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TV Column
Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 05/05/2011

‘American Idol’ 2011: Haley shines but judges still say James has won


The Top 5 performed two songs each — one from “then” and one from “now.” (Michael Becker - Fox)

We’re down to just five Idolettes for Now and Then night on “American Idol.” Each is going to sing two songs tonight – one from “Now” and another from some vague “Then.”

As befits the occasion, the three judges are already seated when the show opens – none of “Idol’s” infamous nine-minute overruns this season! But this makes it hard to see what they’re wearing. Randy Jackson may have gone Italian, in a black tee shirt and silk jacket –Randissimo! Jennifer Lopez wears a demure white top and has a small white bouquet planted in one ear, in an apparent homage Kate Middleton, Steven Tyler has on a shiny red jacket jauntily thrown open with a white boutoniere on the lapel, like a British guardsman after the royal bachelor party. We sense a theme – or at least two thirds of one.

Sheryl Crow is this week’s celebrity coach.

James will sing “Closer to the Edge” by 30 Seconds to Mars, a big arena rock tune. We’re compelled to say – because we know the judges definitely won’t -- James coasts through this number like he’s already won. His start is very weak; he interrupts himself to tell the audience to scream its approval. At some point he seems to lose his focus on the singing – could it because he’s taking an extended walk through the audience high-five-ing everyone? Back on stage for some screechy/pitchy high notes and then it’s over.

The judges begin to genuflect:

“You kicked that song’s [heinie]!” Tyler raves. “It’s yours to take!” JLo says of the competition. “James is in it to win it!” shrieks Randy.

Jacob Lusk, aka Going Home This Week, is going to cover “No Air,” the duet sung by Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown. And yes, he’s going to sing both parts of the duet. “Everybody should be really proud of him” for taking that on, “Idol” in-house mentor/record mogul Jimmy Iovine lets us know. Personally, we think it sounds like a perfectly silly idea. Jacob comes out and he’s singing strong, he’s singing confident. Jacob duets with himself while standing in a fog, which seems to bring out the highest octaves in Jacob and it may have sounded great to our dog but for us – not so much.

And of course, Jacob, in marked contrast to James, has emerged as He Who Gets Kicked by the Judges in this competition. JLo gives him the kind of praise usually delivered by pinched elderly aunts -- you know, heaped up with a whole lot of conditionals, like “You sang that song just lovely dear, considering your overbite.” Anyway, in JLo’s case, she tells Jacob that “if this is the direction” he wants to go in, then “let’s keep it there.” Randy, however, tells Jacob flat out that nobody should sing both parts of a duet because it’s “corny.” Besides he notes, Jacob has got a bigger voice than either Jordin Sparks or Chris Brown, so he shouldn’t try to be Sparks or Brown. Instead, Randy says – and you know what’s coming next – “I see you more as Luther Vandross. You’re the church guy.” Just like Jacob’s been hearing, week after week. Because if there’s one thing “Idol” judges like to see is an “artist” who slavishly copies one performer, week after week. Jacob, who at least is growing a spine in this competition, pointing out that Vandross himself sang different styles.

Lauren Alaina will sing “Flat on the Floor” as did Carrie Underwood. Sheryl has practical advice about keeping the power level up: “Just feel your feet and control how much air gets to come out.” That’s what we like to hear! None of this “be the artist you want to be” drivel from Sheryl! Well, truth be told, Lauren still has some breath control and power problems and she’s picked a tough song that requires a lot of loudness. Sometimes she rides the song; sometimes the song rides her.

No matter, the judges love it unconditionally. “This is the direction for you!” Randy enthuses, without mentioning that this is the direction Lauren’s been on for weeks.

Scotty McCreery is going to sing the Montgomery Gentry tune, “Gone.”

This rockin’ country number starts with same-old Scotty but then ramps up like a theme park ride, and we get to see a whole new repertoire of Scotty moves, including kicks, fist pumps, and some new facial tics. “You’ve been a puritan but, I swear to God, I saw you dance with the devil tonight!” Tyler lets fly. This we somehow think may damage Scotty with his core, voting constituency. “Dancing with the devil – I don’t want you to do that right now,” Randy, who’s the veteran on this show and knows how the voting blocs work, quickly interjects.

Haley is going to do an unreleased (though widely performed) Lady Gaga tune, “You and I” that Iovine has “found” for her. Haley starts out reclining on the steps singing in a husky, mid-range voice and right way this seems like a good song choice for her. Truth is, the song isn’t all that distinctive, but it’s the best overall performance from the “Now” segment of tonight’s sing-off. But, since Haley, like Jacob, has been firmly placed in the Idolette Who Gets Kicked by the Judges recesses of said judges’ brains, they happily tear into her. While Haley gives them one of her special you-gotta-be-kidding looks we’ve come to love, JLo and Randy say Iovine did her no favor handing her this tune, because singing a song the audience does not already know is super dangerous and will probably cost her viewer votes. Even Tyler, who never has anything negative to say, acknowledges it was “risky.”

Show host Ryan Seacrest asks Haley whether, in light of the judges’ comments, she thinks agreeing to do this song suggested by Iovine was a mistake. Haley pretends to scratch her chin and mull a while, then says, “Hey, it was an opportunity and I took it.” Because, smart Haley’s figured out, the judges don’t matter -- heck, winning doesn’t matter at this point. Jimmy Iovine – now he matters!

Then “Now” round over, it’s time for “Then.”

James will perform Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” if he can stop weeping. Apparently when he first heard it during rehearsals with Iovine and Crow, he choked up because it reminded him of how every time his wife and child come to visit him in Los Angeles, they have to leave “and I have to let them go,” explaining, “I’m out here to make a better life for my family.” As we see a shot of him sitting on the surface of some patio, with his face to the wall, Crow says if he can’t keep it together while singing this number there will be “something very honest about that and we’re just going to go there with him.”

Will James get through it without breaking down? No! Remember how Renee Zellweger sang this tune, while fractured at the company Christmas party, in “Bridges Jones Diary?” In fairness, James isn’t quite that bad, as he wails like a demon lover, and the number ends painfully with the camera boring down on his teary eyes. And, while we’re remembering, think back to when, aeons ago, this season was in its infancy and some judge or another told an Idolette that overcoming one’s emotions to power through a song was the mark of a true professional. Well, tonight the judges are singing a different tune. Tonight they’re all about “You didn’t hit the notes but that’s because you were so emotionally connected to the song, which is the mark of a true artist. “No, it wasn’t perfect – but it was emotionally perfect,” is how Randy puts it, gushingly, and adding, “This competition -- it’s yours to lose!” We’re guessing lots of viewers also lap up the tremulousity. But maybe some viewers take after us and think that James, in his post-performance moment with Seacrest, presses his advantage a wee bit too much when he congratulates himself on his own performance, saying, “I delivered” and “I kept it together” and “every single week I leave everything on the stage.” Down boy! James doesn’t even hold up his fingers to the camera to show his phone voting dial-in number – James just makes a prayerful hand gesture.

Jacob will do the old “Love Hurts” because Iovine insists, contrary to what Randy says, Jacob “can’t do another Luther Vandross, or a gospel song, or he’s going to get in trouble.” This is shaping up as quite the cat fight this season. Jacob goes out and sells pain for a couple minutes like nobody’s business. “It hurts!” Jacob howls -- and we believe him! Jacob, unlike James, conveys the intense emotion without the waterworks, and while hitting his notes – granted, his so-high-the dogs-run-for-cover notes. But Jacob, as we noted, falls into the Idolette Who Gets Kicked category, so the judges find something to pick at. Tyler says Jacob “got lost” at one point and JLo says he had a “bobble” during his performance. On the bright side, they do not his performance was “amazing” (JLo) and Randy concedes that, with his second song, he “redeemed himself” from – what? The Wrath of Randissimo?

Lauren will sing the Righteous Bros. tune “Unchained Melody” because it is “my mom and dad’s song. I sing it for them.” Much of the performance is just Lauren and a piano – thank you “Idol” producers for giving our eardrums a break – and it sounds lovely. Problem with the song choice is a) the chorus drops down low which seems to defeat everybody who ever covers this song and b) everyone who’s ever heard the song knows it has some mighty Big Righteous Brothers Notes, only Lauren dodges every one of them, which is extremely disappointing. The judges never mention this at all; instead, Randy praises her for showing “soul” instead of just country, and JLo says she has “nothing to say – it was beautiful.”

The theme of the rehearsal tape for Scotty’s “Then” tune is how Scotty should stay true to himself. Or maybe they just replayed all the other rehearsal tapes? No, Sheryl Crow was definitely there this time; in fact we are impressed when she says she can’t wait till Scotty moves to Nashville, where she lives, so she can move in on his career. Welcome to the music biz, Scotty! Scotty will sing “You Were Always on My Mind.” Elvis covered it. Willie Nelson covered. This is so far into Scotty’s lane he could drive it in reverse. But it’s a very pleasant, restrained version of the song, and we’ll say this for Scotty: unlike his earlier performances, he has figured out that you don’t have to pour grits, gravy and STP all over it to make it country.

For her second number, Haley will sing “House of the Rising Sun.” Iovine nails it for Haley, sadly, when he says that were this the 60’s, she would record “House of the Rising Sun.” It isn’t the 60’s, it’s “American Idol,” which may explain why Haley has spent this entire season wandering about on this show. Anyway, thank you, Sheryl, for your advice to sing it a cappella with no band to start – like Siobhan Magnus did on a previous season of “Idol.” It’s Haley’s best performance of the season – the arrangement suits her perfectly. The judges give her a standing o as Haley dons her you-gotta-be-kidding face in anticipation of their comments.

“I don’t know if you came out a little angry at us,”, JLo says patronizingly, before adding, “That song has never been sang like that before!”

Photo Gallery: “American Idol”

Last week: Casey out | Randy Jackson calls it

By  |  06:00 AM ET, 05/05/2011

 
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