"American Idol": Final Four in screaming May madness

Jessica Sanchez, Hollie Cavanagh, Joshua Ledet and Phillip Phillips perform on "American Idol," May 9, 2012.
Jessica Sanchez, Hollie Cavanagh, Joshua Ledet and Phillip Phillips perform on "American Idol," May 9, 2012.

(CBS News) It began with screaming frenzy.

Yes, "The Voice" has already crowned its winner and he can sing. So the "American Idol" Final Four on Wednesday night might have offered screams of fear or of relief. But we all knew that these were merely run-of-the-mill screams of excitement.

There were two themes: California Dreamin' and Songs That They Wish They Had Written.

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Phillip Phillips is relying on his family to keep him in touch with honesty. He admitted his brother-in-law had told him that last week's quite painful rendition of "Time of the Season" was, indeed, "pretty rough." His California song was Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" But we hadn't seen Jimmy Iovine, so this was, indeed, a showery evening already.

The blonde lady sax player was striking in the same way that Phillips' performance was strained. Here he was actually attempting to sing a melody and the art that he often disdains so much had deserted him. Phillips is a singer of mood, not melody. The little girls screamed, but, somewhere, his brother-in-law might have grimaced.

"You're living proof that the road to success is always under construction," said Steven Tyler, court philosopher. Jennifer Lopez compared Phillips to Joe Cocker. Somewhere Cocker cocked an eyelid.

"It started out a little rough," said Jackson. After that, he deemed it "sensational."

Hollie Cavanagh said Journey's "Faithfully" has her sort of sensations. This week, the stylists dressed her to look 10 years older than her true 18. Black boots, tight black pants, a sleek red top and some of Linda Evans' old hair lacquer, accompanied this rote, entirely non-contemporary rendition of a non-contemporary song. It was well sung. But so was Bing Crosby's "White Christmas." Bing knew how to do his thing, though.

The audience screamed.

"You've been slaying us every week," said Jackson. Which seemed peculiar, given that she has been a regular in the bottom three. Lopez wept, knowing that, when Cavanagh was rejected a couple of years ago, she had told her to keep faith.

It was painful not to see Iovine. His insight was desperately needed. His humor was strongly required. He surely might have winced.

Joshua Ledet was another who was previously rejected in auditions. He had a mustache in those days. It was not flattering. It was clear that each finalist was attempting to perform something that would gain an emotional connection. This was John Groban's "You Raise Me Up." Quite how this represented California Dreamin' was a little unclear to these ears, eyes and mind. Oh, wait. Groban was born in L.A.

As usual, Ledet started calmly. You knew the storm was coming. But would it be at one minute, 50 seconds or two minutes, 12? It was somewhere in between. For his own personal gospel choir appeared in order to raise him up. Ledet had more pain on his face than someone just stung on the nose by a scorpion. The emotions were ratcheted skywards and suddenly, there he was, raised up above the choir on a dais of glory. Yes, electronically.

Thankfully, the stagehands managed to bring him back down, slowly.

"I loved the drama," said Lopez, pronouncing it "dramma", not "drahma."

"You sang your little tush off," said Tyler. He added: "Courage is fear that has said its prayers." Yes, Steven Tyler is paid to be here.

"I literally can't do anything, but sing," claimed Jessica Sanchez. She can certainly balance on impossible heels quite well. In truth, she has weakened in recent weeks. She has struggled to project any sort of discrete personality.

She chose Etta James' "Steal Away." Where was Iovine's advice about singing songs that were a little more appropriate to her 16 years? She wore white trousers that enjoyed a thick black stripe down the sides. They made her, from the front, look thinner than a praying mantis. Still, Sanchez gave it her growly, killer all.

"How old were you when you were growling for the first time?" asked Lopez.

Jackson, sadly wheeled out his cliche about great singers being able to sing the phone book. You'd think he'd at least have managed to enter the 21st century and find a cliche about the Internet.

But how could the producers fill the two hours with only four singers? Yes, the dreaded duets returned like a baddie whom you thought was dead, but still had enough energy to fire one more misbegotten shot.

Phillips and Ledet, as comfortable a pairing as Charlton Heston and Cher, were forced to mug their way through a little Maroon 5. After the controversy last week when Ledet refused Phillips' hug, they sat one behind the other. Vocally, this offered a little joy, mainly thanks to Ledet, who could out-sing most professionals. At the end, though, his instinct was to move even further away from Phillips.

The judges, each of whom was dressed as if they'd partaken in a last-minute raid of Buffalo Exchange, gushed. Lopez believed this was Adam Levine and Usher re-incarnated. Not that they're dead, you understand.

"Did you love it?" said Jackson to Ryan Seacrest.

"I did like it," replied the ever-intelligent host.

As if the producers had no mercy, we were then asked to pay attention to Cavanagh and Sanchez attempt to breathe dated life to the Bangles' "Eternal Flame." Neither had even been given a wardrobe change. The audience rose as one. The judges sat as three.

"That was a little strange for me," admitted Jackson. In fact, he concluded: "I just didn't like that."

"I didn't think it was bad as all that," smoothed Lopez.

Tyler made a joke about swingers.

We then had a 10-minute ad for a movie. Even this wasn't enough to pass the time, so the Final Four then all came out together to sing Foreigner's "Waiting For a Girl Like You." Certainly, some of the performers replaced the word "girl" with "guy."

And then the impossible and the beautiful happened. We had an Iovine sighting. Uncle Jimmy clearly only has the time and energy to mentor these kids for one song. This would be it.

Phillips wanted to perform Damien Rice's "Volcano." Iovine compared Phillips to a butterfly. "I guess he thinks I'm beautiful," mused his mentee.

At last Phillips had the chance to quit smiling and return to his mood-filled self. This was, after several weeks of abject indifference, a genuine and sophisticated performance.

"I never heard you sing like that before," said Tyler.

The song that spoke to Cavanagh was Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me." She tried to give an adult explanation of why she loved this song. It included the word "boy." Iovine was worried.

Cavanagh's precision doesn't help her with songs such as this. She makes them feel as if they were written for a musical. So for all that the notes seem correct, the source of the words is a trifle trite. She bent down repeatedly, trying to find believable meaning in the lyrics. But this is the song of a woman who's been around and seen some things and that's beyond Cavanagh's experience.

Even Lopez wasn't moved. Jackson believed the song didn't offer her a moment. "The wrong choice at the wrong time," he concluded.

Ledet chose "This is a Man's World." Yes, he would attempt James Brown. When Iovine was 19, he sat in on a James Brown recording session. In between each take, Brown would have someone comb his hair. This, Iovine understood, was true stardom. This is something Ledet seems to understand too.

He has repeatedly channeled the true greats of the '60s. This was no exception. This performance could have been given then. That is a compliment. Finally, the judges stood. In fact, Lopez was getting ready to leave her seat half way through the performance.

"Neither man nor woman has ever sang that good with that much compassion," said Tyler. "I never heard anything like that in my life."

"Pasion! Corazon!" Lopez declared. For this was so good that it made her speak a different language - her own. Jackson said it was one of the greatest performances of any singing show, ever.

For once, the judges were in touch with reality. Ledet is so far beyond the other singers, not merely because of his voice, but because of his ability to perform. It doesn't mean that he will win. But it does mean that he should.

Sanchez reached for a "Dreamgirls" song - Jennifer Holliday's "And I'm Telling You." Iovine was stunned in rehearsals. In the real thing, Sanchez was, indeed, slightly stunning. She lengthened notes like an expert child pulling bubble gum from her mouth.

The judges stood, but without quite the emotional gusto they had offered Ledet. Indeed, Lopez spoke merely American in her praise. Jackson, sadly, succumbed to his timeworn words. He said she was "in it to really win it."

And then, as the audience screamed, we cut to Julian Lennon. There is no why.

TOP TWO: Joshua Ledet, Jessica Sanchez
BOTTOM TWO: Hollie Cavanagh, Phillip Phillips

  • Chris Matyszczyk

    Chris has been a multi award-winning executive creative director with some of the most celebrated advertising agencies in the world. His creative work has been recognized at the Cannes Advertising Festival, the New York Festivals, Clio, the One Show, as well as many other festivals around the world. His writing has appeared in such publications as the Financial Times, the European, the Sacramento Bee and The Singapore Press Holdings Group.

    He currently advises major global companies about content creation and marketing, through his company Howard Raucous LLC.

    He brings an irreverent, sarcastic, and sometimes ironic voice to the tech world.