In its annual effort to make younger viewers switch from Top 40 radio to oldies stations, “American Idol” brought back the songs-from-your-birth-year theme this week. That left most focusing on the 1980s catalogue, and since few 1980s songs are still hits these days, the judges tended to be unhappy with the song choices and arrangements that resulted.
Among the most vulnerable are the two women remaining. This hasn’t been a great year for their gender, as only five were picked to make the 13-singer final round, and three of those are already gone. It wouldn’t be a shock if either of the two women were next out the door tomorrow, though for different reasons.
Lil Rounds is in one of those funks where she can’t seem to do anything right as far as the judges are concerned. For the third week in a row, they weren’t crazy about her song choice, as she tried to pay homage to Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It?,” but did so with a performance that looked like a high-school talent show version of the original.
Paula opened the comments by saying Lil looked hot, which is always a terrible sign. “I find myself repeating, saying that we all know that you’re a great vocalist, but it only takes you so far,” she said, adding, “I’m really worried that it’s becoming a beautiful karaoke rendition, and you’re wonderful and you’re much better than that.”
Allison Iraheta has earned much more praise from the podium in recent weeks, but less love from the viewers. She was in the bottom three last week for the second time this season. The judges gave her both compliments and advice after the youngest remaining finalist sang Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” from 1992.
“You just hear one note and it’s undeniably Allison,” Paula said. “You gave all of your heart in this song.”
“We’ve just got to make you a bit more likeable,” Simon said. “I don’t think your personality is coming out.”
Two of the men have reason to worry as well. Kris Allen has been a judges’ favorite all year, but is the blandest of the men remaining in the competition. He tried to pep things up with “All She Wants to Do is Dance,” and it was pleasant but dull, a bad combination at this stage of the game.
“That kind of felt like jazz-funk homework,” Kara said. “Still a fan though.”
“Likeable yes, but also indulgent, boring and forgettable,” Simon added. “You came over as a guitarist who wanted to sing rather than a singer.”
Scott MacIntyre moved from the piano to the electric guitar for “The Search is Over,” and made the judges wish he’d gone back to his comfort zone with the ivories. Apart from Paula, who clamored for that a couple of weeks ago, nobody liked the change much.
“The song was atrocious, and the guitar-playing wasn’t much better,” Simon said.
The remaining four men won nothing but praise from the judges.
No singer takes the “make the song your own” mandate more seriously than Adam Lambert, and he did that again by slowing down Tears for Fears’ “Mad World.” He’s the rare singer who might have been handicapped by the show running long, since only Simon had time to critique him. However, the usually cranky Brit said a lot with those few seconds.
“I think words are unnecessary, but I want to give you a standing ovation,” he said, offering the best compliment anyone has received all season.
Also benefiting from the need to keep things short was Matt Giraud, who took on a big risk with Stevie Wonder’s “Part-Time Lover.” The vocals broke down towards the end as tricks and tics overcame the song, but he earned effusive praise from everyone, in part because they had little time for comments.
“Incredible on every level! Unbelievable!” Kara said.
Danny Gokey did a version of “Stand By Me” released in 1980, when the oldest of the remaining finalists was born. Everybody always loves Danny, and this was just another in a long line of strong performances, even if the judges didn’t agree on what they liked and didn’t like.
Randy and Kara hated the beginning and thought it sounded better after that, while Simon liked the beginning and hated the middle. Paula, again on a different wavelength than everyone else, thought the beginning was fantastic. But all agreed that he set the bar high when he opened the show.
“You made me love it even though I didn’t love the arrangement,” Randy said.
Anoop Desai began the night by apologizing for his poor behavior a week ago when the judges criticized him, which wasn’t something that anyone outside of his immediate family or the judges themselves remembered.
Anoop has struggled in the competition, but he is at his best when he is his most vulnerable, and Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” allowed him to showcase both his originality and his voice. Simon called him a “singing yo-yo,” which may be the best way of describing the competition so far.
“You controlled the song, you did not let it control you. You showed you could take a pop song and interpret it with soul,” Kara said.
Anoop may not have that chance, as he's scored relatively low and could be sent packing. But in a season where the men have outshone the women every week, it would be no surprise at all if Lil or Allison was the one singing for her life on Wednesday.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.