American Idol Gets Inspired To Believe In Itself (And In Lady Gaga)


American Idol seems like it should build toward a big finale, but it never works out that way. Instead, the real excitement surrounding any season of the show usually peaks around the time of its first shock elimination; this year, that’d be when Pia Toscano went home. By the time a season has reached top-four week, we already know all the different performers’ quirks, and it almost becomes an endurance contest. Nobody peaks now. It just turns into a trudge toward the finish.

This week had a weirdly bifurcated structure, with each of the contestants starting out with the nebulous dictate to sing something “inspirational,” then following that up with songs from the Lieber & Stoller songbook. They’re really going in hard on songwriting-factory mainstays this season, which is a nice thing, but it seems a bit weird to throw this mandate at the singers this late in the game. Their guest mentor for tonight’s show was Lady Gaga, who is obviously one of today’s leading scholars on Lieber & Stoller. Gaga, wearing a gigantic fake beauty mark and some severe makeup, looked beamed in from another world. It was pretty awesome to see someone so self-consciously weird invade a TV institution so self-consciously wholesome.

Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” is a great song, but it’s also a song that’s had a moment in the pop cultural spotlight that’s gone on waaaaay too long over the past few years, so of course James Durbin picked it as his inspirational song. This wasn’t only a moment to indulge in a moment of Glee-induced pandering; it was also a chance for Durbin to butter up this season’s most skeptical judge, former Journey bassist Randy Jackson. And it came off way more strategic than emotional, since Durbin grinned and mugged through the whole thing, coming off totally devoid of feeling and originality. If it had been a technically sound rendition of the song, that’d be one thing, but you’re going to lose if you get into a falsetto-off with a Steve Perry vocal. And forget about Steve Perry for a minute. Someone in Kanye West’s band– they keyboardist, I think?– sang this song during the Glow in the Dark tour, and that dude’s rendition just annihilated Durbin. The judges, of course, loved Durbin’s version.

At the end of the show, he came back to sing the deathlessly silly “Love Potion No. 9,” and Gaga had to physically force him to dance while singing, which was pretty funny in a Curb Your Enthusiasm sort of way. Singing some goofy-ass bubblegum pretty much exposed how ridiculous his usual stage-pose is. I did like how he gave his guitarist a squealing butt-rock solo, though. That was nice of him.

Haley Reinhart sang Michael Jackson’s awesomely empty-headed “Earth Song,” a song I’ve kept meaning to buy from iTunes ever since last year’s Grammys. I just now noticed that Haley has very expressive eyes, and it helps to have very expressive eyes when you’re singing a song that pretends toward deep meaning while saying just about nothing: Yeah, what about sunshine? (Just to be clear: Absolutely not hating on that song. That song is the shit.) Haley gave the song a big, heavy, brassy rendition, building from a coolheaded sing-speak to a growly roar, and it killed. The judges got on her ass for not picking a completely obvious song, which goes a long way toward proving what’s wrong with this show right now. These people are acting like it’s a bad idea to do anything remotely interesting with the songs they’re singing. With Jacob Lusk gone, I suddenly realize that Haley is my favorite person left on the show, and I feel oddly protective of her. I need to stop caring.

Returning from that drubbing, Haley sang “I Who Have Nothing,” which Jordin Sparks fucking killed a couple of years ago. Haley didn’t quite show that level of poise, but she still gave an intense, dramatic reading of the song, and her raspy bluesy vocal runs found an interesting context there. Great neediness on that big final note, too. The judges all came back around on her after that, which was nice. She’s the only remaining contestant with any real sense of gravitas to her, so I’m just hoping she stays around.

Putting James Durbin’s opportunism to shame, Scotty McCreery sang that Alan Jackson 9/11 song. If the show’s producer’s had let him decapitate an Osama Bin Ladin puppet the way GWAR used to do, I’m sure he would’ve done it. That being said, the 9/11 song is a pretty good one, albeit dated as hell; if you don’t know the difference between Iraq and Iran at this point, kill yourself. And McCreery sounded almost exactly like Alan Jackson singing it, which means he knows how to fake maturity even though he was, by my calculation, six years old on 9/11, and he probably watched the shit in a second-grade assembly the way I did with the Challenger explosion. So: Smart choice, I guess?

Coming back, Scotty came corny as fuck. A Chicago rainstorm fucked up my cable, so I don’t know what Lady Gaga said to him, but his version of “Young Blood” indulged all of his shittiest, most risible tics. Simpering, flopping, mugging with the crowd, and generally making an ass of himself, Scotty altogether neglected to sing a single memorable note, and the whole thing just made my skin crawl. The judges praised his “humor,” but, I mean, it’s not like he was telling any jokes up there.

Lauren Alaina, who can’t even pretend at maturity, sang a nicely full-bodied version of Martina McBride’s “Anyway,” and something tells me that she’ll be singing a whole lot of this type of Nashville-style power-ballad once this season of the show ends. She sang it pretty well without hitting any gigantic monster notes, and for whatever reason, monster notes have been expected of her all season. Randy Jackson claimed that she’s back in it after a shaky week, which is weird since she sang it the same way she sang both of her songs last week. This show just confuses me sometimes.

During the second song’s video package, Lauren came off like a fucking idiot by worrying about singing the words “I’m evil.” I can’t tell you how much I hate it when that teacher’s-pet mentality manifests itself on the show. Like, if it’s that big of a deal, sing some other goddam song. Elvis’s “Trouble” is an irredeemably silly song, but Lauren sold it well, putting her stage-sass to good use. Still, it was impossible to take the whole thing seriously after the pre-song video. Lady Gaga should not have to put up with that malarkey.