'American Idol' Recap: Five for Fighting

Tackling Britpop and the Sixties, Urban Outfitter-style

american idol jessica
Michael Becker / FOX
Jessica Sanchez performs on 'American Idol.'
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It's the final stretch of this season of American Idol, and now that Elise Testone has been sent to the retirement home, the remaining contestants are all young, lean, mean fighting machines who, in the new-and-improved words of Randy Jackson, "gotta have it." And nothing builds drama more than an echo and reverb-laden introduction and drawn-out single camera shots that run from backstage to the audience where a young girl holds a sign that reads, "Ryan, can you do my hair?" As the show starts Ryan Seacrest nods yes, yes he can.

On tonight's show the five finalists are celebrating British pop and the Sixties, which they probably remember from that time Urban Outfitters did a Flower Power display at the mall. Seriously, though, the contestants are so young that their parents are probably too young to remember the Sixties. Maybe grandpa spun a tune or two on the old gramophone? Personally I am not a fan of Sixties nights, not because I hate the music the era, but because I loathe the tie-dye and flower-power motifs that seem to be stage manager shorthand for The Sixties. The chances of Idol shoving tie-dye down our throats tonight? Close to 90 percent.

Moving on, at long last we have an explanation for why Little Steven Van Zandt was in the audience the other day. It's not that he's a big fan of the show, it's that he is besties with Jimmy Iovine. For some reason Jimmy has conscripted the E Street Band guitarist and wayward Soprano into mentoring the contestants tonight. Don't get me wrong, I love Little Stevie and have the tattoo of his face on my arm to prove it, but he's not known for his singing. At this point in the competition one would hope that singing and mentoring ability would trump celebrity or nepotism or Jimmy wanting to get in some laughs with his BFF.

For Sixties night, wee Hollie Cavanagh has decided to tackle Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High," a song that neither Steven nor Jimmy think she can handle. Little Stevie offers advice to Hollie like he is the tipsy cool uncle at a holiday party who is suddenly asked for his views on gay marriage. He recommends she, you know, not take it too seriously. And to screw 'em anyway. Great mentoring! To live up to Steven's suggestion to screw 'em, Hollie kicks off her song out in the audience and leads a parade of bongo players, backup singers and band members on to the stage. It's in the middle of this hit parade that I realize that maybe Hollie has grown as a contestant. If she tried this two weeks ago she would have been buried in the crowd, but she stood out. Also, she didn't look like Celine Dion, and her outfit wasn't outrageously age-inappropriate. As Steven Tyler so bluntly put it, "Thank you, Lord."

Little Steven tells Jimmy to leave Phillip Phillips alone, because he's good and "this isn't the Miss America pageant." Jimmy rolls his eyes and lets Phil-Phil sing a jazzy Southern rock version of the Box Tops' "The Letter," which are pretty much all my least favorite things in music rolled into one. But Phil-Phil is much less twitchy than he normally is, and he only does a few strange leg twitches, so he has that going for him. Also, I would like to thank Idol for going extremely literal and flooding the giant on-stage screens with letters. The judges all call him out for losing the song's melody, not that J.Lo is in any position to judge as she has NEVER HEARD THE SONG. How is that possible? She shrugs and tells him that he "Phillip Phillipsed it," and it's hard to know if that's a compliment.

Then something awful happens: Remember last week when Ryan's girlfriend, Julianna Hough, admitted to having a crush on Phillip? Well, Ryan got his revenge this week by telling the world that Phil-Phil has a girlfriend, thus ruining his chances with whatever subset of the tween population was keeping him on this show week after week.

While trying to help Skylar Laine pick the right Creedence Clearwater Revival song to appeal to . . . well, no teen in the world, they get in a bleep-addled swearing contest that renders Skylar mute except for a few giggling squeaks. Can Stevie come every week? Skylar ends up singing CCR's "Fortunate Son" while wearing the biggest fashion don't of the season, and that is saying a LOT. Her dress marries a bedazzled dirndl with what looks like her nana's lucky afghan hot-glued onto the skirt, complete with fringe dangling well past the sparkling hemline. She's paired it with glittery cowboy boots and statement earrings, and I'm pretty sure Tommy Hilfiger quit in protest. Come back, Tommy! Steven applauds her boot scootin', and Randy likes the fact that she calls him sir.

Under protest, Joshua Ledet and Phil-Phil are ordered to sing the Righteous Brothers "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," a song that Joshua claims not to know. Phil shoots him a look, and it's only too obvious that even the contestants don't want to sing duets. The result is karaoke at its worst. Simon Cowell would never have allowed it. Then Ryan calls them Goose and Maverick and they stare at him blankly, because they have no idea who that is.

Jessica Sanchez is strangely determined to sing "Proud Mary" despite the fact that Little Steven hates that song. But it's pretty incongruous to see tiny Jessica Sanchez in a teeny flared skirt and Keds wailing out "Proud Mary" in rehearsals, and even Stevie is blown away by her performance. That said, when she appears on stage in a tiny dress covered in what looks like hundreds of necklaces, you know, for modesty, I missed Tina Turner. In fact, why don't we get a hologram of Tina to sing this song instead?

In response to the performance, Steven Tyler says, "The only thing that gives experience a run for its money is 16-year-olds." I'm going to parse that and get back to you as to whether it's wise or just word salad. Randy tries to compare Jessica to Tina Turner, but J.Lo rushes to her defense, reminding Randy that this is a 16-year-old growing into an accomplished singer before our eyes, like a Sea Monkey, and not a lip-sync competition or a lookalike contest.

In rehearsal Jimmy and Steven chair-dance as Joshua sings "Ain't Too Proud to Beg." The performance lives up to expectations and the judges are thrilled. Randy thinks Joshua could bring R&B back like Terence Trent D'Arby. Wait, what's that sound? Oh, just the rush of everyone under 35 rushing to Google Terence Trent D'Arby.

For part two of the competition, the Idol wannabes have to sing Britpop songs, which is just Pulp, Blur and Oasis, right? That would be an Idol episode worth watching. Hollie opts for Leona Lewis' "Bleeding Love." After her piano lounge performance, Randy coyly reminds us that Leona Lewis came from Simon Cowell's other talent show. He'll forgive the song choice, because she performed it so well. He tells her she's peaking at the right time, which, if this was still the Sixties half of the program would mean something else entirely. Ha ha, Sixties drug joke! Couldn't do that on The Voice, could you?

Phillip cracks and squeaks on his rendition of the Zombies' "Time of the Season." It's a great, sultry song that Phil-Phil could have knocked out of the park, if he had, you know, practiced. Randy notes that it's nice to know he can sing a melody when he wants to. In what singing competition is it nice that you can sing a melody when you feel like it?

We kill five minutes of airtime as Ryan tries to convince us that Jessica, Skylar and Hollie are BFF. Then he forces them to sing Jackie Wilson's "Higher and Higher" all together. In response, Steven Tyler undermines his own compliment by saying, "It was great . . . weird arrangement." J.Lo calls it "cute," while Randy shouts, "Girl power!" and Kathleen Hanna sends him a bill for trademark infringement. 

As Skylar prepares to sing "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" by Dusty Springfield, Jimmy and Stevie start teasing each other and . . . it's really hard to take anything Stevie says seriously, because he is wearing a purple blazer with a purple head scarf, and he looks like he should be selling handmade pottery at the church bazaar. Her performance is mature and twang-filled, and Randy basically cuts-and-pastes what he told Hollie. She's peaking!

"You Are So Beautiful" by Joe Cocker is really not what I was expecting when they said Britpop. But then they flash a photo of Joe Cocker and his teeth and his sideburns, and you realize that, yes, this is in fact Britpop. For some reason Jessica chooses to sing the song seated in the middle of a Wiccan candle circle. As she finishes, J.Lo shakes her head slowly. She is clearly wondering if she can somehow suck the youth and vitality from the tiny teen. It's an excellent performance, but one overshadowed by her enormous high heels, which Ryan makes her take off and then refuses to try on himself. 

Despite the excellent performances tonight, the judges have remained in their seats. Then comes Joshua's grand finale of the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody." After a shout-out to Robin Gibb, who is recovering from a coma, Randy calls Joshua one of the best singers ever on this show. EVER. J.Lo can't help but one-up him, saying he is one of the best singer she has seen in 50 years. Joshua just stands there and doesn't say anything, but if you listen closely, you can hear his ego growing.

Last episode: Another One Bites the Dust