Note: Lisa de Moraes is in New York covering the broadcast network upfronts, and will return next week. In the meantime, WaPo Team TV’s Emily Yahr recaps the Top 3 Performance Night.
It’s officially “American Idol” top three performance night, also known as Judge’s Choose a Song night. In the past, that particular practice has been hugely helpful to those who don’t want to wait until finale week to know who’s going to win. Just see who the judges award with a good song, as opposed to a sleepy tune that no one’s ever heard of.
Of course, everything’s different this year, because the judges have positive things to say about everyone, all the time. So it’s a bit more difficult to see through their motives. The judges stroll out on to the stage. Randy Jackson looks like he’s about to teach a college class, Jennifer Lopez is decked out in a super sparkly minidress, and Steven Tyler is wearing more leopard print than usual for the occasion.
Host Ryan Seacrest announces right up front that for the next two hours (the show was stretched from 90 minutes), the Top 3 — Scotty McCreery, Lauren Alaina and Haley Reinhart — will each sing three songs. In the background, we see an audience member holding a colorful sign that says “THANK U FORD,” presumably referring to “Idol’s” sponsor. We find this deeply suspicious.
Anyway, Seacrest also tells us that tonight’s Mentor With Something to Plug is Beyonce, who also happens to have a new music video that will premiere later in the show.
ROUND ONE: Contestant’s Song Choice
Scotty goes with country song “Amazed” by Lonestar. Beyonce, knowing her real purpose is to promote her music video, rambles on happily about how beautiful Scotty’s deep voice is, and how he can go into a higher range with his choice of song, which was apparently a “trick” he saved to get himself into the finale.
He begins by leaning oh-so-casually against a piano. He pretty much stays in his low, low, comfort zone range, and the song fits him well. He tries to aim for the higher note at one point, but doesn’t get very far, though the judges gush about how great he is. “I’m sure there’s a million girls out there wishing you were singing that song to them,” J-Lo coos. Randy mentions that he produced a version of the song with Boyz II Men, so obviously he loves it. Shrewd move Scotty!
Lauren also goes the country route with Faith Hill’s “Wild One.” Beyonce says that when she performs, she creates a character for herself to play so she won’t get too nervous, and advises Lauren to do the same. But when Lauren gets out on stage, she’s still the same bubbly teenager, singing the upbeat tune while wearing ginormous flower earrings, and slightly out of breath at times.
J-Lo is very kind, says Lauren has to create a moment, and Randy loves the advice Beyonce gave about Lauren pretending to be someone else. Considering the nothing-special performance, they are overwhelmingly positive.
Haley, who seems to be the only contestant to get criticism this season, has defied odds and made it to the top three. She chooses Led Zeppelin’s “What Is and What Should Never Be,” instantly setting her apart because it is not a country song. Beyonce loves her raspiness and thinks she’s a rockstar. And Haley — wearing a dress that looks like it was made from scraps of a paper shredder — truly rocks out, even when she walks down stairs in heels and we cringe every step of the way. And just when we think she’s safe from an on-stage disaster, she tries to climb back up the stairs, and trips and falls on her face.
Luckily, she barely misses a beat and gets back up, winning high compliments from the judges who are impressed by her poise. They love her, and that, coupled with the fact that her father accompanied her on guitar in the performance, makes her truly unbeatable this round. Falling down + precious family moment = sorry, Scotty and Lauren. Sure enough, the judges give the round to Haley.
ROUND TWO: Jimmy Iovine’s Song Choice
Beyonce is gone, and mentor Jimmy Iovine tells the contestants what to sing this time around. He assigns Scotty to Thompson Square’s “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not?,” a new-ish song that’s had a lot of success on country radio. Before Scotty launches into the song, the producers show his first-ever “Idol” audition, because this is a two-hour show tonight and there’s a lot of time to kill.
Scotty’s all over the place, and he seems uncomfortable with a guitar that looks about twice the size as he is. But he gets through the song and the judges fall over themselves praising him, saying they especially loved the delivery of the chorus. Then there’s some super-weird judge banter (Randy: “I think Jennifer was saying, she would kiss you.” J-Lo: “That’s not what I said! I’m a married woman!”) and J-Lo suggesting Scotty should shave his head for the finale.
After an awkward shot of a stylist applying makeup to Lauren’s legs when her pantyhose rip before her performance, we see Jimmy telling Lauren she’ll be singing The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young,” a song by the fairly new country trio about untimely death. The only thing that keeps the song from being way too morbid is the unique vocal style of the Band Perry’s lead singer -- which, as earnest as Lauren is, she just can’t capture in the same way. She has some pitch problems, and misses her key change, which the judges take the time to point out -- but gloss over the criticism by telling her it was a very “honest” moment.
Finally, Jimmy gives Haley the Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon,” because he wants her to do a Stevie Nicks song. Haley tackles the tune the best she can, but with a wind machine, metallic dress, and fog machine creating smoke around the stage, she sort of looks like a rocket ship getting ready for lift-off.
Randy calls the performance pitch perfect, and is jealous that she was accompanied by a wind machine. J-Lo and Steven like the song, and mention it was a nice contrast to her Led Zeppelin tune. Meanwhile, Steven says Lauren won round two, and J-Lo and Randy choose Scotty.
We take a quick break for the real reason Beyonce stopped by: Her new music video for the song “Run the World (Girls).” We’re not exactly sure what’s happening in the video with people marching around and dancing in uniform, but it looks terrifying.
ROUND 3: Judge’s Song Choice
The contestants receive their judge song choices while visiting their hometowns for the annual “Idol” contestant hero’s welcome. Scotty gets a text message that says he will be singing “She Believes in Me” by Kenny Rogers. Paired with a piano, his voice sounds great on a slower tune, but the judges give mediocre praise. Of course, they are very pleased with themselves for picking a good song for Scotty’s tone.
Lauren’s assignment is the song quoted too much around graduation time, “I Hope You Dance” by Lee Ann Womack. Wearing a Disney princess-esque dress, she also gets the smoke machine treatment, and gives her most calm, impressive performance of the night. J-Lo automatically says she won the round...without having heard Haley. Randy comments that Lee Ann is a friend of his, so of course, he enjoyed it.
Haley is tasked with Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know,” which has the same cleaned-up lyrics presented on “Idol” during last year’s finale when Alanis herself performed. Haley runs around the stage, and back up the stairs, and doesn’t fall this time. Despite the not-falling, the judges don’t seem too overly-impressed, and Randy notes she had trouble with parts of the song.
However, Steven votes for Haley as the winner of round three. J-Lo sticks with her prediction that Lauren won that round, and Randy agrees.
All in all, it’s anyone’s guess who’s going home Thursday night -- though whoever is in the Top 2, we may be looking at the most uneventful “Idol” finale week ever.
Photo gallery: “American Idol”
Last week’s performances: Lady Gaga mentors
Last week’s results: Judges’ fave James Durbin out