Note: American Idol episode video with Lady Gaga segment below.
You know the producers of American Idol are on to something when they choose to open and close the show with James Durbin. It’s the number one rule of showbiz: first, smack ’em upside the head and get their attention, then leave ’em wanting more. James delivered on both counts.
Although it was advertised as Leiber & Stoller night (the veteran songwriting duo who penned countless rockabilly, R&B, and Motown hits in the ’50s and early ’60s), last night’s show was divided into two segments, giving each of the four remaining contestants two big numbers. The Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller catalogue was used in the second half of the show, but in the first half, the competitors had to pick a song that they found “inspirational.”
James chose to remain absolutely true to himself, opening the show with the Journey anthem, “Don’t Stop Believing.” In the preview clip, he said it represented his own personal journey that has led him to A I, “because, since Day One, I’ve never stopped believing.” His was a straight-ahead, stand-up rendition with no tricks; some minor pyrotechnics upstage, but otherwise it was all about his powerful, persuasive voice.
The crowd was on its feet. “Great song, great job, great performance,” enthused judge Randy Jackson (who ought to know, as a onetime bassist with Journey). Comparing it to the Olympics, Randy added that the song was “the highest degree of difficulty—and you did it!” (In the exit clip offstage afterwards, James praised the song, the band, and the judges, adding, “America—you’re amazing!”)
Up next, the embattled Haley Reinhart came out with a vivid, if a bit strident version of Michael Jackson’s quasi-political “Earth Song”—opening herself up to a world of hurt from the judges. “James comes out and sets the bar,” scolded judge Jennifer Lopez, suggesting that Haley didn’t measure up. Randy carped, “The song doesn’t suit you,” although Steven Tyler, ever the pushover, insisted, “Don’t listen to them! You nailed it with feeling!”
But there’s nothing like a buzzword like “inspirational” to bring out a person’s true colors. Country boy Scotty McCreery opted for the gelatinous patriotism of the post-9/11 elegy, “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?” by Alan Jackson (reality check: Scotty was all of seven years old when the Twin Towers came down), with the refrain, “I know Jesus/And I talk to God…” He sang well, if that’s your thing, and the judges, of course, were ecstatic. “I’m just in love with you,” gushed JLo. “The perfect song for where we are now as a country,” Randy chimed in. Geez, speak for yourself!
Then it was Lauren Alaina’s turn to get all Christian, choosing the song “Anyway” by Martina McBride, whose meaning, she said, was “It’s okay to have faith and just keep going.” Pounding home the chorus, “God is great!,” she pranced around the stage in a weird poofy mullet of a skirt, long in back, but chopped off mid-thigh in front, which may have been meant to distract us from noticing how hard she stretched for those elusive high notes. But the judges were oblivious, as usual. Steven said she “broke his heart,” while Randy proclaimed there was “nothing wrong” with her performance.
Things proceeded to get even weirder when the week’s “guest mentor,” Lady Gaga, was trotted out to work with the contestants on their Leiber-Stoller songs. Dressed like Cruella DeVille, with a dusty, garbled little speaking voice that made her sound like Yoda, she coached Haley to go a little “psycho” on the torch song “I Who Have Nothing.” But it brought the judges to their feet, in what is becoming the standard routine for poor Haley: unjustly harsh criticism in round one, followed by unjustly lavish praise for her next attempt.
For “Young Blood,” Gaga told Scotty to treat the mic like it was his girlfriend and “make love to it,” so terrifying the boy, as he revealed in the backstage clip, that he had to kiss the cross pendant around his neck to get through the ordeal. But neither Gaga’s dubious advice (which Scotty was smart enough not to follow) nor Divine intervention could save his performance of “Young Blood;” he goofed and clowned his way all over the stage, wiggled his eyebrows and missed several important notes in his least assured performance of the season. (Too bad he’s never heard Leon Russell’s driving, forceful version, that gives this novelty song some genuine heat.)
Next, it was Lauren’s turn to have a moral dilemma when Gaga urged the sunny little country songbird to sing “Trouble,” with the recurring refrain, “I’m evil, so don’t mess around with me.” Insisting that “I don’t want America to think I’m evil,” Lauren made a sassy attempt on the song, then reminded us once again, in her exit interview, “Not evil!”—concluding the week’s shameless pandering by both Lauren and Scotty, onstage and especially offstage, to the Bible Belt vote.
It was left to James to close the show with a high-octane, rockin’ version of “Love Potion No 9.” Although a bit startled in rehearsals when Lady Gaga scampered over to try to show him how to “loosen up,” he was as polished and entertaining as usual onstage, descending the back stairs, making the rounds of the audience, incorporating several of his trademark high notes (and hitting them all, thank you very much), with a powerhouse, delayed finish that was so worth the wait. (Back off, Gaga; nobody has to tell this guy how to move.) “You can sing anything!” cried JLo, “you take any song and you put that James thing on it.” “You have the moment every single week,” Randy concurred.
Was it enough of a moment to bring James home in triumph this weekend as one of the Final Three? Stay tuned…
And btw, in the very likely event that James Durbin makes it into the Final Three after his performance last night, check out what the SC Chamber of Commerce has in store for his homecoming this Saturday, including a parade, and a live, free concert at the Boardwalk beach bandstand. Batten down the hatches for another tsunami!
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