The "American Idol" Top 11 had the entire catalog (or, presumably, something close to it) of Billboard No. 1 hits at their fingertips - and so, naturally, they managed to turn it into night of song choices mostly questionable, boring or sometimes both. On one hand, you can argue it's a problem to give contestants a theme so broad it's essentially a non-theme, but on the other, it also says something about them if they can perform one of any number of hit pop songs stretching back decades and still turn up empty. (Or, alternately, in a scenario rarely seen tonight, they're smart enough to pick the right song from a lengthy list.)
Because this week's "mentor" was Miley Cyrus, the night also featured at least tepid attempts, at least initially, to justify that a 17-year-old was a fine choice to counsel the contestants. The prospect initially mortified me, but, then again, this is "American Idol," not "America's Next Top Violin Virtuoso," and she acquitted herself perfectly well - even better than some past "adult" candidates, something that I think I can credit more to her friendly, polite demeanor than the fact that this season has set the bar low on many fronts. We also had at least three contestants (Paige, Andrew, and to a lesser extent Didi) respond to harsh words from the judges with the mindless "I had fun! I did it for the fans!" excuse, which is insulting on at least two levels, because 1) That assumes you have fans and more importantly, 2) "The Fans" aren't some lowest-common-denominator blubbering mass of jelly-minded folks who don't care whether they're listening to, oh, an in-tune, interesting musical performance as long as they're "having fun." Dude, I have fun at karaoke, but that doesn't mean I deserve a record contract (and, really, if you've heard me at karaoke, you know this is true).
Anyway, in the words of Simon: "Tonight, for me, was not a good night, overall." He urged contestants to push themselves more, pick better songs and basically just be in it to win it, instead of along for the ride. Sounds good to me.
Breaking down the night:
Lee "My Favorite Pen" DeWyze (er, thanks for that description, Ellen): So he does something cool, venturing outside his new-rock mold by picking "The Letter," by the Box Tops (R.I.P., Alex Chilton, not that the judges or anyone mentioned that) - and then attempts to infuse it with personality by using an arrangement featuring a sort of Vegas-in-1976 horn section? A little weird (also weird: How his subdued demeanor returned in his post-song chat with Seacrest, after he did seem genuinely more energetic during the song), but not as bad as the judges made it out to be, especially compared with, well -
Paige: Has any AI contestant ever pulled off Phil Collins' "Against All Odds" in remotely respectable fashion? In fact, has any person other than Phil Collins ever done so? No. Did Paige break the cycle? No, just eardrums, with a seriously plodding, sub-dentist's waiting room rendition with more bum notes than talent night at a tone deafness support group. I don't know if this was the delayed effects of laryngitis taking a toll - although that doesn't explain the poor song choice - but to quote the eloquent Randy Jackson, "Yo, man, yo, wow, honestly...that was honestly terrible."
Tim: Look, this boded poorly from the moment Seacrest said "We'll be back with you live, when Tim takes on Queen, next!" But even if Zac Efron Lite spared us his version of, I don't know, "Fat Bottomed Girls," are you kidding me? This dude's voice has less depth than a cat's water dish, and his attempts to "work the stage" - doing a Springsteen-at-the-Super Bowl slide toward the camera, leaping into a semicircle of screaming girls - only underscored the futility of it all. The ombre-plaid backing graphic behind Tim during the performance brought more excitement to the stage than he did, and a "Look what I just did there!" beaming smile at the end won't change that. Randy, in ever-helpful fashion, points out that "AI" is supposed to be a singing competition, while Simon recommends singing lessons. You don't say!
Aaron "Middle-Aged Man Ballads Ahoy!" Kelly: In true "I'm Already There" fashion, Aaron sang "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing." He suffered from pitch problems, although to be fair, he was also suffering from both laryngitis and tonsillitis. That being said, his drawn-out "tiiiiiiime" was more bleating goat than big note. But, as Simon aptly observed, he's playing to his strengths and, crucially, actually trying (I know, amazing, someone actually trying in a GIANT TELEVISED SINGING COMPETITION), even if his song selections have skewed really old-fashioned for a 17-year-old. Also, let us note his awkward moments with Seacrest: First, when Seacrest's strategy to help keep the ailing Aaron from wasting his voice during the pre-song chat involved...Seacrest writing on a clipboard? And afterward, when he said, "All right, if you want to vote for David Archuleta here," as he patted Aaron on the back.
Crystal: I am not sure what Miley could possibly have taught Crystal, but let's move past that and make the thus-far obligatory response to Crystal's performance - it was, as usual, completely on a different plane. And not just because she was standing on that carpet from the mentoring room during "Me and Bobby McGee." It's impressive how much performance she packs into a relatively brief time, varying her dynamics (in this case, starting soft, finishing louder, all in strong voice), her tempo, her phrasing - compared to, say, Tim, whose "singing" drags on tiresomely. She promises "big plans" for next week, which suggests a temporary break from her guitar - what could this be? Is she going disco?
Mike: You and I, we've been on this journey with Mike - a journey of love. We were there when his pregnant wife was "dilated 8 centimeters" at the hospital, and we have continued down that path with him, through touching R&B-accented odes, like tonight's "When A Man Loves A Woman." Mike, you see, is a man who loves a woman - a woman in the audience! And he delivers a perfectly fine, soulful vocal to convey that point. But it doesn't go much beyond that, except when he sort of over-emotes - which is, I think, his pitfall. Go easy on the ham, dear fellow, and strive to avoid getting too smug.
Andrew: Continuing a two-week streak of reworking classic songs to denude them of grit and soul, he tackles "I Heard It Through The Grapevine." I'm confused why he'd choose this, of all songs, and so are the judges. In fact, "confused" is probably the word that best applies to Andrew as a whole right now - I continue to believe the guy has talent, but it's almost as if the AI experience and judging has so messed with his mind that he's now rudderless. He needs to recapture his sense of musical direction, but it may be too late: As Simon said, he's had enough time to sort himself out - so what gives? Where's the emotional connection?
Katie-bot: "The Dakota Fanning of American Idol" (thanks, Ellen) veered sharp, she veered flat, but in the end her "Big Girls Don't Cry" was certainly adequate, especially on a night like this. And she was wearing jaunty suspenders, instead of a "pageant horror outfit" (thanks, Simon). Props, too, for being the only contestant to attempt a song released since the mid-1980s (aside from Aaron, whose Diane Warren-penned movie-soundtrack ballad came out in 1998, but might as well have emerged from the Reagan era).
Casey: I wondered going in what a guy who's my age (a wizened 27) could learn from Miley, and Casey hilariously defused that by introducing himself by telling her, "I'm a big fan of your - dad's." But if he's going to pick tunes like Huey Lewis and the News' "The Power of Love" in 2010, maybe he should have asked her for some song-selection advice, because, whoa, that is bar band city, especially the way he performed it. (Sorry, Kara, he was ok, but I didn't hear "it" either, unless "it" was what Simon described as "an '8os cover band.") And despite promising more "performance" around the big stage, Casey's on-stage movement consisted of a brief walk from over by the other guitar player to the mic stand. Casey should have more in him, but he doesn't seem bothered enough to up his game, or at least hasn't so far. Then again, maybe he feels he doesn't need to? But that's depressing, too.
Didi: At first I liked her "You're No Good," thinking it showcased the steeliness beneath her cutesy exterior, with a kind of Regina Spektor vibe. But I also noticed the judges' point about it coming off more as a theatrical role than a pop music connection. Plus, you're just tempting Idol fate, singing a song that requires repeated use of the phrase "You're no good." Still: She was nowhere near as woeful as the judges made her out to be, at least to my ears, and it seemed they treated her with undue harshness, especially considering some of the other performances of the evening.
Siobahn: I was getting a little antsy, waiting nearly two hours for the producers to give us our weekly dose of the trippy Siobhan Show, and she did not disappoint on the spaciness front, delivering lines like "I'll admit I've rocked out to a bit of Miley Cyrus" and "I think it's wicked cool that she said that my voice has swagger" in her bemused-languid-monotone. And plus, the giant glasses/acid-washed jeans/pink Members Only-type jacket combo she sported in the mentoring clip was truly in a league of its own. Her "Superstition," though, wasn't quite up to her usual standards, mixing occasional shrillness with fine notes and finishing with the type of scream and wailing she may want to dole out more sparingly going forward, so as not to just end up relying on it every week. Partially, the problem lay with song choice - "Superstition" is another tune that it's tough for anyone else to succeed with, and indeed no one ever has on "AI." Also, can we at least mention her poufy-curly on top, slicked-back on the sides hairdo? It was a mullet, it wasn't a mullet, and yet it was totally Siobhan. Say this much, though - my interest in what she'll do next extends beyond her hairstyle.