Helter Skelter: Crystal Bowersox, Casey James Meet the Beatles on 'American Idol'

April 6, 2010



SOME HOMES ARE FILLED with the sounds of classical music. Some reverberate with a country twang. While in others, NPR rules the roost.

In my house growing up, if there was a radio and The Beatles happened to crackle onto that radio, it was a confirmed scientific principle that the volume on that radio would rise. If my mom was anywhere in the vicinity, that is.

I knew the lyrics to “Revolution” before I knew my multiplication tables. (Although I don’t think I quite understood who Chairman Mao was and why anyone would be carrying pictures of him.) In fact, I was shocked to discover that not everyone began vacations to the peals of “Magical Mystery Tour.”

So you’ll understand why I’m a bit wary heading into this episode of “American Idol,” in which a very uneven cast of would-be singing superstars could potentially bungle their way through a canon of songs that are intricately tied to my childhood. Especially after the fiasco two years ago, in which a far more accomplished set of Idolites, a group that included David Cook and David Archuleta, had a difficult time making their interpretations of John Lennon/Paul McCartney songs not, well, suck.

This could be a difficult night.

The players: Tim Urban, Siobhan Magnus, Crystal Bowersox, Lee Dewyze, Andrew Garcia, Katie Stevens, Aaron Kelly, Michael Lynche, Casey James.

The theme: Some of the best songs ever written.

After an appropriate amount of fawning over Messrs. Lennon and McCartney and a message from Sir Paul himself, we get to hear the judges blabber on about how good the Beatles’ music is, which is about as exciting as listening to folks talk about how cold ice cream is.

Finally, we get to the performances.

AARON KELLY
The intro interviews this week feature the Idolites discussing one another’s attributes, and for Aaron, the talk centers on Yoda, to whom he is apparently often compared. His fellow cast members often repeat what he says in a Yoda voice, which isn’t at all annoying, I’m sure.

“I don’t know if it’s a compliment or if they just do it to pick on me,” he says.

Um, me neither. Except that I do.

He sings “The Long and Winding Road,” a wistful McCartney song from “Let It Be,” with an earnest look and a slightly tweaked arrangement. And you know what, I actually like it.

It’s a smart move to leave this song alone arrangement-wise, and Aaron sings it with a stronger, more confident tone than he seems to have had in recent weeks. There’s something about his sound that’s more ear-pleasing this time around, and something about his stage presence that feels more solid.

It’s no breakout, but, hmmm, an incremental improvement, it is.

Drat. The Yoda impression really doesn’t work in text.

“You’ve still got a great voice — you’ve got a beautiful tone,” Randy says. “This is one of the ones that needed to be changed up.”

“I think you’re fantastic, you know that,” Ellen says. “It felt like a long and winding song.”

“When it comes together for you and you’re hitting the notes … it works,” Kara says. “Every week for me, it’s feeling like the same performance.”

Simon asks Aaron why he chose the song, and he gives a predictably oblique answer.

“For me … it was very old-fashioned, very boring,” Simon says. “You’ve got to become young and relevant.”

KATIE STEVENS
We find out during Katie’s intro interview that she does a kickin’ “Single Ladies” dance. These little taped snippets are going to get more and more painful to watch, aren’t they?

Katie chooses “Let It Be,” a pick that prompts me to audibly groan. “Let It Be” is a beyond-classic Paul McCartney song, and in Katie’s hands, it’s coated in a thick layer of bland.

Her voice is in fine shape. Her interpretation is OK. But I know exactly how she’s going to sing before she sings it, and like thousands of beauty pageant contestants before her, she punches a note here and drills a serious look there, but doesn’t really connect with what she’s singing, in my opinion.

The judges, however, have a different take.

“To me, this is your best performance ever,” Randy says. “Dude, those were hot vocals; that was ridiculous.”

“That is a perfect example of changing it just enough to make it your own without disrespecting the song,” Ellen says. “That was amazing.”

“You’re blossoming on that stage,” Kara says. “Not only was it a great vocal … you’re confident tonight.”

“The whole thing about this competition is that when you’re in the bottom three consistently, that tells you that you’re getting something wrong,” Simon says. “Tonight, you got it right.”

Ooh! I was about to write something about how I disagree with the judges and all that, but then Simon takes credit for Katie’s singing because she sang in a countrified way, which he’s been suggesting, and which she most definitely did not. Then, Kara sings a bit to try to prove Katie’s sound wasn’t country at all. But instead, she incurs Simon’s wrath for herself: “That’s called singing out of tune,” he says.

It cuts Kara to the quick. It might be my favorite Simon put-down of the season.

Anyway, maybe I heard a different song than the judges did? Could it be that I’m in an alternate “Idol” universe? Maybe Sanjaya sounds good here.

ANDREW GARCIA
Who knew that Andrew, who’s so wooden on stage, is so personable in, um, person? I actually learned something from his intro video.

He sings “Can’t Buy Me Love” with a funky, almost rockabilly twist. It’s a little awkward in places, but it’s my favorite performance of the night so far.

I’m not sure what creative box Andrew packed himself away in earlier in the season, but I like his choices over the past two weeks. “Can’t Buy Me Love” is the perfect kind of Beatles song to mess with — it’s well known, but it isn’t beloved in the way that “Let It Be” is. Its lighter, fluffier tenor makes it ripe for a reworking, and Andrew obliges with zest.

He’s a wild card in this competition now. If he keeps up this creative streak, he could be a contender.

“I think it was a really solid performance,” Randy says. “It was an interesting arrangement; a little corny at times for me.”

“First of all, you can buy love,” Ellen says. “I think it was a perfect song choice for you and it was a lot of fun and I loved it.”

“I wanna love it, I do,” Kara says. “I just don’t know if I’ve seen anything new from you this week that I didn’t already know.”

“The problem with that performance was … you had the band behind you completely overpowering the whole arrangement,” Simon says. “Which made it actually very corny and once again old fashioned, and, unfortunately, irrelevant.”

MICHAEL LYNCHE
Big Mike is “a big teddy bear,” say the gals of “Idol.” And he says “hey” in a very elongated, high-pitched manner. Fascinating.

Mike sings “Eleanor Rigby,” a tune he used to perform with his family. And one that a member of the “Idol” family — David Cook — rendered so indelibly during his season that I still remember it two years later.

Big Mike’s version isn’t as good as David’s. Where David gave McCartney’s characters a menacing sheen, Big Mike plays it simple and cool, opting for a more soulful interpretation. His voice is as solid as ever, and this song will be red meat for his growing fan base.

I like it, but I don’t love it.

“I’m not sure all of that worked … the parts that did work were great,” Randy says. “I love, Big Mike, that you’re feelin’ yourself. … I love seeing the artist in you blossom.”

This episode’s buzzword: “blossom.” Mayim Bialik would be proud.

“You can do anything,” Ellen says. “Every song you take on … there’s so many different sides of you and you handle every one equally as well.”

“I thought that was fire,” Kara says. “Those vocals were amazing. … You made that song commercial today.”

“I didn’t love it as much as the other three,” Simon says. “This was the sort of thing you see and hear in musicals. … I don’t think it made you contemporary at all. … I thought it was just too over the top.”

Then, the judges squabble like a bunch of cranky four-year-olds. Seacrest asks Big Mike what he takes away from their spoutings. “I think Simon wants to challenge me to a pec contest,” Mike says.

If you turned off your television at this point, I don’t blame you.

CRYSTAL BOWERSOX
You know, I kind of thought Crystal would be sort of a mother figure in Idolland, so it doesn’t surprise me that the “Idol” kids would call her Mama Sox.

She picks “Come Together” — finally a Lennon tune! — and she rocks it with a sound like a flash-fried melding of Janis Joplin and Grace Slick. I’d hoped that Crystal would pick a song she could really score with, and she doesn’t disappoint.

My only nit to pick: was the didgeridoo really necessary?

“Another solid performance,” Randy says. “Even though the didgeridoo thing was kind of distracting, you won me over.”

“I loved the didgeridoo,” Ellen says. “The only thing I have to worry about is a new way to tell you how great you are.”

“I think this is one of my favorite performance that you’ve ever given,” Kara says. “It kind of had a Bonnie Raitt feel. … I felt you were more accessible tonight.”

“That’s a performance I could hear on the radio,” Simon says. “It just worked.”

I kind of love Ernie the didgeridoo player. And how asking him to play again totally fouled up Seacrest’s toss to a commercial break. Anything that goofs with the control room is a winner in my book.

TIM URBAN
I know I’ve been hard on Tim over the past few weeks, saying the only reason he’s still on the show is because he’s attractive. But, um, the key points about Tim that his cohorts make are that he smiles a lot and is attractive; doesn’t that sort of back up my theory? I think it might.

He picks “All My Lovin’,” which is kind of like bowling with bumpers in. But I don’t hate it. In fact, I think it’s his best performance so far this season.

Tim has learned where his sweet spot is: he stays in his range, he changes very little and he picks simple songs that, when combined with his puppy-dog eyes and gleaming grin, will pull at his teen fans’ heartstrings like they’re hitched to a Panama Canal tugboat.

You’ve got to give the guy credit — he knows a good formula when he sees one. Although it looks like his hair is slowly consuming the rest of his head — kind of like that evil suit in “Spider-Man 3.”

“You’re, like, in your own category,” Randy says. “You’re even rockin’ kind of a Beatles-ish kind of ‘do. … It was a good Tim performance.”

“I thought that was a really good performance,” Ellen says.

“I’ve always thought your best performances were when you had the guitar, and you stayed true to that,” Kara says. “We have really come after you week after week. … That was solid; you’re to be commended for that.”

“I’m not going to judge you as Randy did on a ‘Tim’ performance,” Simon says. “And taking everything into consideration, I thought you did really well with that song. … There was no gimmicks, there was just the right thing to do.”

CASEY JAMES
What can you say about Casey? There’s the hair, the good looks (at least Kara thinks so, right?), the laugh. So, his cohorts touch on it all. And he kind of does look like his name could be Trevor, now that they mention it.

He sings “Jealous Guy” by John Lennon, which isn’t technically a Lennon/McCartney song — Lennon gets a solo songwriting credit on it — but I guess the “Idol” powers-that-be gave it a pass.

And am I glad they did. It’s a spectacular performance — finally, Casey’s breakout tune.

The beginning is good, not great. But by mid-song, Casey has slowly, stealthily, taken complete control of the music, and he holds the audience enrapt for that final minute as he guides us through a series of ebbs and flows.

He’s sung soulful songs before, but never has he sung with so much soul.

“I love seeing the whole sensitive vibe,” Randy says. “I was really impressed you took this kind of leap. … I love that you did this.”

“Whether it was about somebody or not, it felt like it was,” Ellen says. “That to me was your best performance to date.”

“What you showed tonight was a vulnerability that has been lacking in other performances,” Kara says. “It’s just showing depth, and that’s what I wanted to see.”

“Goldilocks, I think it was the best performance of the night so far,” Simon says. “The difference between week-on-week with you has been absolutely ginormous. … I am very, very impressed with you tonight.”

SIOBHAN MAGNUS
Words used to describe Siobhan: “weird,” “unique.” Her cohorts are clearly impressed with her, if a little frightened.

She sings “Across the Universe,” Lennon’s spiritual, ethereal magnum opus, a song that’s as expansive as it is introspective. And Siobhan’s interpretation, unlike many others I’ve heard over the years, seems to actually show an understanding of the song’s deeper meaning.

She doesn’t break it down or tart it up; instead, she strips it to its bare essentials: a heartfelt vocal buffeted by a haunting piano score. Her voice has never been as strong or controlled; the notes she hits have never sounded as clear. Even her feathery skirt seems like a perfect fit. She is absolutely back at the top of her game.

“Nobody in this competition right now for me screams artist more than you,” Randy says. “It was a little sleepy for me … [but] I liked the whole tender side.”

“I’m a big fan of people who march to the beat of their own drum,” Ellen says. “You are special — you are really talented. … I thought it was beautiful.”

“I just think it was very restrained and very polite, which is something we’re not used to seeing from you,” Kara says. “I’m a little confused; I’m trying to process what that was.”

Simon asks what, given his facial expression, he thinks will be a question that will help set up his criticism: What was it about the song that Siobhan connected to personally?

She talks about her family and how she won’t let the crazy, swirling “Idol” experience change her as a person — as Lennon sang, “Nothing’s gonna change my world.” She’s surprisingly eloquent.

It takes the wind right out of Simon’s sails.

“I think you had a pretty disastrous week last week,” Simon sputters. “You were much, much better than last week.”

And we meet the schmoe who’s been bellowing at Simon all night. His name is Earl. He’s ushered to the stage to hug Siobhan, which she takes well. I don’t think I’d want the crazy shouting guy in the audience within a nautical mile of me, but maybe I’m just picky about who I choose to let into my personal space.

LEE DEWYZE
He’s the class worry-wart, we learn from his intro video. And the Idolites seem to have more fun about his and Andrew’s friendship during his vid than they did during Andrew’s. The best quote is this one from Crystal: “I’m so glad that those two could be together and get married and have lots of little Danny Gokey babies.”

Nice.

Lee sings “Hey Jude.” What an odd choice. A whole world of growly John Lennon songs at his fingertips — “Dig a Pony” or “Revolution” would have been great for him — and he picks a smooth, anthemic McCartney tune.

Although his stage presence has never been better, his vocals leave a lot to be desired — especially since most of them are eclipsed either by the background singers or the audience, whom he successfully exhorts to sing along with him. I’ll give him credit for it because that kind of interaction isn’t easy for him, but c’mon. It’s “Hey Jude.” Monks who’ve taken a vow of silence will sing along to it.

And Lee’s performance provides the night’s biggest WTF moment: a bagpipe player in full regalia descends the stairs on the dramatically lit stage. At first, I wonder if it’s some horrible prank. What on earth about this song or performance or night or phase of the moon made Lee think “you know what’ll cinch this for me? A bagpipe guy! In a kilt!”

What’s next? Mimes? Sword-swallowers? Donald Duck playing a flute?

I’m utterly, utterly confused.

“That guy was funny, dude,” Randy says, referring to the bagpiper. “It was another hot one for you.”

“The confidence that you showed tonight … even when that guy got separated from his parade,” Ellen says. “I thought it was a great job; I loved it.”

“You definitely feel more comfortable up there,” Kara says. “There were some good moments, there were a few off moments, but I’m still a fan.”

What?!? It was a sideshow! Simon, please help me out.

“I don’t know what you lot are drinking in the house,” Simon says, referring to both Lee’s bagpiper and Crystal’s didgeridoo. “I think you were doing great, then the bagpipe player walked down the staircase. It’s like he turned up on the wrong show. Was it your idea?”

“Yeah,” Lee says, grinning ear to ear. “One hundred percent.”

I … am speechless.

FEARLESS PICKS
What a weird night — and perhaps the night that I’ve most disagreed with the judges in three seasons of doing this little gig. We all thought Crystal was great — we can agree on that much at least. We gave Big Mike high, but qualified marks. We thought Tim was better than he’s ever been. And we all were captivated by Casey.

But I thought Aaron was all right; they didn’t. I thought Katie was boring; they loved her. I liked Andrew’s arrangement; they were tepid on it. I loved Siobhan’s performance; they gave it middling reviews. And they thought Lee had it in the bag(pipes), while I thought he was a rumpled mess.

So I honestly have no clue who’ll be going home this week. Tim is one of my go-to guesses, and it would be the typical “Idol” irony that he’d get sent home on the one week that he doesn’t stink up the joint, but I don’t think he deserves to get offed this week. Andrew might make the bottom three. I think Katie, despite the judges’ praise, will also probably find herself in the Stools of Doom on Wednesday.

But I’m going to guess that the ax will fall on little Yoda-like Aaron. His performance wasn’t strong enough to stand out, and the criticism from the judges might be enough to push him out of the competition. It’s a shame, because he seems to be giving it his best. But as a wise Muppet once said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

» COMING UP: The top nine become eight as we lose another Idolite on Wednesday — a night that will also feature performances by Rihanna, Jason Derulo and everybody’s favorite pint-size “Idol” alum, Li’l David Archuleta. I’m pulling for a cage match with Aaron Kelly, but I’m thinking that’s probably not in the cards.

Whatever happens, I’ll have a recap for you Thursday morning right here at ExpressNightOut.com/idol. And we’ll get the latest from our “Idol” panel — Chikezie, Jackie Tohn and Rickey Yaneza — on Thursday as well, so keep your clicker pointed here.

And did you hear that Adam Lambert is going to be next week’s mentor? It’ll be a scream.

Before we get to all that, though, what did you think of the night’s performances? Was I totally off my rocker? Were the judges? Who were your favorites? Who should go home? Let me know what you think below in the comments section below.

Photos courtesy Fox

Greg Barber is The Post's director of digital news projects. Find him on Twitter at @gjbarb.
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Betsy Lowther · April 6, 2010