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'American Idol' Recap: Girls School the Boys on Billy Joel Night

Elise Testone and Erika Van Pelt have their strongest season 11 performances yet, while several of the guys struggle with style, song and substance.

Elise Testone Billy Joel night L
Michael Becker / FOX

Wednesday night’s American Idol aimed to put the country in a “New York State of Mind” by featuring the songs of Billy Joel, and to quote Steven Tyler: “If you can’t sing Billy Joel, you can’t sing at all.” Or, in the case of Heejun Han, if you can’t sing like Billy Joel, just go all Nick Mitchell-Norman Gentle on the audience and win the whole night!

OK, so Billy Joel is very much an East Coast thing, with songs about the Big Apple, Greenwich Village, the Yankees, smoky piano lounges, Broadway, and even Pennsylvania. Frankly, I was kind of surprised that Tyler later admitted that he wasn’t familiar with Joel’s “She’s Got A Way,” but that just goes to show how deep the Piano Man’s catalog runs.

On hand for mentoring duties with Interscope chief Jimmy Iovine was P. Diddy, Jennifer Lopez’s ex-boyfriend from what seems like a lifetime ago (how cute was that when she called him Puffy?) and a reality show judge in his own right (Making the Band, anyone?). New image consultant Tommy Hilfiger was on hand to dole out styling tips, and although Jessica Sanchez was thrilled to take direction, just about everybody ignored him. To wit: Hilfiger told Skylar Laine to wear boots -- she wore heels. He said Phillip Phillips should avoid grey – guess what the heartthrob wore? You guessed it, grey. He tried to talk clothes with Heejun Han, but in no time became another character in a soon-to-be-created sitcom for Fox.

VIDEO: 'American Idol': Elise Testone Duets With Obama on 'Let's Stay Together' (Video)

No, the most drastic change of the night was without a doubt Erika Van Pelt’s hair -- from blonde with red streaks and long to short, dark and daring.  Idol Worship followers on Twitter loved Van Pelt’s rocking style (one compared her look to Adam Lambert in Season 8), as did Ryan Seacrest, who quipped, "Not since the Sanjaya ponyhawk have we seen such a transformation.”

As for musical advice, Randy Jackson continued last week’s feud with Iovine over some of the record executive’s critiques saying, “Those that do, should; You just did because you do,” or some nonsensical comment like that. But if those that do, don’t, and those that can, will…  (just trying to follow Jackson’t train of thought), who benefitted from all three mentors?

Here’s our run-down of the Top 10:

DeAndre Brackensick: Tommy Hilfiger said he prefers it when Brackensick lets his hair down, and suggested the teen lose the ponytail (he listened). As for his other big decision? Brackensick chose “Only the Good Die Young,” which Iovine tells him is a tough song to sing. Diddy tried to frame it for Brackensick, but the rapper doesn’t seem to know that Christie Brinkley pre-dates the song. Both told Brackensick to have fun or he is D.O.A. And so Brackensick comes out with a happy dance, and certainly looked like he was having fun, whipping his mane everywhere and hopping about, but I wasn’t feeling it.  It was just a little too laid back, and it didn’t seem like Brackensick was enticing this Catholic girl to do anything dangerous. The judges were split on the performance as well. Tyler noted the screaming girls, and said, “You got some fans here. At first I thought that was too happy, but isn’t that what the world needs now?” Lopez liked the “island vibe” and Jackson dug the skips and jumps, but said, “It didn’t wow me.”

Erika Van Pelt: J and D (Jimmy and Diddy) were (understandably) nervous about Erika Van Pelt over-singing the song, and advised her to get in her own “New York State of Mind” if she was going to deliver a credible version of the classic ode to the Big Apple... Meanwhile, she made a bold decision to style cut her hair short and dye it black, like New York icon Liza Minelli (meets Pink).  In the end, Van Pelt delivered a gutsy and raw performance, and left the judges wanting more. Said Jackson: “I love the look. It’s hot! Dude, I love that and I love the vocals,” but offered one piece of advice: “treat the song like it should be” and “wear us out by the end.” Lopez agreed, telling her, “You were great. I would love to see you let loose with your body. Unplant your feet and move around.” Tyler added, “You could have put more character into it” but otherwise called it “outstanding.”

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Joshua Ledet: Last week’s frontrunner chose to sing “She’s Got a Way” and admitted, like last week, that he never heard of the song before (clearly, Ledet doesn’t get out much). To make matters more uneasy, Hilfiger rejected his choice of outfit, and Iovine cut him down in rehearsal with the sitning comment: “James Earl Jones ghosted into your body.” Diddy felt Ledet was having trouble with connecting to the song, and he was right.  And during the live performance, Ledet was still struggling, but thanks to an assist from a gospel choir, went into into his zone towards the end with the big runs and high notes. Lopez picked up on it right away: Ledet needed the choir because that is where he lives. She added, “Billy Joel wrote his life in his songs. … I feel stupid to say anything in any way… I just needed to feel like you were connected more to the lyrics.” Tyler said: “You made a song that I didn’t know come to life.” Jackson tried to pep him up, telling him, “With a voice like yours and a talent like yours, never feel defeated. Grab the lyric and make it your own.”

Skylar Laine: As Seacrest excitedly told viewers, Laine was going to put a country twist on “Shameless,” but this was a hit for Garth Brooks (which Laine, to her credit, knew even though Jackson forgot and credited Brad Paisley). At first, Diddy felt she was forcing the lyrics, but by the end of rehearsal, she had it.  She started in a register that was way too low for her, but pulled it together with those powerful notes that fans have come to expect. Still, Laine seems to be losing that spark we all felt a few weeks ago. Maybe she needs to do some more up-tempo numbers.  Indeed, Jackson seemed disappointed, and told her “It was pretty good. Not your best.” Lopez is still clearly a fan, calling Laine “Fearless.” Tyler offered the correct criticism that the song was “slow in the beginning” and “a little pitchy, but you still breathe life into this song.”

Elise Testone: J and D were both concerned that Testone’s choice of “Vienna,” a song that only hardcore Billy Joel fans know, was a bad move. But I happen to be one of those people and I love this song. Let’s be clear here: Elise Testone killed it. She absolutely nailed it, complete with the sultry, bluesy, jazzy, late-night cigarettes and booze delivery that the song demands. I loved the accordion, loved the hair, the dress, the delivery -- all of it! She earned a standing ovation from all three judges, and deservedly so. Perhaps Jackson summed it up beautifully when he said Testone “had a moment” and complimented, “that run at the end -- I don’t know any singers that could probably sing that other than you.”

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Phillip Phillips: Sales at his parents’ pawnshop have picked up since Phillip Phillips started his Idol journey. Still, Hilfiger wants him to stop looking like a guy who works at a counter and advised him to take some style risks. Diddy wanted him to take more musical risks, howoever, perhaps a groove on Joel’s “Movin’ Out.”  They even told him to take away the guitar.  Phillips ignored everything --wearing grey on grey, playing the guitar and staying true to himself.  Not only was he grooving, his performance had a seductive quality, perhaps even angry, as Lopez pointed out. It was a strong showing, and the only style tip he welcomed was Tyler’s sparkly scarf. Well played. Said Lopez: “You are who you are and you have to be who you are.” Tyler take: “You took that song and you Phillip Phillips’ed it. … Don’t ever stop being you.” As for Jackson? He told the Georgia native, “You know who you are. That is one of the best renditions of that song ever.”

Hollie Cavanagh: Hilfiger doesn’t want Hollie Cavanagh to dress like an old lady anymore, and she wants sparkle, so the final outfit, a white pantsuit, did the trick. Looking young and shiny, She chose “Honesty” and Diddy advised her to connect to the anger in the song. I said it last week and will repeat it again: she picks big songs for a little girl, and this week was no different. Hollie Cavanagh clearly wants a big moment, but goes off-key when she tries for the high notes.  When she hits the big notes, she’s fantastic, but she has to watch out for pitch problems, as the judges are starting to notice. Tyler told her, “Tonight you were a little pitchy.” Lopez agreed, and said “You take on these big songs, but at the end of the day you have to know every single note. … You’ve got to nail those every single time.” Jackson said the verses had “ little pitch issues, “ but praised her youthful look, saying “you look beautiful, great job with the styling.”

Heejun Han: Clearly rattled by the negativity of last week, J and D advised him to turn that frown upside down. The way Diddy sees it, he isn’t sure if Han is an actor, a con-man, or even Asian -- and I think agree that Han’s admission of being “freaked out” didn’t sound sincere. Han tested Hilfiger as well, suggesting Jessica Sanchez and Michael Bolton are his fashion icons, while during his performance, Han did an Idol fake out, starting the song tuxedo-clad at the piano as if he were about to sing a ballad. He proceeded to rip off the jacket, declare that it’s “too slow for me” and scream, “I Want to Dance!”  He then gave a mock-art rave-up of Joel’s “My Life,” which providing much needed adrenaline after a string of ballads. It was like Nick Mitchell/Norman Gentile and Sanjaya rolled into one. Vocally? It was a joke, but the tweets on his performance were all in his favor. Lopez loved the comedy of it, and said “That was a breath of fresh air. … It was a lot of fun.” Tyler was amused, and added, “I’m a little tongue tied.  Are you happy you took the piss out of that song?” He then told Han that, “The music business will kick your ass… At some point, you’ve got to take it more serious.” Jackson pointed out the obvious, that  “there was still some vocal problems -- it was missing a bit, but still you had a good time.”

VIDEO: 'American Idol's Jessica Sanchez and Elise Testone Get Ringing Endorsement from 'X Factor's' Chris Rene 

Jessica Sanchez: The freak of nature that is Jessica Sanchez chose to sing “Everybody Has a Dream,” but Diddy felt a responsibility to say that he didn’t believe her delivery. Once he got her to “respect the song” in rehearsal, he revealed his belief: that she has the makings of a star. Not only did Sanchez look the part, but vocally she gave the most controlled, yet soaring and uplifting vocal of the night. If she doesn’t go all the way to the finale, it will be the biggest shock of the season. Sanchez earned a well-deserved standing ovation and Tyler noted that he had nothing left to offer, judging-wise. “When God gave out vocal cords, you were so at the front of the line,” he said. Lopez called the performance “a defining moment” while  Jackson added, “You have a moment every time you step on that stage. That was professional.”

Colton Dixon: Dixon calls his style “edgy, punk rock, military,” but Hilfiger wants him to change his hair (fat chance – Dixon considers his ‘do his “baby”). No matter, Billy Joel night was custom-made for Dixon, who finished the night on a red piano left over from last season’s Elton  John night. Naturally, he delivered the ultimate closer, “Piano Man.” And despite one yelp that treaded dangerously close to Peter Brady “It’s Time to Change” territory, the performance was heartfelt and a welcome return to Dixon at his best: behind the keys. No joke, even Diddy said he would buy Dixon’s recorded version of the song. Dixon invoked Lopez’s elusive “goosies” as she commented that he sings “with pure feeling.” Added Tyler: “You’re a great musician and a great singer,” while Jackson called Colton a “rock star.”

So who’s going home? The judges loved Elise Testone, Jessica Sanchez, Phillip Phillips and Colton Dixon best, but did song choice do anyone in? Are you all happy to have Han on the tour, no matter what? What say you, Worshippers?

Twitter: @micheleamabile