'American Idol': Haley Reinhart Rises to the Top After Lady Gaga Setback

'American Idol': Haley Reinhart Rises to the Top After Lady Gaga Setback

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.

6) Lauren Alaina
Song: The Righteous Brothers, "Unchained Melody"

Steven said: "Your voice, your singing: it's so ripe, it's so there…it's just looking for that right song, again."

Jennifer said
: "Nothing to judge there, really. It was a beautiful song sang beautifully, by you."

Randy said: "We saw different sides to you tonight…this girl can sing like a bird, and that's what you proved tonight."

We say: While this was by no means the weakest performance of the night, it definitely bummed me out the most. Why? Because Lauren's emotional connection just didn't cut it. She got off to a great start vocally, and she looked amazing in a youthful, yet glamorous gown. But it was completely clear to me that she really didn't know what she was singing about. Some Lauren fans on Twitter said I should cut her some slack since she's 16, but here's the thing: I'm also a fan, and while I don't expect her to know what she's singing about, I do expect her to convey that she does, and to render her age irrelevant -- just like any incredible, beyond-their-years talented teen singer would do. I was really disappointed that she couldn't pull this off with a song that isn't technically difficult to sing and that had obvious, however indirect, personal meaning to her.

7) James Durbin
Song: 30 Seconds to Mars, "Closer to the Edge"

Steven said: "I think you kicked that song's ass."

Jennifer said: "In the past few weeks, you've been showing us that you want it, and I know America is feeling it."

Randy said: "Now you're showing us where you can go as an artist and the type of record you could make."

We say
: Deprived of his precious '80s metal catalog, James Durbin finally went current again, bringing Jordan Catalano -- I mean, Jared Leto's band to "Idol." The whole performance was a little shouty and off-key, and the backing band did him no favors -- were they playing underneath the stage or something? -- but all that fancy pryo, and the judges' shameless swooning, allowed James to coast through his first performance with relative ease. Sidenote: It's clear Randy is firmly in James' corner, and I can only guess that it's because he's trying to set up a James vs. Scotty nail-biter in the end. But now Steven and Jennifer are echoing him, and it's all getting a little icky and too reminiscent of the Casey James lovefest of yesteryear (last week -- time moves fast on this show).

Steven Tyler to Premiere Solo Video on 'American Idol'

8) Haley Reinhart
Song: Lady Gaga, "You and I"

Steven said: "When someone can take a song they don't know and make it work, that's a beautiful thing…You did that. I think you're just one perfect song away from being American Idol."

Jennifer said: "I'm just not sure that that was the best advice that Jimmy gave you at this point in the competition. I want you to come out and have that big moment every single time."

Randy said: "I'm not sure it's that great of a song. I'm sure you probably could have thought of other things."

We say: If Randy's gunning for James to win, Steven is head over heels for Haley. (Who do we think Jennifer's favorite is, now that her not-so-secret admirers Stefano and Casey are out?) He had a point in saying that Haley made the most out of a song that many people are simply unfamiliar with, but there was a clear limit to just how effective her performance could be. I think Haley would have been better off doing Gaga's "Speechless," another piano-rock ballad with a similar vibe, but one that's already been released and has legions of fans who haven't just heard it on the Monster Ball tour. Too bad there are no do-overs on "Idol."

9) Jacob Lusk

Song: Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown, "No Air"

Steven said: "We love where you've gone with your voice, and we're waiting for you to find a niche. I'm waiting for that certain something that you find that's you."

Jennifer said
: "I have been struggling with what kinds of songs you do, and your choices every week are so different…now that we're getting to the end, it's going to be very important for you to pick songs that really represent you."

Randy said: "I don't think anybody on this stage should be singing duet songs…Most of it was sharp. I don't see you as Chris Brown or Jordin Sparks."

We say: Just call him Jacob "Body Roll" Lusk! I just love how he breaks out a new dance move every week -- sike; it's all sorts of wrong, every time. Sadly, so were his vocals, which did not mesh well with this uber-contemporary ballad. Jacob was over-enunciating all over the place, and the feeling he communicated was not one of breathless, borderline desperate love -- it was some kind of misplaced joy that made no sense with the lyrics. So between the body rolls and the negatory vocals, that was two strikes against Jacob -- and sadly, he struck out completely when he committed the cardinal "Idol" sin of attempting to school the judges on Luther Vandross. It was "Man in the Mirror"-Gate, the sequel, and it was not OK.

10) James Durbin
Song: Harry Nilsson, "Living Without You"

Steven said: "Pitchy a little bit, in a strange kind of James Durbin kind of way. But it was beautiful."

Jennifer said: "You're not just the guy who can wail up into the stratosphere…you have the heart and soul to back it up."

Randy said: "The notes, some of them were flat, sharp here and there, but it was emotionally perfect and that's what the audience out there really feels."

We say: Sorry, Randy: emotionally perfect, this was not. I've seen many an "Idol" contestant cry after a performance, and when it worked, it was because the quality of those performances wasn't hindered by the emotion. Emotion should support the performance, not dismantle it, and that's what happened to James here, in his weakest moment of the season next to his version of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." An imperfect or strained note here and there can be impactful, but pitchiness across the board shouldn't be explained away. The bottom line is that the two times James has gone the subdued route, it's been very underwhelming. After the versatility that Scotty, Lauren, and even Haley showed tonight, it's hard to see James as being up to par with them.

Final verdict: Is there any way Jacob can stick around for another week? I don't see it, but I was wrong last week, so I'll pick a backup contestant to go home -- Haley. Yes, she got the pimp spot and made the most of it, but she doesn't have the fan loyalty that the Scotty, Lauren and James have, and I think the end of the road is nye. Or near. Take your pick.

What do you think? Did James Durbin take a step back this week? Did Lauren's ballad disappoint you? Could Haley go from underdog to "Idol" champ? Sound off in the comments, and I'll be back to share my reactions.


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