‘American Idol’: Whitney Houston Tribute Night Goes Better Than Expected

Mar 8th, 2012 // Comment

With the shadow of Whitney Houston looming large over American Idol‘s momentous 400th episode, the theme of last night’s show may as well have been: “We’ve set you guys up for failure, so just throw us your best Whitney impression and pray for the best.” At least the guys caught a break, being tasked with the more approachable Stevie Wonder songbook. Find out how the Top 13 fared — better than expected, to be honest — below.

Either America really knows how to pick ‘em, or Mary J. Blige is a great coach. A few singers absolutely slaughtered, a couple absolutely got slaughtered, and the rest came out with a few scratches after a thumbs-up from the grinning triumvirate of judges. Let’s talk about those judges for a second. We finally saw some real criticism last night — emphasis on “real.” (Randy said he was just “being real” every time the boos rained down, but tweens care not for his realness!) Sure, the critiques were couched with the usual fluffy qualifiers, but hey, even JLo got booed! That is progress America(n Idol) can be proud of.

THE GOOD

Last week Jessica Sanchez conquered Jennifer Hudson, and last night she conquered Whitney. Her take on Whitney’s version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” which is only, oh, one of the most difficult vocals ever RECORDED, was the unanimous favorite. JLo uncharacteristically geeked out over the performance, and Steven had so much to say he got cut off.

Jessica Sanchez, “I Will Always Love You”

Hollie Cavanagh, the giggly pixie with the giant voice, sang “All The Man That I Need,” which, given her tiny stature, is probably not a lot of man at all. No histrionics, no overworked vibrato, but also no mistakes, and the powerful rendition led JLo to predict Hollie will be meeting Jessica in the final rounds.

Hollie Cavanagh, “All The Man That I Need”

DeAndre Brackensick did Wonder’s reggae tune “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” to match his Rasta lapel pin, in case you weren’t aware he was in reggae mode. Many of the performers last night went heavy on the stank and rasp, but when DeAndre did it, it didn’t sound as forced. He stumbled a little at the very end, but the performance effectively showed he isn’t just a soulful crooner.

Erika Van Pelt performed “I Believe In You And Me” while wearing a big red prom dress that was apparently made from Oscar carpet leftovers. What must she have done in a past life to make the Idol stylists hate her so much? Anyway, her voice overshadowed her sartorial missteps, bringing the right amount of rock rasp to the love song. Erika nailed the always-tricky key change, stuck with her style and stuck the landing, giving JLo “goosies.”

The man with two last names, Colton Dixon, chose to sing the ballad “Lately,” an interesting choice since so much of Wonder’s catalog seems like it would translate well to rock. Dixon has a pretty generic timbre, and despite his best attempts to make us hate him because he looks like he wakes up and gets dressed using a rock checklist, we can’t because dude can sing. Extra points for that out-of-nowhere falsetto at the end.

By law, any song sung with a twang must have the phrase “broken heart” in it, so Skylar Laine, a/k/a baby Reba, did ”Where Do Broken Hearts Go” for what was allegedly her first Whitney experience. The first thirty seconds were a little iffy, but she crushed it for the last minute of the song. The sheer power of her run at the end and the fact that she’s the only real country presence in the Top 13 prove she’s not going anywhere any time soon.

THE SO-SO

Even though Joshua Ledet was one of Randy’s two favorites of the night, we’re putting him in the middle. The church gospel balladeer did a rollicking take on Stevie Wonder’s energetic “I Wish,” so it showed his versatility. But it was a little TOO faithful to the original: When an untested talent does all that nasal “rabba wahhhowww” screeching it can sound a little ridiculous, a little too labored. Not surprisingly, Steven Tyler absolutely loved the glorified scatting.

Jermaine Jones sang the night’s first slow song, “Knocks Me Off My Feet.” The young lad’s low, mature voice knocked Mary J. Blige off her feet during their rehearsals, and his version picked us up and dipped us into a warm, velvety pot of cheese fondue. But once you get used to his voice, nothing about the performance stuck. As JLo said, he sounded good but he needs to make the songs connect with the listener somehow. If you close your eyes, it’s like listening to a smiling Andre The Giant serenade you. Not exactly a record label’s wet dream.

Our third wild card selection, Jeremy Rosado, chose the delicate ”Ribbon In The Sky,” and while he hit all the notes and showed solid range, it just wasn’t convincing (er, “swagtastic,” as the judges said). Maybe it’s because giant teddy bears with glassy eyes don’t have swag? We’re still waiting for our two gentle giants to blow the roof off the way all those pint-sized gals have.

Phillip Phillips‘ acoustic rock version of the classic “Superstition” answered the question “What would it sound like if Dave Matthews covered Stevie Wonder?” Well, (Stevie) wonder no more! (Also, it’s possible DMB have already covered Stevie on one of their 200 live albums.)  It was fun and all, but his voice sort of got lost in all the fanfare.

We got another ballad when “funny” guy Heejun Han , who sang “All In Love Is Fair.” But first, Seacrest showed us how Heejun tweets all these WACKY photos and has thick-framed glasses and talks in a monotone. Such a joke-making jokester, you guys! His was another performance that was just OK; the Heej kind of sounded out of breath the whole time. Probably from all that laughin’ and scratchin. Still, the performance did nothing but confirm that, yes, he’s a very good singer.

THE BAD

Shannon Magrane‘s rendition of “I Have Nothing” did nothing. She was all over the place on the verses. While she regained some sense of pitch during the melody, she squandered it on the dreaded key change. The judges all blamed it on “nerves” and that pesky “thinking” thing your brain sometimes does, but maybe she’s just not that good? Also, it didn’t help that her leather jacket and sequined pants made her look like a Midwestern soccer mom on Girls Night Out. In 2002.

Elise Testone did a super-pitchy version of “Greatest Love Of All” in rehearsal while Mary J. Blige tried very hard not to make eye contact. Interscope chairman Jimmy Iovine and Mary quickly made her switch to “I’m Your Baby Tonight”, and Elise seemed peeved and unreceptive to their feedback. This did not bode well, and she turned out a nasal, bombastic performance, which Randy said felt like she was “boxing with the song.” Oof. Right hook to the temple, that. Still, when Ryan asked her if the late song change threw her, she handled it like a pro and only blamed herself.

Best of the Night: Jessica’s Bodyguard stunner solidified her #1 seed. But she had better watch out for Hollie nipping on her heels. Literally, because Hollie is tiny.

Worst of the Night: Shannon’s muddled performance. A close second goes to Heejun’s “comedy” riffing and Erika’s red menace dress.

Tonight: The bottom guy and bottom girl are revealed, and the judges will decide which one stays.

Who do you think won the battle of the sexes? Sound off in the comments, or on Twitter and Facebook.

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