Straight up front: Doing the Beatles is a difficult thing, what with having to give a performance of a rendition somehow your own and make it play well against the classic song itself, not to mention any other great renditions that have been offered by other artists throughout the years. But that's what the "American Idol" Top 9 finalists were up against when they performed from the "Lennon-McCartney Songbook" on the Wednesday night (March 20) live performance show. All in all, they did passably well, with a few standouts. But, again, the girls ruled the night.
"There's no gimmicks needed," Jimmy Iovine said about singing Beatles' tunes. "If you sing these songs well, they'll deliver for you. On the other hand, if you don't sing them well, the whole world is going to know."
So how well did the finalists do?
Kree Harrison kicked off the night. She went straight for the Joe Cocker version of "With A Little Help From My Friends." It came off a little underplayed, the music and backing vocals crowding her a little, but the girl can sing and it showed.
Next up was Burnell Taylor, who said he wasn't familiar with "Let It Be." Really? Not even the Aretha Franklin version that was released even before the Beatles recording? Not the Ray Charles or Bill Withers versions? Not even the "Idol" renditions, like Brooke White's performance in Season 7, Season 8 winner Kris Allen's version recorded on "Idol" in Season 9 for the relief effort in Haiti, or even Jennifer Hudson's excellent rendition with The Roots recorded for Hope For Haiti Now? Not even Chris Rene's hybridized version on "X Factor" in 2011? Unbelievable. Anyway, Burnell does his usual I'm-singing-exactly-the-way-I-speak voice. It isn't bad; it's just not that great, although you'd never know that by listening to the judges.
In the third spot was Amber Holcomb, another contestant not too familiar with the Beatles. She chooses a song she's never heard before, "Leaving Home," because she connected with it. Unfortunately, she didn't start connecting with the song until about four lines in. Then she did pretty well -- but, wait, has she ever not performed a ballad on the show? Yeah, that's getting old.
Fourth: Lazaro Arbos sings in the position in which he found himself after all the Top 10 votes were counted. After singing "In My Life" (which he didn't know, but growing up in Cuba, as we learned during Hollywood Week, has left Lazaro somewhat ignorant of a lot of American pop music, even those songs that came during the British invasion), it would appear that the young crooner just might slide down the standings. Flat and uninspired, it just might get him booted from the show. In review, the judges shook up the shy young man, causing him to cry. But Judge Randy Jackson was frank: "Honestly, for me, that was your worst performance ever. ... I'm just starting to wonder: Where did the vocals go?"
In the fifth slot was one of the frontrunners (along with Kree and Angie Miller), and after her Aerosmith-infused rendition of "Come Together," it's very likely she'll stay there. The music was pure rock; the vocals were rock and modified soul. She said she didn't know the lyrics were so crazy when she chose the song, but what mattered was she performed it crazy good.
Sixth in line was Paul Jolley. Jolley says he can't believe most of his colleagues were unfamiliar with the Beatles (neither can anyone else, Paul) and produces a well-sung cover of "Eleanor Rigby." But that was just the problem. Without the sweeping camerawork moving around the seated violinists amid smoky dry ice, there was nothing there. And Judge Nicki Minaj nailed the critique: "Very, very safe, very bland and very forgettable."
The seventh contestant was Angie Miller, who, we discovered, was voted by her high school class to be "The Next American Idol." And that just might happen. She's a frontrunner and has been since her solo performance during Hollywood Week. But she, too, admitted she's not all that familiar with the Beatles. Still, she chooses a song she does know, "Yesterday" (and how could she not, it being one of the most recorded songs in history). And she nailed it. As a pure vocal performance, it might have been her best yet.
Next-to-last was Devin Velez, who admitted he wasn't a big fan of the Beatles, but he connected with "Long and Winding Road," which turned out to be a last-minute selection. Velez is in trouble as far as voting is concerned, finishing just ahead of the booted Curtis Finch Jr. in the Top 10. But he can sing and his R&B crooning was not only well delivered by accepted by the judges. It might just save him (that, along with Lazaro's poor performance) from getting the axe on the Top 9 results show.
Holding down the pimp spot this week was Janelle Arthur, another finalist in need of a good performance. Her performance of Montgomery Gentry's "Gone" last week was the worst of the ten, but personality counts for something, so she missed the bottom three. But that's not something she should have to worry about when the final vote tally for the Top 9 is complete. She countrified an obscure Beatles tune, "I Will" (she had never heard it before herself), and made it her own. It was laid back but showed off her vocal ability. Judge Keith Urban, who we found is a fan of all the Beatles' music, told her, "You know who you are. You're pure, you're true, and I thought that was really beautiful." And Randy said hers was one of the best performances of the night.
So how will the chips fall?
On history and knowledge of subject, as a class, the Top 9 were nearly all failures. But "American Idol" isn't "Jeopardy!" or Music History 101 or anything. Good thing. And the vocals on the night were relatively good if still a bit safe and boring (six ballads, one mixed mode midtempo song ("Eleanor Rigby"), one blues/soul based ballad ("With A Little Help From My Friends"), and one upbeat song ("Come Together")), which befitted a group as talented as the Season 12 finalists have shown themselves to be.
So who is in trouble? Even with praises from the judges, Burnell just isn't connecting. Not with the songs, not with his audience. He finished outside the bottom last week but he's most likely going to be there this go-round. He'll most likely be joined by Paul Jolley, who sang well, but got mixed reviews from the judges. The third bottom dweller will likely be Lazaro Arbos, coming off his second not-so-great performance in a row. But he could have competition from Amber Holcomb and Devin Velez, who, though they sang relatively well Wednesday, are doing themselves no favors by performing downplayed ballads.
The winners on the night, though, were all girls, especially Candice Glover, Angie Miller, and Janelle Arthur. Kree Harrison also did a good job, but she seemed to be either holding herself back this week or she really was drowned out by her arrangement. No way these four girls don't get the top four spots after this week's votes.
"American Idol" airs the results of that voting on Thursday, March 21, at 8 p.m. The special guests for the night are Season 10 finalist Casey Abrams and Season 11 runner-up, Jessica Sanchez. Sanchez will debut "Tonight," the first single, a duet with Ne-Yo, from her new album, Me, You & The Music.