‘American Idol': Scotty Swaggers, Jacob Flounders, Haley’s ‘In It to Win It’

And Sheryl Crow replaces will.i.am for the mentoring

As you know, it has been a historic week for both the nation and the world. I’m referring, of course, to the release of Jennifer Lopez’s seventh studio album, “LOVE?” 

After all, in war or peace, "sexy" is always relevant.

As for the contestants themselves, it’s a big week for them too. In fact, Ryan called last night “one of the most important nights of the season,” reminding us that our very own historical moment is just three weeks away, when we will crown our new American Idol. Perhaps just as historical was the fact that, for the second week in a row, the ever-present will.i.am was nowhere to be found. Taking over mentoring duties instead was Sheryl Crow.

This week’s vague theme offered the contestants two chances to prove that they’re “in it to win it, dawg.” By performing two songs each — one from “the last few years” and one from “back in the day,” the Idols got to show us their ranges. (And Fox got to justify spending 90 minutes on a mere five hopefuls).

JAMES DURBIN

Song #1 “Closer to the Edge” by 30 Seconds to Mars: Sheryl Crow has sung with everyone from Jacko to Pavarotti, yet after singing with James during his rehearsal, she said that she could officially retire now. An assignment to sing something current was just what Durbin needed in order to prove that he has a place in today’s music industry. Sure, “Closer to the Edge” isn’t as ubiquitous as the Muse selection he chose a couple of weeks ago, but most of his songs haven’t been. While his voice is great, it’s his stage presence that is fantastic. I can’t wait to see what kind of special effects he has at his stadium tour. Lopez said, “It’s yours to take, James.” Randy — big surprise — used his now-standard catch-phrase: James is "in it to win it!”

Song #2 “Without You” by Harry Nilsson: For his second selection, James showcased his softer side. In rehearsal, he broke down because the lyrics reminded him of his wife and son and were just too much to deal with. (Seriously?) Sheryl Crow looked like she didn’t know whether to laugh or roll her eyes. With such an amazing range, I expected a little more from James. The power notes never quite came at the end. Of course, it’s disappointing to hear anyone sing this song after you’ve heard the Mariah cover. The important thing, though, wasn’t the singing; it was the fact that he was able to squeeze out a few tears for the camera, a trick that is likely to earn him some votes. It certainly earned accolades from the judges. Despite pitch problems, Randy called it “emotionally perfect.” Jennifer said, “You are an artist,” while Steven called his emotions “incredible.” James wants you to know that he is leaving it all on the stage every week. Thanks, James.

JACOB LUSK 

Song #1 “No Air” by Jordin Sparks & Chris Brown: While this song is a favorite of mine, it’s not what we would call a “singer’s song.” Harvey Mason, who wrote and produced the original, also produced Jacob’s version of it. Why, then, didn’t he tell him to stop screaming the lyrics into the microphone? Jacob stated that this is the kind of song he wants to release … which leads me to believe that he’s schizophrenic. As he gyrated his way through, one had to wonder what the folks back at Ebenezer Baptist had to say about his lewd dancing. This was so not him. Jennifer agreed, saying that he needs to pick songs that best represent the artist he would like to be. Steven loves his voice but also thinks he needs to find his niche instead of imitating others. Randy thinks that even though he was sharp throughout the song, he’s one of the greatest singers in the competition. This, however, was the wrong direction. Randy wants him to be the new Luther Vandross, not a Chris Brown type. “I think I’m an artist that appeals to everybody,” said Jacob, before schooling Randy on the fact that Luther also sang uptempo and club mixes. Uh-oh, these comments and attitude reek of his “Man in the Mirror” cockiness. 

Song #2 “Love Hurts” by the Everly Brothers, NOT Nazareth: Perhaps Jacob, like me, was only familiar with the Nazareth version of this song, because he kept referring to it as "rock." Sheryl seemed to share in his confusion, noting that "he's singing a song that's not in his genre at all." However, the original by the Everly Brothers is about as far away from "rock" as the Mickey Mouse Club. Jimmy Iovine mentioned that doing another gospel or Luther song would probably get Jacob in trouble, but is the catchy fluff of the Everly Brothers really that far off? ("Wake Up Little Susie," anyone?) Sheryl thought the audience would love it and despite a cracked note in the middle, she turned out to be right. It was definitely a far cry from Chris Brown; thankfully, no dance moves were harmed during filming. It was just an adult contemporary take on an adult contemporary classic — very “new Luther.”  “Everybody got lost in you ‘cause you got lost in the song,” said Steven. J. Lo called it “just amazing.” Randy said Jacob redeemed himself on this one.

LAUREN ALAINA

Song #1 “Flat On the Floor” by Carrie Underwood: Finally! This is the kind of stuff that Lauren should be singing. She’s got the voice, sass and looks of fellow Idol Carrie, so why not model her career after Underwood’s? The confidence with which she takes the stage never betrays the fact that she’s a mere 16 years old, just 15 when the competition started. After watching a niche-less Jacob flounder, Lauren showed us that there is no age requirement for knowing who you are as an artist. Unlike her fellow country crooner, Scotty, though, she has a voice that can easily cross over into pop. And hey — is she losing weight? Steven said, “I think you’re ‘it.’” Jennifer told her to do it “just like that” every time. Randy affirmed that he agreed with her direction 100 percent and declared that “Lauren is in it!” (I’m assuming to “win it.”)

Song #2 “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers: Lauren claims that this is her parents’ song. Wait a minute, I thought her parents’ song was Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” At least, that’s what she told Steven Tyler when she used it to audition for “Idol.” She looked beautiful (and, again, skinny!) in a floor-length gown of blue and white. More importantly, though, she sang beautifully. She did, however, shy away from the high note at the end. I’m curious to know whether that was intentional in the arrangement or if she adjusted at the last millisecond, as she definitely has the range to hit it. While the song was a little grown-up for her, she did a far better job than a then-teenage LeAnn Rimes did with her cover. Lauren has the potential to blossom into more of a diva than Rimes; hopefully she won’t break up any marriages in the process. A lazy Lopez said that there was nothing to judge. “It was a beautiful song sang beautifully by you.” Yawn. Randy liked seeing her tender side and declared that she sings like a bird. Steven described Lauren’s voice as “so ripe” and said that he could listen to her all night.

SCOTTY McCREERY

Song #1 “Gone” by Montgomery Gentry: Though he can be a little corny with his Howdy Doody looks and smirky singing, you’ve got to hand it to little Scotty. To have the gall to walk through the audience and make funny faces at the camera at the tender age of 17 is commendable. Contestants much older than him have buckled under the the glare of the “Idol” lights. Along with Durbin, Scotty seems the most comfortable with who he is as an artist. While fellow Idols struggle with things like song selection, I would wager that Scotty and James have notebooks full of production ideas for their future tours, not to mention a list of people they would like to work with. Steven complimented, “Up until now, you’ve been like a Puritan but I swear to God, I saw you dance with the Devil tonight.” Lopez declared, “That is some ‘American Idol’ stuff right there!” Randy said he felt like they were at a Scotty concert before going to his old stand-by: “This guy’s in it to win it, too!”

Song #2 “Always On My Mind” by Elvis Presley: Jimmy mentioned that the Idols often get contradictory advice from the judges. They’re supposed to stay true to themselves but they’re also supposed to take risks. However, the judges have repeatedly told Scotty that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” So he didn’t. He stuck with his favorite performer, Elvis, and did a little stool singing. Yes, it was a bit boring but it sounded great and, more importantly, it showed that he can do everything from uptempo to mushy ballads. He even added a little sniff at the end. Was he going for that patented Durbin emotion? Lopez thought that the two songs showed what a well rounded artist he is. Randy agreed, saying that he’s getting a sense of the kind of record Scotty would make. Steven simply said that America loves his voice and added, “I think we’re gonna make it real hard for America to vote this year.”

HALEY REINHART

Song #1 “You and I” by Lady Gaga: Jimmy suggested this unreleased song to Haley and Haley got Gaga’s permission before committing to it. Sheryl thought it was a superbold choice, and I agree. In a way, it almost didn’t seem fair. Lady Gaga is one of the hottest songwriters working today and to feature an Idol singing one of her unreleased songs would ensure the audience’s rapt attention. I wasn’t a fan in the beginning, but Haley is growing on me as she improves in confidence week after week. The competition is won not on vocal ability but on song selection. It’s taken her a while but this is the kind of music Haley should be singing. The judges, however, did not agree. Illustrating yet another opinion clash between Jimmy and the panel, Lopez mentioned that it was “maybe not the best advice” and that she should showcase herself with songs that people will connect to and love. Randy agreed, saying that as far as song selection, he “didn’t know if it did her any favors.” Steven was a little more positive, agreeing that while it was a risky thing, she “put all of Haley into it.” He added, “I think you’re just one perfect song away from being the American Idol.” 

Song #2 “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals

This might just be that “one perfect song” Steven was talking about. Starting off a cappella, Haley wailed her way through this tune with palpable emotion. In fact, the judges gave her the only standing ovation of the night. Reinhart could turn out to be the comeback kid of Season 10. Despite being in the Bottom Three more than any of the other remaining finalists, she is gaining momentum thanks to some recent strong performances. Steven loved the “sweet and sour” of her raspy voice. Lopez said, “That song has never been sung like that before … great job.” “The award tonight for the best performance of the night goes to Haley!” declared Randy. Translation: You guessed it. Haley’s in it to win it!