‘American Idol’ Top 8: Judges Throw Haley Under the Bus

Tonight’s “American Idol” Top 8 performances were a mixed bag of good, bad and ugly song choices. Despite the judges’ effusive praise of “beautiful!” and “Inittowinit” for every contestant except Haley, there really wasn’t a standout performance of the night. While the aforementioned Haley and James didn’t have the best vocals of the night, they definitely win gold stars for not putting me to sleep.

The question heard round the Idol blogosphere for tonight had to be: “What the $#@! is Will.i.am doing there again?” As infuriating as this question might seem, even more unsettling was the fact that the BEP star actually made some valid points. The highlight was Will’s eyeroll at Jimmy Iovine daring to suggest putting a drum machine in a song called “Old Time Rock and Roll.” These two are developing an interesting bromance of sideways glances and playfully antagonistic bickering. I can imagine an “American Idol” fan fiction writer scribbling away on a Jimmy/Will.i.am story right now, entitled “Don’t Call Me Mama.”

A highlight of the night was James Durbin telling Jimmy Iovine to stick his song choice advice where the sun don’t shine, “with all due respect.” The young rocker even got a winking acknowledgment from judge Steven Tyler, who praised James for that “nice lip to Jimmy.”

Five points to Ryan Seacrest for once again getting to say out loud what we’re all thinking at home, exclaiming “Look at the volume on that hair!” after a close-up shot of the teased-up wonder that was Mrs. Alaina’s coif.

The second question heard round the Idol blogosphere was “Why the #$%! did the judges throw Haley under the bus?” Jennifer expressed fear of giving a negative opinion after Haley’s performance, insisting she didn’t want any more girls to go home. The fear is valid, since Pia got ousted after receiving the only remotely critical feedback of the night last week. And yet, despite shaky vocals and unfortunate song choices by other contestants, J-Lo and company chose to slobber all over the Top 8 indiscriminately–except for Haley. Constructive criticism is fine, as long as you hand it out to everyone. I’m sorry, while there are plenty of quality performers, none of these contestants are “perfect!”

On to the contestants:

Paul McDonald: Paul opted for a new floral suit and his Whirling Dervish dance style on Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll.” Paul’s vocals were better than previous week’s, and he gets extra points for catching a tambourine thrown to him. Sidling up to his pretty girl sax player also helped tame his dancing, and the performance was lively and energetic. I’m really starting to believe Jimmy Iovine’s early opinion about Paul–that he’s made to sing his own music. As hard as he tries, none of these tunes really seem to fit.

Five more points to Ryan for telling the audience to vote by saying “If you liked sax with Paul…” Extra points for making Paul laugh.

Lauren Alaina: Maybe I’m alone on this, but I think Lauren’s good-on-paper choice of singing Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb” actually turned out to be a bad move. I’ve never been a fan of the overly-pimped teen, but I felt comfortable praising some of her other outstanding vocal performances. While my criticism has consistently been “a weak start and stronger glory notes,” this time Lauren seemed to be straining for every note. Her voice sounded thin, and on several of the crescendos she got completely swallowed up by the band and backup singers.

Ten points to the stylist for finally putting Lauren in a poofy dress and cowboy boots where she feels comfortable, but minus five for choosing a sequined tiger-print low-cut bodice. No. Just…no.

Stefano Langone: Not to age myself, but I fell asleep listening to Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” back in the day when it was originally on the airwaves. Having plucky little Stefano sing it did nothing to revive me. Honestly, his vocals were clear and powerful, and he really tried to move around the stage and engage the audience. The thing is, you can see and feel him trying. It’s like he’s about to explode, he’s trying so hard to make you like him, and while I do like him, I wish he’d be less of a robotic balladeer and instead roll out a “How you doin’?” Joey-from-“Friends” style.

Negative 10 points for whoever is responsible for putting Stefano in boy’s clothes and then sitting him on a stool where his feet don’t touch the floor. Learn from Ryan, Stefano! Lean against the stool, don’t perch!

Scotty McCreery: When that first verse of Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talking” floated out of Scotty’s mouth, I sat right up in my chair. It was the first time in awhile I actually got excited about a performance of Scotty’s, instead of a begrudging “Well, it’s not my kind of music, but…” Before I could finish belting out an elated “Yes!” Scotty announced he would be changing his song choice…to George Strait. I sank back into the couch and waited for the dreary sameness to wash over me. The good news was that Scotty toned down some of his extreme mannerisms, and his voice took on a more mature tone as a result. He had a pretty little note at the end of the song, but he lost it a bit as he tried to sustain it. Still, despite an admirable vocal performance, I think he really missed an opportunity by playing it safe.

Five points for Scotty growing out his hair. He looks better every week.

Casey Abrams: I thought I was going to have another disappointing moment when Jimmy Iovine tried to talk Casey out of his jazzy number and do Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” Not that I don’t love the latter song, I just felt the Nat King Cole tune “Nature Boy” was more Casey’s speed. It turned out that Casey agreed. Plucking away on the bass, Casey turned out some beautiful notes, but you had to close your eyes to enjoy them. Scary Psycho Face made a comeback, though it thankfully wasn’t a constant presence. Casey also hit a few bum notes, but over all it was more of the Casey we liked in Hollywood.

Ten points for Casey’s trimmed hair and beard, and an extra five points for the shout-out to Grammy-winning jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding.

Haley Reinhart: It seemed like a perfect fit, but Blondie’s “Call Me” turned out to be totally wrong for Haley. “Heart of Glass” probably would have been much better and allowed for some of that trademark Haley yodel, but alas, it’s not a movie tune. The shouty nature of the song didn’t suit Haley’s more bluesy, boozy delivery and the performance took on a bit of a messy feel. While it wasn’t her best performance, it still had life in it, and we need Haley’s sassy stage presence to keep this show from becoming a complete snoozefest.

Ten points for the cool stained glass print dress and over-the-knee purple boots. An extra five points for referring to the “safe couches” on results night as getting over to the “comfy side.”

Jacob Lusk: Jacob dialed back the contorted facial expressions and full throttle notes on “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” but like Stefano struggling to keep his eyes open, we can see Jacob fighting his natural urges. Tonight he was actually bobbing before certain notes, as if he was winding himself up for the only moment he actually cared about, the big note at the end. His vocals were steady, but after last week’s arrogant statement to the “American Idol” audience, I just don’t feel like I can be objective yet.

Twenty points to Jimmy Iovine for telling Jacob not to “preach to people” when he doesn’t even have an album out yet.

James Durbin: Much as I loved James telling Jimmy that he wanted to be a rock god, whether people like it or not, Jimmy did have a point about the Sammy Hagar tune “Heavy Metal.” While James was passionate and his notes were a lot steadier and clearer tonight than they’ve been in a couple of weeks, the song isn’t really much of a song, and it didn’t build to anything. Guest guitarist Zakk Wylde added some metal authenticity to the number, but his solo went on way too long in an already shortened tune that was supposed to showcase James’ vocal ability. Though James really did belt out a beautiful rocker scream at the end–one of his finest and clearest to date.

Ten points for giving lip to Jimmy. Don’t let it go to your head, kid.

The Final Verdict: After an unsteady performance and the only real diss by the judges for being “karaoke” and not up to her full potential, Haley is definitely in danger. Jacob could still be in danger, though his fans sure are tenacious. Out of the guys, Paul was the weakest vocally. Though Lauren had an off night to me, it’s one of her few, and Paul has had a number of performances that just don’t seem to measure up to his early promise or non-“American Idol” music. Whether there’s backlash against Stefano for outlasting Pia remains to be seen.

Things look as uncertain as last week, and we could easily be in for another shocker. I just worry that Haley is known by the “American Idol” producers as “Not-Lauren” and that she’s still marked for elimination with subtle editing, song choices and judges’ feedback. Right now she and James are the only two contestants I’d really be upset to see leave the competition.

Watch “American Idol” every Wednesday and Thursday night on FOX, at 8/7c. Check local listings to verify times.