‘American Idol’ Recap: Don’t Stop Believing, Haley!

A wise woman (and a rapping cat hallucination) once sang, “I take two steps forward, two steps back. We go together ’cause opposites attract.” “American Idol” bought into that reasoning by booking Lady Gaga as a mentor for Leiber & Stoller night. They snagged one of the biggest pop stars making music today … to talk about songs that may have been written before Scotty McCreery’s grandparents were born. (Anyone know how old Grandma Piquita is? Tweet me! This is important!)

The top four had added pressure to be “in it to win it” because next week’s home visits are dangling in front of them like a carrot on a string. Nobody wants to go home before home visits! Your “hero” parade is canceled! That’s like going to a wedding and leaving before the main course is served. A free filet mignon is a terrible thing to waste.

show||video|651838

In an added twist — and this is an exclusive — the “Idol” team informed me that Haley Reinhart’s hometown parade will be canceled regardless of her status on the show. Plus, she will be banished from the entire state of Illinois. Them’s the brakes, kid!

Before I go on a rant about the increasingly disturbing audience signs supporting various Seacrest Hairstyles, let me remind you to join my weekly Web show, “Idol Party Live,” right here in this very blog at noon EDT. New York Times writer Jon Caramanica will be my co-host. (You may have caught his razor-sharp — and sometimes controversial — “Idol” recaps on the Times ArtsBeat blog.) Plus, we’ll be rolling back my batsh– interview with Jacob Lusk. Spoiler: He looks in a mirror.

Now, on to the performances!

James Durbin
Inspirational Song: Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ”
Leiber & Stoller Song: The Clovers’ “Love Potion No. 9″
Verdict: Everything But the Kitchen Sink (and Correct Pitch)

“Does anybody know this song?” James Durbin asked as he began performing one of the most recognizable ditties (and over-abused karaoke staples) from the past 30 years, which he picked because he has “never stopped believing.” Who knew this dude was such a funny comedian?! (Never mind, he was being earnest.)

Durbin may have rocked the band’s T-shirt underneath his tails (tuxedo tails, not the DurbinTail we’ve all grown to love look at), but his Steve Perry homage lacked an important characteristic associated with the legendary one-time Journey frontman: good vocals. If only “Idol” had a “Glee” crossover week and allowed the contestants to use AutoTune!

At one point, I thought I spied J.Lo wincing from Durbin’s shaky warbling, but it turns out she was just waiting to hear if his high notes had vibrato in a tremendously overdramatic way. The big news is that Randy Jackson thinks Durbin is as good a vocalist as Steve Perry. And we wonder why Randy’s no longer in Journey.

In round two — a.k.a. the Round in Which the Performance Order Was Rearranged to Confuse the Elderly — Durbin delivered a performance that played like his Greatest Hits album. Adding guitar riffs to an oldie? Check. Galloping around the studio like an over-stimulated kid at an amusement park? Check. FailWail? You know it! Spark cannons? Sizzle! By the time James wrapped up the 15th false ending, I had a big dopey grin on my face. Did Durbin finally win me over, or was I just relieved that it was over? Does it matter?

“You’re peaking at the right time! You’re having a moment every single week,” Randy sputtered, not realizing that those two statements do not make sense together. If he’s had a moment every week, how could he be peaking now? Whoops, I just betrayed my “Do Not Analyze the Garbage That Spews Out of Randy Jackson’s Mouth” policy. I will not, however, betray my “Do Not Write About Lady Gaga Manhandling James’ Muffin Top During Rehearsal” policy.

My Girl Haley Reinhart
Inspirational Song: Michael Jackson’s “The Earth Song”
Leiber & Stoller Song: Ben E. King’s “I (Who Have Nothing)”
Verdict: I Am Woman Hear Me Roar … After I Growl … Then I’ll Growl Some More

Haley Reinhart’s inspirational song is a Michael Jackson list of grievances. “What about dying whales! What about the sea! What about Egyptian antiques! Could they BE any more expensive?” The song was as appealing as a human centipede, but Haley owned the stage with a believable, committed performance. Admittedly, the furrowed brow and signature growl were cranked up to 40 when a 7 would have done nicely, but surely the judges could have noted that her stage presence has come a long way since the beginning of her “Idol” journey. They love a good “blossom.”

But nope. J.Lo threw gasoline on Haley by needlessly re-praising James Durbin for “setting the bar” with a song everyone knows (and is sick of), and then Randy lit the match by hurling any and all classic “Idol” critiques her way. “R&B isn’t your thing!” “Why are you singing an obscure Michael Jackson song (that was nominated for a Grammy and went #1 all over the world)?” “You can’t do runs like Michael Jackson. (But James Durbin has the vocal chops of Steve Perry.)”

And then it happened. The season 10 piñata grabbed a bat and attacked the over-indulged birthday boy in a rare “talk-back” that endeared me to an “Idol” contestant even more. It was as though Haley was saying, “Fine. Insult my mannerisms onstage after praising Paul “Twitchy” McDonald. Rag on my ‘obscure’ songs after educating viewers about James Durbin’s 30 Seconds to Mars pick. But don’t you dare take a swipe at my voice’s range.”

Haley’s sass — studio audience approved, by the way — fired up Randy even more, causing the judge to repeat his talking points in a louder volume. (Somebody’s auditioning to be a political talk show pundit!) “My opinion is, I didn’t like it. I thought you were screaming. I thought it was a bad song choice.” At least she sang on key, dawg. Haley had a newly energized Steven Tyler in her corner screaming about how “wrong” J.Lo and Randy were. It’s a pity that he squandered all credibility over the course of the past nine weeks.

I’m not arguing that Haley’s “Earth Song” wasn’t in need of some drastic retooling. Far from it. But the strange way that the judges choose to criticize the same one contestant each week while blindly applauding horrendous performers has led to an unpleasant, confusing, hostile TV-watching experience. How can things not feel personal when two of the judges criticize a song that obviously means a lot to her? How can things not feel personal when at the end of Round One, Randy Jackson singled out the winners as being everyone except Haley? And how can things not feel personal when producers needlessly rearrange the second round order so that Haley performs first even though her phone number is -02? A confusing “Idol” first!

Reinhart channeled all her round one rage into a powerful round two number. Gaga urged Haley to bring some Edith Piaf drama to the song, but it’s obvious that Haley’s motivation had less to do with a pop star dressed like a pink mushroom dressed like Carol Channing and more to do with a panel that expects quadruple axles for some and simply standing upright for others.

Even with the extra motivation, Haley’s “I (Who Have Nothing)” felt very “been there, done that,” and not just because she dared to cover Jordin Sparks’ “Idol” moment. The “rise from the ashes” plotline just wasn’t as successful week two.

“Look what you’re capable of,” J.Lo cried afterwards, daring to take credit for Haley’s triumphant performance. “Everybody needs a moment … In it to win it! I am the worst ever!” said Randy. (I added that last part.) The tiring tear-them-down build-them-up-with-a standing ovation storyline is far less interesting than “the judges do their jobs, ALL of the contestants focus on what they can improve, exciting performances abound” plot. How come producers aren’t ever willing to write that script?

Scotty McCreery
Inspirational Song: Alan Jackson “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”
Leiber & Stoller Song: The Coasters’ “Young Blood”
Verdict: [Insert Grocery Store UPC Code for Cheese Here]

First, Scotty McCreery grabbed a guitar and did this. For round two, he met with Lady Gaga and acted like this, then performed like this, and in the end the judges did this.

I can’t.

Lauren Alaina
Inspirational Song: Martina McBride “Anyway”
Leiber & Stoller Song: Elvis Presley’s “Trouble”
Verdict: Baby Steps!

Following Scotty’s soaring love song to bald eagles and Jesus, Lauren Alaina’s ode to surviving hurricanes and tornados (that’s not called “No Boundaries”) felt as small and patriotic as a postage stamp. J.Lo urged Haley to “compete better” by always being aware of what her castmates would be singing. But this advice may have been more useful in Lauren’s case. She was out-pandered!

Regardless, the girl the judges fell in love with in Nashville (yep, that’s still being said every week) was considered “back” with two performances that, while vocally astute, only hinted at the great artist she’ll become once she gains some life experience other than, “Oh my gosh, one week I almost lost on a TV show, but then I got to go to a prom store and buy a really big dress, and it was awesome.”

She introduced a promising “intense” side of her personality at the top of Leiber & Stoller’s “Trouble,” — eagle-eyed viewers got a quick glimpse of this during the top four’s grand entrance, when James Durbin accidentally stepped on her dress’ train, and she responded with frightening death stares. But not 20 seconds into the Elvis tune, Lauren’s razor-sharp badass side drained out of the song, as if she lifted a bathtub stopper and watched the sizzling hot water rush out. Was this due to her young age, or was she just nervous that if she sang “I’m evil!” with fierce conviction that Scotty would run out with a bucket of holy water and kiss his cross?

What did you think of the top four? Did Haley cross a line with her sass-a-thon? Whose hometown visit are you looking forward to the most? Did anyone else love that Google Chrome’s “It Gets Better” ad (featuring Adam Lambert!) played immediately following Scotty’s “Everyone in America Loves Jesus and Doesn’t Know the Difference Between Iran and Iraq” song? Did it break your heart when Seacrest congratulated Steven Tyler’s number one book but made no mention of J.Lo’s not-number-one album? And what of Gaga’s mentoring style? Leave a comment below and for more “Idol” insanity, follow me on Twitter @jambajim!