Photo: Michael Becker/FOX
The good news: American Idol's guest mentor tonight is someone current and redhot commercially: Lady Gaga. No doubt, Gaga could offer advice on how to become a pop star in today's market.
The bad news: The Idol 4 have to sing Lieber & Stoller songs in tonight's theme. Lieber & Stoller are among pop's most lucrative songwriting teams but are of relevance to nearly no one under the age of 55. The team wrote mega oldies like Love Potion No. 9, Stand by Me, Jailhouse Rock and other tunes you won't hear on the radio today.
That doesn't mean today's hits are better -- though if I never hear an Elvis Presley song again I could exit terra firma quite happily -- but it also helps point out why Idols sell so few albums after they leave the show, even when they win. Older audiences accustomed to hearing ancient karaoke on TV from teenagers might bob their heads to Hound Dog with nostalgic glee but when the winners are then forced to record contemporary music for their albums, everyone seems puzzled.
Gag or gaga? Follow along with @HowardCohen on Twitter for live commentary. A review will follow here later on.
The good news? The first half featured songs that inspired the Idols and this let them move up the decades ... to the 80s and 90s. James Durbin got Idol off to a karaoke start with a screechy rendition of Journey's Don't Stop Believing. You might have heard this song before. It exists so that Randy Jackson can say "I was in Journey" every season, as he must. (For the record, Randy Jackson was a touring member of Journey when several members bailed on Steve Perry for the 1986 album Raised on Radio. Randy was a session bassist. But he was never a full-fledged member of Journey. He was a hired musician to play with them.)
James was a frontrunner but he's now running third in my book. Haley Reinhart took a lot of heat for choosing Michael Jackson's anthemic Earth Song from Randy and JLo who felt the song was wrong for her. Randy explained why this was not a good choice more wisely than JLo did. He noted, correctly, that Haley's vocal range is not the equivalent of Jackson's and she was all off on the end when she screamed the second half. JLo, however, didn't articulate this point as clearly, instead, focusing on the song and why Haley needs to pick better songs. To JLo I would say, Honey, Earth Song is an infinitely better song than the empty dance drivel you've built your career on. But, yes, Haley botched the second half. The opening portions, however, were quite good.
Scotty McCreery shrewdly chose Alan Jackson's 9-11 tune, Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning. Coming, as it did, a week or so after Osama Bin Laden's demise, this performance had the feeling of closure. Scotty, as always, sang it well. He was, however, drowned out by the backing vocalists in one of Idol's usual questionable mixing jobs. Nevertheless he, more than anyone, knows precisely who he is and what kind of artist he is. In that regard, Scotty ranks as one of Idol's all-time greatest contestants. He deserves to win.
Lauren Alaina will do well in contemporary country and I'd love to see her in the Top 3 where she belongs but she's lacked an Idol Moment. She chose a song tonight perfectly designed for such a moment. Martina McBride's big ballad, Always, has the vocal runs, the drama, the melody and the power to let a great singer soar. As Randy said, there was nothing wrong with Lauren's performance. She hit the notes, sang in tune, survived the runs without breaking a sweat. But it wasn't quite all the way there to qualify as the Moment she's needed to ensure the semifinals.
Scotty wins Round 1 handily. Lauren is second best. Haley and James are far, far behind.
Round 2 was a strange brew of Lady Gaga in freak face offering good advice to the Idols on how to deliver songs that are older than Mama and Papa Gaga. Despite an improved, and crowd-pleasing I (Who Have Nothing) from Haley, which have many saying she won Round 2, I still have Scotty the winner of the second half despite his unchallenging, dated Young Blood. Haley did an adaquate job on a ballad Jordin Sparks did considerably better to help her win Season 6. I (Who Have Nothing) is clearly a better song to showcase vocals. The ballad has range, power, drama. But Haley lacks finesse and powered through it gracelessly. Wasn't bad but wasn't the definitive moment she needed to convince me she deserves to make the semifinals.
She still might upset Lauren and take her spot in the Top 3, though, unless voters penalize her for flashing too much attitude in round 1 when she argued with the judges. Lauren's second song was sung properly but proved so forgettable I can barely remember what it was. Oh yes, Elvis' Trouble. A title that describes the position she faces as she heads into tomorrow's results show.
Gaga's advice was great for Scotty. Though she was crude in her delivery, by telling him to hold the mike closer to his mouth and to treat it like a lover was astute because on the first song Scotty let the mike wander and that could explain why his voice became drowned out by the louder backing vocalists. She embarrassed the conservative teen but he listened and it helped let us hear his vocals with more clarity on Young Blood, the moldy oldie.
James had some passable Axl Rose-isms on his metallic Love Potion No. 9. I'd give him a 7, maybe 8. Gaga's advice that he should use his body and hips more for the performance was also spot-on.
Prediction: I hope I'm wrong, I think Haley should finish in fourth place, but I'm afraid it will be Lauren getting a premature exit Thursday night. Scotty maintained his front runner status. James still hasn't won me back from where we stood two weeks ago when he was wowing us with great regularity.