“American Idol”: Scary Connick Jr.

Harry Connick Jr. scared the Top 4. Did they survive?

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Based on the pageant-queen paralysis in every performance that wasn’t Candice Glover‘s last night, you’d think American Idol had just served up a meek, tepid episode right when it needed whopper ratings the most. You’d have a right to think that. But daaaahling, I didn’t: Personally, I felt everyone’s frayed nerves made for one of the strangest, most intense episodes of Idol we’ve seen in a long time. I was entertained, and even infotained. Much of the credit goes to the jocular, secretly dead-serious mentor Harry Connick Jr., who used his one-on-one sessions with the contestants to shock them into thinking about their performances. He unraveled Amber Holcomb, spooked Kree Harrison into giving us a wimpy vocal on “Stormy Weather,” questioned Angie Miller‘s everything, and even challenged the Muhammad Ali of melisma, Candice. He was a smiling, seismic blow to their well-tempered trilling, and I lived for the gurgling aftershocks we saw in their performances.

Once again, here are your top four ranked worst to first.

4. Amber Holcomb, “Just Give Me a Reason” and “My Funny Valentine”

Unless a Melinda Doolittle-like backfire is about to screw Candice Glover into missing the Top 2, there’s almost no way Amber Holcomb will survive tomorrow’s vote — even with her endearing and truly mesmerizing stress-weeping that followed her second performance. Here are some unfortunate factoids we learned about Ferocious “Freedom ’90″-Ready Supermodel Amber last night: She struggled to learn the words to that ubiquitous P!nk song she performed; Detective Harry Connick Jr. sniffed out that she knew nothing about the lyrics to “My Funny Valentine”; she seems to be debilitated by the competition; she would dare wear that baby-blue top with the weird cravat detailing. Chills.

Worse, I can’t betray my own Aristotelean values when critiquing the grinning glamazon’s performance: Her urgency on “Just Give Me a Reason” wasn’t enough to compete with P!nk‘s version, and she didn’t even attempt to improve on it. I adored her smooth, lingering rendition of “My Funny Valentine,” but the problem is UGH. Girlfriend performed that in Las Vegas week! I can’t forget how similar it sounded, down to the phrasing and jumps in volume.

Thing is, Amber’s session with Harry Connick Jr. — where he broke down “My Funny Valentine” line by line to her, Henry Higgins-style — painted Amber to be an unfeeling regurgitator of ancient pop standards. To a certain extent, I concur that her bleating emotionality can be vacant, but even within that vacancy, she is still more present and dynamic and vulnerable than Angie, who I contend is a phonier emoter than even Keith Urban has declared. It’s not just that Amber is more “marketable.” She is flat-out more watchable, which goes hand in hand with “less pandering.” Amber’s days are numbered, but still she’s saucier than the competition despite her nervous tremors and quavering vocals

3. Angie Miller, “Diamonds” and “Someone to Watch Over Me”

Maybe I’m an Angie-hating Philistine with no Christian values or Evanescence appreciation, but I honestly thought her rendition of Rihanna‘s “Diamonds” was annoyingly boring, misguided, and inconsequential. You know she thought it was deep. She thought she was Johnny Cash treating Nine Inch Nails‘ “Hurt” with some rootsy realness and teaching us all about ourselves. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t take a graduate-level Classics scholar to realize there is no emotional depth to the lyrics of Rihanna’s jam, and maybe turning the throbbing mid-tempo track into an unassuming piano ballad was a joyless idea from the start. It shouldn’t bother me so much, but Angie oozes with the presumption of relevance. Banana curls do not count as relevance. Unless you are Coco Montrese, because what else can you use?

Meanwhile, Angie’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” felt like the natural, if slightly uninspired follow-up to her great performance of “Cry Me A River” last week. Epic, yearning, and with a bit less “Miss Teen Junior Achievement Utah ’13″ pageantry than we expected. Good show there. But God-oh-God-oh-God, please don’t win this.

2. Kree Harrison, “See You Again” and “Stormy Weather”

Yet again, Kree Harrison gave two performances that amounted to lonesome-but-pretty balladry, and she has to recognize on some level that no one wants to see that every week, even if her tone is like elegant white wine or Sue Bee Honey or a bouquet of countrified smiles or whatever. Kree’s Kreedom is a dependable name-brand cereal. Hearty, parent-approved, and just filling enough to qualify as a meal even if it lacks gravitas or any sense of variety. Yes, you heard me. KREE IS RAISIN BRAN, PASS IT ON.

Believe it or not, I thought her rendition of Carrie Underwood‘s “See You Again” was not only better than Carrie’s version a few weeks back, but downright superior and shamefully grander. To be fair, Carrie’s voice seemed a bit shot when she took the stage, but Kree’s hurting whine felt righter on it than the familiar Underwood chirp. As for “Stormy Weather”? I admit it was revealing — in some theatrical, near-Shakespearean way — to see Kree appear at all self-conscious or unsure during a performance. But every time she trailed off in a dogged attempt not to oversing, which was an admonition Harry threw down at her like the sword of Damocles, she just sounded meek. Scared. Unready. Kree was born ready for this competition, and now it appears that Harry Connick Jr freshly undid a lifetime’s worth of experience. Cue up Carrie Underwood’s “Undo It”!

1. Candice Glover, “When I Was Your Man” and “You’ve Changed”

Well, I’m at least relieved there was no real competition for the #1 spot. Candice still isn’t quiiiiite fetching the props she deserves as the undisputed best and — as Mariah astutely noted — most musical performer in the game. See, that’s the gift that Amber, Angie, and even Kree will always lack: a knack for the dialogue that occurs between a vocalist and a song, the spontaneity and truth that coalesce to make real, human moments in even the most prehistoric standard. The others can sound pretty (and sassy, in the case of Amber), but none of them ever amount to living in the song. And believe me, I was living for Candice’s work on Bruno Mars’ “When I Was Your Man” and the old classic “You’ve Changed.” Jee. Zuz.

First of all: Thunderous golf claps to Candice for choosing the gender-specific Bruno track, keeping it as is, and not caring about anything but flooring you with the damn meaning of the damn song. Sidenote: On Alanis Unplugged, Alanis Morissette covers The Police‘s “King of Pain,” but she changes the line to “queen of pain” in the last chorus, and I have always thought that was weird. It haunts me, like a black-wing gull with a broken back, or Stewart Copeland‘s haircuts. Candice’s commitment to the song’s truth was a mature decision, and it made her competition look like exactly what they are: inoffensive contestants in a talent show. Candice managed to outdo that gem with “You’ve Changed,” which purred, revved, and shot sparks like an exploding 18-wheeler. I’m with Nicki on this one: There’s nothing to say! She is the best single vocalist the show has had since Adam Lambert, except her song choices are weirdly more wicked and — get this! — more sexual. Fire, Candice. Take it all. And don’t stop even when Harry threatens to invite Angie to the Dolphin Tale 2: 4D premiere. You keep on living.

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