'90s kids will remember how Saved by the Bell: The College Years evoked slightly uncomfortable, almost defensive feelings when it aired: The fresher, more modern twist on the old show seemed appropriate for the times in theory, but lacked the organic magic of the original series.
Often, the first half of the variety show-styled Idols Live concert that brought the 11 Season 10 finalists to Houston’s Reliant Arena Thursday night felt just like that.
Tackling a slew of high-energy Top 40 hits, the finalists turned the stage into a current dance party, injecting an extra shot of flashiness that you’d be hard pressed to find on previous Idol tours –think sequenced mini-dresses and frequent shimmying. There were times when it worked, like Pia Toscano, Thia Megia, Haley Reinhart and Naima Adedapo’s fierce cover of Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope,” or Adedapo’s African dance-infused spin on Jennifer Lopez’s “On the Floor.”
Even the goofy group number to Cee Lo Green’s PG-13 “Forget You” was a blast of fun, showcasing the range of personalities.
But more often than not during the first half, the finalists fell short of the pop stars they covered. The girls gave a lackluster opening performance of Lady Gaga “Born This Way,” and the trio of Lauren Alaina, Toscano and Megia had trouble matching the energy and control of Katy Perry’s “Firework.” Stefano Langone got the crowd moving and shaking to Usher’s “DJ Got Us Falling in Love” but couldn’t…be Usher?
Perhaps because American Idol isn’t designed to unveil the hottest performer — it’s designed to elevate the best singer.
That’s why Toscano’s stripped down “Empire State of Mind” by Alicia Keys and Jay-Z and Casey Abram’s bass-accompanied “Smooth” by Rob Thomas and Santana served as a breath of fresh air — a reminder of the power of the voice, whether its commanding like the former, or nuanced like the latter. And that’s why the second half of the concert felt that much richer, carried by the tried-and-true Idol formula of songs that give the contestants’ voices room to breathe and individuality a chance to shine.
Alaina‘s purely country set kicked off the second half (oddly, the show was only loosely based on the order of elimination, unlike previous tours). She wrapped her textured, country-soul voice around the foot-stomping “Flat on the Floor” by Carrie Underwood, and then fell into her groove with a searing cover of The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young” and her latest single, “Like My Mother Does” (prompting a spontaneous hug between the 20-something and her mom in the row in front of me).
James Durbin married showmanship with vocals on a crowd-pleasing “Sweet Child O’Mine” by Guns N’ Roses, which he began in the middle of the crowd, and followed it with Muse’s anthemic “Uprising.” Jacob Lusk relived his best performance on the show with Marvin Gaye’s soulful “You’re All I Need to Get By.”
And this skeptic isn’t ashamed to call out the show stealer: Reinhart. The consummate performer delivered a killer set, comprised of a scintillating, pitch-perfect reprise of “House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals and an infectious, soaring “Bennie and the Jets” by Elton John. Her presence and comfort level on the stage was unmatched by any other finalist.
Though not quite as powerful as Reinhart, the Season 10 winner Scotty McCreery closed out the show with a sincere, solid set of country songs — Josh Turner’s “Your Man” (a nod to his comical start on Idol), Thompson Square’s “Are You Going to Kiss Me or Not,” his lukewarm latest single “I Love You This Big,” and a gorgeous duet with Alaina on Alison Krause’s “When You Say Nothing At All.”
McCreery finished with a smokin' performance of Montgomery Gentry’s “Gone,” including an adorable line dance by back-up singers Alaina, Megia, Toscano and Reinhart. The crowd met him with undoubtedly the strongest applause, and he reciprocated with palpable genuineness and graciousness.
The finalists united one last time for a Glee-esque medley of songs — “Here I Go Again” by Whitesnake, “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith, etc. — that, against the cheesy odds, felt endearing and enjoyable.
And isn’t that how Idol works?
Tara Seetharam covered Season 10 of American Idol for CultureMap. Click here to see all of her stories.