Colton Dixon was in his element, and kept true to...

Colton Dixon was in his element, and kept true to his style, singing Billy Joel's "Piano Man" on Wednesday night's "American Idol." (March 21, 2012) Credit: Fox

And so it goes.

Billy Joel Week” on “American Idol” was hard to watch. Joel's songs are extraordinarily well-crafted affairs. They are deceptively simple, especially vocally, which unfortunately leads inexperienced singers to think that they should keep adding embellishments to make their own mark. That is not what they should do.

Judge Steven Tyler tried to warn them, saying, “Billy Joel is an American icon of all time. His songs have great melody – that's what it's all about.”

Mentors Jimmy Iovine and Diddy tried to warn them, telling them repeatedly that they should “pay respect to the song.”

Um, a bunch of them didn't do that.

Yeah, I'm looking at you, Erika Van Pelt. Her take on “New York State of Mind” was so overblown, it was maddening. She has a good voice, but doesn't believe in it enough. Tony Bennett, arguably one of the best singers ever, sings “New York State of Mind” straight, letting the beauty of the melody and the emotion of the lyrics tell the story, adding only a few powerful high notes to punctuate the classic. Erika turned the lovely song into a melismatic mess and will probably end up going home because of it. At least she got a sassy new haircut!

Erika's only possible saving grace was that DeAndre Brackensick's version of “Only the Good Die Young” was worse. Not only did he not seem to get that the song was supposed to be seductive, he thought it should be happy. (Hint: The word “Die” in the title is usually a bad thing, man.)

From the other contestants, we saw Hollie Cavanagh go off-key in her “Honesty” runs, Skylar Laine struggle with her lower register on the opening of “Shameless,” and Heejun Han joke his way through “My Life,” with pitchy, if energetic, results. Last week's leader Joshua Ledet messed up the phrasing and melody of “She's Got a Way,” which we learned Steven Tyler had never heard before. (Someone, get him a Billy Joel boxed set!)

The ones who actually succeeded last night were the ones who used the Joel originals as a jumping off point and then built whole new songs around them.

You have to give it up to Colton Dixon. Taking on “Piano Man” took a lot of guts. Reworking it into something that sounded desperate and edgy, while simplifying the accompaniment, was even riskier, but it paid off.

Jessica Sanchez turned the pretty, understated “Everybody Has a Dream” from “The Stranger” into a massive diva showcase for her voice, without showing off. Following Diddy's advice to focus on the believability of her delivery, she received a well-deserved standing ovation from the judges and regained her ranking as the front-runner.

Phillip Phillips rolled out an defiant, bluesy version of “Movin' Out” that took the song's original sentiment, but transported it into a whole new Dave Matthews Band setting. They must have put him at the top of the second hour as a reward for viewers who made it through a very painful opening half.


Colton Dixon, “Piano Man”
Jessica Sanchez, “Everybody Has a Dream”
Phillip Phillips, “Movin' Out”
Hollie Cavanagh, “Honesty”
Skylar Laine, “Shameless”
Joshua Ledet, “She's Got a Way”
Heejun Han, “My Life”
Elise Testone, “Vienna”
Erika Van Pelt, “New York State of Mind”
DeAndre Brackensick, “Only the Good Die Young”

BOTTOM THREE: Elise, Erika, DeAndre

ACTUAL BOTTOM THREE: Erika, DeAndre, Heejun

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