It's not just the "American Idol" top 5 who are "in it to win it" -- it's the whole dang show, which gave us its best performance night in weeks, thanks to a talent pool that is finally rid of bearded pranksters and misguided dance moves (well, almost). Tonight's mentor: the lovely Sheryl Crow, who is a zillion times more chill than will.i.am. The theme: Now & Then, which asked the hopefuls to sing a current song and follow it with one from the '60s, giving them a chance to showcase their versatility.
Things were looking up all around, from the contestants' clearly upgraded style budgets to the judges feedback, which -- hallelujah! -- has been slightly more discriminating as we get down to the wire. Who rose to the challenge, and who couldn't hack it? Read on for my take, and then be sure to call me out if you don't agree (or show me love if you do -- I won't mind, I promise).
1) Haley Reinhart
Song: The Animals, "House of the Rising Sun"
Steven said: "Sweet and sour, raspy -- I can really relate to that. That really sells a song, and I think you sold everybody tonight.
Jennifer said: "That song has never been sang like that before. Great. Job."
Randy said: "The award tonight for the best performance of the night goes to Haley! You've grown by leaps and bounds on this show."
We say: It's been a long, winding road for me and Haley Reinhart. When she made it through to the top 13 back in March -- leaving other, at-the-time worthier female singers (remember Kendra Chantelle?) sulking offstage -- I was admittedly confused. No, scratch that. I was angry. Then she suddenly developed into this season's Most Improved contestant, but I still wasn't feeling her. The supposed, blues-rock authenticity, the minx attitude and the laid-on-extra thick vocal affect: none of it has ever resonated with me. I wish I could tell you that I've done a 180° since then, and that I'm all aboard Team Haley after tonight's performance -- admittedly, the brashest and most committed of the night. Unfortunately, my beloved Kelly Clarkson and I differ on this one a bit. Despite our complicated relationship, though, Haley gets my top ranking this week. She may not be the next "American Idol," but she's without a doubt fought harder than any of her fellow hopefuls to make it this far, and for that I have one word: respect.