"The stakes are going to be high," judge Randy Jackson said.
Of the 12 female contestants, the ones who have the most on the line pulled out the best performances. Skylar Laine, 18, could really benefit from the Idol prize: her family is struggling to keep their Brandon, Miss., business from closing. Sixteen-year-old Jessica Sanchez, meanwhile, has been battling swollen vocal cords. But despite their setbacks – or because of them – both delivered the night's standout performances.
Laine tossed her hair, shook violently and twirled in circles during her countrified version of the Faces's "Stay With Me." Jennifer Lopez compared her to a young Tina Turner, while Steven Tyler compared her to a firearm. "You are a pistol," he said. Randy was so overcome with excitement that he could muster little more than "Dude!" and "Yo!" He finally said, "I love your energy."
Sanchez's performance was equally impressive.
She dominated the night with her soaring take on Jennifer Hudson's "Love You I Do," which earned a standing ovation from the judges – the only one of the night. "One of the best of the last two nights, right there," Jackson proclaimed. "You are so unbelievably talented."
Not surprisingly, Grammy darling Adele was a towering presence in the room.
Jackson picked up on a strong "Adele vibe" from deejay-turned-singer Erika Van Pelt, who scored with her rocking version of Heart's "What About Love." Jen Hirsh and Elise Testone both performed the British singer's hit "One and Only." But it's Testone who may have left the biggest impression. She one-upped Hirsh by playing piano and choked back tears while hearing the judges' critiques. Lopez made no secret about which one she prefers: "You are one to watch," she said to Hirsh.
As for the judges, they were mostly kind and laudatory to all the contestants.
And the in-fighting and playful banter between the three and host Ryan Seacrest has been dialed down to non-existent, which won't make the show any more watchable.
In fact, the judges might want to heed their own advice going forward: As Jennifer told Van Pelt, "I feel like you could've gone a little bit further. ... Next time, let loose on us!"