of 10,000 applicants. At this point, you can be mean.
Tonight: Harry Connick Jr. returns to perform and Lady Gaga herself deigns to pay Idol a visit. Watch out for any food she brings you, Seacrest. You saw what happened in that diner.
The AV Club's Claire Zulkey took issue with Simon telling Aaron he wasn't cool, saying his "Fly Me to the Moon" "was the 'coolest' Aaron has been all season. Aaron will never be cool; he's an earnest 17 year old. Was David Archuleta ever 'cool'?"
Entertainment Weekly's Michael Slezak found Lee's "rendition of 'That's Life' to be absolutely solid, the best of the night, in fact — thanks in part to an organ-heavy arrangement that was pure hipster throwback."