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American Idol Recap: Paul F. Tompkins on Elton John Night

Greetings from Melbourne, Australia! It is tomorrow where I am, and I am going to watch tonight’s (your time) episode in broad daylight. It’ll be strange being able to do something else after recapping the show, rather than simply collapsing, like usual. Eh, I still probably will. But after that, I could go to dinner if I want.

Tonight’s theme is Elton John, and I wonder what the ratio of early/good to late/garbage will be in the songs we hear. Jimmy Iovine is still hanging around, and he reminds us that the stakes are high: “Tomorrow night, two people will be going home, so tonight eleven people have to kill it — or they’re out.” That makes it sound like if all eleven don’t “kill it,” they’re all out. Oh, to live in Jimmy Iovine’s wonderful world, where the show would end tomorrow night, and we’d have as many baseball caps and tinted glasses as we could eat!

Because Elton John is so famously flamboyant and fashionable (historically, not presently) the contestants are sent on an Entertainment Weekly fashion photo shoot, courtesy of EW editor Dalton Ross, who looks like a good son who dressed as his mother wanted him to for picture day, even though he told everyone he was going to wear his Gremlins T-shirt.

Time-wasting package concluded. On to performances. Scotty mentions he’s from North Carolina; I remember that he is from an actual place and not a made-up TV “The South.” Elton John has made exactly one country song and Scotty has sniffed it out, like a pig successfully hunting for truffle-themed country songs. “Country Comfort” is a boring song written by English people about the idea of American people who live in those parts of the country uninteresting to English people. Scotty, playing to his one strength, goes for a low note at the end that almost works. Almost. He also includes an inelegant shout-out to his Grandma. Did you catch that, America? Family and country and et cetera! Standard texting rates apply!

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says Scotty has amazing instincts and encourages him to keep grounded. Randy says Scotty has seasoned so fast on the show, and his shout-out to his grandma is proof of his comfort!
ME: Enough of this kid already. Seriously. He’s going to do a country song or a country arrangement of a non-country song at every opportunity. We already know all we need to know about him. Everything he sings sounds exactly the same. Do we have to sit through the actual performances? Can’t we have a special election, just, like, THE FORMALITY OF SCOTTY PERFORMANCES, TEXT 1 FOR YES, 2 FOR NO?

Naima has chosen “I’m Still Standing” (late/garbage, just two songs in!) and employs a reggae arrangement. This is like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of things I don’t enjoy. Naima says she relates to this song, because a lot of people counted her out of this competition (Hi!). Jimmy Iovine suggests since there is “a lot going on in the world” and many people are still standing, Naima might dedicate the song to them. Naima consents to this. Is that how dedications work? The song is about you until someone points out that there’s more important stuff than whatever you’re experiencing? Naima does the dedication and the song in a thick Caribbean accent. (“I’m still stonding”). The backup singers march in place — to me, the perfect visual representation of how I feel listening to reggae.

JUDGES: Steven … likes it? He commends Naima on picking a song that fits her. J.Lo maybe likes the idea more than the execution. Randy agrees with J.Lo; he loves reggae, but thinks this came off corny.
ME: Absolutely the low point of the season for me. I have no like left for Naima.

Back from the break, Ryan lets us know that we have a chance to help Taio Cruz write a hit song for Coca-Cola! What? Wait, what is the concept, here? You mean a commercial jingle, right? And Taio Cruz needs an assist with this? How much are we both getting paid? Are me and Taio going 50/50, Lennon-McCartney on this? I hope I don’t sound ungrateful for this chance!

Paul sings “Rocket Man” and gives us a taste of what it’d be like if all of the peaks and valleys of this classic song were filed down and filled in with sand, respectively. Approaching the chorus, Paul asks the crowd, “Are y’all ready?” Everyone assures him that they are. Then nothing happens. False alarm, y’all!

JUDGES: Steven … likes it? He likes that Paul sometimes hits a note and sometimes doesn’t. Randy wonders if Paul is holding back, and assures Paul that they, judges and audience alike, believe in him. J.Lo asks him to push. Paul promises that he will.
ME: Paul just lied to J.Lo’s face! Look, the guy is already pushing as hard as he can, but this is just his style. He makes everything sound like a montage in a Grey’s Anatomy episode. I call this genre of music “Shondarock.”

Pia sings “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” This means she will have a chance to belt out a random shouty note. But where will it come? The anticipation — like Russian roulette! (It comes in the chorus.)

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says Pia is on the right track and is clearly trying to break through her own barriers. Randy says Pia is great and defends his criticism of her for choosing only ballads. He again refuses to acknowledge the up-tempo song from two weeks ago. No one else mentions it either. WHY DO I REMEMBER THIS AND NO ONE ELSE DOES? Am I in that Liam Neeson movie no one saw?!
ME: Pia is in tune and pretty and clearly enjoys singing. Do you like that sort of thing? Pia is for you!

I remember that Stefano is supposed to be here this week! Forgive my boasting. Stefano decides to sing “Tiny Dancer,” but Jimmy Iovine is worried for Stefano — this song was written for Elton’s voice, and it’ll be tough! Jimmy cracks the whip on Stefano! Stefano won’t get voted off on Jimmy Iovine’s watch, dammit! The most curious moment of the song is Stefano clearly, distinctly, and unmistakably singing “ballerinum” instead of “ballerina.” There is no mistaking this. I rewound it twice, and the second time I muted the sound and just read his lips. His lips come together in a way not normally associated with the ah sound. As the song winds down, Stefano, mindful of previous criticisms, grabs J.Lo’s hand and sings right in her goddamned face. There. Happy now?

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo feels he has taken all of their criticisms and improved! Randy thinks it was a very nice job. No one mentions “ballerinum.”
Me: “Ballerinum.” How could this have happened? It’s not possible that Stefano has never come across this word before, is it? Surely, someone would have stopped him if he’d done this in rehearsal; was he saving it? I have not checked the periodic table of the elements since high school — was this a science in-joke? Are scientists a big voting bloc for American Idol? How’s that cancer cure coming along?

Back from the break, we see that Howie Mandel is in the audience to plug his dumb new show, Flash Mob. Near as I can tell, the premise is: What if you could hire Improv Everywhere to help chubby people propose marriage?

Lauren sings “Candle in the Wind (Original Recipe),” which she says she can relate to. What? How, exactly? Does she relate to the dead movie star? Or to the British schoolboy from the sixties who had a crush on the dead movie star? Or to the closeted gay guy singing about the British schoolboy’s crush on the dead movie star? The vocal doesn’t help solve this mystery, as Lauren twists all the words so much they sound like Dr. Seuss’s tribute to Marjilon Morrorrow.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says it was amazing and that that was it, baby! Randy declares this to be one of Lauren’s greatest performances! Sure. I can actually co-sign that one.
ME: Steven makes a mildly lascivious joke about Lauren’s dress that becomes profoundly lascivious when you remember that she is a child. Before the break, as Ryan chats with Lauren, she gets oddly emotional about being on the show. Like, it just occurred to her that she’s on American Idol. Maybe her stage parents put her in some sort of trance after each performance and she is brought out of it right before she hits the stage.

James tells us that he is so grateful to American Idol for allowing him to meet such legends as Hulk Hogan. Cut to every musician who’s been on the show saying, “Thanks.” Then cut to his hungry baby, rattling a spoon in an empty peanut-butter jar, saying, “Dada, I hungry.” James sings “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting),” Elton John’s most irritating-to-type-the-title-of hit. It’s a strangely slow version — should the arrangement by the guy in his twenties be slower than the one by the old man in the false hair?

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says when James is up there, she forgets this is a competition! Randy loves that James enjoys himself.
ME: Back in my high-school-theater days, I learned very quickly that “You really looked like you were having fun up there” was a non-compliment. But in the topsy-turvy world of Idol, it is high praise! In talking about the prodigious amount of hairspray he’s employing this evening, James references that infamous Michael Jackson Pepsi commercial incident, where the singer's hair caught on fire. Ryan reminds everyone that Coca-Cola sponsors the show. He missed an opportunity to capitalize on the fact that no one has caught on fire during a Coke commercial. Unless — maybe he couldn’t, because it happens all the time. Let’s please make this an urban legend!

Thia says she’ll sing “Daniel.” Jimmy Iovine’s reaction: “[Beat.] Oh. Okay.” Well, what’s your great suggestion, Jimmy? Thia’s going to sing it for her brother, who had to move away when she was very small. She says this as if he had to flee the Potato Famine or something, but a snapshot reveals he was just going off to college. This song is a perfectly bland and predictable choice for Thia, and it’s boring from the very first second. I think Thia sounds like what someone who sings in a hotel lounge sounds like on the very first night of a ten-year engagement.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says it was a beautiful moment for Thia. Randy says he didn’t like that it was so safe.
ME: Randy, above all the judges, continues to treat the youngest contestant as if she has these hidden depths. She doesn’t, dawg. And if she does, the way you’re critiquing her clearly isn’t getting her any closer to plumbing those depths. Maybe you need to get better at judging. Oh, and I may be losing my marbles, but I could swear Thia says her brother’s name is Klia. Klia Megia. Perhaps I have vegemite poisoning.

Casey gets some tough coaching from Jimmy Iovine and Rodney Jerkins. Rodney tells him to lose his beard. Casey goes to a barber and … trims his beard. Well, that was a pointless mini-montage. Casey sings “Your Song.” It’s fairly pleasant, and I am reminded that Casey actually has a nice, clear voice when he’s not faux-Cockering. However, it gets a little too angry toward the end. I think it undermines the intent of the song to bellow “I HOPE YOU DON’T MIND.” It makes me think that you’re hoping I do mind a little.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says she’s lost sleep over many hard decisions on this show, but not over the decision to save Casey. Randy says one of the greatest saves they’ve ever had on the show was saving Casey. He says that this performance was so nice and tender.
ME: It was pretty nice. I’m still mad about the beard thing, though. Rodney said lose it. Not trim it. If an exterminator said “Yeah, I got you down to just forty termites,” you wouldn’t say, “That’s a fair compromise.” Am I saying you have termites in your beard? Your words, not mine.

Jacob’s intro package is interrupted by the sudden apparition of Mary J. Blige, who manifests out of nowhere. Everyone is taken aback. She doesn’t seem to be there on official business. Then we stop talking about her. Jacob sings “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” which Elton John foolishly forgot to oversing when he recorded it a million years ago. They will give knighthoods to anyone these days.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says that Jacob’s last note isn’t something you see every day. Randy likes Jacob’s restraint, but wants to see Jacob pick one spot in every song to go crazy, like Pia does.
ME: I feel incredibly validated by Randy saying Pia does exactly what I have been saying she does. However, Randy views Pia’s approach favorably. I guess this world is made up of Randys and Pauls! Whaddaya gonna do?

Jimmy Iovine’s advice to Haley: “Now remember, every week some part of you has been missing. We wanna bring all those parts in the same car and drive them to the show.” Haley correctly laughs uncomfortably as if he is a feebleminded village elder. Haley sings “Benny and the Jets” as a sort of half-torch song. It’s pretty good — the tempo is enjoyable and Haley’s voice is really clear and her pitch is, I think, the best of anyone in this competition. J.Lo is totally into it.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo pronounces, that was it! Randy decrees this the best performance of the night!
ME: Her consistencies of performance, down-to-earth personality, and discomfort with Jimmy Iovine have officially made Haley my favorite. That’s right. I said it. We have been on quite a journey, Haley and I, even if only one of us is aware of it. Haley, when there was only one set of footprints, that’s when I was writing about you for an online TV-show recap.

Next: TWO people go home. One person who does not is me. G’day.

Photo: Michael Becker/FOX