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Charlie Toft

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Charlie Toft used to win awards for book criticism, but decided that reading was too much work. As a TV writer, his specialty is an encyclopedic and possibly unhealthy knowledge of American Idol.

RECAP: Who Brought The Idol Judges To Their Feet?

After being saddled with some geriatric themes so far this season, the kids of American Idol Season 11 had one of those much-desired open-ended themes on Wednesday, “Songs From Your Personal Musical Idol.” It’s an opportunity to show everyone what kind of artist you want to be, without having to page through the Billy Joel catalog to do it.

And overall, it was a strong week for the final nine, so good in fact that the judges doled out a ridiculous five standing ovations – more than half the field, in their opinion, delivered performances for the ages. As usual, they went way too far, and we can hope that the viewers at home could tell the difference between the earnest but merely competent (hello there, Heejun) and the truly special. Three of the singers in particular showed both imagination and chops – the stuff of what Idol Moments are made.

With the help of some enthusiastic mentoring from Stevie Nicks, who has never been my cup of tea but does know how to sing (remember, Diddy and have been mentors of late), the nine fared so well this week that I can’t truly rip anybody. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have my preferences.

Phillip Phillips: To the surprise of basically everyone, Dave Matthews is not his idol – neo-blues guy Jonny Lang is (the same Lang whose sister nearly made the finals in Season 8). Phillip impressed Stevie to the point of saying that if he had been around in the mid ‘70s, he would have been asked to join Fleetwood Mac. Wow. Brandishing his guitar but mostly using it as a prop this time, Phillip tore into the vocal on “Still Rainin'” with real edge, instead of turning it into a mumbly shuffle like he’s done with almost everything else. This was the first time he’s shown genuine charisma on his own, instead of trying to win points for turning songs on their ear. B+

Elise Testone: She did “Whole Lotta Love.” Of course she did. What else could we expect from a woman who has mostly given us tasteful Carole King-like stuff so far? Elise got raves and was safe a week ago, but she’s canny enough to know she needed a real moment, complete with an end-of-show placement, and this qualified – on the short list of best Idol rock efforts ever, for either sex, and certainly a match for Adam Lambert’s version. She was earthier and glammier than I figured she could be, and while it didn’t have the unhinged quality of Robert Plant’s vocal, that was too much to expect. Basically, what Elise proved here is that she has visual charisma and not just a good voice, and that’s always been a hurdle for women on Idol. B+

Jessica Sanchez: Some of us have noted that Jessica has adopted Beyonce mannerisms, so it wasn’t surprising to see her tackling Sasha Fierce’s “Sweet Dreams.” It was an eye-opener to see her turn it into a ballad, and while Jessica could probably stand to nail a non-ballad at some point, she gets points her for cleverness. Usually on Idol, you need to play an instrument to get proper credit for song reinvention, but this was a way for Jessica to display her always splendid technique, while switching up the song in such a way that we’d pay attention. The judges wisely noted that she was holding something back, but since they made her part of the minority that did not get the standing ovation, they also proved that nothing succeeds on Idol like excess. B+

Joshua Ledet: Well, he’s never boring. Choosing “Without You,” and calling it a Mariah Carey song because it would be weird to say your idol is Harry Nilsson, this started out straightforward enough, but about halfway through, he went Full Gospel and things started getting weird again. Typically with this song, you get judged on how you nail the chorus, so I question whether Joshua’s bombs-bursting-in-air approach really worked here, because we’ve seen it before. He was visibly overcome with emotion near the end, which also came across as a little eccentric. I think at some point, he’s going to need to show, like Jessica, that he can dare to not overpower a song. One other thing: why did he start the song wandering through trees, Katniss-like? B

Skylar Laine: Skylar and Miranda Lambert are the perfect match of contestant and hero, as she’s been pretty clear about wanting to follow in those hellraising footsteps. Vocally, this was a strong reprise of her audition song, “Gunpowder and Lead,” though as someone who is still a teen, there’s only so believable she could be here. I also noted (the judges missed it) that she literally did not sing for a couple of seconds near the end, possibly because she was out of breath. Jimmy Iovine and Stevie seemed concerned that the song was melodically variable enough, but this helped to reconnect Skylar to her audience. However, I think she might need to recapture the insane magic of her “Stay With Me” eventually. B-

Hollie Cavanagh: Hollie is going to be in trouble very soon, possibly as soon as this week. Elise and Skylar are more interesting performers, and Jessica is the much more consistent singer, so where does that leave the very tiny one? She simply refuses to color outside the pageant-girl ballad lines, going so far Wednesday as to choose Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” It was morbidly hilarious that Hollie needed to borrow Stevie’s emotion (she spoke about losing her mother recently) rather than coming up with her own, but it lent some weight to her effort. The blasé reaction of Randy Jackson and Steven Tyler need to be a warning to her – she will have to show versatility to get many more kudos. B-

Colton Dixon: Idol has had its share of religious contestants over the years, but Colton is more upfront about it than most, picking “Everything” by Lifehouse, which he referred to as his favorite worship song. We’ll see if this open declaration of faith, which he punctuated by literally falling to his knees at the end of the performance, overcomes the drawbacks of singing first and picking something so boring. I judge most Colton performances based on whether they are “nasal” or “too nasal.” This was the former, and while the opening of the song was deadly dull, he brought it together on the chorus to make for a nice finish. Afterwards, Randy declared that he has a chance to win – something I told y’all back when they picked the Top 24. B-

DeAndre Brackensick: I don’t know what to make of a teenage male who says his musical idol is Eric Benet. How is this possible? Maybe sensing that his time on Idol was drawing short, and not wanting to miss a chance to go all-falsetto, he picked “Sometimes I Cry,” the song title that sums up my Idol-viewing career. As a piece of musical athleticism, this was pretty impressive, but if you’re going to sing in falsetto for two minutes, it really does help to be Maxwell or Prince or one of those guys DeAndre is definitely not at age 17. The judges gave him the standing O however, with Jennifer Lopez even ordering us to vote for Andre. Well, I will get right on that, ma’am. C+

Heejun Han: He seemed to feel that veering away from his comedy + boring ballad strategy is what hurt him last week, rather than just having given a bad performance. So this week, he didn’t even give us the comedy, going with “A Song For You,” which this show continues to associate with Donny Hathaway rather than Leon Russell (or Elliott Yamin, who memorably killed on this in Season 5). He showed off that soulful tone that first caught the judges’ ears, and there was a likable amount of passion … but there are things he can’t do anything about at this stage: his breath issues and inability to clearly enunciate. The judges were kind, which makes sense, but we’re at the phase of Season 11 where Heejun at his best can’t match up to anyone else not doing their worst. C+

The trios: As a means of killing time on the two-hour show, the final nine was divided into three trios in order to tackle medleys. These were barely judged so I won’t spend too much time on them either. Colton, Elise, and Phillip were fairly successful on Fleetwood Mac, with Elise’s take on “Edge of Seventeen” serving as a highlight; Joshua, DeAndre, and Heejun did their best with Michael Jackson, a medley highlighted by Heejun’s awesomely bad dancing; and Jessica, Skylar, and Hollie had some nice harmonic moments on the music of Madonna. Hollie, it turns out, can sing uptempo music, so it might be time for her to show it on a larger scale.

Who says Idol is out of touch? Ryan Seacrest opened the show with a reference to The Hunger Games. There have been a lot of seasons when a Hunger Games would have been preferable to listening to any more singing.

Forgotten but not gone: After being dissed by everyone a week ago, Tommy Hilfiger was relegated this week to a very brief segment at the start of the two hours. He showed everyone around a giant clothes-filled room, told the contestants he was looking forward to seeing their styles evolve, and was never mentioned again. Hope the contract was worth it.

Lovebirds: Jason Derulo was on hand to plug his role in this year’s Coke songwriting contest, and to show off his neck brace. Ouch. But he was in the audience with rumored new girlfriend Jordin Sparks – a rumor Ryan alluded to coyly. There were even more oblique mentions of the past relationship between Stevie and Jimmy, which was both professional and personal.

This week’s bottom three: DeAndre, Heejun, Hollie.

Going Home: DeAndre – though this is a likely week for the use of the Save, given how rapturous the judges were. I think that would be a mistake because DeAndre isn’t going to win (and because the Save could be needed for Elise when she sings early in next week’s show), but mistakes are as much a part of this show as “Against All Odds.”

Categories: TV

Tags: Adam lambert, American idol, American idol season 11, Beyonce, Billy joel, Carole king, Carrie underwood, Colton dixon, Dave matthews, Deandre brackensick, Diddy, Donny hathaway, Elise testone, Elliott yamin, Fleetwood mac, Harry nilsson, Heejun han, Hollie cavanagh, Jason derulo, Jennifer lopez, Jessica sanchez, Jimmy iovine, Jonny lang, Jordin sparks, Joshua lopez, Leon russell, Lifehouse, Madonna, Mariah carey, Maxwell, Michael jackson, Miranda lambert, Phillip phillips, Prince, Randy jackson, Robert plant, Ryan seacrest, Skylar laine, Steven tyler, Stevie nicks, The Hunger Games, Tommy Hilfiger,

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