Last night on season 9 of American Idol the contestants took on R&B for what was destined to be a somewhat uneven show. Some people would use the opportunity to show why they deserved to be in the top 10; others, not so much.
Top 10 with Usher
In the never-ending quest to make their filler more interesting, the producers tried something a little different, showing us behind-the-scenes moments, live as they happen. The show began with host Ryan Seacrest walking past the final ten backstage, at the lip of the stage. He then passed the four judges "making out." On command, Ellen gave Simon a reluctant kiss. Enough already! She's not your toy! A bit later, as the judges entered the stage, Kara DioGuardi and Simon Cowell walked arm in arm, while Ellen and Randy Jackson walked arm in arm. It's as if they were begging the critics: can the rumors about us not getting along end now?
This week, Usher served as the mentor, promising the top 10 up front that he would be more critical.
First to take the stage was Siobhan Magnus, who was doing Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire." Usher said that "She's actually got the voice." His advice focused on her personal style, telling her not to have so much going on. Of course, she completely ignored him, pairing a one-strap purple and white dress with asymmetrical hemline, her hair in a '60s Barbara Streisand bouffant with a braid in the front. Oh, and silver moon-boots. If that had been her only problem, she would have been lucky. She sounded good until the chorus, and then her highest note was flat. Damn. She's never sounded this bad before. With the key change she seemed more confident, hitting another of her patented big notes. Overall, though, this song exposed all her weaknesses. [VIDEO OF SIOBHAN]
Randy acknowledged that it was, "pitch-wise, all over the place," but he still loves her courageousness and conviction. Ellen said it's "kind of like when you're hiking and you miss the trail and you're really lost." She said it was like dessert before the meal and that it was "not your best performance." Kara noted that she'd been a little nervous and that her lower register wasn't strong enough. Simon said it "sounded to me as if you'd run a marathon and were singing while you were running, out of breath." He said, "You're kidding yourself if you think that's a good performance." He added, "I'm getting bored of the screaming at the end."
The backstage camera showed Siobhan walking, slump-shouldered, past the rest of the crew to get a banana, until "Big Mike" Lynche got up to hug her.
Casey James was next, performing the Sam and Dave song "Hold On, I'm Coming." He was excited because, "It's not going to get any closer to blues than R&B." Actually, he'll probably do well on country week, too, which also has a lot in common with the blues. Even though he forgot the lyrics during the rehearsal with Usher, the singer told him, "You're already a rock star. You've got an incredible voice." Wearing a black, long-sleeved button-down over a red button down with dark jeans, he had background singers and a brass ensemble on stage. This was his wheelhouse, but due to the arrangement, he ended up going for more of a Chicago blues feel, rather than the blues-rock performances he usually delivers. His voice is perfect for this song, and he offered up a tasty guitar solo. Watch out, Jonny Lang, he's a-coming. [VIDEO OF CASEY]
Randy enthused, "This was another hot night for you." He liked that the song showed a lot of vocal range. Ellen praised his consistency: "You're always good." She felt, though, that the performance was a little generic. Reaction shot of Usher in the audience saying, "Wow." Kara encouraged him to show more of his range. Her advice: "Go back to an acoustic guitar and just sing." Simon jumped on the bandwagon: "In my opinion, it was your strongest week you've had so far." He praised Casey for sounding authentic and proclaimed himself "really, really, really impressed."
Michael Lynche went for an unusual choice, india.arie's "Ready for Love." Usher advised him to project his energy. Big Mike went for a pared-down performance, sitting on the second stage in the audience with his guitar, wearing a brown aviator jacket, rather than the suits he's been rocking lately. His performance was very gentle, very emotional. On the bridge, he got a little pitchy, but overall, it was a stellar performance. [VIDEO OF MICHAEL]
Randy liked the guitar and called it a beautiful ballad: "You're in the zone." While it wasn't as exciting, he said, "It's good to pull it back and show your sensitive side." Ellen said she doesn't like it "when people talk behind my back or when they sing behind my back." Nevertheless, "That was beautiful." Kara admitted she'd never heard that song until Mike chose it, and then she'd sought it out. "You did an incredible job with it." She liked that he got to the true emotion of the song. Simon said, "This is probably the first time since you've entered the live shows where I can actually take you seriously now as an artist." Even though the song was "a little bit gloomy... what you demonstrated is the difference between being original, having a moment, or being a silly, little karaoke singer."
Next, Didi Benami had selected the Jimmy Ruffin song "What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted," which Usher called a "very emotional song for a very emotional young lady." She wore a floor-length black glittering evening dress, her hair in ringlets, a look that didn't jibe with her delivery. After all, she's not a diva singer. She was off on the bridge and was sort of half-talking, half-singing at the end. It was better than last week, but will it be good enough? [VIDEO OF DIDI]
Randy loves this song, "but the whole performance flat-lined for me." Ellen said, "It was just way dramatic and not your best performance." Kara agreed that it was overdone and criticized Didi for having "lost your way." Simon said, "It was like swimming in jelly," He found its "so over-the-top, so old-fashioned, so off-melody" and knocked Didi for no longer making herself contemporary.
Afterward, Ryan tried to get her to tell why the song was so emotional for her, but she wouldn't say. So he finally said that she'd sung the song for someone and left it at that.
Tim Urban, who has earned the nickname Teflon Tim in the media because of sticking around on weeks when people predict he'll be sent home, had chosen Anita Baker's "Sweet Love." Usher advised him to sing to a woman who's right in front of him, advice that doesn't seem to have helped. He started out seated on the steps, wearing a black suit, with white shirt and skinny black tie. Then he moved awkwardly around the stage, sidling like he was playing a spy in a high-school musical. The song was too low for him, and his delivery was very karaoke. The ending was a little better, but by then, it was too late. [VIDEO OF TIM]
Randy thought the song had pluses and minuses. When it first started, he found it was "kind of a singing waiter thing, so pedestrian." He gave him credit for singing in tune but said it had "no vibe to it... no swag on it." Ellen acknowledged there's a drinking game going on at home every time she calls him adorable, which she did again just for them. She criticized the way he'd moved around the stage, "like you were sneaking into a bedroom. We can see you; don't try to be so sneaky." Kara said, "It was like Broadway at times and Vegas at times," and she didn't mean that in a good way. She told him he "took the soul out of the song," at which Tim laughed. "Why are you laughing?" she demanded. Simon answered for him: "I'll tell you why he's laughing. I don't think it makes any difference whatsoever what we say." He called it a completely inappropriate song, "like a mouse picking a fight with an elephant" but said it doesn't matter: "You're going to smile, the audience are going to vote for you, and you'll be here next week."
Afterward, Tim told Ryan, "They've picked on me for a lot of things. I never thought smiling would be one of the things they wouldn't like." Ha, ha, ha.
Taking the stage next was Andrew Garcia with the Chris Brown song "Forever." After their rehearsal, Usher said, "I could tell he was nervous." He advised Andrew, "If you really want this, you have to take it serious." Wearing a gray suit, with a cranberry-and-white checked shirt, Andrew performed sitting on a stool, strumming his guitar. A bongo player accompanied him on stage. This was a much better choice for him than many previous selections, fitting his easy-going, coffee-house delivery. Definitely his best of the live shows. [VIDEO OF ANDREW]
Randy declared, "Andrew is back." He liked the outfit and called it "dope that you took a Chris Brown song and turned it into your own." Ellen called it an "amazing, strong performance." She said she loves when he smiles. Kara, who's been comparing everything to his Hollywood week performance of "Straight Up," was finally ready to move on: "Nothing makes me happier to say that is one giant leap in the right direction." Simon said it was "miles, miles better from what we've heard from you over the last couple of weeks." The only problem, he felt: "As a person, you come over as very boring." He told him he's got to start showing some personality.
In response, Ryan went to Andrew's mom in the audience, who was wearing a leopard-print vest, to tell Simon, half in Spanish, that her son is not boring. On stage, the ever-mellow Andrew just smiled.
Katie Stevens had met Usher at Epcot before, where his bodyguards refused to let her take a picture with him. Was that really the right story to tell? Anyway, she decided to go with Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools." Usher said her energy was really good, but she needs to have some pizzazz and attitude. She wore a short gray-and-black jumper with spaghetti straps, paired with black tights, her hair in an up-do, and huge hoops swinging from her ears. She started pretty good, probably her best start of the season, but predictably, she started to go flat on the verse. For some strange reason, she was doing a lot of head bobbing: maybe her way of adding attitude? I couldn't get over the lyrics, "For five long years, I thought that you were my man." Since she was 11? Eww! It was probably her best performance, but I didn't love it. [VIDEO OF KATIE]
Randy commented that "you're mad young" but said the performance seemed "a little disconnected." He called it one of the best vocal performances of the night, though the song started rough. He even said she was like a young Christina Aguilera, "in a weird sort of way." Ellen remarked on her "little Snooki pouff" of hair, referring to a character from the reality show Jersey Shore, whose style is usually lambasted. She thought the vocals were great but wished the song had been a little more current. Kara declared, "You've found where you belong." She thought it was "one of your best performances" but urged her to "make it young and commercial." Simon found Randy's comparison to Christina to be crazy. Randy clarified he thought she had potential. Simon called the performance "pretty good" but "very robotic." He compared it to a Star Search performance and disagreed with Kara that she should stick to this kind of music.
For weeks, I've wondered what the judges saw in Lee Dewyze. Last night, with his performance of "Treat Her Like a Lady," he showed me. Usher told him he has an incredible voice and he needs to "just own it." He performed alone on stage with his guitar, wearing a gray leather jacket with a banded collar with a black polo shirt and dark jeans. He finally loosened up on stage, even interacting with the audience. The song was a great match for his gruff, growling vocals. Definitely his best to date. [VIDEO OF LEE]
Randy said it was "unbelievable," the "best I've heard you in weeks." He added, "That was the bomb." Ellen announced, "There you go. Now the night's started." She said it was an "unbelievable performance," the "best of the night," and "probably that you've done so far." Kara said it "could have been on your record. It was amazing." Simon reminded viewers that he's "always believed in you." He told Lee, "I want you tonight to go home and watch the show back and understand this is the night your life may have changed forever." In response, Lee was so overwhelmed he almost swallowed his guitar pick.
My girl Crystal Bowersox had promised to change it up, doing something a little different. Instead of guitar, she would accompany herself on piano for the Gladys Knight song, "Midnight Train to Georgia." She performed with backup singers around the piano, wearing a rust-colored dress with a fitted top, and stilettos, her long hair pulled back. Even though she was watching her hands while she played, her voice was still powerful. Then she got up, leaning against the piano to steady herself on her heels, but even that didn't throw her. On the bridge, she took off like a bird released from a cage; incredible. The look isn't her, but she was gorgeous. In contrast to Siobhan's patented scream, she delivered a very controlled ending. [VIDEO OF CRYSTAL]
Randy loved the outfit and loved the whole ensemble. He said that he's working on a record with Gladys Knight and that "she would say you've done that proud." Crystal said, "Tell Gladys I said hi." Ellen said, "You really are competing now. That was a wonderful, wonderful idea." Kara was glad she took a risk, because she'd "wanted to see another side of you." She said she "can't wait to see what you do next." Simon told her that "your choice of song was sensational" and that the "vocals at times were incredible." He felt, though, that the backing vocalists shouldn't have been on stage with her, because it was too old-fashioned, and he noted she was uncomfortable with the piano. Then he gave her some astute advice: "Do not let this process suck the identity out of you." Crystal countered that she just wanted to prove to herself that she could do something different. Simon concluded, "You're the kind of artist who actually knows what they should be doing. Just do what's comfortable for you."
Finishing off the night was Aaron Kelly with the Bill Withers song "Ain't No Sunshine." Usher worked with him on a particular line, where he repeats "I know" and told him "Give me theatrics." Wearing a windbreaker, with a blue plaid shirt over a gray T-shirt and jeans, he gave it a shot, but honestly, it sounded better in rehearsal. I'd love to see him in about five years, when he's had time to mature. He was on tune, but there was no real excitement. [VIDEO OF AARON]
Randy said it "started a little rough" but "by the time you got to your power notes, [it] worked itself out." Still, he thought it was "just all right." Ellen wished she'd had that much confidence when I was 11. Aaron reminded her he's 16, but I think she knew that. She told him it was a "really good job." Kara liked it but "wasn't in love with it." She thought he needed a little more energy. Simon said, "If you compare it to some of the really good performances before, which was the main course, that was a little like a cupcake." Even so, he felt there's "no chance you're going to be leaving the competition."
Kudos to Casey James, Michael Lynche, Lee Dewyze and Crystal Bowersox with a nod to Andrew Garcia.
Picking a bottom two is fairly easy: Didi Benami and Tim Urban. Who will join them? Viewers might get a shock and see Siobhan Magnus there, as well. Although Tim still isn't exciting anyone other than his teen fan base, I don't think he's reached his expiration date yet. Instead, an emotional Didi will probably be singing for her life.
When a chart-topping singer gives you advice, do your best to follow it.
In the event that these videos are removed, go to the official American Idol site, click on "VIDEOS" and then "PERFORMANCES" and search for the videos you'd like to see. Unfortunately, the American Idol site does not allow for direct links, which makes it difficult for me to embed their links in my write-ups.