Last night's American Tune Bag was a strangely dark episode, one full of angry songs and pained singing, a blast from the turbulent past that overcame our brave, noble tributes and reduced them to the small quivering children that they are at heart. Well, mostly. There was some good singing! But it all felt tinged with a bit of madness, didn't it?
The assignment that Ryan, wearing his old gown and motar board and stroking his pet owl Dr. Questions, gave them was a heady one: Sing one song from the half-century-gone era known to most of us as "The Sixties" and sing another from the fraught, busy oeuvre that we've gone and deemed "Brit Pop." So basically sing songs of strife and anguish, of clash and noise rising above council flats and grimy Yorkshire murder scenes. That's a tough assignment for these five slabs of American cheese-meat. That's a lot of history to consume and swallow and then regurgitate as big beautiful sound explosions. But these kids are nothing if forever undaunted, they will march merrily into even the most hopeless of battles, and so they strapped on their singing gear — their monitor ear things, their stiff and unforgiving costumes, their glorious and ornate codpieces — and they headed off into the jungle. Brave, all! Foolish, some.
Like a lightning bug that's just escaped a jar, Hollie Cavanagh is glowing awfully bright, isn't she? Something has turned on inside her, she's burning with a new and exciting fire. I've always liked her — well, OK, there were a few weeks in which I lost my faith, sure — so it's nice to see her realize that she is, in fact, in it to win it and sing her tiny faerie face off. She ambitiously chose "River Deep, Mountain High" for her '60s song, a tune that guest mentor Silvio Dante basically called the best record ever recorded, and she sent that thing bouncing off the rafters. It was a nice performance from a nice girl and all the judges were proud. She also did a sweet job on her Brit Pop choice, Leona Lewis' "Bleeding Love" (good excuse for Randy to make awkward X Factor jokes), which, OK, great song and all and yes Leona Lewis is herself from the Isles, but that song was written by Jesse freakin' McCartney, who is about as American as a bald eagle climaxing in the back of a pickup truck. Jesse McCartney is as American as American gets (as is his co-writer Ryan Tedder), he is basically a round ripe red apple being delicately loved by a painting of George Washington. So to call this tune-ditty "Brit Pop" is mayyyybe a bit of a stretch. Just maybe. But whatever. Hollie, herself a strange mix of Brit and American, tweeted it out pleasingly and the judges threw coins of silver at her feet and said "Hurrah, child! Hurrah!" and she was spared from the sword for another night.
Joshua Ledet is a good singer and this is not surprising, and last night he blared his songs — "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" and "To Love Somebody" — with his usual turtle-y competence. Joshua's sort of a straight line that's been running on a very, very high plateau since the competish began, which, while it is very high, is still plateauing. I wish he would choose some crazier, out-tha-box songs and really wrassle 'em to the ground, because I'm sure he would pull it off and it would be pleasing to watch Joshua kill some strange song he's never met before, just to watch the light leave its eyes. I wish Joshua had chosen some kind of '80s Brit Pop song instead of that lounge classic. I wish he'd chosen something gnarled and twisty from the '60s. But instead he does his crowd pleasers, and please the crowd they do, but they're not all that exciting anymore. And Joshua needs to be exciting, lest he suffer an injustice at the Idol voting booth.
Finally, finally, finally. Finally Randy Jackson and I are seeing eye-to-eye. We've been circling each other for years now, me hissing out my usual mixture of seltzer and acid, he hooting and growling like King Bowser, never quite reaching common ground. Until last night. Until last night, when he did not follow after the Tyler witch and J.Lopes by praising Jessica Sanchez's blurty, shrieky "Proud Mary." Instead he said it was barely OK or something and Jessica's face did a strange bit of ballet and Ryan released in his underpants and everyone was like "Whaaaat???" But Randy spoke truth, and now he and I are best friends and we will steal Princess Peach together. I'm basically Wario now. I don't know. Who is King Koopa friends with? Anyway, the point is that yet again the Sanchez 3000 singing robot competently did its job but though it knows 200 words that mean music, it does not know how to love. "Please, Dr. Questions," the robot begs of its creator, Ryan Seacrest's pet genius owl, "Please teach me to love." And the owl just hoo-hoooos at the robot in cruel passivity and flies away to do its owl things. The Sanchez-O-Tron cannot simulate human emotion properly enough and so while she is technically good, the best there is, purrs like a luxury automobile, it is all empty success, cold victories, hollow trophies decorating an otherwise bare and unadorned room.
I didn't care for Skylar Laine's Dustiah Springfield song last night. I'm just going to say it. I love Skylar Laine and I hope she wins the big jam at the end but Dusty is a hard gal to sing and "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me" has to be sung with real conviction and Skylar just didn't have it last night. She did perfectly well with her CCR joint ("Fortunate Son") but her Brit Pop number (do you always forget that Dusty Springfield was British? I always forget that) just didn't exactly cut the particular mustard it needed to cut. In her defense it is definitely hard to cut mustard, but still. You'll get 'em next week, Sky-sky.
THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE
But the craziest biggest failure of Phil Phillips' night was his duet with Josh-Josh Ledet, a mangled and stuttering rendition of "You've Lost That Loving Feeling," that old Tom Cruise/Anthony Edwards tune. Oh god was that thing a mess. Phil was having gay panic to such an insane degree that it was all the judges could talk about after the performance was over. J.Lo was all "It's OK singing that with a dude! Just sing to the girls in the audience!" or some such other norm-y horse hooey, and Phil made a strange and pained face on the stage while Joshua, poor sweet wonderful gay as three picnics Joshua, stood there like a fool, his expression growing sadder and more lost by the millisecond, Ryan standing off to the side sweating it out with Joshua, wanting to reach a hand out to say "I know, I know" and to reassure him that things do in fact get better or easier or something, but wouldn't that have been a lie just then? With everything in shambles. Tim missing, Colton taunting him in the dark of his house every night. The maid won't even come anymore, so scared of "el diablo" is she. She had her brother who is a priest from Monterrey come to the house to bless it and cast the devil out but even he, a respected and revered priest, could not banish this dark spirit. So she said "I am sorry Mr. Seacrest, but I cannot work here anymore. I have children and they have children and my granddaughter cannot finish wasting her life studying theater at Sarah Lawrence if I am consumed by a devil while I work, so I have to take another job." So Ryan is alone with Colton's whispers all the time. Sometimes he lies on the bed and sobs and says "Please Colton, pleeeeeease. Just give me back my Tim..." and Colton, or whatever there is of Colton, will laugh a low mean laugh and that will be it for the evening.
So yeah Ryan stood looking at Joshua last night, poor Joshua who had made Phil so uncomfortable, and Ryan wanted to offer some quiet words of comfort, but he had none, none whatsoever. So the moment passed and it was on to the next bright thing and Joshua and Phil shuffled off the stage and Ryan took a deep breath, feeling a pain, a ghostly stab, in his chest, and, ever bravely, soldiered on.