‘American Idol’ Top 9 Rock Hall of Fame — Haley Rocks Janis and Durbin Gets Sensitive

The good news was that tonight’s “American Idol” offered us nine performances that ranged from good to amazing. That bad news was that tonight’s “American Idol” was an exploding ball of Velveeta, the Idol-dome walls dripping with cheesy producer manipulation, embarrassingly fawning judges and a crowd dosed with either tiger blood or the promise that they’d each won the Publisher’s Clearinghouse sweepstakes. It was just too, too, too much.

Celebrating the first time we’ve seen him awake in weeks, judge Steven Tyler gave us a walk-through of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, including a tour of rocker costumes that included one of his own fancy numbers. “What kind of freak would wear this s$#!” Steven asked rhetorically, cheerfully back to his usual uncensored self. He also expressed gratitude for getting inducted himself, in the hopes that he’d no longer get mistaken for Mick Jagger. The way he’s been judging on the “AI” panel, he’s more likely to be confused with Paula Abdul. Actually, we could just have ended that sentence with “confused.”

Next we got the news that Will.i.am would be coaching the contestants, proving that he must have some incriminating photos of Nigel Lythgoe somewhere. How else to explain three visits to “American Idol” this season already? Then there was the news that Gwen Stefani would be styling the girls in her own designer L.A.M.B. Fashions. More on that later.

Jacob Lusk: We got a painful preview of Jacob performing his initial song choice (or the producer’s original song choice) of “Let’s Get it On.” Thankfully, the horrified “Noooooo–” wasn’t even completely out of my mouth before Jacob announced that he wasn’t going to be doing that song because its overtly sexual meaning didn’t fit in with his personal beliefs. Instead, he’d be performing “Man in the Mirror.” Before I could finish breathing a sigh of relief, Jacob inexplicably turned defiantly to the camera and announced: “If I end up in the bottom 3, it won’t be because I sang this song bad, or I sang this song wrong, it’ll be because everyone in America wasn’t ready to look at themselves in the mirror.” You could just hear the thousands of mental clicks as voters at home decided right then and there to vote for anyone but Jacob. Nice move. (P.S. The grammar obsessive in me is yelling “It’s ‘sang badly,’ not ‘sang bad!'”)

After that arrogant (or just incredibly misguided) comment, I’m sure many found it difficult to judge Jacob’s performance (and his unflattering white pants) objectively. It was one of his better numbers, however, with a lot more restraint and a lot less bizarre facial expressions. I noticed last week that Naima seemed to help temper his performance during their duet; here he had Siedah Garrett, who apparently co-wrote “Man in the Mirror” and sang on the record with Michael Jackson. Oddly, after expressing moral objections to “Let’s Get It On,” Jacob decided to deliver several extremely suggestive hip thrusts in Siedah’s direction during the performance.

Kicking off what would become the trend of the night, the judges slobbered all over Jacob and his “moral convictions,” and the only one who said anything remotely interesting was Ryan, who pointedly asked Jacob: “Which was more powerful, your voice or our hip thrusts?”

Haley Reinhart: After getting the pimp spot last week and killing on “Beh-Beh-Beh-Bennie and the Jets,” Haley got stuck with the number two position this week. She also got an interesting wild-woman look from Gwen Stefani, with big blown out curls, skinny leather pants and an animal print tunic from the rocker Wilma Flintstone collection. I also just made a pun without realizing it.

Moving on…Haley decided to take the judges’ previous comparisons to heart and tackle some Janis Joplin. I thought she tried a little too hard in some places and got a bit screamier than I’d like, but she was definitely in that Janis zone, displaying a lot more richness and maturity in her voice than most of the other contestants. Haley blended well with the back-up singers, gave a passionate performance, and didn’t overdo the vocal changes. I want to see more of what this gal can do, and I’m personally hoping for more of the boozy babe we saw with Elton John week.

Randy stressed he was back on the Haley bandwagon with her bluesy soul rendition, and the other judges added their own effusive praise.

Casey Abrams: Casey was originally going to do “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” by The Police (not just Sting, as Casey identified it). Jimmy Iovine was arguing with Will.i.am about the “loungy” feel of the rumba arrangement, and well, Casey scrapped the whole thing and decided to do some CCR with the bass instead. Now I’m thinking that he could have done “Every Breath You Take” with the bass, but I suppose that wouldn’t be mixing it up enough.

Tonight’s performance of “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” came a lot closer to the Casey I adored in Hollywood. His vocals were much prettier, he was back at the bass, and he was more serene. He started to lose it at the end a bit, however, falling back into the theatrical growling. I’m also not sure if it’s just the way he reacts when nervous, but it still often feels like he’s joking up there. Back in Hollywood it seemed more like a quirky guy enjoying himself and the music; now it’s more like he’s having a laugh at our expense. He keeps telling everyone how nervous and under pressure he is, however, so it might be like those girls that are nervous gigglers.

Embracing the trend of wild over-praising, Randy Jackson called Casey a “revolutionary” for making the upright bass “cool”–and then simultaneously dissed a bunch of musical genres that used the upright bass but apparently weren’t “cool” by his standards. As for revolutionary, apparently Randy has never seen this little Police song, because you know, girls have never been that hot for Sting (insert penetrating sarcasm here.) And, you know, these dudes are pretty cool…for Canadians.

Lauren Alaina: There’s something fundamentally wrong with a 16-year-old in a gingham bustier, bubble shorts and black tights singing “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman.” What are these producers smoking when they pick out these tunes? And why did they let Gwen Stefani give Lauren a fauxhawk pompadour to go with her bad bubble shorts? I love Gwen, but I have always thought that her fashion line only looked good on people that looked exactly like her–and tonight all three gals proved that without a doubt.

Despite the inappropriateness of the song choice, Lauren once again turned in some strong vocals, with a lot of soul. Like Haley, I enjoyed Lauren’s performance last week more, particularly for its consistency. Here Lauren fell back a bit into an old pattern of sounding a little more breathy and insubstantial until she got to the bigger, more impressive notes. Still a solid performance, though.

As an added bonus we got a shot of Christian Slater in the audience, pimping his new show, but actually looking like he was enjoying the time with his daughter. Extra points for the little cutie girl, too, whose favorites on the show are two ladies–Lauren and Pia. Embrace the Girl Power!

Randy apparently had a moment where he stopped inhaling the happy gas they were piping into the Idol-dome, because he actually qualified his praise of Lauren’s performance by saying it didn’t quite stand up to other “American Idol” versions of that same song. He’s probably right, but I didn’t see where she deserved more criticism than “revolutionary” Casey.

James Durbin: Oh, James. Jimmy Iovine and Will.i.am warned him that doing a slow tune on a night of bigger rock tunes could be risky, and his unsteady performance made it even riskier. I think he needed to do a more intimate tune to show that he could tone things down, and I was actually excited to hear he was doing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”–because I’d just seen an earlier performance of him doing the tune. He wasn’t quite as strong here, possibly because singing on a stool is actually not the best posture for hitting good notes, and he seemed slightly uncomfortable. We can also throw the lighting technicians into the penalty box for deciding to add backlighting only to James’ ears. Between this and the fashion disasters, tonight was not the most flattering night for the “American Idol” contestants.

That said, James did show some of the sweeter sounds of his vocals and plenty of emotion, ending strongly on a big, clear, high-pitched note. He even wiped away a few tears at the end of the performance, which were more genuine than the syrupy accolades the judges gave him for showing his vulnerability. When Ryan of course asked James what he thought about to get so emotional, James said he was thinking about his family, and seemed to get choked up all over again. So toning down what some have perceived as arrogance should help him with votes, and his heartfelt performance could gain him some fans despite the odd flat note here and there.

Scotty McCreery: The cheese factory starting pumping out product overtime when Scotty hit the stage. Performing Elvis song “That’s All Right, Mama,” Scotty did finally show a little bit more of a rockabilly style rather than the traditional country sound. Close your eyes, and Scotty did have a little bit of an Elvis rumble on the lower notes. He’s always weaker in the higher range, but over all the vocals were good. His performance was exuberant, and for me, way too overboard with quirky mannerisms and that strange way he holds the microphone. It wasn’t clear if he was attempting to be silly or not, but his eyebrow-waggling sex looks to the camera actually made J-Lo laugh out loud.

The performance ended when a gaggle of girls “spontaneously” leapt up onto the stage to hug Scotty. Here we thought all those out-of-rhythm swaying arms in the pit last year were bad, but these fake displays of Beatles- or Bieber-level fan mania are even more nauseating. Jennifer threw another cheese log onto the fire as she asked Scotty if he’d watched rap or hip-hop because she thought she noticed a “little flavor” in there. Scotty jovially countered that it was the Puerto Rican blood, but after five minutes of drooling praise from the judges, even Scotty started to look embarrassed.

Perhaps Steven said it best, describing it as “all hat and no cattle.” Should we dissect the metaphor, or are we giving Steven wayyyy too much credit?

Pia Toscano: As she promised last week, Pia performed “River Deep, Mountain High.” Will.i.am warned her not to sound like “Madonna doing Tina Turner,” because his vocal ability is just so stellar that he has the right to diss Madonna. Uh-huh. Pia managed to ramp it up a little more than usual, despite the fact that she was weighted down with a bunch of metal necklaces and a kind of dumpy looking strapless animal print pantsuit.

Pia walked around the stage as she sang, once again belting out big, high notes. I kept waiting for something else to happen, but it didn’t, and her voice never took on that richness or grit that it needed. She also seems to really be straining on the power notes, and I’m worried that one day we’re going to get a massively sharp wail as her voice breaks from the strain. She seems to think that if she just makes it even louder and more technically perfect than the last number, it will be better, instead of looking at feeling some of the emotion of the song.

After Steven’s critique that basically boiled down to “Guys think you’re hot!”, Jennifer actually tried to offer up some constructive advice for Pia to watch great performers and learn from them. Randy added that she needed to find her own little moves and style. Pia will no doubt go home and immediately start working on a perfectly choreographed routine for next week. I’m thinking baton twirling.

Stefano Langone: Jimmy Iovine thankfully wasn’t as tough on Stefano this week, but the voters might be. Choosing another ballad was risky, even though Stefano brought some nice emotion to “When a Man Loves a Woman.” He probably had stronger vocals than many in the competition, but the problem is, he didn’t do anything that was all that memorable. There are still enough people on “American Idol” that it’s possible to get lost in the shuffle.

Stefano’s biggest fan, J-Lo, started her critique with “Baby, baby, baby!” and ended with “magic!” She then tried to shush Randy for daring to say Stefano needed to stop being so staccato on all of his verses, and let some of the notes hang a little more. Apparently this was what Will.i.am was trying to tell Stefano in the recording studio, but we can’t blame Stefano for not interpreting Will’s play-acting of texting between verses.

Paul McDonald: One of the funniest moments of the night was Paul asking if he should tone his performance down (apparently to a sound only dogs can hear) and Jimmy and Will.i.am shouting “NO!” Despite the heavier tone of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” they urged Paul to crazy it up and push the vocals. This was probably their best advice of the night, because we finally saw the Paul we were intrigued by very, very early in the competition.

We got Paul with an actual voice, instead of a whisper, and he combined great, gritty rockabilly with some beautifully clear and sustained notes. He was at home behind his guitar once again, his quirky dance moves infectiously charming. It was a bright, lively and memorable performance.

The show was out of time at this point, and you can basically substitute the judges’ delighted comments with the indistinct warbles of the parents on “Peanuts”: Wahwahwah. The show gave in to madness at this point, as Ryan started dancing in a Paul-esque manner again as he delivered his closing remarks. The other contestants flooded the stage, dancing erratically in a variety of crazy styles, as Ryan accepted a hip bump from Jacob and a little country two-step action from Lauren.

Despite the insane, over-the-top night of reality TV, the madness over this flaming ball of cheese was finally catching. I’ll just yell “Opa!” and leave it at that.

As far as the bottom three, we might be in for some surprises tomorrow. There wasn’t a stinky performance in the bunch, despite a few missteps here and there, so it’s going to come down to fan bases. Stefano is probably in danger. Jacob’s comments could cost him, but he’s never been anywhere near the bottom 3, so I’m not sure if it’s enough to dislodge him. Lauren and Haley could be in trouble just by virtue of being female; Pia seems to have an unshakable fanbase, and she probably picked up some of Thia’s voters. At this stage of the game, with a Top 9 that is so much steadier than last year’s, it’s going to really start hurting each time someone goes home.

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