This was the first week we really got to see a lot of Interscope honcho Jimmy Iovine, whose role on American Idol is supposedly to mentor all the kids, but it’s already clear he’s only going to show up for five-minute weekly sit-downs with them and unconvincingly say nice things while sitting at an angle that lets the camera catch his Beats By Dr. Dre headphones. But Iovine’s involvement also gives the contestants opportunities to work with actual big-name producers like Jim Jonsin and Polow da Don. Those guys rarely seem to have much impact on the actual performances, but it’s fun to see them get camera time, just like it’s fun to see the show acknowledge that music has been made since 1995 or so. This week’s concept: Everyone singing songs from their idols. Get it? It was a smart enough way to plan out the show, though, since it actually us gave some idea who these people are. And this was, overall, a very strong episode of American Idol, since any episode with at least three good performances is a very strong episode.
So here’s who we’re working with:
Lauren Alaina says that Shania Twain was the first female artist to mix country and pop together as a musical style, so it’s like Dolly Parton (or, hell, Patsy Cline) never happened. She’s confronted with the ghastly image of a dreadlocked Don Was, who really is a walking dinosaur at this point. She sings the ungodly annoying “Any Man of Mine,” and her take is flat and tentative, like she’s an actual 16-year-old rather than the sassbot the show’s made her out to be. To their credit, the judges point out that she clanged, though they do it in the gentlest possible way.
Casey Abrams says that Joe Cocker is one of his idols, which, come on, Joe Cocker is nobody’s idol. But her version of his version of “With a Little Help From My Friends” is actually pretty awesome, as he puts all sorts of weird little soul-singer inflections in there. The choir that comes out behind him is a nice touch, too, and he’s already developed the sort of weird-awkward charisma that it took, say, Siobhan Magnus at least a few weeks to work up. Steven Tyler calls him both a “rainbow of talent” and a “plethora of passion,” neither of which is an actual thing.
Last week, the judges compared Ashthon Jones to Diana Ross, and somehow, in the past week, she decided that Diana Ross was her idol. What a coincidence! She gets to work with Rodney Jerkins, who fails to give her any of that “Bills Bills Bills” swag. She sings “When You Tell Me That You Love Me,” and the song just steamrolls over her. She also throws in all sorts of unnecessary ad-libbed grunts and displays some furious crazy eyes. And she does this in front of Berry Gordy, who would’ve kicked her ass right back out into the Detroit street in 1963. In her brief little post-song interview segment with Ryan Seacrest, she refers to herself in the third person; I’m not sure any Idol contestant has made the leap to third person this early in the season.
Paul McDonald not only picks a Ryan Adams song, but he picks the best Ryan Adams song, “Come Pick Me Up,” which endears him to me pretty heavily. He wears some sort of sea-captain jacket that gives an extra little punch to that drunken stumble thing he does. (Seacrest’s impersonation afterward is fun.) The band unfortunately neuters the fuck out of the song, giving it a total soft-batch M.O.R. reading. McDonald sings it well, though, and you have to love anyone who finds a way to throw Bloodshot a couple of bucks on curiosity downloads. He also gives Randy Jackson a chance to flex some unexpected alt-country cred, namechecking Wilco and Whiskeytown. Who knew that guy had that in him? If McDonald sticks around, is Randy going to start enthusing about the Mekons and Freakwater?
Pia Toscana loves Celine Dion because Celine Dion is “family-oriented,” which shut up, Pia Toscana. But she’s a total pro, and she does a really nice job building “All By Myself” from understated simplicity to raging howls in a minute and a half. It’s a boring song, and I still haven’t seen Toscana show off anything resembling a personality, but she actually looks like somebody who belongs on TV, singing songs. She’s going to be a force.
I wanted to see James Durbin singing Queensryche or some dumb, fun bullshit like that. But no, he’s on his Paul McCartney shit. We do get to see Jim Jonsin on TV, which is fun; I’m glad he restrained himself from throwing a B.o.B. guest verse into Durbin’s performance. Durbin’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” is pleasant enough in an effortful sort of way, but this guy is a lot more fun when he’s wailing. His American flag vest is fucking terrible, too. Steven Tyler: “If there was ever a review to be said about you, you just sang it.”
Haley Reinhart is singing LeAnn Rimes and working with something called Rock Mafia, and that’s two bad signs right there. She does a really cool yodel thing with her voice a bunch of times, but everything else about her performance is dangerously outdated and boring. And even with the yodel, she’s still the anonymous blonde chick on the show, which does not bode well for her.
Jacob Lusk got into R. Kelly via Space Jam, which makes me like him even more. He just screams the living fuck out of “I Believe I Can Fly,” giving it the full gospel-choir treatment and just flattening it with all sorts of absurd fluttery runs. He starts it out calm and ends it as a melodramatic whirlwind, and I almost just can’t talk about this guy because he’s too good. Lusk doesn’t really have a shot in hell of winning the show, since it’s just how the show works, but things are going to get way less interesting when he gets voted off. I hope he sticks around as long as possible.
Thia Megia doesn’t know who Charlie Chaplin is because Thia Megia is an idiot. She sings “Smile” anyway, since Randy Jackson said the words “Michael Jackson” to her once. She has no idea that it’s a sad song, which makes things worse, and the shitty little smooth-jazz beat the band throws on this thing isn’t helping anything. She needs to go away. The judges don’t like her much, which gives me hope that I won’t have to look at her stupid face much longer.
WAITAMINUTEMOTHERFUCKER Stefano Langone gets to work with Polow Da Don! His version of Stevie Wonder’s “Lately” gets a thudding, unfortunate house beat that does nothing for his vocals, so this isn’t actually good-idea Polow. It turns out to be a bit of a mess, but the kid can sing like a freak. Steven Tyler: “It was just soaring like a volcano.” I’m really happy that volcanoes don’t actually soar. That would be terrifying!
Karen Rodriguez sings a Selena song, which somehow seems more ass-kissy than if she’d sang an Aerosmith song. She doesn’t do that well with it, and it’s starting to occur to me that 13 singers is too many singers. I wish Justified would come on already. U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens would never make needy eyes at the camera like that. Jennifer Lopez doesn’t like it, which makes me feel a bit bad for Karen Rodriguez.
When he’s singing, Scotty McCreery throws his eyebrows around his face in a way that only incredibly cocky people do, and that’s OK, since he’s really just a very good country singer already. He sings Garth Brooks’ “The River” like an absolute professional, and he reduces Steven Tyler to actual gibberish. There’s only one thing about him that makes me think he’s not yet ready to step into heavy CMT rotation: The horrible t-shirt he wore during his little conversation segment with Jimmy Iovine. It had a heart on it, and it said “iLove” in the Apple font. He’s going to need to burn that thing before he becomes any kind of full-time entertainer.
Naima Adedapo sings “Umbrella” and gets to work on it with actual “Umbrella” producer Tricky Stewart, which has to be some kind of advantage. She also wears knee-high Chuck Taylors, which has to be some kind of disadvantage. She throws an actual dancehall break into the track, some kind of American Idol first. She also finds room for these little Step Up 3 dance breakdowns. The whole thing is sort of Blake Lewis? Except good? I don’t know, I liked it. She also says the words “Jah Rastafari” and “overstand” after singing the song. She’s a kook! I’m worried the YouTube community is going to do terrible things to that performance.