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"American Idol" Top 4 Performance Notes

By admin Published: May 11, 2011

I was thinking about "Dancing With the Stars" this week that we may be past the point where individual performances matter, because all the voters have made up their minds and it's just going to be a case of how much they can support their favorites. And that's even more likely with "American Idol," where the final four performers have undoubtedly built constituencies that won't be swayed by a single song, good or bad. It's happened before, after all. But the performances go on, and after the jump I have some notes on the vocals, the perils of trying to judge at this late date and how that can bring out one performer's inner snottiness. ...

This was a two-tiered program; originally announced as involving the songs of Leiber & Stoller, it instead proved to be (a) songs that inspire the performers and then (b) Leiber & Stoller, with the latter mentored by Lady Gaga. Yes. The result was an odd set of performances, with James the only singer with two solid performances -- and even he could have made better song choices.

James's inspirational song was "Don't Stop Believin'." He did it very, very well -- but it's "Don't Stop Believin'." Pre-"Glee," this would have been a little less irksome, but tonight it just felt like a replay of something overly obvious. His Leiber/Stoller song, "Love Potion No. 9," was problematic for me because I love the Clovers' version -- and James's retooling it for his more metallic inclinations was only moderately interesting until the end, when it appeared that he had managed a transplant of the soul and voice of Robert Plant at his most dramatic. So big points for that.

Haley's inspirational tune was Michael Jackson's "The Earth Song." Horrible choice. Not a good song to begin with, and Haley spent about half of it hollering -- not singing -- over the backing choir. It was not good, and two of the judges, Jennifer and Randy, sensed that. Jennifer tried to be gentle, focusing her comments on song choice without ever actually saying Haley had done badly. But you could see a certain irritation creep into Haley's expression. And that expression moved fully into swallowed-a-pickle when Randy was specifically critical about the yelling. Haley disagreed. Randy countered. Haley became even more irritated. Tyler, the New Paula, jumped to Haley's defense. To me, she, both then and in her backstage comments, came off as an argumentative little snot.

I don't know how this will play with viewers. Usually, a contestant who argued with the judge found it not beneficial in the long run -- but we don't have a very long run left. But I do know that Haley's reaction has to be blamed in part on the kinder-gentler approach to judging this year (in short, the absence of a Simon) which makes even the mildest criticism surprising. And when you have someone like Haley, who clearly thinks she is just precious as hell, then the criticism will seem even more offensive to the singer. And possibly to the audience. I still think she was hollering.

I also suspected that she could have come onstage for her second number and belched for three minutes and the judges, chastened by the reaction to their first-round comments, would call her fabulous and declare her back in the game. This proved to be the case with her performance of "I Who Have Nothing," one of the most dramatic, complex songs in the Leiber-Stoller catalog. Haley gave the kind of performance that did say she can sing, but it also underscored her dramatic limitations; I still think much of the time she has no understanding, or no feeling, for the meaning of the songs she picks. The show may find her ever more appealing because she has some vocal flexibility -- but I'd be wary of the little monster who came out when Randy criticized her.

Scotty probably had the worst night. His rendition of Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" may have played to his country/flag-waving base, but it was a bland performance; Jackson's kicks Scotty's teeth in. Then he came back with "Young Blood" and a wealth of facial exaggerations meant to show that he thought the song was comical -- an effort not needed by either the Coasters or Leon Russell -- but just recalling what a ham Scotty can be. He had the worst night of any contestant.

Which leaves Lauren. Much as I hate Haley as a personality, I like Lauren. She seems sweet and is absolutely unpretentious. And her first song, Martina McBride's "Anyway," was heartfelt and well sung. But she came back with "Trouble," and it was nothing but that for her. In her mentoring with Lady Gaga (whom I didn't find very interesting as a mentor, save perhaps for her grinding James), she made clear she didn't like the idea of singing something that declared her evil. That was clear in the performance, which was awkwardly perky, even amateurish. I've complained particularly about Haley not understanding her songs, but this was a case of Lauren either misunderstanding or just wanting the song to be something it isn't.

Still, as I said at the beginning, the individual performances may not matter at this point. Aside from James, I don't have anyone I particularly want to stay. And even James was having so much fun on his first song, he's probably figured out that he will come out of this with jobs and a record deal -- that win or lose, he's just going to have fun now.

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