'American Idol' Recap: Will Lady Gaga Lead Haley to Victory... or Home?

Michael Becker/FOX

In a night of big notes, some floundered (Jacob Lusk), others wept (James Durbin), but one voice stood apart: Haley Reinhart's.

Wednesday’s “now and then” show, according to Randy Jackson, was the most important night of the year. It’s all about “who’s in it to win it” (doesn’t he say that every week? And every year?), nine-time Grammy winner Sheryl Crow is the guest mentor, and she means business – in the sweetest, most nurturing way (why wasn’t she in the running for a spot at the judges’ table?)

This week also saw our Idols -- notably Haley Reinhart -- taking big risks. Some worked, others didn’t (like that flower in Jennifer’s hair -- first time I despised the ’do all season), and it was all served with a nice chianti, some fava beans, and Anthony Hopkins in the audience. Also in the house: Kelly Preston and her daughter, Idol season 6 alum Lakisha Jones, and Dax Shepard and Dane Cook, who were big James Durbin fans, according to Idol Worship’s Shirley Halperin, who was in the studio.  

Sheryl Crow started off the show by admitting that after singing with James Durbin, she could now retire. Jimmy Iovine predicted greatness, as James jammed with Sheryl on the current 30 Seconds to Mars track, “Closer to the Edge.”  I have to be honest, I don’t think the lower register works for James, and he lost his focus a bit going into the audience for some high fives. James seemed so amped to perform, that he started to get short of breath.

None of that mattered to the judges. Steven Tyler said he “kicked that song’s ass,” Jennifer told him the competition was his to take, and Randy name-dropped Jared Leto and delivered his standard “James is in it to win it” critique. He fared a little better with his second choice, Harry Nilson’s “Without You.” James got so emotional in rehearsal thinking of how far away he was from his family, that it worried Sheryl, who wondered aloud if he could hold it together. He still had problems with his lower register, and strained a bit on the higher notes, and, of course, by the end of the song, he began to tear up. You could tell the song was wearing on him, and he began to devolve after he finished. That moment alone made him safe for another week. Randy told James he was emotionally perfect despite the obvious flat notes, and that the contest was his to lose. Steven said he was pitchy, but he was still beautiful. Jennifer told him he’s a true artist, and that it takes a lot to control emotion in a performance.  Either way, James is completely safe.

Why did Jacob Lusk feel compelled to dress like a doorman last night? Jacob made a decision to take on a duet with Season 6 champ Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown’s “No Air.” This was a terrible choice. Each time he did Jordin’s part, his vocal chords strained to the point where the notes were just escaping him. It was almost a joke watching him attempt this duet -- think of the moment in The Cable Guy where Jim Carrey mimicked Grace Slick’s  vocals on the Jefferson Airplane classic, “Somebody to Love.” Jennifer seemed confused as well, and told him to pick songs that best represent who he is. Randy was, for once, honest: he thought the performance was sharp and corny, and the dawg was finally right, sticking to the script that Lusk should remain  “Jacob the church kid” or the “new Luther.” Steven said he’s waiting for Lusk to find his own voice, although he “loves it.”

Jacob believes he is an artist that speaks to everybody -- I guess that is why he rolled himself into two people last night?  His take on Roy Orbison/ Nazareth’s “Love Hurts” sung in a high falsetto didn’t work, either. That song wasn’t a duet, but the two registers almost made it sound like he was doing “No Air” again. Then came the screech at the end -- really? Randy said that was the highest note ever sung on the Idol stage. Love may hurt, but my ears couldn’t take it.

Lauren Alaina, on the other hand, knows exactly what kind of artist she is: Carrie Underwood. She worked it out with Sheryl, who advised her to stand still and let the audience come to her. Lauren came out trying to do her best Carrie – complete with the Carrie hair and stance as she belted “Flat on the Floor.” Of course, she’s not Carrie (Lauren cut some of the big notes short), but by the middle of the song, she was coming close. Real close. Randy loved the fun side of Lauren and repeated his already tired catch phrase. Steven said Lauren is “it,” and Jennifer told her to do it “just like that, every time.”  

For her second performance, Lauren did what everyone on Earth knows is Simon Cowell’s favorite song, “Unchained Melody.” And those who didn’t know that piece of Idol trivia, they probably cried to it while watching the movie, Ghost. This was definitely a strong moment for Lauren, and she delivered it so tenderly (at times like a lullaby). No wonder Jennifer said there was “nothing to judge.” Steven once again critiqued that it was “beautiful,” and Randy said, “very nice.”

Again with Scotty “The Body” McCreery, Mr. Seacrest? I can’t be the only one that remembers you used that for Scott Savol. Scotty did Montgomery Gentry’s “Gone,” and returned to his beloved lower register. For some reason I looked at him last night and saw Ron Howard in his face. Shirley sees George W. Bush

Scotty had a really good time with the song, channeling Casey Abrams with some growls.  He even let out a bug-eyed “wooo” at the end. There’s no doubt, this kid is going to have a career with or without Idol. Steven said Scotty is a puritan that danced with the devil. Jennifer told him he “owned the stage." Randy’s critique? Say it with me: “This guy’s in it to win it, too!!!” Groan. 

For his second song, Jimmy advised Scotty not to compete with the other contestants and just stay true to who he is. Sheryl can’t wait for Scotty to move to Nashville so she can horn in on his career. His performance of the Brenda Lee/Elvis Presley/ Willie Nelson smash “Always on My Mind” was perfectly sweet, even though he went off pitch a few times. Nobody cared about that. People love the sitting Scotty. Jennifer called him a well rounded performer, with nothing awkward about him. Randy dubbed Scotty the show’s “youngest veteran,” and sees the record Scotty is going to make (as if we couldn’t tell by now). Steven said he couldn’t pick the song apart. The biggest shock? Scotty is a quarter Puerto Rican. He also has the world’s cutest grandmother. Get him to Nashville already -- he’s ready.

Bless Haley Reinhart and her chutzpah for choosing an unreleased Lady Gaga track as her “now” song. The low-down on how it came to be: Jimmy approached Haley with the idea of performing “You and I,” a favorite of Gaga’s live show, and she didn’t feel right about doing that without approaching the pop star herself and asking for her blessing. She got it.

Sheryl predicted Haley was about to have a “moment” on the show with such a bold choice. And I, for one, am starting to think Haley is the only Idol left that can have a real shot at top 40 success. Stay with me here: she’s pretty, she takes chances, her rasp is really appealing and she attacked that song as if it were hers. I didn't know the song, but by the end of the minute and thirty seconds, I fell in love with it. But Jennifer wasn’t so sure about the idea of doing an unreleased Gaga track. Randy didn’t think it was that great of a song, and said Haley is more like a Joss Stone.  Steven loved it, and delivered the line of the night: that Haley was one perfect song away from being the American Idol. I couldn’t agree more. It’s just unfortunate that they made her feel so bad about taking a risk -- like they were all disagreeing with Jimmy, who suggested it. Would they rather the contestants do karaoke? And this is the one time this season they decided to tear into someone? What gives?  

Luckily, she got another chance with The Animals' “House of the Rising Sun,” a song Jimmy said Haley would have recorded had she been a teen in the ‘60s. Sheryl made the spot-on suggestion that Haley go a cappella in the beginning. Indeed, Haley turned the song upside down with her most unbelievable, bluesy, sexy, unreal performance of this season. She also earned the first standing ovation of the night, and accolades galore from the judges. Finally, Randy gave Haley props for having the “best performance of the night.” Jennifer offered, "I don't know if you came out a little angry at us from before… that song has never been sang like that before (someone could use a grammar refresher) and Steven believed Haley sold everybody.

I’ll confess: I bought into it. I’m ready to download that to my iPod, along with the Lady Gaga song -- both the original and Haley's version. Will Gaga help propel Haley to the final two or did her unorthodox choice do her in? As for who is going home on Thursday, I'm calling Jacob -- again. What do you think?