The Top 11 Redux Avoid Being Camile Velasco

Yes, Idol fans you can now rejoice. We got what we’d all been waiting for. After being deprived of a performance of “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” last season, Pia Toscano delivered tonight by performing the song, its seventh appearance on American Idol. Pia joins Idol giants Justin Guarini, Clay Aiken, Jasmine Trias, Bo Bice, David Archuleta and Jorge Nunez in the not-so-exclusive club. (Which might be a good thing for her, all besides Jorge Nunez got a hometown visit and four of the six managed to be on stage when Ryan Seacrest announced their season’s winner.)

Okay, so maybe no one was actually excited to be serenaded by the played out Elton John ballad again, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lot to look forward to. The last time (and only other time) the theme was Elton John’s catalog, there were some definitely entertaining performances. On the good side, you had Latoya London’s powerful “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”, Jennifer Hudson’s bombastic “Circle Of Life”, and George Huff’s out-of-left-field ridiculously fun “Take Me To The Pilot.” But really, the two most memorable performances from Season 3’s tribute to Sir Elton John came from teen crooner John Stevens on a beautifully performed “Crocodile Rock” and Lauryn Hill successor Camile Velasco on the impeccably sung “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” Those are two performances that will truly have a special place in my heart for years to come.

So these contestants had a lot to live up to and, unfortunately, failed to measure up. No one came even close to the Velasco-Stevens standard of Elton John covers. In all seriousness, I enjoyed this episode a lot and liked aspects of nearly every performance. Once you got beyond the male judges’ critiques and Ryan Seacrest’s hair, last night’s episode became a thoroughly entertaining program with absurd perfect-for-Idol production value. (Really, if you don’t enjoy sunset backgrounds and cheesy, overdramatized recaps filled with shocked reaction shots and phrases like “hope has been renewed” then why are you watching American Idol?) Now time for my (seemingly wildly unpopular) opinions:

Scotty McCreery – “Country Comfort”
Scotty legitimately picked the song because it had “country” in the title. This isn’t even a joke here. I mean, I’d like to go on a long-winded fake story about how he was just oh-so lost as a teenager in Elton John week and then he glanced over the song list and his face brightened when he saw the sweet comfort of the word “Country” and fireworks exploded in the background (hopefully not out of Katy Perry’s breasts) and then all was right in the heartland. But I can’t, because it’s not a fake story! It’s true. It’s all true. Every word of it, even the fireworks. (I know, I was there. You can trust me on this.) The ridiculous pandering with the family values (okay, so your grandmother is adorable, stop bragging) and Americanicity reached Lee Cookian levels tonight. The one-two punch of “love you Grandma” and “I’ll always be a country boy at heart” definitely rivals singing about freedom with an American flag waving in the background. I’ll give Scotty credit for singing songs that suit him and singing them ably. He, however, deserves just as much flack as people are throwing at Pia for singing the exact. same. song. every week. Or maybe he doesn’t and my hatred towards country music is bleeding through, but I’d rather blame him than admit ignorance. I mean, he’s all about the American way and so I assume he’d support my bullheaded opinions with no regard for objectivity. Woo, go America!

Naima Adedapo – “I’m Still Standing”
In the last week, Naima built a time machine and went back to her childhood where she managed to move to Jamaica and grow up with a Jamaican accent so this week on American Idol she could thoroughly reggae-ify her Elton John tune. And I can’t lie, it absolutely worked for me. I love Naima’s ability to completely own a stage and entertain as a performer. The amount of fun she has on that stage every week is nearly unparalleled (James Durbin forces the qualifier). She missed a few notes and the arrangement was perhaps not the smoothest we’ve seen on the Idol stage, but her delivery sold it all to me. (Also, Michael Slezak has pointed it out a few times, but it deserves mentioning here: it’s crazy how much less successful women have been at singing rearranged songs on Idol than men.) Maybe if I’d been more familiar with the original I would’ve been more thrown off, but all I can say about Naima is boom fiyah. Seriously, though, she ended her performance by saying “boom fiyah” – the most glorious finishing touch one can give song. Clearly, I have to give her another 10 on the BOOM FIYAH scale. Keep the fire. Vote Naima.

Paul McDonald – “Rocket Man”
Paul told this fun anecdote about how he once covered this song with his band five years ago and it was a disaster. Hilarious right? Well let me tell you all an equally funny story about Paul. You see Paul recently covered this song on American Idol and, wait for it – you’ll never believe this, it was a disaster! Hah, isn’t that just the darndest thing you’ve ever heard? But disasters have been keeping Paul around for the last four weeks, so his strategy is clearly working for him. Alright, so calling it a disaster wasn’t entirely ingenuous. To be frank, it was more an attempt to distract his victims with a creepy whisper and befuddling suit before launching into serial killer tendencies. And while he might’ve ended the song by saying “I think it’s going to be a long, long time,” what his eyes and voice were really saying was, “Be careful, I’m going to get you when you least expect it.” So yeah, I find Paul a bit unsettling and will sleep with one eye open tonight. I recommend that anyone else living in a 600 mile radius of Los Angeles does the same.

Pia Toscano – “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”
I’m going to grade Pia tonight on a point system:
Picking a ballad: -25
… but avoiding an uptempo Elton John song: +25
Specifically, picking “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”: -50
… but really, specifically picking “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”: +50
Largely standing in one place: -20
… but having more raw presence than any of her competitors: +30
Having the best voice by a mile: +50
Looking stupidly beautiful: +20
Bringing out the choir: +20
… but refusing to let it devolve into caterwauling rounds of gospelly hallelujahs: -10
Finally, having a sunset background while singing a song about a sun going down: +5 million
Total: Who cares? There was a sunset background.

Stefano Langone – “Tiny Dancer”
Why does Jimmy Iovine hate Stefano? Did Stefano Gordon Ramsey his mother? It’s odd. Anyway, back to the performance. Before the show started, I tweeted something to the effect of, “anyone who takes on ‘Tiny Dancer’ in 90 seconds is an idiot.” While I must say Stefano’s take on “Hold me close, young Tony Danza” pleasantly surprised me, the bridge was still awkwardly arranged to fit the truncated Idol format. Stefano absolutely needs to stop the blatant schmoozing of the cameras and the buttering up of J. Lo was entirely unnecessary. You can sing, dude, but your sexy fails drastically. (Despite all the Ryan Seacrest/Stefano fan fiction that Richard Lawson has been writing.)

Lauren Alaina – “Candle In The Wind”
I liked that Lauren took a departure from her norm and sang a straight-up soft ballad. Her voice was pretty enough and I actually thought she hit most of the emotion of the song. I’m not jumping out of my chair voting for her, but I’ll take it. My problem week in and week out with Lauren is that I feel like she’s only giving me 85%. I’m not sure why or what she could do to fix it, but I unreasonably need her to visibly try harder. (Dance, monkeys!) I really liked the backup singer, though. I feel like they’re much more consistently strong this season than they have been in the past. (Look no further than Adam Lambert’s “Cryin'” for evidence of how much a backup singer can sabotage an otherwise great performance.)

James Durbin – “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”
The style of music James Durbin sings is probably my least favorite. (At least I can ignore country music.) So when James started the song with, by far, his roughest vocal performance yet, I was cringing in horror. Of course, then he continued to perform and, y’know, perform. I got into it. I was entertained. In fact, I was so entertained that I didn’t even keep my usual tail tally! Did he have a tail? I don’t know, I was too busy focusing on the jump-splits and the side steps and the ridiculous crowd synchronized clapping and the walking on the piano. Oh yeah, and then FLAMES CAME OFF OF THE PIANO. This is one of those times where I wish there was a super-caps lock mode. Bold, italics, underlining and font size can only do so much. I need to be able to make the words come out of the computer screen. If James Cameron can make blue people pop out of movie screens, I should be able to make the words “FLAMING PIANO” pop out of your computer screen. (Apparently, to make up for my failure to note the Na’vi tail, I’m instead inserting a reference to Avatar.) Anyway, there was a flaming piano and it was ridiculous but so entertaining. Another 10 on the BOOM FIYAH scale.

Thia Megia – “Daniel”
Thia squandered any good will she might have had with a majority of the Idolsphere with a 1-2-3 punch of “Smile” (really?), “Colors Of The Wind” (reaaaally?) and “Heatwave” (have it your way!). (Again, I thought “Heatwave” was one of the stronger Motown night performances, but who am I to argue with the ridiculing of the BK flames song?) There is literally nothing Thia can do at this point to get favorable reviews. She’ll always be a boring, robotic teenage girl whose sole redeeming quality is a rhyming name. That said, I again liked Thia. I believed her performance and love the tone of her voice. While sometimes her phrasing gets in the way of the song, I thought it worked with it this time. It’s true that Thia probably knows next to nothing about the emotional turmoil of returning war veterans and the role “Daniel” serves to tell that story. (I know I can’t convey that emotional gravitas.) However, I’m fine with her taking the song and using the lyrics to draw out her own emotional connection. She’s sixteen, she’s working with the life experiences she has. And really, the last twenty seconds of that performance proved to me that she was feeling it. (Allison Iraheta did the same thing on a heartfelt performance of “Someone To Watch Over Me” dedicated to her parents.) Anyway, I’m done defending Thia before I lose everyone reading.

Casey Abrams – “Your Song”
I thought “Your Song” was tailor-made for an Idol moment. However, Casey Abrams did his best to get back at me for weeks of criticism by proving me wrong. I’ve been begging Casey for weeks to give up the growl and sing a song. So that’s what he did this week and I immediately rescind my previous requests. The surprise of the night is that, underneath all the growling and the metric ton of facial hair, Casey has a really weak voice. He can’t really sing. At all. Who knew? Not really good at hitting the right notes or holding notes or doing any of that tedious stuff that’s involved in carrying a tune. To be fair, I think he did a good job with connecting to it. But really, you get no points for feeling terribly sung notes. Oh well, Casey Abrams. It’s probably best that this singing thing doesn’t pan out. That way, you won’t have obnoxious fans telling you to cut your hair every time you surface with that thing on your face. (You know, the thing that’s not your actual face. Which… no, not even going there.)

Jacob Lusk – “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word”
The fog! Did you see it? Wasn’t it amazing? Didn’t it scream drama? Speaking of drama, Jacob Lusk performed an Elton John song. It was every bit as dramatic and showy as you’d expect it to be. It was, however, also much better than I expected it to be. When Jacob goes off the rails and hits all of his notes, he’s a force to be reckoned with. Now, I don’t enjoy being hit by gale force winds repeatedly, but because we only see Jacob once a week, I can enjoy him. Perversely, if he’d sung this well every week his theatrics would be getting very stale, but because his off-key screeching overshadowed his showy delivery for a few weeks, I’m for the first time getting to enjoy the entertainment value he brings. Eventually, Jacob is going to either need to dial it back to a 1 or 2 (which would probably equate to about an 8 or 9 for a regular human being) or perform something uptempo in the most ridiculously campy way possible. You know, give me those group sing stage movements on a performance night. (Really, I take his group sings about as seriously as I do his actual performances. I can’t help it. I can’t believe anyone is as over-the-top as Jacob.)

Haley Reinhart – “Bennie And The Jets”
So this isn’t a joke. Haley actually performed in the pimp spot. Haley closed the show! Haley might actually live beyond double elimination night. After watching it initially, I decided I needed to take the time to sit back and just listen to a Haley performance once. And I must say, I actually really liked Haley’s singing. It’s immensely interesting and she rarely hits a bad note. I would be a Haley fan if she moved on stage in a manner that was remotely appealing. But she doesn’t. Instead, she walks the line between JC Chasez as a marionette in the “Bye Bye Bye” video and a much less smooth Jessica Rabbit. It’s absurdly distracting. In fact, here’s what I’m thinking while watching Haley perform. Oh look, Haley started on the piano. Maybe she just won’t move tonight. They should’ve lowered that piano. I don’t think she can get off. She got off! Is gravity stronger on the right side of her body? Does she have full control of her limbs? Or her torso? Sex kitten doesn’t work well when coupled with Hunchback of Notre Dame. Really she should get those back problems checked out. I like Haley’s personality. I like her voice. I want her to stay around. I cannot for the life of me watch her perform.

Finally, gotta give props to the real star of the night, the red piano.

Bottom 3: Thia, Naima, Paul
Going home: Paul and Naima

(I guess I’m banking on Thia and Stefano to have enough hardcore fans to bottom three bump their way to safety. I am also banking on Paul’s fanbase to not be as stupidly large as it might, in fact, be. I also really really love myself some wishful thinking.)


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