We're down to the final four "American Idol" contenders, so close and yet so far (two whole weeks) away from discovering which Coke-swilling, Ford-driving hopeful will take the prize.
This week, in addition to a pair of duets and a cringeworthy "Rock of Ages" promotional tie-in performance of "Waiting For a Girl Like You," our contestants tackled songs (mostly tangentially) inspired by or related to California, and tracks they wish they had written (even though the actual songwriters got little-to-no credit in favor of the recording artists who made them famous).
Without further ado, here's our rundown of the Top 4's performances.
"Have You Ever Seen the Rain"
If "Idol" follows its four-year trend of white boys with guitars taking the top spot, "Idol" might as well hand Phillip the crown now, though it's vastly undeserved when his competition includes vocalists as talented as Jessica and Joshua. This Creedence Clearwater Revival number was right in the middle of Phil-Phil's wheelhouse -- neither remarkable nor terrible, just serviceable. He at least seems to have toned down his twitching and gurning to a reasonable level, and unlike his performances from the start of the season, he actually looks like he's having fun on stage these days. But, as Randy Jackson keeps pointing out, every contestant needs a "moment" during their performance at this stage of the competition, and this was as forgettable as almost all of his other mid-tempo choices, nothing that's going to encourage people to pick up the phone and vote for him.
Steven Tyler observed that "the road to success is always under construction," while Jennifer Lopez praised his "Joe Cocker" quality and said that she'd never heard him sing that way before. Randy Jackson noted that it started off rough with pitch issues, but called it "sensational" after that point. Hmm.
For his songwriter choice, Phillip chose a stripped-down, low-tempo Damien Rice number, which utilized his "range" (such as it is) to great effect. Plenty of successful singers carve out a career by remaining firmly in their comfort zone at one end of the vocal spectrum or the other -- there are very few singers who can perform with the vocal acrobatics of Jessica or Joshua. So noting that Phillip has limited range is just a statement of fact, not a mark against him being a profitable recording artist, and this was probably the closest he's come to a record-worthy song yet. The original arrangement and female accompaniment did most of the work for him, but "Volcano" was perfect for Phillip's voice, with blessedly few affectations, and it came off as far more genuine than many of his recent performances. It sounded clear and sweet and indeed, like he could have written it, which was kind of the point of the second theme.
Steven heard the "musician" in him that time and gushed that he'd never heard him sing that way before (apparently he was pretty versatile last night), while Jennifer called it "one of the most beautiful, poignant moments a contestant has ever had." Randy called it "one of the best performances of the whole season."
I'm honestly surprised that Hollie made it this far -- she's no worse than Skylar in terms of vocal ability, but I was sure that the country contingent would get her to the final three, especially when the judges seem to like her far more than the oft-criticized Brit. Regardless, the voters always surprise me, and perhaps viewers have rallied round Hollie precisely because the judges seem to be overly critical of her. However, she's undoubtedly the weakest link in the final four, and this Journey classic showcased why: She started off a little flat, and you could hear the shakiness underneath a great number of her notes. It's a bizarre choice when there are so many songs based on California or performed by Californian bands that are more suited to her strengths. This was arranged too low to allow her to hit her powerful high notes or belt with the strength she's capable of, and she's still painfully awkward on stage where the others seem more relaxed. I'd say she's on the way out this week, but I've been saying that since before Colton was eliminated, so maybe her fans will pull off another upset?
The judges seemed to love it. Randy told her she's "in the zone," Jennifer observed that it was "beautiful" and seemed to show newfound confidence (really?) and Steven, somewhat creepily, told her that he's watched her blossom.
"I Can't Make You Love Me"
This Bonnie Raitt number was an interesting one for Hollie -- it wasn't great, but unlike many of her other performances, you could actually see her emotionally investing in the song, which meant that she was trying to imbue it with meaning. It felt stiff, and sadly, I didn't feel it through her words, but I didn't doubt her conviction. She seemed to be forcing it out, even getting a little tearful, so I wish I could've felt what she was feeling, but the connection didn't extend to the audience. At this stage of the game, she's not going to make that jump in the next two weeks and get to where she needs to be emotionally or in terms of stage presence to be a successful recording artist right now. I have no doubt that in a few years, after more vocal coaching and polishing, she has the untapped potential to get there but, for now, she's too awkward to be a star and all the belting notes in the world can't hide that gawkiness on stage.
That said, I do hate the condescending way the judges all seem to adopt a baby voice to talk to her, complete with the endless "baby," "sweetheart" and "honey" endearments -- she's older than Jessica but never seems to be addressed as a grown-up. Still, Steven rightly pointed out that it's not about how you sing a song but how you say the words and feel the meaning that matters, and that he thought it fell short as far as her range went. Jennifer softened the blow by observing that "you knew that it had to be emotional so you brought emotion, but it got the better of you." Randy just didn't like her song choice at this stage of the competition, harking back to her need for a "moment."
"You Raise Me Up"
This song is about as Californian as a polar bear (yeah, yeah, Josh Groban is from L.A. -- it still seems to be a waste of the theme), but it was undeniably in Joshua's wheelhouse. Sadly, because of that, it seemed far too reminiscent of every other belting ballad he's ever done. The Groban original can make me cry practically without fail every time I hear it, while this left me cold -- it seemed by-the-numbers for Joshua, who can sing songs like this in his sleep and seemed to be sleepwalking here, even after dedicating the song to his dad. I appreciated that it was quiet and restrained in the verses -- he's as technically accomplished as ever, but just failed to connect with me.
"It was another great performance," Jennifer gushed, "I liked the drama." Steven told him that he sang his tush off, and Randy said Joshua validates what they say every week: "You can sing anything. I think you have a ginormous career ahead of you."
"It's a Man's Man's World"
This was more like it -- Joshua dug deep for the James Brown classic, dragging out a passionate rasp and grittiness that made you feel every growling note. I felt that it was a little too affected in the choruses, but nicely controlled in the verses and, by the end, he pulled out an eye-watering high note that was so pure and clear, it could've come from heaven itself. Though the judges leaped up for a rapturous standing ovation, the camera still seemed to catch them in a moment where they all looked bored halfway through, which was jarring.
They certainly made it seem like they loved it, with Steven declaring that "neither man nor woman has ever sang that good with that much compassion on this show ever -- I can go home right now." Jennifer gushed in adoring Spanish before calling him "sickening" (in a good way, apparently), and Randy called it "one of the best performances in the history of any singing show."
Joshua certainly brought the grit, but Jessica is still unparalleled in terms of technical ability, and while Joshua always looks like he's physically exerting himself to dig as deep or soar as high as possible, Jessica tackles notes with effortless grace, like every single note is easily within her reach. This Etta James classic was perfect for her -- still too old for a pixie-like 16-year-old to be singing, really, but she undeniably brought maturity to it, even if she's lacking the benefit of years in real life. It was husky, bluesy and growling, and the sparkle of personality was actually there this time.
The judges seem to take Jessica for granted these days -- they're always near euphoric over Joshua's performances, but seem to have run out of ways to praise Jessica, and her critiques always feel a little lazy in comparison. "Some of the things you did in there ... you're just one of the best," Jennifer said, while Steven liked that it showed the other side of her voice. Randy called her "amazing again."
"And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going"
This gave me my first goosies of the night -- it was a vocal masterclass, with huge, belting high notes and sweet, subtle inflections, and I'm with the judges on this one: there's just nothing more to say about Jessica at this point beyond "perfect." It's undeniably a facsimile of Jennifer Hudson and the other belting divas who've tackled it before, but it was an epic, towering, immense facsimile nonetheless. It sounds derogatory to say that it sounded like Jessica karaoke, but by that I just mean that she hit every big note and every tender note spot on, in a very calculated, polished way, which didn't actually add any of herself to the performance -- it hit all the right buttons, but in a very cursory way, and I would've liked to see more of the personality she brought to "Steal Away" into it, instead of an A-grade Jennifer Hudson impersonation. Still, it was technically flawless.
"Another winning performance, just over the top," Steven said. Jennifer agreed, saying, "With a performance like that, there's nothing to say. Your vocal ability [is] not something you see all the time." Randy told her she slayed it and that she's phenomenal.
The episode also featured two bizarre duets, with Phillip and Joshua tackling a tone-deaf and painfully shout-y version of Maroon 5's "This Love," which didn't seem to service either of their voices. But the judges were apparently in love with it: Steven lied that it was "perfect" and Jennifer compared them to Adam Levine and Usher. Hollie and Jessica then tackled a more polished version of The Bangles' "Eternal Flame," which showcased some beautiful harmonies that were sadly eclipsed by the bizarre decision to put both of the girls on swings seemingly made out of silk drapes. The judges bizarrely disliked it more than the boys' massacring of Maroon 5, with Randy calling it strange. Things got stranger when Joshua and Phillip bounded back on stage to swing cheerily on the drapes during the girls' critique. And the less said about the extended commercial for "Rock of Ages" and subsequent Foreigner butchering, the better. Weird night.
Who do you think had the standout performance last night? Who will make the Top 3? Weigh in below!
"American Idol" airs Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.