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Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 03/17/2011

‘American Idol’ 2011: Top 12 perform: We watch so you don’t have to


The 12 finalists on “Idol” perform songs from the year they were born. (Michael Becker - Fox)

We know something is up at the top of Tuesday’s “American Idol” because show host Ryan Seacrest and the three judges are standing against a blackout background like they’re reporters from “60 Minutes.” They tell us “Idol” will donate profits from downloads of tonight’s song will be donated to the American Red Cross for Japan relief.

Seabiscuit gets to usher us through a head-snapping mood shift with an away-we-go gesture as he throws it to the performance show. Tonight, judge Steven Tyler is wearing whatever is the opposite of relaxed-fit jeans, and he walks out on stage with a more fashion-model gait then fellow judge Jennifer Lopez.

This week we’re condemned to watch the 12 remaining Idolettes perform songs from the year they were born, which places the musical era in the late 80’s-ish – the days of Peter Gabriel, Cyndi Lauper, and Culture Club. If you were a teen in those days, of course we know this brings back very special memories you should cherish forever. For the rest of you: you didn’t miss a thing.

Naima Adedapo, born in 1984, kicks things off with Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” Have we already added Tina Turner tunes to the list of songs Idolettes should never attempt to take on? If not – let’s add it now. Naima is most comfortably a jazz singer, and we see in a taped bit that her mom was a jazz singer. So there’s a proud heritage thing going on here. Naturally, the show’s in-house mentor -- music-industry mogul Jimmy Iovine -- and his Genius Squad of Celebrity Producers feel she must be made into something else. And yet, Scotty McCreery gets to do his old-fashioned take on country music week after week. Hmmmm. Iovine tells her to channel how much she misses her babies (age 3 and 1) into the tune. Has he heard the lyrics? Turns out Naima hasn’t got time to channel her grief -- she barely has time to sing, she’s so busy trying to navigate the stairway and stage in the platform moonboots into which she’s been shoved by whatever stylist from hell “Idol” is using this season.

On the bright side, Naima’s so drowned out by the band and backup singers, only judge Randy Jackson notices the whole “vocals were kind of a mess” thing. “You’ve got a scorcerer’s grasp of melody,” Tyler raves.

It’s the second week of competition, which can only mean the Idolettes are starting to swap germs in Chateau d’Idol. Paul McDonald is the night’s first victim. He’s hoarse but is, nonetheless going to attempt Elton John’s “I Guess That’s Why They Call it The Blues” – because he was born in ’84 -- while doing his trademark stage stagger. Iovine tells him to “come with your full voice Wednesday night.” Advice like that surely led to those great albums from U2 and Dire Straits that Iovine produced.

Maybe Paul’s ears were too stuffed to hear him, because he’s singing tonight with all his sinuses. As soon as the last note has been hocked out, the judges start making excuses for him – all the while saying they will not make excuses for him because the show must go on. “You have so much star quality,” JenPen insists. “You define a cool guy in a loose mood,” Tyler adds.

Thia Megia, born in 1995, warns us she is going to sing “Colors of the Wind” from the Disney flick “Pocahantas.” Iovine urges her to put a little more oomph into her performance, and they mutually agree she will bring a sense of what the song means to her to the number. “I’ll be singing to you guys,” Thia tells us in a taped bit, flinging her arm out graciously and adding a calculating side to her “cute” image. The judges don’t take the Disney tune well. “I felt like I was at some pageant somewhere,” Randy complains, and Tyler asks, “Is that song who you think you are?” But Thia is one cool cookie, telling them the song “suited perfect with what’s going on with the world today.”

Yes -- still talking about the tune from the animated Disney flick.

About colors. Of the wind.

Plus, Thia notes, it was the best choice out of a limited assortment of songs the producers had made available to her from the year of her birth. And, it demonstrated she’s not just a ballad singer, as they have complained in the past, she adds. So, if the singing thing doesn’t work out, there’s always the trial lawyer thing for Thia.

Kate Hudson is in the audience. She got a really bad seat. Seabiscuit apologizes.

James Durbin, born in 1989, will perform Bon Jovi’s “I’ll Be There for You. Iovine urges him to “stay hungry,” by which he means, “wash your hands a lot” and “don’t be kissing” any of the other Idolettes because they’re all sick. Durbin promises to wash his hands and points to his wedding ring which he thinks signals he will not be doing any kissing. Durbin has not been in Hollywood long.

His performance is like someone’s air guitar fantasy come true. Durbin’s already legendary in his own mind. In fact, he’s taking an “I can be as pitchy as I want and there’s nothing you can do about it” approach to the number. He’s even brought back his trademark Eeyore tail. Such a shame Thia couldn’t come skipping through, singing some Winnie the Pooh theme song, and snatch it from him.

Anyway, the judges gobble up Durbin with a spoon. Tyler in particular treats him like his special pet – like some kind of Junior Aerosmith. He asks Durbin to please not go to “pop-y” on him. Durbin throws out some gambit about not wanting to do an Aerosmith tune until the finale and Aerosmith frontman Tyler says he’ll get up on stage with him when that happens. Seabiscuit wonders if Tyler has just confirmed he’ll play the finale. “That man has a rich vein of crazy -- I’ll join him!” Tyler says, which smacks so much of favoritism it appears the “Idol” judges bench has stooped to the level of Olympics judging – which we thought we would never see.

Haley Reinhart was born in ’90 – or was it ’91? Anyway, some member of Iovine’s Genius Squad sticks her with “I’m Your Baby Tonight” and the song is so wrong and the arrangement so bad and the choreography is so bad, she has to work her way through it all like an obstacle course – and in nine-inch heels. She’s a talented singer, but she just seems to be a trouble-magnet in this competition. Like when Iovine coaches her that “work ethic is a big thing,” somehow implying she’s a slacker. What’s that about? Then she accidentally smears her bright red lipstick on her chin and cheek, which Seabiscuit calls to everyone’s attention after her performance by wiping at the smears with his hankie.

“Hey baby, you look so beautiful,” JPez starts, which is girl-talk on “Idol” for “not good.” At least JPez gives her some sound advice when she notes Haley seemed “kind of unsure in your movements…Do what you feel always, don’t force anything.” Randy, meanwhile, continues to be “confused” about who she is because one week she sings a country song and the next week a Whitney tune. Because, in Randy Land, no singer ever moves from genre to genre. Ever.

Stefano Langone, born in 1989, is the first Idolette in the show’s history to finally put in words what we’re all thinking: Songs from the Year You Were Born is a totally lame “Idol” week. “I found some real winners,” he smirks of his year’s song selection: “Girl, You Know It’s True” by Milli Vanilli, “Hangin’ Tough” by New Kids on the Block, and “Funky Cold Medina.” He settles on “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” which, he says was “by” Simply Red. Randy notes the tune was also recorded by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. Yeah – in the 70’s. Apparently the rules for the Songs from the Year You Were Born” game are fluid. Anyway, Stefano has the perfect voice for power-chord 80’s music. If this were an 80’s song competition, he’d be a shoo-in. But it’s not, and it’s hard to see the way through for him to win. His is, however, definitely the performance of the evening so far. “You’re going to make Jimmy Iovine more famouser,” Tyler notes.

In another show of favoritism, Seabiscuit grants Stefano the special privilege of going out into the audience to hug his mom, which will do him a world of good with middle-aged female voters. This show has now sunk to the level of Olympics figure-skating competition.

Pia Toscano was born in 1988, which gives her the opportunity to cover a Whitney Houston tune, which usually triggers the Whitney Houston Alert from Randy: There is no Whitney but Whitney, blah, blah, blah. But, at this point Pia has performed so many Whitneys that Randy as gone numb. Pia is wearing some silky white number that looks like something she got in a PajamaGram with a box of candy. No matter what she sings and how many of those big notes she nails, Pia always sounds just competent to us. But the judges are thunderous in their approval. “You are why this show is called ‘American Idol’!” gushes Tyler.

Scotty McCreery has been impersonating Elvis since he was a tiny boy. Sadly, Elvis did not die in 1993, when Scotty was born, but in the 70’s. So Scotty will instead sing Travis Tritt tune: “Can I Trust You With My Heart?” By now we’ve learned the drill with Scotty. Every week in the taped bit he promises to try something new, and every week he goes out on stage and does the exact same, old-fashioned country arrangement. This week he says he’s going to “stay country, stay me, but just push myself” – because he and Iovine had argued during the taped bit about whether he should change his weekly routine one iota. Once again Scotty tips his head to the side and opens one side of his mouth and out comes good old-fashioned country. Scotty fans love it. That includes all three judges, especially Randy who mostly wants us to know Travis Tritt is a good friend of his.

Iovine tells Karen Rodriguez, born 1989, that the secret to success is to be like a horse with blinders on.

Karen’s interpretation of this lesson is to come out on stage in this rockin’ minidress and boots and hoop earrings and chew some scenery while singing “Love Will Lead You Back” with a couple lines in Spanish tossed in. “Welcome back,” Randy enthuses, while Tyler says he loves it when Karen “breaks into your ethnic what it is-ness.” More good advice from JLo: “If you are nervous about certain notes, don’t go there.”

Casey Abrams, born in 1991, is going to try to pull off “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana and cover it like Kurt Cobain -- not some “Idol”-esque interpretation. Apparently anything with growling in it, Casey will try. He pulls off a kinda good Cobain -- minus the Dangerous Rock God angle, but still okay. Like everything else Casey does, it’s a lot of fun, and inspires Tyler to deliver his best Tylerism yet: “To be crazy and talented and have it all together at the same time – that’s the goop that great stuff is made from, and you’ve got it, man!”

All this talk of rock greatness has Randy feeling left out and, well, we thought we’d heard Randy pat his own back before, but that was kids’ stuff compared to what he spews out now:

“Me being a musician, and me being a producer, writer, all the stuff that I do, right? What I’m most impressed with, and what I love about a you, and what you represent like other great bands – Radiohead, Muse … whoever -- You love taking risks and I love that you are putting art first and then thinking about commerce!”

Lauren Alaina, born in 1994, got the raspberry from the judges last week. This week, she’s really sick and she’s going to sing “I’m the Only One.” Sure, her voice cracks at points and she’s lower-energy than usual – though this firecracker’s still got plenty to spare. But Lauren once again demonstrates she’s a natural singer and very poised on stage for someone so young who’s not fresh off a Disney Channel show.

“Cold or not – that was very nice – so have a cold every week. I liked it!” raves Randy.

“I’m back baby! Cause Randy said so!” Lauren yips backstage.

And lo, a curse was visited upon the “Idol” competition, and Gospel (a.k.a. Jacob Lusk) was made to wander in the Wilderness of Rock (“Alone”) and all the people were made to wander with it for a good two minutes, and so dire was their condition that they wished the commercials might come upon them even sooner and make the pain stop. Amen.

By  |  06:00 AM ET, 03/17/2011

Categories:  American Idol

 
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