'American Idol' Recap: Try a Little Tenderness

Contestants sing hits from 'Now and Then'

american idol hollie
Michael Becker / FOX
Hollie Cavanagh performs in front of the judges on 'American Idol.'
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Cue dramatic music. Flash an equally dramatic T.S. Eliot quote about how the end is just the beginning. Add a flashback of last week's "unbelievable" elimination and subsequent save of Jessica Sanchez, and we have lift-off for this week's American Idol.

After a brief but moving tribute to the late Dick Clark by host Ryan Seacrest, the top seven contestants are given their biggest task yet – performing two songs in one night. Apropos of Clark's passing, the theme is Now and Then, featuring contemporary No. 1 hits and classic soul tunes.

First up is Hollie Cavanagh, who's like the show's Little Engine That Could. Neither mentor Jimmy Iovine nor the judges have been too keen on her recently, but week after week America has spoken, and they finally seem to be easing up on her. It's an ambitious choice when she sings Adele's "Rolling in the Deep." Them's some big shoes to fill. But fill them she does, at least in the eyes of the judges, who think she is finally letting loose. 

But it's her next song, Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man," that really earns raves. Jennifer Lopez points to Hollie's "new composure," while Randy Jackson calls it "crazy" good. Meanwhile, Steven Tyler likes what he sees but thinks she can "push it even more." Not mentioned: Her awkward walk down the stairs, which almost gave us a tabloid moment when the camera was aimed right up her skirt. What was that all about?

Photos: 'American Idol' Season 11
Next up is Colton Dixon, who puts his own unique spin on Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance." During rehearsal, Jimmy points out that, no matter what Colton does, he'll wear out enamored little girls' dialing fingers. "The female vote backs him like a stone wall," according to Jimmy. Despite this, though, he still doesn't get the standing O he craves from the judges, even though they seemingly love his performance. Steven tells him, "I don't know what I loved more – your outfit, your band or the set. Keep taking chances and risks."

His next pick doesn't go over so well, though. It's a complete misfire when he turns Earth, Wind & Fire's R&B classic "September" into a barely recognizable piano-based ballad. (Not to mention that a bright red streak in his spiky hair makes him look like a rooster.) Steven, his biggest fan so far, says he's "disappointed" because Colton's "voice is a lot more powerful than that song." Randy's a bit more blunt, saying it just "wasn't exciting." Two words, Colton: Song choice. Live it. Learn it. And keep winking at the camera, 'cause that surely gets the little girlies hitting speed-dial.  

Then it's time for the newly anointed "underdog," as Jimmy calls Elise Testone, who has consistently been in the bottom three. She earns raves from the judges after rasping her way through Alicia Keys' "No One," which Steven calls "delish." 

Steven is also enamored with her version of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On," in which she seems in her element, soulfully growling the words. Randy begs to differ amid a sea of booing, saying it "wasn't right" for her voice because she "oversang" it. Meanwhile, J.Lo harps on the fact that Elise doesn't show a lot of emotion or vulnerability, which may be why America "isn't connecting" with her. Earlier, as if in a preemptive humanization strike, Ryan uncomfortably forced Elise to talk about her dying dog. Borderline diabolical, if you ask me.

Now, the opposite of the underdog: Phillip Phillips, who Jimmy points out has yet to be in the bottom three. His stripped-down version of Usher's "U Got It Bad" – complete with acoustic guitar, bongo, sax and cello – receives the coveted standing O from the judges. Randy calls him "tha bomb," and Jennifer declares it "so sexy." I guess you could call it that, if by "sexy" she really means "creepy." Sorry, Team Phil, but some of those faces he makes are cringe-worthy.  

As usual, the award for Best Line of the Night goes to Steven, when he calls Phillip "brilliantly awkward" after his second song, Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour." The rendition, complete with a horn section, includes Phil's signature Joe Cocker-meets-Bill Cosby dance moves and goofy, glassy-eyed grin. With an unfortunate name like Phillip Phillips, you probably learn to march to the beat of your own drum at an early age, huh?

After earning the judges' save last week, Jessica Sanchez is now flying without a safety net. According to Jimmy, there is a "disconnect" between her and the audience that leaves her on the verge of elimination. I don't think this week will help her any in that respect. "Fallin'" by Alicia Keys seems an odd choice for a 16-year-old, considering its adult theme of love. But as usual, the judges eat it up. Randy even goes so far as to call her "an otherworldly talent," the likes of which he's never, ever seen on the show, in all 11 seasons. Of course he has to say that, though. He couldn't really say, "Yo, this is most boring season ever!" and still expect people to tune in.

On that note, Jessica's version of Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" also seems a little mismatched. If she does have a magic touch, it's for making every song boring. In order to try to punch it up, she winds up growling and screeching the words by the end. The lone voice of reason, Randy points out that she needs to connect more with the songs and the audience. Jennifer still thinks, "When it comes to voice, you win." But this isn't The Voice. Ahem . . . 

On cue, enter the perfect combo of vocal chops and audience appeal, Skylar Laine. Her country-tinged version of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" perfectly blends harmonica, violins and her Southern twang. Jimmy points out she has become a frontrunner, while Steven claims she's "giving all the other girls a run for their money." Watch your back, Jessica. 

That newfound frontrunner status is underscored by her boot-stompin', kudos-earning version of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." J.Lo applauds her "spunkiness" while Steven calls her a "wild horse that refuses to be tamed." All she needs to win this thing is a giant American flag unfurling behind her during a performance. (Perhaps that's next week?)

Ending the night is Joshua Ledet, who gets stuck with probably the least-known songs of the night, starting with "I Believe" by season three winner Fantasia. Despite receiving near-constant positive feedback from the judges, he suffers from Jessica Sanchez syndrome – he's predictable and boring.

His next song, Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," does nothing to break him out of the box he's stuck in. Despite landing the "pimp spot" and having Randy beg people to vote for him, he may be in trouble this week. Jimmy nails it when he calls Joshua a "deer in headlights," which is made painfully obvious when he stares blankly when Ryan asks whether he sees himself winning the competition. 'Nuff said?

Last episode: Shock and Awe

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