For the first 50 minutes or so of last night's "Inspirational Songs" themed American Idol, I was, admittedly, feeling anything but inspired. Performer after performer came out and gave boring, karaoke takes on songs of pure treacle. I was bored. I was frustrated. I was annoyed. At 7:50, the best of the night was probably Lee Dewyze's performance of "The Boxer" -- and even that wasn't particularly mindblowing. (I really thought he hit some wonky notes and was stunned that "pitchy" never once escaped the lips of the Fab Four.) With the probably exception of Lee Dewyze, at 7:50, just about anyone who took the stage last night looked vulnerable for elimination.
And then came Crystal.
I'm not sure there are words to really describe what Crystal did last night. It was beautiful. It was moving. It was powerful. It was, to me, the very definition of a starmaking performance, a perfect example of how you can completely immerse yourself in the emotions of your music in a completely genuine way. It was the performance of a real American Idol. Whether she wins or not (and let's not open that can of worms), Crystal has proven herself time and again as the kind of artist we should be embracing. And for that, I do indeed thank the Lord.
1. Crystal Bowersox ("People Get Ready") I've said pretty much everything I need to say about Crystal above. Seriously, guys, she's the shizz. I'm not going to threaten to leave Idol if she doesn't win (our trial separation following the ridiculous ouster of Melinda Doolittle proved to me that I just can't quit this show no matter how hard I try), but I will be severely disappointed because she is the most deserving of that title if we buy into the notion that this show is a singing competition. I suspect a lot of the talk about Crystal's performance will be about the crying at the end. That moment when her voice cracked and her tears became evident was so moving and so genuine. How is her crying at that moment any different from Kelly Clarkson breaking down during her triumphant "A Moment Like This"? This was a moment where the words of the song hit home for Crystal as she looked out at the family that she has been missing and singing "Thank the Lord" became a pure and honest moment. How refreshing is it to see an artist become completely engaged in the art and not in the package? She is the real deal, and I couldn't love her more.
2. Lee Dewyze ("The Boxer") For me, this song will always be linked with that first episode of Saturday Night Live after 9/11 when Paul Simon sang it to open the show. That performance was perfect -- stripped down, bare, powerful. Lee's performance last night was decent enough, but it felt over-orchestrated. How much more inspiring would Lee have been if he had just taken the stage with his guitar and that raw, gravelly voice of his? I was sort of stunned when Simon called it a contemporary performance because I thought the orchestration made it seem a bit dated. What made it contemporary was Lee's voice. That rasp of his is a very contemporary sound so it makes just about anything he sings seem current even if the stuff going on around him mires him in decades gone by.
3. Casey James ("Don't Stop") Yeah, Casey continued his backwards slide following that "Jealous Guy" from a couple weeks ago. Seriously, Casey, THIS is the song you chose? It was more a chance for Casey to show off his mean guitar skills than his vocal prowess, and at some point, that is bound to misfire on the guy. I do have to say I'm looking forward to a post-Idol world for Casey when he can do some original stuff and really let us hear what he's working with rather than trying to apply his blues rock vibe to moldy oldies like Fleetwood Mac.
4. Michael Lynche ("Hero") First off, I really dislike this song. I am so not a fan of that late-90s, early-00's rock. Nickleback gives me hives. I guess Michael did an okay job with this song, but it just didn't seem to pack much of an emotional wallop for me. I may be just about over Big Mike. I'll get back to you on that. His charm is gone.
5. Siobhan Magnus ("When You Believe") Oh, Siobhan! Every week, you have been breaking my heart for you. You seem so sweet, so earnest, and so lost. I love that you picked a song you like, but Jesus, that song is not a good song, honey. There was a whole list of songs from which you could pick, and you picked this? I mean, I guess it could have been worse. You could have been up there singing "This Is My Now," but wow . . . this isn't far off from that. Week by week, your power and individuality seems to be fading, and that concerns me. I've seen the list you had available -- a list that included "Hands", "I Turn to You", "Holding Out for a Hero" -- any of which would have been a stronger choice for you. I appreciate that you don't want to pigeonhole yourself as an artist, but there's also no denying that your lack of identity is really a lack of understanding of what will and will not work for your instrument. My hope is that your quirkiness keeps you in this because I really like you. I just hope that when you are eventually sent home that you immediately call a vocal coach and start learning about this amazing instrument you're packing there.
6. Aaron Kelly ("I Believe I Can Fly") This performance felt more Star Search than American Idol . . . no, it felt more American Juniors than American Idol. (Anybody else remember American Juniors? Anyone???) Hey, Aaron's a nice kid. He's a talented kid. He is not, however, all that interesting. I thought the moderate praise lavished on him last night was ill-founded. The song had pitch issues, energy issues, and come on. It was "I Believe I Can Fly." What happened to that country-tinged wanna be teen idol that Aaron seemed poised to become? Why not tackle Tim McGraw's "Live Like You're Dying" and show off that twang? I know from working with teenage girls that there is a HUGE country market out there among that dream demographic. All those girls who drool over Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban would surely love to have someone their own age to tack up on the walls. Aaron could be that guy. Be the male Taylor Swift and cross over to those girls who drool over Justin Bieber. But please, please, please leave R. Kelly out of this.
7. Tim Urban ("Better Days") I have a sneaking suspicion that Tim's Idol journey is just about over. I'm glad that we got to see him improve tremendously over the past couple weeks, but last night, I think he just tackled a song a bit too big for his rather small voice. The vulnerability of his voice is perfectly suited for a "Can't Help Falling in Love." It was a bit outmatched last night, though. I wish Tim had dialed back and given this song that same gentle quality he gave "Can't Help Falling in Love" and "All My Loving". Or that he had tackled a song better suited to that fragility he exudes vocally -- maybe Kris Allen's "Live Like We're Dying" (although I'm generally not a fan of wannabe Idols singing Idol songs) or a folk-y take on "Don't Dream It's Over" could have been really cool. Instead, we got this. On a night when only two singers showed real Idol potential, perhaps Tim will skate through on that smile and perfect, perfect hair. But I am not sure many were inspired to vote for Teflon Tim last night.