American Idol entered the finals portion of season nine last night, bringing the top twleve contestants to a larger stage with more lights, a louder audience and inescapable Coca-Cola advertisements. The episode was Rolling Stones–themed; considering the amount of questionable talent that still remains, that daunting assignment hung over the evening like a dark, terrifying cloud. Would Aaron Kelly strut around the stage doing Mick Jagger’s rooster dance while shouting out “Brown Sugar”? Would Katie Stevens make us sit through a mind-numbingly vanilla version of “Wild Horses”? Would someone lean on the ever-popular “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as a musical crutch? Well, no, yes, and sort of. But the night was not the disaster it might have been, and a few of the weaker performers even displayed signs of improvement.
Michael Lynche opened the show with “Miss You.” He slowed down the Stones’ foray into disco turf and the song did him more favors than expected, showing off his ability to hit falsettos and slide right into buttery R&B verses. His stage presence didn’t translate to the larger space very well, however. His movements looked less like dancing and more like he was trying to shake off a small animal clinging to his leg.
Didi Benami reached way back to “Play With Fire,” and the moody lyrics and spartan arrangement served her well, emphasizing the control she has over her voice and making the song seem very much her own. Even if her performance wasn’t thrilling, she deserves praise for singing a dark song with appropriate pathos.
… Unlike Tim Urban, who decided to turn the misogynistic “Under My Thumb” into a reggae shuffle as if it were a fun song for a hotel resort’s tiki night. Tim enunciated the verses in a stilted fashion while the prominent background singers tried to distract from his almost speak-singing. He ad-libbed a few lines and even went a cappella for a bit, which was terrifying when you realize that some people would rather hear this instead of the recently ejected Alex Lambert.
It’s always tough to decide if one prefers grimace-inducing failures or singing sleepwalkers like Katie Stevens. Her version of “Wild Horses” was dull but not disastrous. She failed to hit the high note during the chorus and was dressed in her Spring Fling finest, but the worst insult was that the judges praised her song choice as if an earnest “Wild Horses” isn’t the most glaringly obvious song choice for a Connecticut teenager on American Idol.
Casey James played to his strengths as a rollicking good times rock-and-roll singer with “It’s All Over Now.” It was fun and he has a great voice, but he sings too self-consciously, never really losing himself in the song. His preperformance montage informed us he had seizures as a child, and whoever directed last night seemed intent on paying tribute to that with some disorienting cuts and spinning camera work.
Lacey Brown gave a grimace-inducing “Ruby Tuesday.” Yes, you have to give her points for the risky arrangement, but the string quartet was an awful contrast to her too-precious phrasing. In an irritatingly cutesy move, each time she wrapped up the chorus she blurted out “still I’m gonna miss you” in under a second; the pianist echoed the notes afterward with an equally quick trill, making it seem like a fairy named Ruby Tuesday had just alighted on Lacey’s shoulder to sing a duet. Randy called it “interesting,” using the word in the way your parents used it to describe Blue Velvet.
It would be far too generous to describe Andrew Garcia’s version of “Gimme Shelter” as a comeback, but without a doubt it was his best performance since Hollywood Week. Dropping the dull whine he brought to semifinals, he tackled the apocalyptic rocker with admirable resolve. Still, he lacks the technical control over his voice to make you really feel the song — you never forget that he’s trying to entertain you. For the fourth time (at least) this season, Kara senselessly complained about someone’s stage persona not matching the lyrical content of the song. “This song is about Vietnam and war children,” she complained, “I didn’t feel that from you.” Well, Andrew, if you get voted off tomorrow night, don’t forget to bring the napalm and Agent Orange.
We met Lee DeWyze’s parents last night, and even if you’re not a fan of his singing, you have to give him credit for avoiding his parents’ overpowering Chicago accents. With the string quartet behind him and his trusty acoustic guitar slung across his shoulder, Lee sang “Beast of Burden” in a way that made the song seem like it was written for the “I do still miss him” montage that precedes reconciliation in a romantic comedy. Simon declared that Lee needs to have a “moment” if he’s going to stick around, which brings up an interesting question: Do people performing in the Nickelback/Dave Matthews Band vein ever have wow moments?
Paige Miles might have had last night’s only comeback performance. After her video clip told us she started singing in church, Paige ramped up the libido and launched into “Honky Tonk Women.” Her entry into the top twelve seems to have restored her confidence, and she worked the stage while belting the lyrics with a previously unheard R&B husk. Considering she just got over a bout of laryngitis this week, it’s fair to say she’s redeemed herself.
Aaron Kelly wisely opted to sing a slower, radio-friendly Stones number with “Angie,” which was less grating than his cuddly attempts at singing more vocally demonstrative songs. Still, he has no real artistry, he wobbles onstage with his feet fastened to the floor like he’s a plastic hula dancer on a car dashboard, and, as Ellen pointed out, his new haircut is dangerously close to hers.
Siobhan Magnus’s makeover was reminiscent of Duckie arriving at the prom in Pretty in Pink: appropriately classy but still fabulously idiosyncratic. More important, her bizarre take on “Paint It Black” was easily the most riveting part of the episode. (Watch it below.) From the outset Siobhan made clear that she would be following her own vision of what the rhythm and tempo for this song should be, and when the band kicked into rock mode, she began working the song with an unearthly fever, hitting astoundingly high notes that sounded unlike anyone else. Some are sure to hate it simply because it was so odd (admittedly, the light show was straight out of an anime seizure), but whether the performance left you pumping your fist or scratching your head, at least Siobhan is doing something that forces your opinion — and that’s the mark of a creatively formidable artist.
This season’s “It” contender Crystal Bowersox came onstage wearing a tribute to the sadly departed Lilly Scott (she had her trademark peacock earring tied to one of her dreadlocks) and sang a satisfying “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” It showed off her raw talent, yes, but it was an obvious and safe song choice that demonstrated her aversion to stepping outside her comfort zone. Simon praised her but also flat-out told her that Siobhan bested her; he thought it marked the first time this season that she didn’t deliver the strongest performance of the night. It’s hard to say if that reliable consistency will keep her at the top or if her unwavering sameness will pave the way for a dark horse like Siobhan to win in the end.
Entertainment Weekly’s Michael Slezak is ready to get rid of “Featherweight Katie Stevens, [who] swung her Wiffleball bat with all her might but ended up gasping on the ground after ‘Wild Horses.’”
The AV Club’s Claire Zulkey realized “It would have been expecting too much to have it be a great night but barring that, couldn’t we have had a Sanjaya-level disaster? That would have been more fun.”