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American Idol Recap: Paul F. Tompkins Breaks Down James’s Song-Induced Breakdown

I think there are only three weeks left. Does that sound right? It can’t be more than that, can it? They won’t start adding people back in, will they? The guy with all the glasses, and the little chubby kid? I’ll — I’ll just trust that that won’t happen. Let’s concentrate on tonight. The judges don’t even have time to make an entrance, there’s so much entertainment coming our way! Randy is wearing his dad’s nice blazer from work. Steven is dressed in some cheap version of the leather suit that Eddie Murphy wore in Delirious, only more effeminate-looking, if you can believe it. J.Lo has on a white dress and a flower in her hair and looks like she’s about to get married! TO ME. Randy wonders aloud of the contestants, "Who is in it to win it?" Over the past couple of months, he’s told us that all of them are, so I’m not sure why he’s asking now. Maybe he’s been drinking from too many aluminum Coke cans. Ah, well. He has his good days and his bad days, you know?

Sheryl Crow is the mentor for the final five. And for a second I think she is also the theme of the night. It seems impossible that Sheryl Crow has enough recognizable material for a whole evening. While I ponder this, I’m pretty sure I miss what the actual theme is.

James is up first, and he will sing “Closer to the Edge” by 30 Seconds to Mars. I know this sounds like gibberish glued together by prepositions, but I looked it up and it checks out as a song by a band — Jared Leto’s band, but still. Sheryl Crow sings with James at rehearsal and says she can retire now; she got to sing with James. We hear the studio audience laughing, and it makes what Sheryl Crow just said seem sarcastic. I choose to believe it was, because it pleases me to do so. Jimmy Iovine is still hanging around for some reason. Maybe he got locked out of his house? Jimmy opines that James fits into this contemporary genre even better than eighties rock. Hey, maybe “contemporary” is the theme! My first clue! I am on the case! James runs all around, working the crowd, singing this momentarily catchy but ultimately forgettable song as the occasional shower of sparks shoots off behind him. James.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says James has been showing America that he wants it and it’s his to take! Randy commends James’s vision in choosing this song and declares that James is in it to win it! Okay, Randy is lucid and able to determine for himself who is in it to win it. For now.
ME: It is no secret that I have not been a fan of James’s whole … thing, but man, this was his worst performance. It really sounded off all the way through. Ryan says James is gonna slow it down in a little bit. Wait, do they all sing twice? I don’t recall hearing that. Is that what I missed earlier? Is tonight’s theme “Singing Too Many Songs”? This case is starting to heat up.

Back from the break, Ryan confirms this two-song business: one contemporary, one classic. I dread hearing the examples of both. At least that case is over with. Jacob’s up next. His first song is “No Air” by Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown. Jacob says this is the kind of song he’d like to release as an artist. It’s a duet, but Jacob will sing both parts! Can Jacob do twice the oversinging? This is the kind of trick that almost killed Houdini! Stagehands, don’t let any of Jacob’s fans punch him in the stomach if he isn’t ready! Jacob’s performance is pretty shouty, as he is singing for two. It’s not a good choice for him, really, and he doesn’t sound comfortable. It’s strange that with Jacob’s impressive range, this actually seems out of said range. How is amateur stuff like this still happening this late in the competition? Who’s to blame? I’d like to assign blame, please.

JUDGES: Steven … likes it? He’s waiting for the song that’s 100 percent Jacob. J.Lo tells Jacob he should continue to choose songs that express who he is. Randy thought this was not the direction for Jacob, and that the performance was corny and the vocal was sharp. He says Jacob is neither Jordin Sparks nor Chris Brown! He is the church kid! No mention of Jacob being in it, or why he would be!
ME: I agree with Randy, I guess. I am struggling to come up with something to say about Jacob’s performance. I now end my struggle with a classic giving up. Jacob addresses Randy’s criticisms, Randy addresses Jacob’s criticisms of his criticisms, and Ryan makes a reference to Battle of the Network Stars that is as dated as it is off target.

Now it’s Lauren’s turn. She’ll sing “Flat on the Floor” by Carrie Underwood. Sheryl and Jimmy advise Lauren to just stand there and sing this powerful song, not to move all over the place. Lauren seems intimidated by the song. I have given up trying to figure out who, if anyone, is in charge of what gets sung on this shoddy talent contest. Giving some advice, Sheryl Crow stage-whispers something for emphasis, and the producers must forget the purpose of microphones, because they feel the need to close-caption what she says. Lauren’s performance begins, and the Game of Thrones fiddler is back! I cannot accurately determine whether his sparkly T-shirt reads "ROCK THIS HOUSE" or not, no matter how many times I rewind! "ROCK THIS something," for sure. Oh, I hope it has a curseword on it! Lauren plants herself for most of the song, but walks a little bit here and there. Even with this limited movement, she doesn’t seem to have enough breath for the entire number. I don’t know anything about her personal habits, but maybe she should switch to filters.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says Lauren ate it up! Randy proclaims this is the direction for Lauren! He loves the fun, energetic side! Lauren is indeed one of those who is in it to win it! Randy, you’re making this much easier! That’s two, now. Two who are in it to, as they say, win it.
ME: I know there has been a lot of talk about the judges being too nice, but honest to God, I sometimes wonder if there is something wrong with my hearing. That did not sound good to me. It sounded like Lauren could barely keep up. How would she do a whole concert if she is nearly iron-lunged by one song?

American Idol season-ten winner Scotty McCreery drops by to sing “Gone” by Montgomery Gentry. Scotty starts in the crowd! He prowls up to the stage! He summons the Kates Bosworth with the power of his voice! He struggles to hold the microphone like a person might! This up-tempo contemporary number is Scotty’s most animated performance by far, and I am actually grateful for the change in energy. Eh, grateful might be too strong. I don’t want to give up that much power. Not ungrateful? Yeah, that’s passive-aggressive enough. I’ll stick with that.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says Scotty owned the stage, and that was some American Idol stuff right there. Yeah, I’ll say it was. Randy says it felt like sitting at a Scotty concert! And Scotty is the latest person to be accused of inittowinitry!
ME: Scotty is enormously comfortable onstage now. Perhaps he already knows he’s going to win. Not that there’s been any behind-the-scenes jiggery-pokery, just that it’s obvious to everyone and everything. I’m including objects. Objects know.

Haley tells us that Jimmy Iovine has offered her an unreleased Lady Gaga song called “You and I” (don’t ask Jimmy how he came by it; better you don’t know!). Haley tells us she sought and received the Lady’s blessing, and so she will favor us with this song that seemingly fell off the back of a truck. The low parts are a little too low for Haley’s range, but overall she does a good job. She is clearly thrilled to sing this song and her excitement seems real. Having watched this season for the last quarter-century, I feel I can tell when someone’s just getting off on receiving attention and when someone genuinely loves the singing part of the singing. The song’s right up Haley’s alley, and although she is still an undoubtedly awkward physical performer, I enjoyed watching her. Also, look how this guitarist is playing his guitar like he’s trying to strangle it to death.

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JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says Haley probably made a mistake in choosing a song people don’t already know (boos from the crowd!). Randy thought it was too risky and that Haley is more like a Joss Stone, who to the best of anyone’s knowledge has never sung an unreleased Lady Gaga song.
ME: Guess what? Haley is the best. I love that she did that song, and I love that she went with what she thought was the superior song and not the most recognizable cover. Haley is more of an artist than anyone else left in this competition. That is both my opinion and an immutable fact, so that really works out in favor of me being right. And again, if this song was such a bad choice, why was it offered to her in the first place? Do Jimmy Iovine and the judges all work for the same show? If not, can the story line about those two camps working against each other be the main focus of this dumb program? Because then there might not be time for a second James song.

Back from the break, it’s time for James to yell his way through “Without You” by Harry Nilsson. Listening to the song being played for him in rehearsal, James bursts into tears and has to leave the room. Perhaps he imagines his baby singing this song to food, or to a diaper. Watching James walk out, Sheryl Crow reacts as if she is unaware that music can provoke emotions in people.

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After a good old-fashioned parking-lot cry, James gets it together and performs. The vocal is weak and wobbly. It really doesn’t sound good. The crowd predictably cheers when he gets to the yelly part, but even that’s not good. What?! Yelling is James’s shrill bread and loud butter! Perhaps his emotions are getting the better of him? He needed more time in that parking lot!

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo, describing people’s misconceptions of what James is, describes perfectly what James actually is (a “rock” guy who yells). Randy says it wasn’t vocally perfect, but it was emotionally perfect, and that this is James’s contest to lose. Wow. Are the judges mad at Scotty? Or are they trying to throw me off the scent? Can both Scotty and James be in it to win it? I wish I knew more about science!
ME: I have a heart, and I am capable of empathy. I’m no Dexter. But that was a bad performance. This is a singing contest, not a crying competition. James explains he is sad because he misses his family. James. Hey. James. Let me all-caps you something: YOU ARE NOT IN AFGHANISTAN. YOU ARE NOT TAKING FIRE A MILLION MILES FROM HOME. YOU ARE IN A SINGING CONTEST THAT YOU ENTERED VOLUNTARILY AS, BY YOUR OWN ADMISSION, YOUR FAMILY STRUGGLES TO MAKE ENDS MEET.

Between commercials we are treated to more of James crying, talking about his sacrifices, and how they are all to give his family a better life. Does he not know how the music business works? Does he think he will just do concerts at home, in the backyard? This is what it’s going to be like most of the time if you make music your job. Stop crying for yourself and start crying for your family. I’m sick of this dude.

Boy oh boy! I’ve got senioritis with this whole project. I’m so close to the end.

Jimmy suggests that Jacob do the Everly Brothers’ “Love Hurts,” which Jacob isn’t sure about because it’s a rock song, and I’m not sure about it because there’s a tedious arrangement of it by Nazareth that I hear coming from a mile away. Jimmy, in direct defiance of Randy, says Jacob should not sing any Luther Vandross or gospel. What are you up to, Jimmy? Do you think Randy is some Miley Cyrus, easily manipulated by your diabolical mind-gamery? Jimmy has Sheryl sing the song so Jacob can see the beauty of it. Jacob consents to sing it, and sings it as if it were a Luther Vandross gospel song. It’s okay! A couple of really weird notes, but mostly okay. Jacob did his thing, and everyone applauds, including Sir Anthony Hopkins, winner of the Celebrity Audience Cutaway Shot That Made Me Laugh Out Loud award.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says she doesn’t think everyone heard that little bobble Jacob had in the middle (I heard it J.Lo we hear the same things I love you), but he brought it home in the end and it was amazing. Then she brings up the bobbling one more time. Nice. Randy says what is great about a night like tonight is Jacob gets a chance to redeem himself with a great performance like this.
ME: Look. I told you I am tapped out on Jacob commentary. If he is still on the show next week, I am in trouble.

Back from the break, Ryan creeps through the audience like the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, trolling for heedless celebrities. He finds Kelly Preston, who waves from her seat, and Anthony Hopkins, who jumps to his feet and pumps Ryan’s hand vigorously, coming off like it’s 1918 and he just disembarked at Ellis Island and he thinks Ryan is the president. America!

For her classic song, Lauren will sing “Unchained Melody,” which is her mom and dad’s song. You get the sense Lauren does a lot of things with her mom and dad’s feelings as her first priority. Jimmy and Sheryl both talk about how much maturity it takes to sing this song and they both seem pretty skeptical that Lauren can do it. This is the kid who has severe anxiety with anything even close to a negative comment, right? Okay. Great mentoring and producing, gang. Lauren starts and it’s boring right away. Time stands still waiting for the big showy high part of the song. Lauren is mostly on key. That is my review of the song in progress. Will she go for the big note? The judges, Jimmy, everyone always wants her to go for big notes and her instinct has always been to shy away from them. “Unchained Melody” is built around one big note that everyone loves. Here it comes. Will she go for it? No! She won’t. Instead, she inserts a higher-than-usual note somewhere else, but it does not have anywhere near the power that the one note that everyone knows has. Maybe people shouldn’t cover this song.

JUDGES: Steven … likes it? He says it was beautiful, but he’s still waiting for that “just right” song from Lauren. He’s said this a few times tonight. I guess he’s all out of dead-on-arrival saucy wordplay. J.Lo has nothing to say other than it was a beautiful song sung beautifully. Randy thinks it’s cool that we saw a different side of Lauren tonight.
ME: If I had to base it solely on performance, I’d say Lauren is next for elimination. I think the judges are trying to trick the audience into thinking they saw something better than what they saw. But I think the audience is all the way off board with the judges and won’t fall for any shallow psychology, be it reverse or forward.

For his classic, Scotty will sing “You Were Always On My Mind,” which I already can’t wait to have been sung. Jimmy says Scotty doesn’t need to stretch. This is, again, in direct defiance of Randy, who for weeks now has been loudly pretending that Scotty needs to stretch! Wait, I thought Jimmy also said Scotty needed to stretch last week. Ah, what does it matter? This show is a goddamned mess. Sheryl says she can’t wait until Scotty moves to Nashville and launches a career that she can secure a piece of. Then she laughs. Not maniacally, exactly, but if a nearby maniac heard that laugh he would certainly squint at Sheryl Crow to see if they might know each other. Scotty starts singing and it’s deadly dull from note one. Also, isn’t there anyone on staff who can tug down the wires leading up the contestants’ backs to their in-ear monitors so all the singers don’t look like characters from Dune?

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says Scotty showed us all what a well-rounded artist he is. Randy is happy to see Scotty do the tender moments, and he loves it, dude, he loves it!
ME: That was not so hot. Lots of wavering on the vocal. Something is off with all the kids tonight, and everyone’s been kind of out of tune. Haley’s been the best. This is not bias. Believe me, I want to hear people sing in tune. Scotty’s Puerto Rican grandmother is in the audience. Her review of Scotty’s performance: “He’s my Scotty.” She’s protective because she’s from a protectorate!

Haley will close it out with “House of the Rising Sun.” Fuck yes. I bet she is going to tear it up. And I hope she will have extra anger at the judges for critiquing her for the Lady Gaga choice. At Sheryl Crow’s suggestion, Haley starts it off a cappella. Good call, Sheryl, because it sounds cool. The band kicks in, the lights change, and the stage looks fiery and swirly, like Haley is singing from the floor of a live volcano. Haley goes for it. It sounds like she hits every note. She executes a big rock finish, and there you go. Standing ovation from the judges. Those creeps. They must recognize the song. I love anything I’ve already heard, too! Keep your criteria for enjoyment simple, it makes life easier!

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says she may have picked up on some anger at the judges, too (J.Lo don’t you see how much sense we make together I’m sorry I called you a creep), but “that song has never been sang like that before.” Randy says Haley has grown by leaps and bounds and that her performance was amazing.
ME: Haley will not win this thing, but I hope she gets a nice career out of this show. And I hope she can make it for another couple weeks, because if she goes at the next elimination, this show will be so, so hard for me to watch. And unless Osama bin Laden manages to emerge from the ocean Creepshow-style the night of the finale, I don’t have a prayer of avoiding the James vs. Scotty showdown.

Pray for me.

Photo: Michael Becker/FOX