(CBS News) When you're down to the last five in "American Idol," you wonder what on earth the producers can do to bring the show to even more exalted heights.
For Wednesday night's show, they didn't offer the contestants one theme. No, they doubled down. First, it was to be the '60s and then Britpop. The latter surely made Skylar Laine reach for an underage shot of Mississippi hooch.
First up was Hollie Cavanagh, who was originally a Liverpool Brit before she popped over with her family to Texas. This is a little like moving from a studio apartment to a five-bedroom house. Or from a Fiat to a pickup truck.
Thankfully, we had time this week to witness Uncle Jimmy Iovine in rehearsals. With him was Bruce Springsteen's do-ragged right-hand man. Steven Van Zandt.
She began in the audience with her own marching band of brass and choir. In a dress left behind by an Aztec backing singer, Cavanagh tried to give the song every last ounce of her frame. It was solid. But so is the Arctic Circle. Mostly.
"That's the first time I've really heard you step out and use your blues," said Steven Tyler.
Phillip Phillips described "The Letter" as a good song. He just didn't think much of the original version - which was, some might imagine, what had made it a good song. Iovine didn't find Phillips' version exciting. Van Zandt, with all the aplomb of a knowing wife, told Iovine to leave the little boy alone.
The more you listen to Phillips, the more you realize that he tries to turn every song not merely into a Phillip Phillips song, but into the very same song as the last Phillip Phillips song. There again, Van Morrison can do that and he's one of the greatest singers ever to have lived and still be alive.
"You vibed it. Maybe it didn't have as much melody," said Randy Jackson. Jennifer Lopez, staggeringly, had no idea about the original. Which must make you think her official age might not be real. Perhaps she really does come from an era when they didn't have radios in the Bronx.
Tyler admitted he missed the melody. But he added: "You get away with it the way the Stones got away with it." I am not sure if that was some sort of drug reference.
Skylar Laine, having been in the bottom three the previous week, needed to do more than get away with it. She wanted to sing "Knock on Wood." Her mentors thought that was a wooden idea. Iovine persuaded her to reach for a little revival - the Creedence Clearwater variety. The song, "Fortunate Son," was very much country, but aggressive country. You know, like the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Laine gave it more energy than that required to send a Space Shuttle to Pluto. The notes weren't always perfect, but the atmosphere was.
"Your dress, everything. Your voice, I love," declared Tyler.
"You are born to be on the stage," said Jackson.
Just when you thought that this was a mere singing show, the producers then tried to turn the viewers's goosies into foie gras by stuffing duets down their throats.
Phillips and Joshua Ledet were thrust into singing "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling." Imagine a bar somewhere in the South. It's Monday night. There are perhaps four people in there. Two of them have had two too many. The other two are Ledet's and Phillips' lovers. Yes, this put the hokey into karahokey.
Remember, the duets are supposed to be ignored by the voters. One hopes. Fortunately, Lopez actually knew this song.
Jessica Sanchez wanted to sing "Proud Mary." Van Zandt explained to her that everyone who'd ever sung in a bar band had been forced to perform this, so he, well, hated it. Sanchez took to the stage in a dress covered by chain mail, which must have raised her weight to around 80 lbs - of which 10 were contributed by her shoes.
Just like Cavanagh, someone had told her to channel Tina Turner. But Turner had seen a few things by the time she performed. These two sweet little girls have seen some television and a few PG-13 movies, but nothing in comparison.
"You're so grown up there," said Lopez. I am not sure this was entirely a compliment. Sanchez has struggled to act her age, and this performance can't have helped.
"The only thing that gives experience a run for its money is a 16-year-old," mused Tyler, whom some might soon imagine running away from a charge of grand lechery.
Jackson was deeply accurate. He called it "barely OK."
"I tried to work it as much as I could," explained Sanchez. Yes, she had.
Ledet went for a singing show favorite: "Ain't Too Proud To Beg."
"That was impossible, what he did," said Iovine, of Ledet's rehearsal. "Only people with gifts can do that."
Ledet again channeled the greats of the '60s. He can do this because his soul appears to be authentic. He led us all into Temptations.
"You gotta be one of the top two Idols of all time," declared Tyler. Who would be the other? Kelly Clarkson? Carrie Underwood? Lee DeWyze? Tyler then added to this effusion by saying that actually it was hard to concentrate on Ledet at all "with background singers so pretty."
If one called Tyler a waste of space, it would be an insult to space. And waste.
And so we were into Round Two - the alleged Britpop round. Leona Lewis' "Bleeding Love" was Cavanagh's choice. Cavanagh is like a quarterback with perfect mechanics, who somehow keeps missing receivers. This was technically sound. But the sound was free of anything but technique. There was no bleeding here to believe. For there were no streams of red, no real pain.
Tyler didn't know the song. Lopez called it "amazing." Jackson thinks she's "peaking at the right time."
Phillips went for the Zombies' "Time of the Season," which showed that "Idol" was defining Britpop in a much looser way than it might be defined in, say, Britain. This is a British pop song, it's true, but Britpop - the era of Blur and Oasis - this is not.
With this, Phillips couldn't even hit the high notes. He made it soporific and thin. In pure singing terms, this might well have been one of the poorer vocal performances ever seen (and heard) at this stage of "Idol." No amount of grimacing could mask that this was time for seasoning Phillips a little.
Jackson called it "nice." Lopez found it recognizable. Not one of the judges mentioned the obvious, obvious pitchiness.
Suddenly one realized that, as we were down to the Final Five, there would be no ladies' duet. Instead, there would be a trio. Would this, too, need triage?
Their love was supposed to keep lifting them higher and higher. Oddly, it was Sanchez who seemed to have the weakest voice of this trio. This was more edible than the boys' duet, but it still felt like nothing more than a vehicle for a few car commercials.
We were back to the Big Show. Laine went for "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me", made famous by Dusty Springfield. Laine was aided by a couple of musicians on stage and a couple canoodling on a bench. Really. She gave a strong, slightly old-fashioned performance that didn't really add to her repertoire, but didn't hurt it too much.
Jackson believes that she, too, is peaking at the right time.
"Just more proof that it works when you work it," said Tyler, offering more pulp to his burgeoning lexicon.
Iovine claimed that he and Van Zandt never go in elevators, just in case there's lounge music in there. There was a danger that Joe Cocker's "You Are So Beautiful" might, in the throat of Jessica Sanchez, come out loungey.
Surrounded by candles, Sanchez sat on the floor and sounded, well, loungey. Not that this is a terrible thing. It's just that by this stage of the competition, it's becoming clear who really does offer the potential for goosies. This was excellent, but straight out of a musical. This wasn't something that would make even the most empty-headed girl with her mom's iTunes password rush to use her mom's MasterCard.
"You're going to be Number One, girl," said Tyler. There's still a chart?
The Bee Gees topped charts years ago. They're kind of British and kind of Australian. Still, Ledet took on "To Love Somebody," only because Iovine suggested it. Ledet had wanted to do Tom Jones.
"You don't know what it's like," sang Ledet, with considerable and believable feeling. At times channeling the sheer depth of Antony Hegarty from Antony and the Johnsons, he built a crescendo that showed the considerable gulf that has built between him and the rest. The judges stood to applaud. Not one of them could have themselves even approached anything like that.
Ledet had never heard the song before Iovine had suggested it.
"You have to be born, America, to do that," said Jackson. "You are one of the best singers ever on this show."
Lopez declared he was "one of the best singers I've seen in 50 years."
And so we ended with no hyperbole whatsoever, but at least a very pleasant ringing in our ears.
TOP TWO: Joshua Ledet, Skylar Laine
BOTTOM TWO: Phillip Phillips, Jessica Sanchez