On a floured surface, take what much of the Idolsphere felt were the weakest Final 6 contestants in American Idol history. Stir in the music and mentorship of Jon Bon Jovi, the New Jersey rocker famous in equal measures for his big hair, big voice, and big, bombastic songs. Add a generous helping of high pressure, because owing to the no-elimination Idol Gives Back episode the week prior, two of the remaining contestants would be voted off the next night. Mix well and bake at 350° for one week. Serves 30 million.
This, thought just about everyone, was a recipe for the train wreck to end all train wrecks. Predictions of abject disaster flooded the Internet boards and forums in the days leading up to the show. (A common zinger: "They're sending two people home and that still might not be enough!") But give Idol its due: it has an odd knack for producing its finest episodes out of what are seemingly the least promising themes...
Phil Stacey kicked off the night with a rousing cover of JBJ's Blaze Of Glory, spending the first minute of the performance in the audience and garnering rave reviews from Randy and Paula (not to mention his highest approval rating ever, a 79.) OK, said the Idolsphere, we'll chalk that one up as a fluke. And when usually-dependable Jordin Sparks followed with a sloppy, shrieky Livin' On A Prayer – a 1-star performance from a singer who'd never dipped below 3-stars previously – most Idol fans surely expected that the train wreck would go on as scheduled.
The Idols, however, had other plans. LaKisha Jones, mired in a weeks-long slump, busted out with a superb, soulful cover of This Ain't A Love Song. Jones's well-deserved rewards: her first 4-star rating since the Final 11, plus an on-screen kiss from a delighted Simon. Thereupon followed one of the most memorable performances not only of the season, but in the entire AI franchise: Blake Lewis, joined on stage by the band's drummer, breathed new life into the old chestnut You Give Love A Bad Name, featuring a modern hip-hop/techno arrangement and an electrifying drum & beat-box solo. Simon famously predicted that half the viewers would love it and half would hate it. In fact, the ratio was better than 3-to-1 positive, with a sizable number of reviewers calling it, without qualification, the best performance in Idol history (though the large number of negative opinions kept its overall rating to an 85.)
Chris Richardson was the poor sap who had to follow Lewis's tour de force. That alone would've made for a challenging enough assignment, but Richardson dug an even deeper hole for himself by choosing Wanted Dead Or Alive, a song on which Chris Daughtry had turned in a 5-star performance one season earlier. Given the circumstances, Richardson's respectable 39 rating was about the best he could have hoped for. There was much speculation on the boards as to what song Melinda Doolittle would choose, given that Bon Jovi was about the most ill-fitting theme for her that one could imagine. Not to worry – the meek Doolittle simply donned a leather outfit, cranked up the band to its hardest rock setting, and snarled out a most convincing cover of Have A Nice Day to close the show. At 88, it was her (*yawn*) ninth 5-star performance of the season, moving her just one behind Bo Bice's seemingly unbreakable record of ten.
It was announced in advance that the vote tallies from this week's episode would be added to those from the Idol Gives Back show to determine who would be going home. That made Sparks as safe as a cheesesteak at a vegans' convention: between her show-ending and showstopping You'll Never Walk Alone the prior week, and her dismal "Prayer" this week (nothing motivates a fanbase to vote for two hours' straight more than a great singer turning in a wretched performance), she was never in any serious danger of elimination. Richardson was obviously a dead man walking, but who would join him on the redeye home? Most assumed it would be either Stacey or Jones; either one would set the all-time WNTS.com record for the highest-rated elimination performance in a single-song week. And in the end, Stacey went down in the very blaze of glory he predicted.
Well, we can start with "Wow!". We'd love to write that we were confident the Idols would rise to the challenge of Bon Jovi week, but we don't like to lie. The episode turned out to be a most pleasant surprise.
Doolittle, Jones and Lewis were all brilliant, and if Stacey was a half-notch below them, he was still comfortably in the range of excellent. We thought all four deserved 5-star ratings, but the Idolsphere disagreed, limiting Jones and Stacey to the top of the 4-star range. Richardson was adequate, notwithstanding the fact that he cut his own throat with his unspeakably foolish song choice. (Why invite comparisons to Daughtry, for heaven's sake?) Sparks was the worst of the night by far, though we think that the 13 rating she received was perhaps a smidgen too harsh.
On the subject of whether Lewis deserved a rating in the 90s for his imaginative "Bad Name", the WNTS.com staff is in unanimous agreement: yes, he did. But given that his performance had an enormous standard deviation of 27, it's quite remarkable it scored even as high as 85.
We can't quibble with the top four performers' song choices, given how well they turned out. Sparks would've been better served with a power ballad like "Always." Though we can understand why a contestant might be uncomfortable singing "Who Says You Can't Go Home" on stage – the voters might've taken it as a dare – it is arguably Bon Jovi's best-written pop song. Richardson couldn't possibly have done any worse with it, and he might have fared much better.
Full credit and thanks go to Jon Bon Jovi, who prepared the contestants well for their performances...even if he did famously express grave doubts on camera about whether Lewis's number was going to go over well. Nobody's perfect.