Hey, you know who it turns out writes really good songs? Elton John does! Elton John writes really good songs, and so right out of the gate, the Top 11 (it turns out Judges’ Save recipient Casey Abrams did not succumb to a massive coronary) came into this Elton-themed, double-elimination round ahead of the game. No goopy Celine ballads. No Luther Vandross retreads. No adult-contemporary favorites from the Mulan soundtrack. Not even the requisite selection from The Lion King! Just pure, infectious slices of piano-driven pop from the Mozart of white soul. And the kids really stepped up -- Casey even submitted to a beard fumigation! -- resulting in the strongest competition night of the season. Let’s talk about the best and worst.
Scotty McCreery sang "Country Comfort," a lesser-known track from John’s third album that, appropriately enough, landed squarely in McCreery's country-comfort zone. All I can say about McCreery at this point is that he comes off like the contestant who has to do the least to achieve the most -- and I mean that in the best possible sense. There’s an effortlessness in his performances that’s just about impossible to bottle or replicate, and while his traditional twang doesn’t quite have the crossover appeal of a Carrie Underwood, there’s still a massive audience for what he’s selling. He can even shout-out his grammy in the crowd and not make it seem like shameless vote-pandering! That’s charm. Like producer-extraordinaire Jimmy Iovine says, he’s a one-trick pony, but what a pony. Every little girl in the heartland is going to want one for her birthday.
I find it hard to believe that I’m typing this, but Haley Reinhart had a breakout moment last night with a ferocious take on “Bennie and the Jets” that at its best moments, seemed to lift the roof clear out off the Idoldome. I still have trouble with her growling -- it’s grating -- but she found the key to this potentially boring song in her free-wheeling phrasing and general lack of inhibition. Plus there was something kind of appealing in the serpentine way she ended the word “Jets.” Was it the best of the night, as Randy squeezed in at the last second? Possibly? Wow. I can’t believe I just said that.
There was something once-compelling about Naima Adedapo and her back story as a toilet-scrubbing mom just hoping for a break. Well, she got her break, and now it’s beginning to feel like she’s overstaying her welcome. Creativity and risk-taking is one thing, but her themed performances are beginning to take on the feel of grotesque burlesque. From her ridiculous Jamaican-flag jumpsuit to her put-on Rasta accent, this reggae-fied version of “I’m Still Standing” -- an Elton song I can live without in any incarnation -- just made me uncomfortable. Extra docked points for dedicating it to all the downtrodden people of the world after Jimmy specifically told you to do so. If the impulse for choosing it was a selfish one, then commit to the selfishness; but don’t equate your Idol journey to the plight of earthquake victims. That just comes off as false. Not Irie.
I’ve ranked James Durbin among the best in this space, but after last night’s performance, I think he’s lost me forever -- much like Casey did when he utterly butchered “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” What’s going on with both these guys, I think, is a massive case of over-confidence, which manifests itself as unwatchable shtick. Casey seems to have finally realized that, and pulled things back considerably on his “Your Song,” but Durbin is still in The Me-Zone, and so what we get is this horrendously manic, pyrotechnic version of "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting," replete with a baby grand barbecue. And the judges couldn’t get enough! Where is Simon Cowell to purr “self-indulllgent” when you need him? Sorry, Durbin. I’m burning my scarf-tail in protest.
You gotta feel for poor little puppy dog Stefano Lagone. Given a strict ultimatum from J-Lo to connect emotionally even if it means faking it (“Like I do, every second of my life!”), he launched into the most mournful, garment-rending rendition of “Tiny Dancer,” a song about groupie infatuation, you’ll likely ever hear. His tenor was a perfect fit for Elton’s original sky-high key, but then there’s that little business of Stefano reaching out to J-Lo at song’s end. You really don’t want your performance upstaged by a giant, mocking, Randy Jackson-induced laugh. Doesn’t bode well.
Bottom Three: Naima Adedapo, Stefano Lagone, Thia Megia.
Going Home: Stefano, Thea.