Santa Cruz' James Durbin rocks McCartney, Thia Megia of Mountain House performs to 'Smile'

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS) – On Wednesday’s “American Idol,” the Lucky 13 managed to dress, impress and sing under duress. For this, the first truly competitive episode of the show, the performers chose their own songs. Most of them clung to the middle of the road, as if they were far too scared that they would be struck by screeching traffic in any of the outside lanes.

They all worked with famous, highly commercial producers. They all got desperate kindness from most of the judges. But kindness can kill. Here they were (in order of performance).

PICTURES: “American Idol” season 10

Lauren Alaina made Shania Twain sound like I imagine Mark Twain might have. As Steven Tyler noted: “I wish it would have been more kick ass.” “Kick Ass” was a great movie, with a lot of blood. Regretfully, this had a lot of bland. “I had a good time”, she said. I’m not sure everyone else did.

Casey Abrams, by far the greatest and most uplifting talent, did Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends”, a song Cocker borrowed from the Beatles. These days, not even Joe Cocker can do Joe Cocker.

“I want to be felt”, Abrams said. His pre-singing comments suggested that he thought he wasn’t cute. But he has character, something he doesn’t need friends to tell him about. “A plethora of passion,” according to Steven Tyler. Just originality, actually, which can be very threatening in America–especially on “American Idol.”

Ashthon Jones had Diana Ross’ hair. But, unfortunately, she also saddled herself with Diana Ross’ music. She came up short. This might leave her upside down.

Paul McDonald did Ryan Adams’ “Come Pick Me Up”. He managed to clean up all the naughty words just as the Black Eyed Peas had turned “Let’s Get Retarded” into “Let’s Get It Started”. And, yet, in the search for quirk, he went close to quirkaoke. Jennifer Lopez didn’t even know the song. This is the song of a man in pain. Unfortunately, though he tried, McDonald made it the song of a man in the paint store.

Pia Toscano thought she was singing Celine Dion’s “All By Myself,” which must have made the great Eric Carmen spin in his bath chair. He, after all, put true feeling into writing and performing this in 1975. Toscano tried to put her own emotions into it. But, partly hindered by having to sing a truncated version, her performance offered as much noise as poise. She can, at least, sing, and is considered a front-runner by the judges at this early stage. However, her stagecraft still felt like it was delivered from a spacecraft.

Santa Cruz native, James Durbin, a veritable rocker, decided Paul McCartney would help him maintain a dialogue with middle America. His performance of “Maybe I’m Amazed”, following on from last week’s irreligious drift into Judas Priest, was such a clever and calculated, yet wonderfully delivered item that one almost didn’t notice that he had suddenly shaved. A lot of grannies vote, you know.

Haley Reinhart decided to be a yodeling LeAnn Rimes. Her performance rhymed with a little town just west of London, England and one a little further north. They’re called Goring and Hull.

Jacob Lusk brought out the gospel singers in their shiny blue cassocks, something normally only reserved for the two that make the final. This was confidence. Lusk performed R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly”, a song that has been re-recorded repeatedly. What did he add to it? Some very high notes, and the extreme belief that one normally only associates with opera singers and people desperate to make it. Lusk might soon believe he can make people cry, in a good way.

From Mountain House, Thia Megia’s hero is Michael Jackson. Though the song “Smile” actually goes back to the days of Charlie Chaplin and his movie “Modern Times”. Megia was– understandably, perhaps– unfamiliar with this Chaplin chappie. Sadly, she tried to give the song some jazzy maturity. Thia Megia is 16.

Stefano Langone, a wild card entrant, offered a dance remix of a Stevie Wonder ballad. His performance, full of teeth and tension, reminded one of the nice boys from “Glee”. The question is, should an “American Idol” winner feel like a high school pageant contestant? Perhaps.

Karen Rodriguez’ heroine is the late Selena Quintanilla-Perez, who was so cruelly murdered by the president of her fan club. Unfortunately, Rodriguez was so nervous that one wanted to pluck her from the stage and give her a cup of cocoa with some rum in it. It is always difficult to watch someone who is so desperate to please, but whose confidence has deserted her.

In his little pre-song video, we saw that, as a little boy, Scotty McCreery had a cowboy shirt and a toy gun. So he was ready to be a country music traditionalist.

In performing Garth Brooks “The River”, he decided to be faithful to the song. Unfortunately, in order to pull this off, he would have had to have been faithful to Garth Brooks’ performance. McCreery is a talented youth with an old man’s voice. But he found himself a bit drowned out by his backing singers, as the song floated away from him down the bayou.

Naima Adedapo had the luxury of having the umbrella of working with Tricky, the original producer of Rihanna’s elegy to rain-protection. He even created a reggae version of the song for her. Adedapo danced furiously, but her delivery was more ragged than reggae.

The judges, especially Tyler and Lopez, were dangerously close to being enablers of poor performances. “American Idol” is, thanks to the return of Nigel Lythgoe at the production helm, attempting to become a more genuine and pure talent show, in the mold of the often moving “So You Think You Can Dance?”

In which case, those who sing flat should not escape with a pat.

According to the judges, almost every contestant was some kind of wonderful. There can be no question that it is very hard to perform live (albeit knowing that the show was actually taped) when your whole life appears to depend on your excellence in a couple of minutes. But the gulf between the great and not so great was, at least in this show, as wide as that between Paul McCartney and Rihanna.

The best of the night: James Durbin, Casey Abrams, Jacob Lusk
The bottom three: Naima Adedapo, Scott McCreery, Ashton Jones

Who do you think will win this season of “American Idol”? Click here to take the poll

Chris Matyszczyk is an award-winning creative director who advises major corporations on content creation and marketing. He is also the author of the popular San Francisco based, CNET blog, Technically Incorrect.

(© 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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