Imagine that a great singer -- one with passion and power -- is given a wide-open request: Sing something that inspires you.
The result should be soul-shattering. On "American Idol," however, it is often merely kind of good. That was true tonight, just as it was four years ago, during the first inspiration night.
Back the, three of the top four singers -- Jordin Sparks, Melinda Doolittle and LaKisha Jones -- had gospel routes. I expected vocal fireworks; instead, there were some strong songs -- "Imagine," "I Believe," "You'll Never Walk Alone" -- and some ordinary ones. That trend was repeated in the first half of tonight, which had a theme of "songs that inspire you."
James Durbin's performance on "Don't Stop Believing" was dynamic. Still, the sole "inspiration" was that it told him he could win the competition.
Haley Reinhart followed with the opposite -- a richly inspirational, save-the-world Michael Jackson song, but one she couldn't do much with vocally.
Scotty McCreery's song -- "Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning" -- was perfectly chosen to get votes 10 days after Osama bin Laden was killed. Judges gushed, but in truth it offered very little for the singer.
That left only Lauren Alaina to nail it perfectly. "Anyway" has a strong message, rich emotion AND a chance to show off her voice. Who knew that this teen-ager with a pageant personality would be the best on inspiration night?
A few other notes:
1) It's OK to do something that was done by a great singer, but only if it's someone Randy Jackson doesn't know. He attacked Reinhart tonight for daring to do Michael -- just as he's attacked others for doing Whitney, Mariah, Celine or Stevie. Actually, Martina McBride is in that same league, but Jackson doesn't know her. So Alaina was safe with "Anyway" ... just as Carrie Underwood once was with "Independence Day."
2) The second round -- doing a Leiber-and-Stoller song -- reversed the fate for the women. Reinhart's "I Who Have Nothing" was stunning -- powerful and perfect. Alaina's "Trouble" was just silly; watching her grin about her supposed evilness was sort of like the great "Glee" moment when a choral group offered a peppy version of "Rehab."
3) Why did Alaina choose to do "Trouble," then claim she didn't want to sing about evil -- which is the core of the whole song?
4) Does Lady Gaga have a mirror? Does she employ people who will give her an honest assessment of her look? I'm just wondering.
5) Both of the guys chose some of the funnier songs from the Leiber-and-Stoller collection. McCreery's "Young Blood" was fairly good; Durbin turned "Love Potion No. 9" into a party.
6) I can't remember the last time someone got to sing the first AND the last song of the night. Durbin did and was terrific on both.
7) So the easiest part of my prediction is that Durbin will survive. Since there are only four people left, that doesn't leave much room for sparing anyone else. I'll say Reinhart and McCreery end up in the bottom two; Reinhart goes home ... making her "I Who Have Nothing" the greatest performance anyone has ever given on the night before being eliminated.