It was a night of songs by Carole King – a great pop songwriter with a big catalog of hits reaching back decades, but with a pop style that must seem almost classically formal to American Idol's six young finalists. The result was a well-sung, not terribly dynamic 90-minute show.
James Durbin skipped the big theatrical statements for "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow." In rehearsal, he tried it as a simple ballad on guitar, but producer Jimmy Iovine urged him to go with his strong hand – rock – and the result, which was rhythmic and sweet, was his most satisfying performance yet. Jennifer Lopez bopped along as if she were alone in that magic disco we call romantic fantasy. "That was the first song I ever made out to a girl with," said Steven Tyler at the end of a (fairly) positive assessment. "It was in a bowling alley and, no, Randy, I didn't strike out." Jennifer called him "the star of the night." Randy Jackson made a bold prediction: "This guy just might win the whole thing," he said, before giving Durbin a hug.
Iovine (assisted by Kenny Babyface Edmonds) thought Jacob Lusk was in greatest jeopardy after placing near the bottom last week – and that he needed to really unleash himself musically. His cover of "Oh No Not My Baby" had plenty of bounce, a long high note and a few endearingly clunky dance steps. "It's about time you shook your tail feathers," Steven said. "When you strut like that, that's the magic." "You brought yourself back," Randy said.
Lauren Alaina, encouraged by both Iovine and the judges to push her vocals, succeeded on "Where You Lead," straining a little but without sacrificing her usual casual polish. She also pulled a guy up from the audience to sit onstage as she sang – an old-fashioned, not really necessary piece of business. Anyway, the judges' hearts were gladdened. Hearing Lauren break barriers, "it brings tears to my eyes," said Jennifer. I think Lauren's chances of winning are as good as James's, but we'll see.
And Miley Cyrus showed up to visit Lauren in the studio. No mention was made of Iovine's previous comment that Lauren is a stronger singer than Ms. Cyrus ...
Casey Abrams performed "Hi De Ho" as a furiously concentrated blend of blues and lounge. I find his fundamentally retro approach baffling, but the judges certainly don't. "You definitely found your niche," said Steven, adding that it was "the best mother – (pause) – lovin' show I've seen." Jennifer thought the vocals were perfect, but wished Casey would loosen up his stage movements.
Haley Reinhart suffered a slight technical delay before launching into "Beautiful," and she suffered again, shifting between happy outbursts and more introspective moments. The judges, though, found it all appropriately beautiful. "I just saw God," said Steven. Jennifer singled Haley out as "one of the best voices" of the season. Randy tried to object that he didn't like the beginning, at which point Jennifer shouted over him: "Whatever!"
Scotty McCreery, after a week in which the judges wondered whether he hadn't slowly ambled down into a rut, sang "You've Got a Friend" as a passable middle-of-the-road country-tinged radio-friendly hit. He sounded a bit forced, and he usually doesn't. Randy especially liked the tender notes at the start: "Scotty's in it to win it!" Steven said, "You never sang better."
The singers were also put together for duets – it wasn't clear whether these performances should "count" with voters, but then why wouldn't they? It's not as if we're all jurors waiting for instruction from the bench.
Haley and Casey sang "I Feel the Earth Move." You would have thought their propensity for growls would make a perfect match, but it sounded perfunctorily peppy. "How much in love with Haley are you?" Steven asked Casey.
Lauren and Scotty performed "Up on the Roof." It was twangy, slow, syrupy and charming. "It was beautiful," Jennifer said.
Jacob and James sang "I'm Into Something Good" with dueling falsetto wails, and showed the most energy of the night. Steven enjoyed it without knowing quite what to make of it. "Man, where were you going with all that?"
We have quite a competitive race, Idol fans. Who will be out in Thursday's elimination? Haley? Jacob?