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American Idol Recap: Slog of Ages

Ryan Seacrest promises that this episode will be “another test of endurance for our top four,” and I’ll be damned if that isn’t exactly the problem. Was this show ever supposed to be a test of endurance? My God, it’s certainly been one for us this season, with one two-hour show after another milking every last drop out of the format as viewer after viewer finally gives up like an exhausted dance-a-thon participant and clicks over to a Big Bang Theory rerun.

Our top four is starting to look worse for the wear as they mirthlessly trot out onto the stage. Our top four, if you’re just tuning in: a dreamboat troubadour who is a tiny bit too cool for the room, and three children whose lifelong single-minded pursuit of American Idol fame has come at the cost of the development of any discernable personality. Mouth-noise-wise, this is probably the most talented top four in the history of the show, but you could replace all of them with any contestant from the last eleven years and the show would be ten times more fun to watch.

But at least Steven Tyler is working a “Barbara Hershey in an all-white production of Eve’s Bayou" look, so it’s not a total loss.

There will be two rounds tonight: “California Dreamin’,” or: songs about or by bands from or ever listened to in the state of California, and “Songs You Wish You’d Written,” or: songs which inspire the contestants. Really, I wish they’d give up the pretense and just say: Tonight’s theme is “Songs.”

Phillip Phillip starts us off with a version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen The Rain.” Now, here’s my thing with Phillip: He is obviously gorgeous, he is obviously talented, and he is obviously going to win, so it’s frustrating to see him do so much less work than anyone else in this show’s history. Phillip’s got a distinctive sound, but this show has traditionally asked a singer to push his limits; even Lee DeWyze had to shlump his ass through Big Band Night. But progress-wise, all I can say is that he looks a tiny bit less twitchily terrified to be singing without his guitar. Also there is a sassy female sax player, and it’s fun to think that it’s Rita from The Heights, all grown up and doing what she has to do to feed her family. This is how we keep ourselves going in an endurance event.

For round two, Phillip chooses “Volcano” by Damien Rice, and the good news and the bad news is that it suits him perfectly. I can’t help but think Simon would have had his number five weeks ago, would have pushed him to challenge himself, and that the result would be a million times more satisfying to watch. But this judges’ table tells him to keep doing what he’s doing, so he keeps doing what he’s doing, week after endless week. I want to see something else from this guy. Anything else. Not that an acoustic version of a teen-girl pop song wouldn’t be derivative and 15 years old itself, but I’d just about kill for his take on “Call Me Maybe.” Anything less mournful. (I never thought I’d want something less mournful on American Idol.)

And then there’s Hollie Cavanagh, who does Journey’s “Faithfully.” To review: The teenage girl who needs to start looking like she’s enjoying herself has chosen to sing a 30-year-old ballad about the toll touring with a rock band takes on a middle-aged man’s marriage. Hollie’s spirit animal is a 37-year-old dental hygienist. She does a decent enough job, especially on the last big notes, but does anyone want to hear a child sing about “the joy of rediscovering you?” In her post-song interview, Hollie reveals that she didn’t know the song and needed someone to explain the lyrics to her. Also, I reveal to my dog that I’m giving up on Hollie Cavanagh.

The song Hollie wishes she had written is Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” which Jimmy advises her to sing with emotion, so she sings it with what she imagines “emotion” to be, which is “vibrato.” Jennifer Lopez points out that the lyrics tell Hollie’s own story at this point in the competition, having been in the bottom two a few times by now, and that she could have drawn from that experience to deepen her performance. It’s a very good point, and it is the only criticism we hear all night. The judges love every single other thing without reservation.

Also, there is some kind of competition where you can submit lyrics for Jason DeRulo’s new song that is also some kind of Coke ad, but Jason DeRulo is still wearing a vajazzled neck brace, so you’ll have to go find the details on your own.

There are also the duets and group numbers that bring this show up to two hours. Joshua and Phillip do a listless version of Maroon 5’s “This Love” on top of pianos from the dueling piano bar you avoid in your town. When Ryan announces that the ladies will be taking on the Bangles, I sigh “There is a zero percent chance this won’t be ‘Eternal Flame,’” and I am immediately proven right. They are on swings for some reason, and when they step forward for judgment, the boys run on stage and swing. It is a spontaneous moment for which I bet they were punished. And then all four of them do Foreigner’s “Waiting For A Girl Like You.” Tonight’s episode is one of those things where you get really excited when you have to go to the bathroom, because for a few moments, you will have something to do.

Joshua Ledet does Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up,” a song that has always bothered me, and here’s why: “You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains.” And ... then what? Are you planning on doing anything once you’re on those mountains, or are you just going to stand around? I know people find this song inspirational, and I have no idea why. You raise me up, so I can take naps at a higher elevation. (Also, if you want to stand on mountains, how about climbing them shits?) It’s like the stage itself is mirroring my own lack of enthusiasm: Joshua is on a platform that lifts him three feet off the ground. But he does growl and screech all over it and the judges give him a standing ovation.

His round two song is James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” and though his vocal is really pretty amazing, he still doesn’t connect with the audience. I blame church; Joshua is a kid who needs to play some small, shitty venues and have the experience of losing a crowd and having to win them back. These vocals, plus some flirting with the audience (or at minimum, an acknowledgement that an audience exists), would be a pretty amazing combination.

The top four get a preview of “Rock Of Ages” from its director Adam Shankman, who is just delighted with himself. You get the sense that this guy has a tight ten-minute stand-up set ready to go, just in case. Also, Ryan tells the movie’s star Julianne Hough (his girlfriend!) he has a very important question for her, and then reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out ... a letter he’d like her to give Tom Cruise! Do you get it? It looked like the piece of cardboard was going to ask the sentient Candie’s shoe to marry him, but then he didn’t! Oh, it’s fun.

A package of Jessica’s childhood performances reveals that she’s been doing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” replete with feral Jennifer Holliday growl, since she was 7 years old. So it is official: that is one unearned-ass growl. She is one of the best singers this show has ever seen, but she cannot help but come off robotic. Her version of Etta James’s “Steal Away” is perfectly pleasant, but it still feels like you’re watching a very good episode of Toddlers & Tiaras.

And then in round two, she really goes for “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” and while it is technically flawless, you cannot escape the reality that nobody has ever asked this girl to be going. Listen: I don’t wish heartbreak on any human being, but it will visit us all, and once Jessica Sanchez gets good and dumped by someone she really loves, she will be the greatest singer of all time. The judges lose their minds. Randy points out Julian Lennon in the audience and says “EVEN JULIAN LENNON LOVED IT,” which is my favorite thing I’ve heard on television in a very long time.

So there’s our top four, America. I think Hollie had a chance to stand out tonight, the other three had a chance to do something different, they all blew it, I aged 14 years, and there is officially no way this won’t be the dullest final in Idol history. Kill me maybe.

Photo: Michael Becker/FOX