Pop Culture

2 'Idols' leap out of their comfort zones

It was an interesting week on "American Idol" as the headlines were stolen by the risk takers and the sick.

Casey Abrams and Jacob Lusk were the singers who went outside of their comfort zones when picking songs from their birth year. Abrams went with Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and proved what’s obvious — he’s not a grunge singer. I give him credit for trying something new, but it was screamy and pitchy, and in general not his best work. Not that he has to worry about being voted off, but he probably shouldn’t plan on moving to Seattle to get that band back together.

Lusk chose to cover Heart’s “Alone,” a popular choice ever since Carrie Underwood knocked it out of the park on the way to winning season four. Like with Abrams, Lusk’s effort was notable mainly because of its newness and because of his willingness to experiment, but don’t look for that to become his new comfort zone or anything.

Both men should be safe this week without much of a sweat. Obviously, not everyone can say the same.

In trouble
Again, it was mostly the women who put themselves in danger, starting with Haley Reinhart. Reinhart is the classic “Idol” contestant who doesn’t find her comfort zone right away and flails around trying to figure out who she is as an artist. As judge Steven Tyler pointed out after she performed “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” she’d gone from Alicia Keys to LeAnn Rimes to Whitney Houston in successive weeks, which doesn’t help a singer trying to establish her own brand.

Naima Adedapo went from being a wild-card entry into the finals to the hit of the show last week, but played it a little too safe when she opened the show with Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” She has the stage presence and the confidence of a star, but was not close to having those kind of vocals this week.

Karen Rodriguez told mentor Jimmy Iovine she didn’t want to be typecast as the girl who sang in both English and Spanish, but he seemingly convinced her to do it again on Taylor Dayne’s “Love Will Lead You Back.” The Spanish didn’t work so well there and seemed like a parlor trick instead of an artistic wrinkle, but it beat what she managed a week ago.

Among the men, Paul McDonald was clearly under the weather as he sang Elton John’s “I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues.” He had the rueful smile of someone who knew he wasn’t getting it done but couldn’t figure out how to stop it. The swagger was there, but the effect was more Vegas lounge act than anything else.

Lauren Alaina was also sick, but did a lot better and recaptured some of the mojo she lost a week ago. Her personality’s a big asset for her as well, as she made fun of her contagiousness by bringing host Ryan Seacrest a mask to wear during their pre-performance interview.

Whatever works
Iovine seems determined to get Scotty McCreery to try something different, as if he has a side bet going with the judges. That’s not happening. McCreery stuck to country with Travis Tritt’s “Can I Trust You With My Heart,” and anyone who likes country music was a fan of that. And those who aren’t ... well, McCreery is hoping there are too few of you to make a difference.

James Durbin stepped perhaps a tiny bit outside his comfort zone, but only as far as Bon Jovi’s “I’ll Be There For You.” Pia Toscano also tried something a little fresher when she went up-tempo with Whitney Houston’s “Where Do Broken Hearts Go.” On this night, both performances were good enough to make them sound like stars.

And Stefano Langone earned raves for his Simply Red impression, a performance that Randy Jackson likened to the Olympics. That was appropriate, since a lot of Langone’s appeal was similar to that of a skater who takes the ice after the first five athletes crashed on their triple axels. He did well by not doing poorly on “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.”

What Simon would say?
The new “Idol” judges are doing fine, apart from a reluctance to be negative. J.Lo and Tyler are definitely adding a new energy to the proceedings, and a sense of humor that was lacking in previous years. But it’s hard not to hear some of the finalists sing and predict the feedback Simon would have offered.

Thia Megia, for example, would have driven him up the wall. She’s a 16-year-old who sings ballads and tries to sound like she’s 10 years older. That was always a pet peeve of the acerbic Brit, and she should be grateful he’s working on his new show instead of sticking around to compare her with Alaina. Alaina acts her age, which adds to her likability in a way that Megia hasn’t been able to match.

Craig Berman is a frequent contributor to TODAY.com.Want the latest reality television and TV news? Follow us .