The TV Column: Top 13 perform on 'American Idol'

By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 8:18 AM

The 13 Idolettes sing tunes by their personal idols Wednesday night. Or, tunes by people the judges told them they were just like, during previous weeks of American Idol" 2011.

In honor of the first actual night of finalists competition, "American Idol" in-house mentor Jimmy Iovine is unveiled. Iovine, CEO of Interscope record label, has brought with him his merry posse of celebrity producers, who plan to foist their various visions on the Idolettes.

Judges Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, and Steven Tyler have carefully coordinated their outfits this week; they're all dressed in black and white, and they clutch each other around the waist for support as they walk out on stage. When Randy bought his black-and-white high school letter jacket, he was much thinner than he is now.

Special congrats to Jennifer Lopez -- her single is No. 1 on iTunes, says show host Ryan Seacrest. JLo graciously extends her arms outward, by way of acknowledging all the little people in the studio audience who bought that download and made it possible.

Teenager Lauren Alaina does Shania Twain tune "Any Man of Mine" just fine, though she doesn't make it her own, in the usual sense of "Idol" judging - i.e. hamming it up. She's not trying too hard on the choreography - more like she's strolling back and forth at the mall on a Saturday afternoon. But she's just a comfortable kinda girl and that comes through. Sadly, it's not what the judges are looking for. The notes have barely died in the hall when Tyler hits her with a wish that "it'd been a little more kickass." Can he say that to a 16-year-old on national prime time TV? JLo and Randy echo the sentiment.

"Ah mean, ah had a good taahm," Lauren drawls when Seabiscuit asks how she thinks it went. She adds a pouty look as Seabiscuit reads off her viewer voting number. Girl knows her stuff.

Casey Abrams's segment kicks off with Joe Cocker's name being plentifully invoked as Casey's role model - he loves him from "The Wonder Years" and, besides, Cocker's "got that growl in his voice, and he doesn't look that hot either," Casey explains.

But when Casey hits the stage, his voice turns out to be more like Cocker's after a quart of hot lemon tea. The Iovine Posse-produced arrangement is a screamer, however, and drowns out Casey's finale, which was probably just as well because he's sounding kinda pitchy, as near as we can make out. Man, we are disappointed after Casey's performance last week of "I Put a Spell on You." He's got a lot of range but the producer's didn't even try to release it. It was like--Joe Cocker? Got it.

Ashthon Jones has got her act down --she's the diva. Actually she's a semi-diva. Make that a hemi-semi-diva. On an earlier episode of "Idol" she was told she should be Diana Ross. So this week, she's doing Diana Ross. Specifically, Ross's "When You Tell Me That You Love Me." She's got the Diana Ross arm action going, like she's blessing the crowd. We're indeed grateful to be in her presence -- it's not often you see such a thoroughly inaccurate performance, pitch-wise. This is like Diana when your iPod is fading.

The judges take the attitude of, "You're a diva, don't bother me with the details." They go out of their way to be nice to her. Randy says that when she was "going a little sharp or flat you pulled it back in with the vibrato" which proves what a professional she is. Say what? Is it because Jimmy Iovine invited Motown founder Berry Gordy over to hear this performance tonight that they have to be nice? Let's hope Berry didn't have to drive far.

Paul McDonald is back -- the quirky one. His quirky voice is way underpowered tonight, so he's left with all the static and not much of the tone. And no wonder, he's putting all his energy into his quirky dance moves; he dances like a member of the cast of "Riverdance" on Day 3 of a three-day bender.

The judges are just determined not to show any signs of anti-quirky prejudice, so they're very nice about his rendition of Ryan Adams's "Come Pick Me Up." Tyler says he's sure Paul will "nail it next time," and JLo says, in reference to America, "I hope they get it because I really do think you're great."

Pia Toscano is going to do a Celine Dion tune because she's family oriented, she explains, but with no real conviction. We see Pia with her family in a taped bit; we also see her wearing glasses and with her hair pulled back, looking like the 22-year-old she is - not like the 32-year-old the "Idol" stage makeup artist has turned her into.

Pia uncorks an almost Celine-like performance of "All By Myself" that is by far the best yet this evening. Pia really knows her niche. JLo is actually rendered speechless, though it wasn't that good. Tyler has something to say, though. "Happy International Women's Day!" Nobody mentions that International Women's Day was the day before. What does it say about Tyler that he's a day late on International Women's Day? Anyway, Pia's a woman, so points for trying, Tyler.

James Durbin pulls off a character change. Just when we'd pegged him as a shrieker, he opens up with a straight ahead, clear toned go at Paul McCartney, with "Maybe I'm Amazed," and shows he's got unsuspected range. He could be more of a contender this year than we thought. Most impressively, he does a good job of projecting his voice over the crashingly loud arrangements that seem to be the norm tonight.

Randy is thrilled. "James Durbin is dangerous, America! This man can sing!" JLo agrees. 'You have what the greatest rock singers have...a melodic quality." Big night for James.

Haley Reinhart shows herself to be one gutsy, self-confident singer, picking the old-school country song "Blue" that flips in and out of yodeling -- which can't be easy to do technically, and certainly isn't easy to do without sounding just plain silly because yodeling is well, just plain silly if you stop to think about it.

To further mix media, she's wearing an elegantly sexy gown and doing something hula-like with her arms -- or maybe it's some kind of signing for people who can't listen to yodeling. Anyway, her tone and pitch are fantastic -- way ahead of everyone else we've seen tonight. Tyler approves and tells her that "you can hear the rest of America roaring" after that performance -- or at least "the country and western part" of the country. But Randy thinks it was "a little boring, a little sleepy," and Randy certainly knows from boring! But JenPez correctly corrects him, saying, "Everybody doesn't have to run all over the stage."

Jacob Lusk is treated so reverently by everybody that it's no surprise at all he's laying the uplifting "I Believe I Can Fly" on us, complete with a chorus wearing church robes. If a message for donations flashed across the screen, they could've raised millions.

But, you close your eyes and listen carefully -- Jacob's performance is just alright. Jacob is a true talent but he'd probably be well served if someone encouraged him to mix up his shots and stretch a bit - like that's going to happen! Tune in next week when he'll be backed by the Three Tenors! "I can't even judge it, that's how good you are!", gushes Tyler, speaking for all the judges.

Poor little Thia Megia. First Randy tells her she sings like Michael Jackson, so this week she picks a song, "Smile," from a Michael Jackson album. Only then some adult confuses her by telling her that the tune was actually not only written by Charlie Chaplin but during an age when there was no sound in movies, and Chaplin is famous for playing The Little Tramp.

Thia takes it hard. "Charlie Chapman?" she says. Oh, snap, we punked the little kid! But the worst setup is the Iovine Posse-produced arrangement with which she is stuck. It starts out okay and showcases her lovely voice in a slow tempo. But then someone had the bright idea to speed up the tempo and add a drum machine behind her. She struggles to adjust and, just as she gets into the groove - a really awful groove, but not a groove of her doing -- the arrangement reverts back to the original, slow tempo. Aren't there laws in California protecting minors in showbiz? "It doesn't matter, you sing like an angel", JLo says maternally, after the other judges take some whacks at her. Later, Thia's seen backstage fighting tears, and hoping to get another chance.

Stefana Langone is going to perform the Stevie Wonder tune "Lately." Yeah - the Donna Summers disco "Lately," you mean! But not right off the bat. We're lulled into thinking it'll be a fairly traditional version of the song. Then, all of a sudden, up pops the synthesizer and it's party hardy time!

Stefano does a game job trying to keep up with the new tempo he's been handed, but it's a mess. Except in the judges's heads. "You pulled it off," raves Tyler, adding that Stefano "soared like a volcano." Volcanos fly? "You had me dancing here!" JLo rants. Again - a ballad is not a dance remix. Randy insists Stefano "slayed it." Slaughtered it, we'd say.

How devoted is Karen Rodriguez to Selena? Her mother dressed her up as Selena and videotaped her singing Selena songs as a little girl. And now she keeps Selena Barbie dolls by her bed in the Idolettes mansion-cum-dormitory. Think Selena chases her around in her dreams, like the Black Swan, saying "You'll never be as good as me"?

Anyway, this is not going to be Karen's best Selena night. It sounds like she's got a cold that's turned her lower register into chesty sounds, like we're listening to her through a stethoscope. Her upper ranges are clear, though. Maybe that's why we saw Jimmy Iovine telling her in the taped bit, "Do not talk on the phone."

"It felt like you were kinda fighting the song," Randy says. Karen's energy was "lacking," Tyler weighs in. Brilliant coaching, guys. So next week she should be sure to, what, feel better?

Scotty McCreery tells us his game plan in a taped bit: "Don't want to change it up too much and change me too much." So we pretty much know what we're going to get in this performance: head cocked to the side, steady eye contact with the camera, singin' out of one side of his mouth with voice down in the Ferrari-in--first-gear range.

The song has determined lyrics that are right on target for Scotty: "I will sail my vessel till the river runs dry."

"Idol" set designers take an unusually literal approach, and project a photo of a river behind him so he looks like an actor in an old movie before blue screens got so good. If they'd run the whole thing in black-and-white, and had Minnie Pearl introduce him, that would have been even better! The judges conserve brain cells and go with "You're a country star, don't bother us with the details!" Or, as Randy puts it "If it ain't broke, don't even consider fixing it!" Tyler seems to want badly to get into the spirit, too, but the only thing that comes to mind is an Elton John song, with the lyrics:

"The carpet's all paid for / God bless the TV. / Let's go shoot a hole in the moon. / And Roy Rogers is riding tonight."

Well, anyway, it does mention Roy Rogers.

More death by arrangement! Jimmy Iovine's hit squad (that's "hit," not "hits") sends poor Naima Adedapo out to do the Rihanna number, "Umbrella" with more change-ups than - well, if I knew the name of any Major League Baseball pitcher I'd say it right now, believe me!

It starts out Rihanna-ish, then goes into the style of - well, if knew the name of any reggae rappers, I'd just go ahead and say that, too.

Meanwhile in the too-frequent instrumental breaks, they make her do an only slightly dignified version of The Funky Chicken, messing with her breath control. This was particularly cruel, because Naima seemed to have very good breath control doing her jazzy numbers in earlier weeks. We get it that she's not going to win the competition being jazzy, but she's not going anywhere as a breathless chicken either.

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