After a hit-and-miss foray into the '80s last week, on April 11 "American Idol" returned to what the contestants do best: contemporary songs that may actually bear some resemblance to the kind of music they'll (hypothetically) be releasing next year -- with a current artist (Akon) serving as a well-qualified mentor. And thankfully, now that DeAndre and Heejun have exited stage right, the real vocalists can finally get down to competing. The narrowing of the talent pool didn't preclude a couple of sub-par performances, of course, but it's nice that we've finally reached a point where the good generally outweighs the bad on performance night.
Here's the rundown of the Top 7's performances, with songs chosen from 2010 through to today.
Skylar Laine: "Didn't You Know How Much I Loved You" by Kellie Pickler
Despite Jimmy Iovine and Akon's advice, Skylar chose to whip out the guitar for this rendition, clearly eager to show that she can keep up with her more musical cohorts. Luckily, it didn't seem to detract from her performance, which, although more subdued than her usual country tunes, still seemed to fit her like a glove. I'm not familiar with the song (and considering it's a Kellie Pickler jam, I'm assuming most of the audience probably isn't either), but it was engaging enough, allowing Skylar to demonstrate her range with a more nuanced arrangement. The judges declared that she had perfect pitch from where they were sitting; from where I was sitting, she seemed to be shouting more than singing in the chorus, and had a tendency to veer a little flat. But the verses were natural and full of Skylar's personality, so I still thought it was one of her stronger performances to date -- mostly because the song actually allowed her time to breathe.
"This song is so in your wheelhouse," Randy Jackson praised. "I felt you for the first time in a long time." Jennifer Lopez proved that we were listening to completely different songs by the aforementioned praise of Skylar's pitch, and Steven Tyler told her he loves the way she sings, and then made a bizarre (and vaguely sexist?) observation that "the crows may crow, but the hens deliver the goods." He likes chicks, y'all.
Colton Dixon: "Love The Way You Lie Part 2" by Rihanna
Every week, I become more convinced that Colton will win this whole shebang, and, through no fault of his own, this makes me resent him in increasing increments. It's totally not Colton's fault that the majority of "Idol's" audience is made up of shallow teenage girls who will vote for the white, pretty-boy rocker who sounds like every other white, pretty-boy rocker on the radio right now, but I irrationally resent him for the voting patterns nonetheless. This was a typically Colton performance; affected, soulful and controlled, but he's so perfectly packaged and ready to drop a generic white, pretty-boy rocker album that the whole thing feels unabashedly calculated, and it creeps me out that the show isn't even attempting to hide its biases anymore. Still, if we're not delving deep into the series' streak of white, pretty-boy winners, there was nothing to really criticize about the performance. It was on-pitch, confident and well-suited to Colton's brand, if a little on the nasal side, and I'll agree that the guy makes savvy, informed decisions about his note choices and inflection, which further illustrates how ready he is to dive into the mainstream market. I have no doubt that Colton will be a star, and don't disagree that he deserves it, but the inevitability of it is kind of depressing.
Jennifer praised Colton's signature vocal style and his ability to make every song his own, while Steven observed that he could've recorded that song immediately and sent it out to the masses with no need for overdubs. Randy noted, "the subtle performance you gave was really stellar ... I love your interpretation."
Elise Testone and Phillip Phillips Duet: "Somebody That I Used to Know" by Gotye
Fox seems determined to get their money's worth out of licensing the ubiquitous Gotye song, since it was prominently featured on "Glee" one night prior. As much as I love Elise and Phillip, I think Matt Bomer and Darren Criss may have had the edge on this one. It was a great choice for Elise, allowing her to plumb the depths of her graveled range as well as pulling out some flawless high notes. Phillip admitted that she outsang him, but the two still harmonize well together, and I was pleased to see that Phillip has toned down the gurning and twitching since last week -- it makes me less concerned that he's having some kind of seizure on-stage. I do wish the judges would stop awkwardly pointing out the chemistry between every pair of singing partners, though. Elise and Phillip certainly have a better rapport than Colton and Skylar, whose fauxmance isn't even remotely believable, but why can't the contestants just be seen as professionals who know how to interact with a colleague in a work environment? All the unearned innuendo is just uncomfortable, even by Seacrest's standards.
The judges agreed that Elise performed better than Phillip during the duet, but Steven still said "you guys nailed it," while Jennifer loved "the feel" that they brought to it. Randy urged Phillip to pick the next song the pair performs together so that he can have an opportunity to outsing Elise.
Jessica Sanchez: "Stuttering" by Jazmine Sullivan
Another unfamiliar song, another technically accomplished performance from Jessica, who really is beyond critique at this point. She makes every number seem so effortless that I think it's easy to take her talent for granted, because in some ways, she seems almost as calculating as Colton, hitting wild runs and belting out notes like she's ticking off tasks on a checklist. As usual, I was in awe of her control and the nuance she brought to the song, especially when it came to the scatting, which is something we don't often hear from her. She even seemed to have toned down her penchant for overdoing the vibrato, so I'm glad to see her taking Jimmy's comments on board and reeling herself back from oversinging.
Randy was a gushing machine, praising the arrangement, the control, and her overall confidence with what he deemed to be the hardest song of the night. Jennifer loved it but urged her to pull out some "Joshua-style" performances and take the audience on a journey in the weeks to come. Steven reiterated that he couldn't critique her, telling Jessica, "you slay it every time."
Joshua Ledet: "Runaway Baby" by Bruno Mars
Though Joshua is the king of big, belting ballads, this week proved that he's perfectly comfortable taking on the up-tempo numbers too. A few adjustments to the arrangement to give the song a more jazzy twist really helped Joshua settle into his groove -- he displayed a strong sense of timing, admirable enunciation and distinctive phrasing while chewing up the song. He's not half the showman that Bruno Mars is, but his range is even more impressive, so what Joshua lacked in choreography, he made up for with powerhouse vocals. Overall, the number was just plain enjoyable, and sometimes, that's all you need.
"You can sell a song like a work of art," Steven swooned, while Jennifer praised his control and his ability to capture the audience's attention. Randy once again emphasized the fact that Joshua's "gotta have it, Ryan!"
Colton Dixon and Skylar Laine Duet: "Don't You Wanna Stay" by Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson
So. Awkward. On the one hand, it was slightly less painful than last week's duet, in that they seemed to be making more of an effort to actually look at each other this time, but I've seen roadkill with more energy than these two, forget about "chemistry." Their solos were certainly stronger than their harmonies, which didn't seem to mesh at all, but Skylar still tended towards shouting instead of singing, while Colton tended towards whining through his nose. Colton won this week's performance by a whisker, because his tone has a natural purity that Skylar has to work hard for.
As if the performance wasn't uncomfortable enough, Steven had to go and make things even ickier by moronically declaring, "you just made love singing to each other." Shudder. Jennifer lied by deciding that the harmonies were beautiful, but Randy approached some semblance of sanity by telling them that it was "just okay," rightfully informing Skylar that she was "pitchy here and there."
Hollie Cavanagh: "Perfect" by Pink
I think I was caught so off-guard by Hollie's belting high notes in "Reflection" that I've spent every subsequent week waiting for her to knock my socks off again, but after this week, I've resigned myself to the fact that it ain't gonna happen. She has an undeniably powerful voice, and always manages to nail the big notes at the end of her performances, but getting to that point seems to be a struggle every week. As with Shannon Magrane, you can always hear Hollie overthinking, and where Jessica is effortlessly graceful, Hollie audibly strains for the right notes, but doesn't always hit them. I think she'll be the next one to go home, and rightly so, because no matter how much raw, untapped talent she has, she needs a few years of polishing before she can really compete with the maturity and control that come naturally to Jessica and Elise.
Jennifer prefaced her critique by complimenting how beautiful Hollie looked (always a bad sign), but bailed out on the tough love halfway through. She noted that she could hear Hollie fighting to be perfect, but instead of pointing out that she wasn't, she simply told her that she sang beautifully and should be proud of herself. Thankfully, Steven and Randy didn't feel the need to sugarcoat it, both admitting that it wasn't perfect for them (although it was better than last week's performance).
Phillip Phillips: "Give A Little More" by Maroon 5
Since I adore Maroon 5, I'm not sure whether I was biased for or against Phillip this week, but I found myself legitimately enjoying his stripped-down rendition of the mid-tempo hit, which is something I can't always say, since I run hot and cold on the growling grit of Phillip's voice. The beginning of the song (with a deliciously bluesy sax accompaniment) was particularly striking, and the arrangement allowed Phillip more of an opportunity to showcase his range and control, since he was paying more attention to the melody and throwing in less of his distinctive (but sometimes unnecessary) flourishes.
The judges weren't so hot on the interpretation. While Steven praised his evolution as an artist and compared him to Steve McQueen and Johnny Cash, Jennifer felt that we've seen variations of this performance from him a couple of times before and that "it wasn't everything I know you can give us." Randy agreed that it wasn't his greatest performance, saying he liked the simplicity of the first 10 bars more than when he picked up the pace.
Jessica Sanchez, Hollie Cavanagh and Joshua Ledet Trio: "Stronger" by Kelly Clarkson
Hollie was clearly the weak link in this trio, especially since Jessica and Joshua's previous duet was one of the standout performances last week. Although all three have powerful voices, they were at a distinct disadvantage by trying to harmonize as a trio instead of a duo, and that additional voice seemed to throw the whole balance off. There were sharp notes, flat notes and just a general lack of coordination as the three tried to work the stage together, but while Jessica and Joshua have already developed an easy rhythm after last week, Hollie was a little bit of a sore thumb, seeming to bail out of notes before she was supposed to and swaying around like a lost backup singer.
The judges fluttered lovingly over all three of them, probably only because Joshua and Jessica were involved, offering various hollow compliments about the trio being "beautiful" and "dope" and making the judges proud.
Elise Testone: "You and I" by Lady Gaga
Comparing Elise and Jessica is like comparing apples and seahorses, but even though their styles and talents are vastly different, they're undoubtedly the two strongest female voices left in the competition (and perhaps the two strongest voices, period, depending on your tastes). After last week's shaky performance, Elise once again wound up in the bottom three, and I suspect she'll be there again this week, simply because the numbers are dwindling and I don't see Joshua, Jessica, Colton or Phillip being in the danger zone until the lack of contestants forces them there. Still, this was probably my favorite performance of the night. Although she doesn't have the vocal panache of Joshua or Jessica, there's an uncomplicated honesty about Elise's tone that appeals to me; she feels authentic in a way that Colton and even Phillip don't, since both are prone to unnecessary affectations, albeit in opposite ways. Elise has a soulful rawness and a more natural vibrato, and her improvisations truly seem like improvisations, whereas I get the feeling that all of Jessica's inflections are carefully planned in advance. Overall, I dug Elise's confidence this week -- she truly seemed comfortable in the song and thankfully didn't overthink it. She's less consistent than Jessica, for sure, but I wish she had a hope of sticking around longer than Colton.
"America, Elise is back!" Randy declared, as he does every other week. "That was the perfect song for you; you needed a moment and I think you got one." Jennifer was impressed at her ability to let go but still keep control, and insisted that no-one can sing like her.
Who do you think will be in the bottom three, and who is most in danger of going home? Were you glad to see the Idols tackling modern music again? Share your reactions below!
"American Idol" airs Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.