The theme on Wednesday's American Idol was music of the 21st century. More than a whole decade to choose from!
I'm not sure the high point of the show was even musical. Casey Abrams – the favorite contestant of Dancing with the Stars pro Mark Ballas, who was in the audience – sang Maroon 5's "Harder to Breathe." As a rocker he didn't seem very focused, but he ended on a cute, soft, boyish note by giving Jennifer Lopez a peck on the cheek.
"Casey's got soft lips," Jennifer said. "I loved it – the performance!" "Surprise, surprise, surprise," said Randy Jackson. Steven Tyler's enthusiastic assessment included a string of bleeped-out obscenities – a sign, I gather, of happiness. "The wheels have fallen off this program," said Ryan Seacrest, who happened to be wearing a mock red beard to match Casey's. "Thank you for changing the course of this show."
It was all pleasantly unhinged. So, hats off to Casey.
To sing Muse's "Uprising," rock boy James Durbin came onstage dressed in a ragged coat with epaulets and flanked by a small marching band. His theatrical instincts are strong, and I guess he was trying to look militant and dangerous – "Mad Max meets stormtroopers on Melrose," was Steven's take – although it made for an odd visual to have the drummers standing and rat-a-tat-tatting behind the judges. But he was in great voice. "That was the highest we've ever heard you sing," Jennifer said. Randy thought it would rank as the best performance of the night.
Scotty McCreery sang "Swingin'" by LeAnn Rimes. Jimmy Iovine joked he was too young to even understand the lyrics, which may be why it was a teasingly sexed-up arrangement, with horns and sax on backup. More importantly, Iovine was worried that an audience that doesn't love country would be getting Scotty fatigue. Jennifer and Randy, in fact, thought that it was a little complacent. Even Steven had a reservation. "I guess that was your equivalent of a Rolling Stones tune," he said, adding that he wished Scotty "boot-scooted a little more."
Haley Reinhart sang Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" and managed to adorn it with some lovely twittering notes while keeping the beat going. And she minimized those gimmicky growls. "You chose a perfect direction for you," Randy said. Steven and Jennifer were impressed, too. It was the first time I thought Haley should be allowed to stick around.
Jacob Lusk sang Luther Vandross's "Dance with My Father" and dedicated it to his own father, who died when Jacob was only 12. Not surprisingly, it was highly emotional (Wednesday also happened to be the late R&B giant's birthday; he would have been 60). "It was a beautiful performance," Jennifer said, politely hinting that his technique didn't match the intensity of his feelings. Randy agreed: "I feel like someone's taking a racehorse and putting the restraints on," he said.
Lauren Alaina's choice was Sara Evan's "Born to Fly," a sweet little pop-country number that she tossed off with her usual effortless sunniness. "You do have a special voice," Jennifer said. "So much character." But all three judges, who really are turning out to be the most circumspect critics in the universe, gently urged her to take greater risks. Although isn't the modesty of her range part of her charm?
Mr. Iovine tried to convince Stefano Langone to stop "stalking the stage, pleading." So instead Stefano performed Ne-Yo's "Closer" with a few little dance steps. It was a definite improvement. "Dude, you turned me around," said Randy. "Good job, really good," said Steven. "Speaking for the girls in the audience," Jennifer said, "I thought it was very, very good." Good enough to keep him away from the bottom? Not so sure ...