With five contestants left on American Idol, the stakes are raised!  And, last night, each contestant had to take on two songs . . . one from NOW and another from THEN!  For me, the performance of the night belong to James Durbin.  I thought his performance of "Without You" was powerful and moving.  Any rocker who cries while he sings earns my vote.  Okay, correction.  He earns my 52 votes.  (I think I sprained my text finger last night.  LOL!)  But what does our Idol expert, Steve Thompson, think about the show and who its star was?

From Steve Thompson:

On paper, the Now and Then theme was an interesting exercise.  Unfortunately, to paraphrase the old saying, you can't have a singing contest on paper.  I still find it interesting that our modern singers sound better on the classic songs, but there is a debate going on in houses across the nation about how songs from the 70s found their way to the 60s songbook. 

Given the nature of tonight's show, I will attempt to have a top five of Now and a top five of Then.  Even though now seems as good a time to talk about then, I will wait until then and talk about now.

Now is Not the Time for Then, That was Then and This is Now

5)  Jacob Lusk removed all the oxygen from the room with No Air.  Just when Jordin Sparks loses weight, this version of the song becomes like the proverbial millstone around her neck.  This was everything it should not have been.  Pitchy?  You bet.  To America I say once again: why are you voting for Jacob?  I realize it's tricky to sing a duet as a solo-- but it's even more tricky when your voice is higher than the female in the original duet.  This was not the time for now.

4) Scotty McCreery sang Gone by Montgomery Gentry.  To paraphrase something Blake Shelton said the other night, Scotty doesn't seem to have enough attitude for this song.  While I appreciate trying for something a bit more up-tempo and current-- I couldn't believe him with this song for one second.  Even if you are willing to suspend belief, you still don't want to see the flaws in the magician's performance.  This could be a significant sea change in Scotty's trajectory.  I guess we'll see then because he's still leading now.

3) Lauren Alaina sang Flat on the Floor by Carrie Underwood.  The anointed one sings an album track from Carrie Underwood that is certainly not as well known as many of her hits and the sycophantic judges bend over backwards praising her effort.  (Watch this space for an upcoming diatribe.)  Granted, she sounded just as sassy and vibrant as she ever did on a song which didn't seem to have a readily identifiable hook-- but to what avail?  For now, Lauren proved she could sing a Carrie song that wasn't a hit.

2) James Durbin sang Closer to the Edge.  As a lifelong fan of the group Yes, my first thought  was how are they going to distill this great album track to a minute and a half-- then I realized they said Closer, not Close.  My reaction?  Incredibly sad.  If anyone could probably hit Jon Anderson's notes it would be James...  Instead, we get Jared "I used to be on television" Leto's band 30 Seconds to Mars.  It was, as Randy Jackson used to say: allight.  Not nearly as good as he was last week and the proceeding weeks, but a fella has to come in second every once in a while.

1) Haley Reinhart sang You and I by Lady Gaga.  I warned you about a diatribe, right?  For the crime of singing a Lady Gaga song that many of the audience may not have ever heard before, the sycophantic judges try once again to throw Haley under the bus.  Why can Lauren be allowed to sing a Carrie song that was not a hit and Haley is criticized for singing Gaga?  Double standard?  An affront to the anointed one?  (Why do I get the feeling I'm writing a back issue of Dr. Strange?) 

And Now, a Few Songs from Then

 5) Jacob Lusk realized Love Hurts.   Everybody knows this song was covered before Nazareth, right?  No?  Well the Nazareth version is from the 70s, but folks like Emmylou Harris and Roy Orbison covered this song long before then.  Granted, Jacob's version seemed more aligned with the rock version in its phrasing (which is odd once you compare Jacob's high register to Roy Orbison) but it wasn't nearly as good as the next four songs.

 4) Scotty McCreery sang Always On My Mind.  Everybody knows this song was around before Willie Nelson had a successful recording career, right?  I know Elvis sang it among others.  Scotty did a fair job on this song, but he has yet to really prove he can connect with a song that's not sad.  (While this may not be the saddest country song ever written, it definitely deserves honorable mention.) 

3) Lauren Alaina sang Unchained Melody.  Everybody knows this song was popular before the movie Ghost, right?  Jimmy Iovine hit the proverbial nail on the head-- Lauren may not yet be mature enough to fully sell the lyrics of this song.  She did her best-- there's no question about it.  She just doesn't have the gravitas it takes to exude any sense of maturity in her vocal delivery.  The good news?  That will come in time.  Just not now.

2)  James Durbin sang Without You.  My favorite versions of this song have always been the version by Heart (from their CD Heartless) and the group Badfinger.  Pete Ham and Tony Evans were the writers of this song (and both members of Badfinger) and Harry Nilsson turned this song into a megahit.  Ironically, both Pete Ham and Tony Evans later committed suicide (in the same fashion: hanging) and the lyric "I can't live if living is without you" became hauntingly ironic.  I thought James did a stellar interpretation of this song and he was definitely back in the groove after a spotty first try. 

1)  Haley Reinhart sang House of the Rising Sun.  Wow!  This was the best song of the night and Haley knocked the stuffing out of it.  I'm more than a little inclined to say her accapella was every bit as good as any we've ever heard in competition on the Idol stage.  Now you might think that hyperbole and a half--- but think back...  Have you heard many of our contestants over the last ten years do that well without major accompaniment?  I thought not.  Your witness.

To paraphrase the late Joe Strummer: who should go now?  For the third week in a row, I believe Jacob is in huge trouble.  That first song did him no favors and with only four other contestants he is in a most precarious position.  The other spot?  Anybody.  The top four seem very close in my mind.  Lauren may find her way to the bottom two simply because of attrition.

We'll see Thursday night.

@May 4, 2011  Stephen W Thompson