The Top 9 of season 9 of American Idol took on the songs of Lennon and McCartney last night and did surprisingly well.
Always eager to try a new opening, host Ryan Seacrest started out in the control room, showing us a shot of the judges before they entered and the top 9 contestants, standing on the stage. We also saw a reaction shot of eliminated contestant Lacey Brown in the audience.
While the group did not have a mentor this week, Paul McCartney sent them a video message wishing them luck. I wonder if they’d been hoping for him to be the mentor, and if so, what happened? So instead of video packages about their sessions with the mentor, we got video packages of the contestants describing each other.
First up was Aaron Kelly, of whom “Big Mike” Lynche said, “Aaron might be small, but those Jedi mind tricks are not to be denied.” The other contestants call him Yoda, perhaps because of his small stature. Clearly, it’s done with love, though. He chose to perform “The Long and Winding Road,” wearing a black Nehru jacket over a blue plaid shirt with dark jeans. His version of the song was a power ballad, and while he was on tune, it was nothing exceptional. I found myself mentally tuning out about halfway through.
Randy Jackson said that “you’ve still got a great voice” but he “didn’t love the arrangement.” He added, “The song was so sleepy.” Ellen DeGeneres felt it was a big song to take on and it “felt like a long and winding song.” Kara DioGuardi noted that he’s been delivering good performances, but “you have to be great.” She criticized him for doing the same thing every week. Simon Cowell asked him why he chose the song, and Aaron remarked that the “whole journey has been a long and winding road.” He added that he hadn’t played more with the arrangement because he “didn’t want to change such a great song.” Simon then told him the performance was “very old-fashioned, very boring,” telling Aaron, “You’ve got to become young and relevant.”
The youngest female contestant, Katie Stevens, was next. In an interview with Ryan, she said that she’s been asked to five proms by viewers. He asked her how she’d decide, and she said to send her the phone bill to show who voted for her most (Um… they’re toll-free numbers; they won’t appear). The contestants said she’s “everyone’s little sister” and likes to do the “Single Ladies” dance. For her song, she selected “Let it Be,” and she fell back into old habits of wearing a very outdated style: an ’80s-style hot pink dress with black stockings (ick), layered necklaces, and hoop earrings, hair pulled tight in a ponytail. She played with the melody a little bit, just enough to fend off charges of doing a karaoke version. While it was probably her best performance, she needs to learn to stop closing her eyes when the camera goes in for a closeup. Also, I couldn’t help thinking that she was changing the melody just for the sake of changing it. She was also off pitch on the last chorus.
Randy called it “your best performance ever,” telling her, “Those were hot vocals.” Ellen said it was “a perfect example of changing it just enough to make it your own without disrespecting the song.” She predicted there’s “no way you’ll be in the bottom three.” (I’m not so sure about that.) Kara told her, “You’re blossoming on that stage.” She loves her attitude, adding she’s “Never looked better and never sounded better.” Simon opined, “When you’re in the bottom three consistently, that tells you you’re doing something wrong. Tonight, you got it right.” He said that was because she was “leaning in the direction I’ve hinted at: more country.” (I don’t hear that at all.) He also felt “like you were singing it about somebody rather than being robotic.”
Next was Andrew Garcia, of whom Michael said, “That’s my homey.” He’s known for making the other contestants laugh. Lee, who roomed with him in Hollywood week, is great friends with him. He did “Can’t Buy Me Love,” aiming to “put a cool twist on it.” He performed on the audience stage with his guitar, wearing a yellow polo shirt buttoned all the way up and a black suit. More and more he reminds me of a modern Richie Valens. While he started out with his guitar, the band kicked in on the chorus, completely drowning out his guitar. His version was upbeat and fun, which was probably a good choice for him. He switched it up on the second verse, making it kind of funk. It’s not that it was bad; it’s just that I feel I’ve heard this from Andrew before. He doesn’t have a lot of range, and I think that’s hurting him.
Randy called it a really solid performance, but “I wasn’t jumping up and down.” He added it was “a little corny at times, because it was so pop and you’ve got a little bit more soul in you.” Ellen joked, “First of all, you can buy love. Am I right, Simon?” She thought it was a perfect song choice for him and a lot of fun. She loved it. Kara said, “I want to love it” but she wanted to see something new. She felt he could have done more with the interpretation, remarking that she liked the breakdown (the funky part). Simon said it was like “when you go to a wedding and the guitarist, not the lead singer, sings a song.” While he said he knew what Andrew was trying to do, the band completely overpowered the whole arrangement, making it “corny and old-fashioned and irrelevant.”
Michael Lynche has a personality as big as his girth, the other contestants said. Before she knew who he was, Katie called him the Incredible Hulk. Siobhan called him hilarious and called him “a big teddy bear.” He likes to enter rooms by singing a note in falsetto. He went with an old favorite, “Eleanor Rigby,” performing it with a string section on stage. He wore a charcoal suit with a banded collar and details on the back of the jacket. It was an incredible performance: he changed it up and made it his own, giving us a soul version that was highly listenable.
Randy said that “the parts that did work were great.” He told Michael he has license now to “do whatever you want” and said the song could be on his album. Ellen agreed that “you can do anything.” She said there are “so many sides of you, and you handle each of them well.” She found the performance incredible. Kara enthused, “That was fire. Those vocals were amazing.” She liked how he changed it up and made use of drama. What’s more, she felt he sold the story and “made that song commercial today, to this generation.” Simon “didn’t love it as much as the other three.” He felt “this was the sort of thing you see and hear in musicals.” He didn’t think it made him contemporary: “If anything, it made you go slightly backwards.” Summing up, he felt it was “too over-the-top.” This sparked a disagreement between him and Randy, who reminded him that the FOX hit show Glee is based on musicals and is very popular right now.
Before her video package, Crystal Bowersox did an interview with Ryan, revealing that she’s under the weather, suffering from a cold. The other contestants call her Mama Sox or B. Sox and respect her as an artist, loving her funny, goofy side. In addition to having her own little boy, they said she’s a mothering type of person. She picked “Come Together,” just because “it’s a fun groove” and she always liked it growing up. The song started out with her on guitar and a musician playing the didgeridoo onstage. Back to her own personal style, instead of last week’s glam look, she wore an off-shoulder black shirt over a black tank, with distressed denim leggings and cowboy boots. She offered up a very funky, bluesy version and was clearly having fun with it. She was more restrained on the third verse, delivering a powerful ending. Can I love her any more? You wouldn’t even know she’d been sick except that, at the very end, after the music stopped, she coughed once.
Randy felt it was “another solid performance,” though he didn’t know if it was her best. He liked that she “got into your groove at the end” but found the didgeridoo distracting. Ellen loves a didgeridoo. She said, “The only thing I have to worry about is a new way to tell you how great you are.” Crystal never ceases to amaze her. Crystal remarked that she’d been worried because this song has been covered so many different ways. Ellen reassured her that she “could hear that on your album.” Kara said it was “one of my favorite performances.” She thought the song had “a Bonnie Raitt feel” and called it “slinky, sexy, playful.” As a slight critique, she said that “Sometimes you’re serious, in your head” but she was “more accessible tonight.” Simon said, “That’s a song or a performance I could hear on the radio.” He liked that she was “just being true to yourself.” Then he wanted to know more about the didgeridoo player, Ernie Fields Jr., a freelance musician who Crystal invited up on stage. Simon thought it was quirky but “the two of you work well together.” Ernie enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame and even appeared with Crystal for her backstage interview later.
“Teflon Tim” Urban was next. The contestants didn’t have much to say about him, except that he smiles all the time. He said he’d wanted to pick a fun song that would “put a smile on people’s face,” so he went with “All My Loving,” accompanying himself on guitar. He wore a salmon river-boat shirt with a light brown, pinstriped jacket and jeans. He took a little liberty with the melody on the second verse but otherwise didn’t bring much to his rendition. Still, it was probably one of his best. The stylists had combed his hair down flat to look more like the Beatles. The girls will love that.
Randy, acknowledging that the judges’ negative comments have failed to hurt him, said, “You’re in your own category,” so he was simply going to decide, “Is it a good ‘Tim’ performance.” Grading on a curve, he found it much better than the last couple of weeks. Ellen thought it was “a perfect song choice for you” and liked his “Paul McCartney look.” Kara liked that he’d performed with the guitar. She threw him a bone: “We have really come after you, and I like that you took some of our criticisms… doing something different with the melody.” Simon refused to grade on a curve, but even so, “I thought you did really well tonight.” He liked that Tim had avoided gimmicks and didn’t over-sing it. The song, Simon said, “suited your voice.”
The other contestants make fun of Casey James for his “soap opera” good looks. They call him Trevor, Fabio, and Drake. He has a very boisterous, big laugh. Casey went with “Jealous Guy,” a solo song by John Lennon, wearing a black button-down shirt and white jacket, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. The look reminded me a lot of John Lennon in the ’70s, which might have been deliberate. Joined onstage by a cellist, he did a stripped-down version, playing with the melody a bit and giving a very heartfelt performance. It’s perhaps the most emotional he’s been, and for once he really concentrated on the vocals, showing he’s got vocal range.
Randy loved the acoustic guitar and “the sensitive vibe.” He was really impressed Casey “took this kind of leap.” While he said it wasn’t a perfect vocal, he liked that it was “so heartfelt.” Ellen gushed, “That to me was your best performance to date.” She called it soulful and a beautiful arrangement. She said he has “a great voice and pretty hair,” but she’d “wanted to feel you pour yourself into a song… and you did.” Kara said that “what you showed tonight was a vulnerability which has been lacking in some of your other performances.” She thought the performance “showed depth.” Simon latched onto the contestants’ nickname for him, “Goldilocks, I think it was the best performance of the night so far.” He said that his improvement, week to week, “is ginormous.” He liked that Casey put his stamp on the song and that it “felt emotional.”
Quirky Siobhan Magnus was next. Of her, Mike said, “Siobhan is amazingly weird.” Crystal likes that she “can hit some crazy notes I’ve never ever heard some little white girl do.” Siobhan chose “Across the Universe,” hoping it would show a different side of her voice. She sat on a stool, wearing a lacy dress with a multi-tiered skirt, along with a black vest and white, clunky boots. The performance started out very understated and controlled, a vast improvement over last week. For once, it seemed like she was just paying attention to the words and the vocals. This was almost a classical performance, accompanied from offstage by just a piano and backup vocals. While I think she needed to show that she could deliver a controlled performance, I think that to anyone seeing her for the first time, they would not be terribly impressed.
Randy loves watching her every week to see what she’s going to do and what she’s going to wear. He called the performance “a little sleepy” but loved the tender side. Ellen is “a big fan of people who march to the beat of their own drum. You certainly do.” She told her to “always honor who you are, because you are special.” Kara said that, from a purely singing perspective, she’d hit the notes and showed control. She thought “it was very restrained and very polite” and was “not sure you’d hear that on the radio.” Still, she liked that “you connected very personally to it.” Simon asked Siobhan, “What did you connect to?” Siobhan said she’s here for her “baby sisters, who are my whole world. Nothing’s going to change that.” She started tearing up. Aww. Simon acknowledged that she’d “had a pretty disastrous week last week” but that she “came back much, much stronger.” He called her unpredictable.
For some odd reason, the judges call the heckler from the audience up onstage. His name is Earl, and he hugs Siobhan with a huge grin. Hope this doesn’t start a trend.
Finally, it was down to Lee Dewyze, who the other contestants pick on for his hang-dog attitude. Every week he thinks he’s going home. They all bet him money that he’s staying. Andrew said, “You owe me 100 bucks, dude.” Crystal, on the bromance of Andrew and Lee, jokes that she hopes they’ll get married “and have hundreds of Danny Gokey babies,” a nod to the fact that, if you combined the two of them, you’d get someone who looked a lot like the season 8 finalist. Lee chose “Hey Jude,” a song he said he can relate to. Wearing a white button-down shirt with a black skinny tie, black jacket, and jeans, he accompanied himself on guitar. As always, his voice was kind of gruff, but he finally seemed to be feeling it a little more, even smiling. He urged the audience to sing along on the chorus. And then… a bagpiper came down the lit green steps (jumped the shark much?). Reaction shot of the audience clapping along but not singing. Hmm.
Randy thought the bagpiper was funny and joked that he himself had almost worn a kilt that night. He said that Lee always seems like a bundle of nerves before the performance but seems relaxed afterward. He summed up, “Another hot one from you.” He urged him, “Believe.” Ellen liked “the confidence that you showed tonight” and that he was smiling more. “Even when that guy got separated from his parade, it didn’t… you didn’t even get rattled.” She told him it was a great job. Kara said he feels more comfortable up there and had “some good moments, a few off moments.” She’s still a fan. Simon joked, ‘I don’t know what you lot are drinking in the house. Didgeridoo players and then a bagpipe player.” No disrespect to the bagpiper, but he wouldn’t have done that with the arrangement. He asked Lee, “Was it your idea?” Lee answered, “Yes, 100 percent.” Reaction shot of Lacey in the audience cheering.
Kudos to Michael Lynche, Crystal Bowersox and Casey James, with a nod to Siobhan Magnus and Lee Dewyze for trying something new.
I’m not convinced that Katie will escape the bottom three tonight, but I’m fairly sure that Andrew will find himself there, perhaps with Aaron (whose opening slot probably hurt him, as viewers might have forgotten his performance). Other contenders for the bottom three might be Tim Urban, again, and maybe even Siobhan. Even though Andrew’s video package showed that he does have a personality, though, I think he’s in the biggest danger of singing for his life.