What a season American Idol has had this year. Seriously, after last year, I kind of wondered if my own personal Idol journey would be over. My love for the show had always been very deeply rooted in the existence of Simon Cowell, and he was leaving. The judge I most despised, Randy Jackson, was staying and essentially becoming the "lead" judge. America had proven that it has no real discernible taste by selecting the bland Lee DeWyze winner over the incredible Crystal Bowersox. (Seriously, if you can, go back and watch her finale performance of "Up to the Mountain" and then come explain to me how that was a second place performance. You can't because it's isn't...or shouldn't have been.) I was not thrilled when it was announced that Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler were joining the judging panel. Overall, I figured this would probably be the end of the lien for me and Idol...and this time would be a time that would stick.
What a difference a year has made. Sure, there are still times when I miss Simon or at least wonder how he would have responded to a given performance. Sure, Randy, despite occasionally showing some moments of truly insightful criticism, is more likely to fall back on ridiculous hyperbole and dumb statements. (If I hear him say someone is "In it to win it" one more time.... the sis and I are thinking the finale would be a great opportunity to unveil the American Idol drinking game we've been devising recently...and Randy will surely be the star of that game!) As the show approaches its finale, though, there's no denying that the talent level is pretty exciting, that Jennifer and Steven have brought a great energy to the judging panel (even though neither seems overly willing to actually critique in a truly constructive manner), and every episode is fraught with drama. Every elimination is shocking and disappointing. The performances are, as a whole, stronger than ever before. Can you imagine what these kids would have done in previous seasons where the talent pool was considerably weaker?
It makes it difficult for me to play armchair music producer every Thursday morning when I spent the night before watching ten solid performances. But it also makes it exciting as I wonder what is going to happen next, as early favorites fall from favor and a bottle of champagne sits unopened as a certain once loathed contestant gets better and better.
I had difficulty with today's rankings because the first half of the show had a different line up in terms of which performances I liked better than the second half. For example, after the first half of the show, I have to admit I would have ranked Scotty first. Even though I am not a country fan (and particularly don't tend to like male country artists -- too twangy for me), I loved his high energy, confident performance of Montgomery Gentry's "Gone" better than just about anything else in the first half of the show. But the second half of the show...wow. It shook things up considerably. So what I decided to do was take each performer and establish my rankings based on my favorite of their two performances. Yes, I'll comment on both performances, but how they line up is based on the one I liked better. Does that make sense? Have I just made things too complicated? Meh. Who cares? Who's reading this anyway?
1. Haley Reinhart -- Yeah, you read that right. Without a doubt, Haley was the strongest performer last night. The judges ganged up on her a bit for picking Lady Gaga's "You and I" as her first performance. It's an unreleased track that probably 90% of the audience at home had never heard before. It was a totally ballsy move...and I thought it was a brilliant one. After all, Haley is going to potentially make a career of singing songs we've never heard before except from her. What a way to establish herself. And it was a terrific performance (although my sis thought Haley's vocals sounded young...like a twelve year old). What put Haley at #1 on my list, though, was that finale. Her version of "House of the Rising Sun" was haunting and absolutely spellbinding. Bravo to guest mentor Sheryl Crow for encouraging Haley to go with that acappella opening that just put the audience in the palm of Haley's little hand. Yeah, Haley still needs to work on some stage presence (the arm waving...Haley...stop...), but she is playing this thing brilliantly and is on the kind of trajectory that could very well lead her to the finale. (Since she's a chick, she apparently can't win thanks to the massive tween girl voting demographic out there, but it suddenly doesn't seem too far fetched to imagine her at least making it to the final two.)
2. Scotty McCreery -- I've been tough on Scotty since day one. Scotty is a tough one for me because he is a genre performer in a genre I don't like. I've tried, though, to be open and I think I've been pretty honest about saying I think the kid is a tremendous singer. I just wish he sang a kind of music I like better. I think it's great that he's stuck to his guns and not tried to fit himself into whatever genre they're working that week, that he's managed to give a country performance every single week. (I still think he should have done "Everybody's Talkin'" for Movie Week, though.) Sometimes, that stubborn devotion to genre has been a little dull. I wasn't crazy about "I Cross My Heart" from Movie Week nor did I particularly like "You've Got a Friend" last week. Last night, though, I really enjoyed both of Scotty's performances and had Haley not come out with that monster "Rising Sun", I would have put Scotty first. As I said above, I thought his "Gone" was the best performance from the first half of the show. I loved the energy and swagger. The kid is a showman. (And thank you to the Idol vocal coaches for working with him on that damn flute hold he has on the microphone!) I thought his "Always on My Mind", while a predictable choice, was absolutely lovely and showed tremendous maturity. I really think we're looking at a likely Scotty-James finale, and I wouldn't be particularly shocked if Scotty was the ultimate winner. (I work with teenage girls. They love this kid!) Regardless of the outcome, Scotty has a bright future ahead of him in the industry. There is no way Nashville is going to let this kid go -- with that talent? That smile? Come on!
3. James Durbin -- It's not so much that James stumbled last night. He really didn't. It's just that Haley and Scotty shone a little brighter. I wasn't overly crazy about James's first performance, 30 Second to Mars's "Closer to the Edge." It just kind of lacked an ineffable something for me. James's "Without You", however, was quite lovely and had me in tears. There's no doubt this kid leaves it all on the stage every single week, and his passion and dedication to music is unrivaled. Of all the kids Randy has dubbed as being "in it to win it," James seems the truest to that sentiment. Am I alone, though, in sensing that James is wearing himself out a bit? Has he peaked too soon? I hate to think what will happen to those cute little toddler eyes (as my sister calls them) should he not make it, but I also wouldn't be surprised to see him in the bottom three tonight. The real question is whether the emotion of "Without You" will overcome the merely adequateness of "Closer to the Edge."
4. Lauren Alaina -- I know we're supposed to love Lauren and think she's the second coming of Carrie Underwood. Lauren herself tried to prove that to us last night by performing Carrie's "Flat on the Floor." It was a good performance. But just good. Lauren often feels like she's a little girl trying on Mama's big girl clothes and stomping around in heels a little too big for her. (Judging from the way Lauren's Mama dresses, though, maybe it's Grandma's big girl clothes...) I wish there was a way for Lauren's youth to be capitalized on. Lauren doesn't help this, though, by continuing to choose songs that are, frankly, too old for her. Her best performance this season was "The Climb", a song written for a 16 year old. Last night, we got "Flat on the Floor" (which seriously features the line "You can't knock me off my feet when I'm down on my knees" ... yes, there IS a 13-year-old version of Michael Scott living in my head) and "Unchained Melody." Both of those are adult songs, filled with adult pain and yearning, pain and yearning that a 16-year-old girl like Lauren can really only imagine. There's no denying Lauren has a tremendous voice, and it's not that she didn't sing either song well, but there is a sort of emotional disconnect and basic absurdity to see her up there in her pageant dress (can we please get this girl better styling??!!?) singing a song that calls for such maturity. There are plenty of youthful songs out there that would be perfectly within her wheelhouse and would not feel like we're sitting in the audience of a high school production of A Little Night Music.
5. Jacob Lusk -- Several months ago, I was a big fan of Jacob Lusk. Lately, as you surely have noticed, my love has cooled. The things I was willing to overlook a few months ago -- the articulation issues, the pitch issues, the over-the-top histrionics mid-song -- I'm just not so willing to overlook now. As others have gotten better and better and more and more inovative, Jacob has just kind of floundered and not really shown much of any growth. I also have a hard time picturing where he fits in the market right now. The music world is waiting for Haley, James, Lauren, and Scotty with open arms because each of them could pop right onto the charts and have successful careers. But Jacob? His attempt to show some level of modern relevancy by performing Chris Brown and Jordin Sparks's "No Air" was, well, lacking air. I agree with Randy that it seemed cheesy and out of place for Jacob. (When he went for the implied crotch stroke, I nearly threw up.) I got what Randy was trying to say -- Chris Brown is not the artist Jacob should be. There is no way that a kid who feels uncomfortable singing "Let's Get It On" is going to be able to be successful singing something like "Ballin'". Artists like Chris Brown or Usher bank on their sexuality just as much as any other "talent" they may possess. The days of Luther Vandross making sweet, sweet sonic love are long past. The new, modern R&B is gritty, dirty, sweaty, and sexy, and Jacob seems more laughable than anything when attempting that approach. I'm not sure he has the right swagger to pull off, say, a Bruno Mars or Cee-Lo. So where does that leave Jacob? Sadly, I don't know, but I do know that his time on this show should be drawing to a close so that the other four can battle for contracts that will actually sell records rather than someone who is more likely to be the second coming of Ruben Studdard.
It should be Jacob going home tonight.