In the top 11 . . .
Keepers: James, Casey, Jacob, Pia.
Kick 'em: Naima, Paul, Thia, Stefano.
On the bubble: Lauren, Scotty, Haley.
Comeback kid: Mentor Jimmy, who tonight displayed the most toughness and constructive criticism we've seen from him on the air so far.
Unnecessary: The judges, who for the most part were spreading too much love -- Steven especially.
I will explain after the jump.
There are some fine interpretations of Elton John songs -- Aretha's got a fine "Border Song," for one -- but he is tough to follow. His own vocals are very specific, and still heard so often that it's hard to get him out of your head. His songs also have a particular pace which can make "Idol" time-cutting even more noticeable. (See Stefano, below.) Nor do the songs seem especially malleable the way, say, Lennon-McCartney can be. And there was probably a question of familiarity for some of the contestants, since all of the songs chosen (all from the John-Taupin catalogue) are from 1983 or earlier.
So Elton night was far from a slam dunk for the contestants, and many wilted before the challenge. I did like that Jimmy I is pushing them more -- I think the carpet-bombing strategy has him thinking more and more about what he's going to get from these guys in the studio -- but it doesn't help when the judges then go all kissy-kissy instead of forcefully demanding better, too. Tyler, good grief. Anyway, the performances, in the order given:
Scotty, "Country Comfort." Once fresh and endearing, Scotty is becoming a bore. Tonight, he took an interesting Elton song and made it more explicitly country, which is fine. But he didn't do anything else with it. Aside from a last deep note -- and that's his trademark stunt -- there was nothing distinguished about this performance, and he has to begin to wonder how long that country-guy label is going to keep him afloat.
Naima, "I'm Still Standing." In one of their rare moments of criticism, the judges wondered if this song worked with a reggae treatment. It doesn't. Nor did the faux-Jamaican accent help. There were interesting spots in the performance but not many, and her act has worn thin.
Paul, "Rocket Man." I have figured out his next job: the new voice of the Aflac duck.
Pia, "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." This was the first performance tonight that seemed to understand an Elton John song. Not that it was satisfying. She was strained when she tried to go big, as if she was holding back something -- or just doesn't have the muscles. And she remains more technician than singer, although she showed some emotion tonight. She bores me a lot, but she has enough of a voice that I keep thinking she will break through.
Stefano, "Tiny Dancer." He suffered especially from the cutting that's done to make these songs fit "Idol" lengths; there were two bad cuts early in this, screwing up the pace and the chance to build up the song. That said, he didn't have the voice or the personality for it either.
Lauren, "Candle in the Wind." A song one tackles at his/her peril. Not only is it a big Elton song, not only is there the whole George Michael duet thing, not only is there the Princess Diana connection ... it's a burdened song. While I like Lauren generally, and she has nice stage presence, this was nothing more than a mediocre performance.
James, "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting." As usual, the show is favoring some contestants over others -- Pia got a choir onstage, James got a burning piano. (And I've neglected to mention the Elton-nodding red pianos.) But interesting to see him argue with Jimmy, especially the indication that Jimmy made him change a song choice before. And this was one of the better performances of the night because, along with Pia, James understood the freakin' song. Which brings me to . . .
Thia, "Daniel." Yes, she sings purty. But this started off like a rote recitation, break into some emotion briefly, but remained flat and very slowly paced. I think her age continues to work against her because she doesn't have the emotional foundation for expressive songs. And your brother moving out is not the best foundation for a song about a one-eyed war veteran.
Casey, "Your Song." A smart rebound from last week. The hair and beard trimming made him look more like a grownup. He reminded the audience that he may be a goofball but he's a goofball with an effective voice. And just when you thought he was going to go crazy again, he pulled back into a clean vocal.
Jacob, "Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word." As was pointed out, there's always that risk with Jacob that he will get too emotional. And I would argue that the first part of this performance was better than the second part, when he came close to going over the edge -- I get tense whenever he looks as if he's about to burst into tears. But he didn't go too far, and that suggests he is learning -- or being taught -- where the line is. And that should lead to even better performances down the road.
Haley, "Bennie and the Jets." What an odd show-closer, although it certainly helped her because she got the inevitable praise that comes with closing the show. The show has to convince the audience it is leaving happy, after all -- but not even the studio audience appeared to buy Randy's claim that this was the best performance of the night. For Haley, it was a distinct improvement. But she's still overly mannered, her voice isn't that great and if this had been mid-show no one would remember it at the end. This felt more like the show has decided there's room for only one female with whom the teens in the audience can identify, and it's not Thia. So Haley gets a bit of a free ride.
OK, I said she improved. But I'll also say this: There was not one performance tonight that made me want to go to iTunes, or even replay the show. The best was capable showmanship. The worst was, well, I hear quacking.