Wednesday's American Idol show was devoted to rock and roll, which is far enough removed from the Idol universe that Steven Tyler, on a tour of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, described it as a "cultural movement." Will.I.Am helped in the studio coaching, and Gwen Stefani stepped in to style the contestants.
It was another strong night – this really is the best lineup I can remember.
Pia Toscano, who's typically of the Celine Dion stand-there-and-belt school, sang the challenging Tina Turner classic "River Deep, Mountain High," and pretty much ruled the night. Finally tackling an up-tempo song, she was strong as brass. "Murderer! Murderer – you killed it!" Steven shouted. Jennifer Lopez, calling her "spectacular," urged her to study other musical giants. (Did I hear "Doris Day"? No.) Randy Jackson praised her vocals, but suggested she work on her stage movement. Good point, Randy.
Scotty McCreery sang – surprise! – an Elvis Presley hit, "That's All Right, Mama," with a rockabilly edge. His moves were a bit jerky – he looked like a marionette in denim – but his voice was smoking, and a bunch of girls ran up from the audience to hug him when he finished. "Scotty is in it to win it," Randy said. "This was like a new Scotty!" Steven also said he'd previously wondered if "you were all hat and no cattle," but obviously that was no longer the case.
Haley Reinhart, after hearing the judges repeatedly invoke Janis Joplin over the weeks, took on her famous hit "Piece of My Heart." There were moments when Haley's voice sounded like it was being pushed to the point of shredding – follow Joplin and you're walking down a path of broken glass – but she seemed on fairly solid ground. "You're a contender," said Jennifer. Randy: "Welcome back!" Steven: "I couldn't find nothin' wrong with that."
Jacob Lusk was originally going to sing "Let's Get It On," but didn't feel comfortable trying to put across something so sensual, and so instead went with "Man in the Mirror." It was Jacob's most controlled, confident performance, and the judges were pleased. "Every time you sing," Steven said, "you bring another piece of yourself to the party." "I don't know what was more powerful," Ryan said, "your voice or your hip thrust." Oh, Mr. Seacrest!
Lauren Alaina tackled soul with Aretha Franklin's monumental "Natural Woman" and proved once again that her voice is more versatile than just youthful country-pop. She rode through it with great assurance. The judges certainly liked it, but I thought their comments might have shown a little more excitement. "Tonight you are a natural-born woman," said Steven. "Big props to you," said Randy, as if she'd just shown him her report card.
James Durbin, who's already established himself as the singer most at home with rock, this time went with a slow ballad, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." I would say his guitar also spat and hissed – it was an intense, rather therapeutic version. James wept, as well, wiping away tears at the end – he said he'd been working on the song for five years. "It was a great choice for you," said Jennifer, praising him for showing his vulnerability and pain.
Casey Abrams changed his selection from the Police's "Every Little Thing She Does It Magic" to Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Have You Ever Seen the Rain." That was a perfect fit for his growl, and he also accompanied himself on the upright bass. As an interpretation, though, it was an unexpected, unusual one – a wee bit whimsical, a wee bit cutesy. The judges ate it up, anyway. "You're a true musician," said Steven.
Stefano Langone started out the soaring ballad "When a Man Loves a Woman" with a dry falsetto before standing up and slipping into his usual fervid self – compared to everyone else, he went sailing over the top with old-school abandon. "That was beautiful," said Jennifer. Randy was less enthused. "The first part of it felt a little jerky," he said.
Paul McDonald's pick was Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." He seemed to be having a great time singing it – he always smiles much more ingratiatingly than the other performers – but it felt rushed. Johnny Cash never showed that much adrenaline in his life. Randy said he had three words for him: "I! Loved! It!"
Given the caliber of the night's other performances, though, I think Paul could be out.