It’s not always this way, but American Idol viewers had plenty of reason to fear the living hell out of soul/R&B week in this, the whitest Idol year in memory. Most of the remaining contestants this year look and act like they belong in a Mentos commercial, and the words “Aaron Kelly with a little Bill Withers” are the sort of things you expect to hear the boatman muttering on the River Styx. So it brings me great pleasure to report that R&B week was only kind of a travesty! Some of it was pretty OK!
I mean, it wasn’t good or anything. Guest mentor Usher (who, the intro video-package reminded us, once wore Clockwork Orange eye makeup) barely made any attempt to disguise his obvious hatred of most of his students. He forced Tim Urban to sing his shitty song over and over, clowned Siobhan Magnus’s fashion sense, and uttered the words “special treat” with a lack of enthusiasm that I didn’t realize was physically possible. He was never an outright dick to anyone, because he’s an actual viable pop star and all, but he came about as close to being one as he could. It was pretty awesome, and it went a long way toward erasing the memory of the Batman chestplate he wore at the NBA All-Star Game. If he sings horndog anthem “Little Freak” on the elimination show tomorrow, all the better. Only like five more months before you can go back to clubbing with Gucci Mane, Ursh!
And plenty of contestants were perfectly deserving of Usher’s ire. The aforementioned Urban exhibited the most deliberate puppy-dog eyes I’ve ever seen and a voice that bore an uncanny resemblance to Steve Harvey when he’s making fun of white people. R&B week was always going to be hell for him, and Simon Cowell was practically quaking with rage by the time he got done. Didi Benami played herself before her performance even started by crying to Usher and just making everyone in that room uncomfortable. Her supremely Starbucks take on “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” was supposedly a response to some cryptic personal situation, but I can’t imagine any ex-beau being anything but bored by what she did to it. Also, she’s been making the same unbearably goofy teeth-bared gas-face for like three weeks now; if she’s not careful, her features might get permanently stuck like that. Katie Stevens, predictably enough, did “Chain of Fools”, sounding like a drunk middle-aged lady at a Christmas party and looking like she gave somebody in wardrobe free reign to give her a tough-chick makeover. Those Ricki Lake Show head-swivels aren’t fooling anyone.
I was almost ready to like Casey James just because “Hold On, I’m Comin'” is such a monster of a song, but of course he smiled like a fucking goofball throughout and turned the track into Blues Brothers 2000 bullshit. His version did, however, give ample screen-time to the Billy Baldwin-looking saxophonist, so I enjoyed that. Aaron Kelly sang “Ain’t No Sunshine”, exactly the kind of song he shouldn’t be singing, but he sounded shockingly OK doing it. So “Ain’t No Sunshine”, it seems, is an impossible song to fuck up completely. It’s traditionally the song that Idol contestants sing when it’s time for us to start taking them seriously, and that didn’t happen this time. But good job not fucking it up, Aaron Kelly! Half the battle right there.
My two favorite contestants both had comparative off-weeks. Crystal Bowersox sang “Midnight Train to Georgia,” just an awesome choice for her, and predictably bodied it vocally. But she made the regrettable decision to sing the song’s first half while seated at a piano, staring at her fingers like she was doing Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. When she finally stood up, I actually sighed with relief. Siobhan Magnus made me feel old as fuck by saying she’d been an Usher fan from age six, and the backing band nearly torpedoed her with its gloopy, lifeless take on “Through the Fire.” But I was surprised to see the judges jumping all over her after she hit an insane powerhouse big note, then said fuck it and hit another one. It might be a gimmick, but it’s a long way away from getting old.
But the show’s three actually-good moments came from unlikely sources. I’ve consistently liked Michael Lynche for a minute now, but he started up this week by dropping red flags all over the place. An India.Arie song! On acoustic guitar! Oh no! And yet it came off like confident, understated art-soul, the kind of thing that shouldn’t work on Idol but does. Andrew Garcia, meanwhile, has been garbage on every last one of the live-TV shows up until now, but his ambling acoustic take on human monster Chris Brown’s gum jingle “Forever” had a casual grace that even made up for the pinched, nasal vocal tone I still can’t get used to. (He probably should’ve left out the “look what I can do with my feet” line, though. We saw what he can do with his feet last week, and it wasn’t pretty.) Lee Dewyze, meanwhile, had the ridiculously smart idea to turn “Treat Her Like a Lady” into a Bad Company song, and a seriously kickass one at that.
I have no idea what to make of the fact that the three best performances on R&B week all came from dudes with acoustic guitars. Sometimes it’s best just not to think about these things.