Wow, how about that primary election, eh? Oh, wait, forgive me - my mind was just drifting away toward one of the many contests, horse races, etc. that contained more excitement and will to win than tonight's Frank Sinatra-themed installment of "American Idol." And that's despite Ol' Blue Eyes' impeccable songbook and supreme musical inspiration, and the super-personable, ultra-good-humored, warm and witty presence of a man who doesn't do too bad in the blue eyes department himself, Harry Connick Jr. But really, I ask: Does anyone really want to win this season? Because sometimes, that doesn't seem to clear at all - which is totally mind-boggling, given that the prize up for grabs goes a little bit beyond, oh, I don't know, a free Happy Meal.
Oftentimes, standards night - which is what this was, by any other name - brings out the surprising best in contestants, when they scrub up and tackle timeless tunes. One of Kelly Clarkson's defining performances, "Stuff Like That There," came during this theme, and I can still remember the joy of Clay Aiken's "Mack the Knife." But in true Season Nine fashion, this go-round was just kind of there, despite the judges' burst of enthusiasm toward the end of the evening. After several seasons with the likes of Blake Lewis, David Cook and, especially, Kris Allen and Adam Lambert, the consensus seemed to be that "Idol" had moved into an era where being able to rearrange a song would be more important, but this year's crop doesn't seem quite as adept, or able to adapt.
In the AI Olden Days, Top Five night meant 10 performances, but instead Tuesday brought us five, stretched out over the course of an hour, cushioned by heaps of Seacrestian Filler: Interviews, drawn-out introductions, so on, so forth. "We started with over 100,000," Seacrest noted to start the show - and I'm sorry, man, but I remain unconvinced that out of that giant number, these are the five best. Then - wait, what was that jovial New Orleans-accented voice saying, "This...is American Idol"? Why, it was Connick, who not only mentored the contestants but arranged their songs and backed them onstage, playing piano, with a big band featuring some of his mates. ("You think Shania Twain was up in here doing this?" he joked in mock indignation, as he was pictured sitting in front of a music-filled computer screen. Well, I guess not, but I could more readily imagine her undertaking it than, oh, Miley Cyrus.) On the plus side, the Connick-led band was tight and bright, but his arranging the songs did for the most part corral the contestants into fairly traditional interpretations, on the off chance any of them would have wanted to attempt a more radical reinvention.
Seacrest, in his introduction, called Sinatra "the original American Idol" - which, ok, I can agree with - and notes that he made classic songs his own (see, kids, what happens when you Make Songs Your Own!), which, Host's Cheesy Voiceover Quotient aside, is also true. Sinatra was a master of style and interpretation, and he also carried tunes with ease and absolute confidence. To connect the legend with the present, his daughters Tina and Nancy were in the house, and they presented Simon, a major fan, with one of their father's monogrammed handkerchiefs. Did the performances drive him to use it? Find out:
Aaron: Our first sign that Harry isn't taking his mentoring role with undue seriousness arrives when he greets lil' Aaron with a hearty "Big Mike!" This puts the high schooler at ease, and they discuss notes and how best to hold them in "Fly Me To The Moon." The big-band arrangement is excellently jazzy, but as usual, Aaron's lower register and quieter notes are shaky to start. Moreover, even though he's dressed up in a vest, tie, blue button-down shirt and tie, he just doesn't have any attitude, any panache - and he finishes with an overly twangy tone ill-suited to the song. While Randy says he thinks it was ok and Ellen makes the first of several jokes at Connick's expense, Kara says it isn't as strong as last week (which, seriously, was not that strong, either) and asks for more charisma. Simon cuts more directly to the chase: "I adore Frank, because he was the king of cool," Simon said. "If he was a lion, you were just a mouse." But then, he tacks on something along the lines of "People like you because you try hard." Granted, that isn't a given this year, but is that really the criteria we're using? You tried? I'd like him if he was, you know, better, but this is sub-sub-Archuleta territory. And at this point, I also wonder: What else can he really do? Rock? I mean, we saw how "Blue Suede Shoes" worked out.
Casey: The oft-smiling Texan notes that he's listened to Connick his entire life, and the two seem to have a good rapport: "Don't screw it up," Harry jokes to Casey just before his performance. But alas, he did screw it up, with it being "Blue Skies." Singing without his guitar, Casey looked confused and even more unsure of how to move onstage, with his happy facial expression a little disconnected from the content of the song. That tentativeness carried over to his singing, too, which veered into all kinds of out-of-tune territory, despite a strong arrangement. This prompts an avalanche of criticism: "This was like, your worst performance for me, dude," (Guess Who), "That felt very stiff to me," (Ellen), "At least you held some notes...the bad thing is, you kinda sound like a lamb. You've gotta work on your vibrato. It's a little out of control," (Kara, perceptively and correctly), "You came over a bit awkward and embarrassed," (Simon). Connick says he thought Casey sang it better in rehearsal, though he acknowledges that doesn't help him now. Ack, he just can't seem to string two really good performances together - and I wonder if, after that, he'll get another shot.
Crystal: Dressed in a floor-length black strapless gown, with her hair piled on head, the Ohio earth mother opted for "Summer Wind," for unexplained personal reasons (another message to the BF, perhaps?). "I still don't know why that song means something to her, but I want to hear it again," Connick complimented. It was, as she noted, a different style of singing for her - but I also think that she let that perception box her in, when really, she has more than enough talent to adapt to that or just about any other genre. If as thoroughly acoustic a dude as Kris Allen can make it through standards week, so can Crystal; while undoubtedly the most talented contestant this year, she has yet to pick anything really unexpected or surprising, and I keep hoping that one week she'll break through and do just that.
Though another subtle performance that probably wasn't her best, her rendition Tuesday qualifies as an actual interpretation of a song, unlike those that preceded it. Starting softly at the beginning, she could have articulated her words more strongly, but she then built nicely into more powerful notes. Ellen said she wanted her to loosen up more; Kara really liked it and was the only judge to point out Crystal's phrasing, which was far above what anyone else offered all night, even if the rest of the song was more tenuous. (Sinatra, Kara notes, was a master at that.) Simon labels it "a little bit indulgent," and says he isn't sure if he would have picked that song for her. "I expect better," he says, and indeed I think he's right - she has more in her, and needs to seize opportunities and choose the songs that serve her best, not just for sentimental reasons.
(After an interminable string of commercials, and a big yawn) Mike: Harry's skillful arrangement and keen advice to focus on just singing the song directly helped the brawn of the competition to one of his better performances with "The Way You Look Tonight," His vocals were fairly on-point, per usual, and his hammy, drama-king tendencies remained mostly in check, save in his appearance, which, well, let's just say consisted of a fedora and a three-piece suit that wouldn't have looked out of place in some kind of tommy gun-toting Al Capone Dinner Theater. Randy, in a typical display of overstatement, says Mike threw down the gauntlet tonight; Kara says he found the drama in the song; Simon says he listened to the advice and that it worked for him. But, ew, Mike then says this in response to a Seacrest question about how he felt about being onstage: "This is home up here." Dude, you're no Aaron, but don't make yourself too at home.
Lee: Season Nine's Little Engine that could, Lee just needs to keep chugging along to the mental drumbeat of "I think I can, I think I can" - so say the judges, especially, who reach for the "Lee: Confidence!" storyline with the same regularity that soap opera writers trot out amnesia. That is, it neatly fits into the narrative - of contestants growing and progressing and being on a (groan) "journey" - that's AI's stock in trade. Even so, taken as a whole, Lee's "That's Life" was the best of the night, as the judges also noted, due in no small part to Lee's added comfort on stage.
"I like Lee DeWyze a lot. My wife thinks he's cute," Harry noted, hilariously. "And after meeting him, I think he looks like a new and improved version of me." Connick's advice on interpretation appears to pay off, as Lee performs with a new degree of looseness and confidence, maintaining the distinctness of his voice without sacrificing the song. He did seem to be slightly overwhelmed by the arrangement (with Connick on organ!) and still could have used a little more conviction in his words, and his pitch issues haven't disappeared (take, for instance, the last note). But do not expect the judges to bring that up: "Lee, do you think you can win?" Kara asks. Because gosh darn it, she thinks he can, she thinks he can. Simon praises Connick, saying that Harry helped bring out Lee's personality and confidence, and crediting Lee with giving it "110 percent" and delivering "the best performance of the night." Well, yes, on that relative scale - but let's not get ahead of ourselves here, crediting a state shot put champion with winning the Olympics.
Who's leavin' tomorrow: It should probably be Aaron, but might be Casey instead. Either deserves it over any of the other three, given the wide gulf between their outings and those of Lee, Crystal and Mike; I personally would prefer another week of Casey, but it's unclear whether he has the popularity to carry him to it.