Facing the Top 6 "American Idol" Season 11 finalists this week was a triple challenge (much like that of the Top 7 redux): 1) perform a number from the Queen songbook; 2) perform a personal favorite, and 3) do it convincingly so as to move forward into the next round of the competition. But given that this might be the most talented bunch of contestants of any season thus far (we hear that line from judge Randy Jackson almost every season, but this year he just might be right), the singing might not have been too difficult an assignment. But getting those all-important votes to move ahead... well, that's a different matter altogether.
To kicke the show off, the Top 6 perform a medley with Roger Taylor and Brian May of Queen. During the performance, we are reminded of two things: How much of an integral and virtually irreplaceable part of Queen's music vocalist Freddie Mercury was and what a unique guitarist Brian May continues to be.
The Queen Round
Jessica Sanchez was first up, singing "Bohemian Rhapsody." Although she does a passable job, she looks like a kid doing karaoke. Judge Steven Tyler notes the disconnect between her great voice and the fact that she's not a rocker. Still, the judges liked it overall.
Country girl Skylar Laine followed with "The Show Must Go On," another song that showcased Freddie Mercury's voice. Like Sanchez, she did a good job, just nothing spectacular -- although you would never have known that from the praises from the judges. Judge Jackson told host Ryan Seacrest that the "girl's gotta have it," his latest catchphrase that's replaced "in it to win it."
Louisiana church singer Joshua Ledet got all Wilson PIckett with "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," a rather rousing rendition of the Queen classic. The judges were on their feet by song's end, something "American Idol" fans have grown accustomed to during Season 11. Judge Jennifer Lopez asked if it was alright if she said, "Joshua's part of the show is my favorite part of the show."
Elise Testone performed "I Want It All." There's a strange huskiness to her voice that makes the song believable even though it didn't exactly sound like Freddie Mercury's powerful vocals. Like Ledet, she altered it just enough to make it her own, something the first two singers, Sanchez and Laine, seemed to miss. Judge Tyler said she finally found her style. Lopez said she was "sexy." And Jackson complimented the singing thus far rendered. "Who would've thunk it?" he exclaimed.
Phillip Phillips then performed one of Queen's more rakish songs, "Fat-Bottomed Girls," which is a tribute to groupies. Phillips has got a style all his own but it doesn't lend itself well to the song -- until he hits the chorus. Then everybody gels. But it's the verses that nearly wreck the effect. Still, the judges were complimentary. Jackson told him that he was "jumping up and down," but it was "good."
Hollie Cavanagh, who has had a tough time in the power rankings of late (but has still managed to make each successive round), finished the round with Queen's anthemic "Save Me." Like Sanchez and Laine, she powers up -- just not enough. It's noticeable, but where the judges found praise for the other two, they went constructive on Cavanagh. Lopez spent a good three minutes explaining the singer's lack of connection, something "American Idol" audiences have heard from Lopez before. (The judges need to be careful in their critiques so as not to look as if they're ganging up on a particular contestant or showing favoritism. This was Lopez' second showing of the night: too positive for Ledet; another dose of negativity for Cavanagh.)
The Contestant's Choice Round
Sanchez leads off the second round with a tear-jerker. She dedicates Luther Vandross' "Dance With My Father" to her dad, who is in the military and about to be shipped overseas to Singapore. Quite simply: Her performance might the best rendition of the song ever performed on the "Idol" stage (many contestants have performed the song). Judge Lopez, noting that Vandross was one of her favorite artists, said, "That may have been the best I've ever heard that song sang."
Laine followed up Sanchez' performance by going country. Although it is her forte, she chose Jason Aldean's "Tattoos On This Town," which is a good song but not one of his better ones. Laine was also missing her usual energy, kind of sedately singing until she hit a killer note at the end. Judges Jackson and Lopez loved it but Judge Tyler was correct when he told her, "You didn't take that song where you've taken every other song, and I kind of missed that flair." He then threw in a disclaimer that she could do no wrong.
Ledet softens things up with India.Arie's "Ready For Love" for the third offering of Round Two. Perhaps not one of his more powerful performances but the judges see something that gets them up out of their seats. Jackson: "...unbelievable." Lopez: "...transcendent." Tyler "... off to the moon." Afterward, Laine meets Ledet off-stage, grabs him and laughingly scolds the judges, "Thanks... that's 12 standing ovations now!"
Elise Testone, who, like Hollie Cavanagh, has had a number of dates with the Bottom Three this season, went for her strong suit -- classic rock. However, she chose an obscure Jimi Hendrix song, "Bold As Love." She gave it a jazz twist and employed a musician friend of hers, Wallace (who the viewing audience got to meet), to accompany her. Tyler told her he "loved it" but she had to be careful choosing songs people weren't familiar with. Lopez enjoyed it as well. Jackson said he didn't think it was the right song choice (to which Lopez disagreed).
Since he's always being compared to Dave Matthews, Phillips apparently felt it was time to do a Matthews number, performing "The Stone." A bit downplayed, like Testone's obscure Hendrix tune, the song was a deep track from Matthews' third album, Before These Crowded Streets. Obscure or no, the audience loved it. The judges gave Phillips kudos for taking chances.
Cavanagh got the "pimp" spot for the night, closing the show with Miley Cyrus' "The Climb." She does a great job -- again and when its time to hear the judges' critiques, it is almost a certainty that they'll find something wrong. Except by song's end, they've gotten to their feet, giving the 18-year-old singer a standing ovation. Lopez tells her that that was "stepping up." Jackson said it was the "perfect song" for her.
With a little time to kill at the end of the show, Seacrest asked the judges who they thought had done the best. They all seemed to be in agreement that each of the contestants had performed at least one song well. But when Seacrest asked Judge Steven Tyler who he was most impressed with, Tyler smiled and said, "Skylar."
Laine definitely has upped her game in the past few performances, but did she do well enough to stay out of the Bottom Three? She's been there once before. In fact, of the Top 6 finalists, only Phillips has not found his way to a silver stool this season.
And regardless of Cavanagh and Testone's propensity for finding the Bottom Three (three times for Cavanagh; four times for Testone) this season, Sanchez' elimination (and subsequent Save by the judges) and Colton Dixon's dismissal in two successive weeks indicates that the "American Idol" voting audience isn't necessarily in tune with the perceived frontrunners.
So who is in trouble? Who knows? Tune in to the results show on Fox Television on Thursday evening and find out with the rest of America.
(photo credit: Aerosmith, Creative Commons)