It was '80s Night on Wednesday's "American Idol," and for the most part, the remaining eight finalists paid solid tribute to the decade of decadence, tapered jeans and big hair.
Among the highlights: Jessica Sanchez covering Whitney Houston (again) on "How Will I Know," Phillip Phillips channeling Phil Collins with "That's All" and Skylar Laine successfully ditching her uptempo repertoire for "Wind Beneath My Wings." A lowlight: Elise Testone, who's gained momentum in the past couple weeks, hitting a speed-bump with a Foreigner favorite.
As this week's celebrity mentors, Jimmy Iovine recruited No Doubt's Gwen Stefani and Tony Kanal, who barely uttered a word while Stefani did all the talking.
Let's start from the top:
DeAndre Brackensick took on DeBarge's "I Like It" in a vast improvement from his past geeky performances, ditching his trademark falsetto for his velvety natural voice. In an astute observation, Stefani noted in rehearsals that Brackensick appeared too nervous in rehearsals. And he clearly took the singer's advice.
"You owned it," praised Steven Tyler, in a sentiment echoed by Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson. "You wore it well. That was exceptional today."
Testone, meanwhile, received tepid reviews for her rendition of Foreigner's "I Want To Know What Love Is," one of the most perfect pop songs of all time. (Sidenote: try to argue with that! See, you can't. Foreigner rules.) Anyhoo: Testone, who nailed Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" last week, was called out as "out of tune" and "pitchy" (original) by (who else?) Jackson, while Tyler noted: "I'm not sure that was the right song for you, baby."
Phillips performed the Genesis hit "That's All," accompanied by his brother, Ben, on guitar, earning raves from the judges' panel (per usual). Maybe it's the Idol Kool-Aid, which becomes more potent each week as we gain familiarity with the season-11 finalists, but gravelly-voiced, shifty-eyed Phillips is growing on us, not to mention looking spiffier as the show advances toward the May finale. And speaking of that two-night televised extravaganza, it does not seem too far-fetched to picture Phillips competing alongside frontrunner Sanchez as the last two standing. (You know Stevie's going to watch.)
As for Joshua Ledet, he chose the Simply Red ballad "If You Don't Know Me By Now," and yes, he pulled it off with typically consistent aplomb, what with the Lousiana native's power-soul voice. But come on, let's be real: it sounded like every single song Ledet selects for performance nights. See also: "When a Man Loves a Woman," "She's Got a Way." Until he tries something different, then we're hitting the snooze button on Ledet's adult-contemporary male torch songs. (The judges, however, went gaga. "It was spectacular," J-Lo cooed.)
Sanchez, aka Your Future American Idol (too soon?), nailed her take on "How I Will Know," rocking a retro-inspired cropped jacket, side ponytail and skinny jeans. The 16-year-old California girl, naturally, garnered a collective A-plus for her pitch-perfect, seemingly effortless effort.
"You're such a little girl, but there's, like, this woman up there at the same time," mused Lopez. (In rehearsal, Stefani advised Sanchez to tone down her "lounge singer moves" -- way harsh, Gwen -- because she hardly needs to work on her voice.)
Hollie Cavanagh, the sweet Celine Dion wannabe, crooned "What a Feeling" from Flashdance, leaving the judges less than impressed. Apparently, Cavanagh committed the crime of overthinkiness and lost her focus because she was spending too much time in her head rather than singing from the heart. "Let it go," observed Lopez, in elder pop-star sage mode, adding: "That's the best advice somebody gave me .. a long time ago, and it works."
Borrowing a wistful standard from the Cyndi Lauper songbook, Colton Dixon attempted "Time After Time" (or, the version from the band Quiet Drive), and for the first time ever, his skunky, Flock of Seagulls hairdo did not totally annoy. (Sidenote: did "image consultant" Tommy Hilfiger hook him up with Lauper's hairstylist? They could totally be hair cousins!)
Moving on: Tyler doled out a huge compliment Dixon's direction, saying the emo rocker could make a record right now if he wanted to (yes, and that's why he auditioned for Idol in the first place, thankyouverymuch). Then it was Laine's turn to wow the crowd on the Bette Midler weepie "Wind Beneath My Wings." The Reba McEntire soundalike pulled off another stellar performance, hitting every note and drawing kudos from Tyler and company.
"I wanted to show my full range, and that is what I did tonight," she said afterward.
(Thing is: we'd rather hear Midler, with her butterscotch-rich vocals oozing emotion from every core, belt that song. Though on-key, Laine was also somewhat robotic.)
The boys and girls paired up for gratuitous, albeit enjoyable duets, a new twist on Idol's format and an apparent effort to lengthen the Fox show. Dixon and Laine sang "Islands In the Stream," standing in for Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, but we much preferred it when Mya sampled the melody in the '90s hit "Ghetto Superstar." Brackensick and Cavanagh performed the Pointer Sisters' "I'm So Excited," and it involved a lot of swaying, hair-tossing and all-around '80s-ness.
Phillips and Testone teamed up on the Stevie Nicks-Tom Petty tune "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," while the nicely-matched Ledet and Sanchez out-grooved the competition with Aretha Franklin and George Michael's "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)."
"This is one of the greatest performances I've ever seen on the show," Jackson declared, uttering his latest catchphrase: "They've gotta have it!"