How quickly did Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina choose their first songs for the American Idol performance finale? Were they familiar with the songs their own Idols picked for them? How have they changed this season? What are the biggest differences between season 10 and the seasons before it? In the final entry of our ongoing behind-the-scenes series, American Idol associate music director and arranger Michael Orland answered these questions and more while discussing last night’s Top 2 performance finale with EW. (Vocal coach and arranger Debra Byrd, who usually also contributes to this column, did not work with Scotty or Lauren this week.)
For a decade, Orland has been on the front lines with the contestants, from Hollywood Week to the grand finale. He’s worked with the contestants on their respective songs, helping them shine on the Idol stage and in front of a national TV audience. Check out his insights below:
ROUND ONE — Scotty sings “Gone” (Montgomery Gentry); Lauren sings “Flat on the Floor” (Katrina Elam)
Originally, I thought they were going to wait to pick their favorite songs until after they learned what the celebrity pick was going to be and what the Jimmy [Iovine] pick was going to be. But interestingly enough, they both picked those songs right away. If it was me picking for Lauren, I would have picked “Anyway.” It was one of my favorite ballads she did, so I thought she could have picked that one as well. With Scotty, he always wanted to do “Gone,” [but] he thought about maybe doing “That’s All Right” [from Top 9 week]. He was going back and forth about that. But I’m glad he did “Gone.”
It’s fun to watch now — these guys learn a song on Friday and perform it on Wednesday. It’s fun to see now that it’s been in his body and he’s had some experience with it — both of them did a better job tonight than they did [originally] on the show. The arrangements stayed the exact same; we just sang through it, and that was all we did.
ROUND TWO — Scotty sings George Strait’s “Check Yes or No,” chosen by Strait; Lauren sings Pam Tillis’ “Maybe It Was Memphis,” chosen by Carrie Underwood
I don’t know how [choosing the song] all went down. I think [American Idol creator and exec producer] Simon Fuller arranged that. In past seasons, it would be a favorite song, a Simon Fuller pick, and a record label pick. They wouldn’t even tell us what the songs were going to be until Simon Fuller told the contestants on Friday.
Now, Lauren did not know her song; she’d never heard of it before. I had to tell her that anyone over 25 or 30 does know that song. It’s a big Pam Tillis song. When we were rehearsing, she was like, “I don’t know. I don’t feel this. Nobody’s going to know it.” We looked it up; it was a No. 3 hit in the early 1990s. I said, “People are going to know this song, I promise you.” She picked it up really quick, but she actually fought herself on it because she was not feeling it. But these are the rules of the contest; she’s just singing it. There’s no, like, “Oh, can I pick something else?” No. This is what they picked for you.
And Scotty loves George Strait, so he got a great George Strait song. But I never heard of that song until the day we worked on it. See? It’s funny what songs you know and don’t, and I know a lot of songs. I guess I’m old. Scotty knew it. Country fans are just die hard music people.
ROUND THREE — Scotty sang an original song “Love You This Big”; Lauren sang “Like My Mother Does,” which first appeared on Idol alum Kristy Lee Cook’s album
I was not in the room when they [chose those songs]. We were just brought in and told, “Here’s the song they’re picking, now teach to them and work on it and cut it down [to be sung on the show].” But I love both songs. Neither of them obviously knew them; they’d never heard of them. But I thought they both fit the occasion. I loved the lyric in [Scotty's] song, about being a young kid. And [Lauren's]? I mean, who doesn’t love their mother? She did tell me the first time they played it for her, she was just bawling her eyes out, the first time she heard it. And then she was like, “Are you feeling this?” I was like, “If you had that reaction to it, that’s a good sign.” I know this afternoon she said she really wanted to [walk down and sing to her mother]. I didn’t know Ryan was going to escort her, which was really sweet.
The only thing we played around with was the keys of the songs. I think Scotty’s was a hair higher on the original demo he listened to, but he wanted to put that key change into it, so we brought it down a little bit, and then raised it up. Again, he did a fun new melody on the last chorus. He came to me this morning and asked, “Can I sing this [melody change]? Does this fit?” He came up with a new melody that he wanted to do. I just love that that boy is that musical.
FINAL THOUGHTS — How have Scotty and Lauren improved? How does this season compare with the previous ones?
I really mean it: They both are winners. The first two get cars, they get record deals, the whole thing. They’ve grown so much, and they’re so good, I’m just proud of both of them.
Lauren has more confidence now than when she’s come in. I would love for [vocal coach] Peisha McPhee and I to take a little credit for that, but it’s really everybody on the staff. Everybody just feeds these kids [confidence]; that’s all we try to instill in them every week. She really became the most confident performer in the 12 weeks of all of them. Her physical body look amazing; she’s lost weight. She looks gorgeous. I’m just really proud of her.
When Scotty came in, he was a little confident. He was really sure of his voice. He knew he had great musical talent going on. Scotty’s just grown as a performer, to be able to make melodies up and know that it fits musically. The way he sang “Gone” tonight and was just working the crowd — that’s just something from being here for 12 weeks.
In past seasons, I’ve always felt like one of them had to win, and the other one didn’t have to win. I’m really not saying this because we’re still in this season. They’re both going to have great careers. But I think the difference in this season than other seasons is Jimmy Iovine. I think because he really stressed developing these people as artists every thing week, and making them stay in their comfort zone and their genre every single week — no body had to jump a hoop. The counter boy never had to sing a disco song.
My second thing is — I’ve loved all the judges who have come in and out of this show, but this season’s judges have done nothing but praise and it really help build these kids’ confidence. But I know if Randy says, “In it to win it” one more time, we’re all going to have a drink. I’ve seen performers in the past who come out defeated before they sing, and this year, we never saw that once. We used to go to the green room and say to the kids, “Don’t listen to the judges when they critique the person before you!” We didn’t have that this year, and I think the kids thrive as performers.
Read more on American Idol:
EW’s recap of the performance finale: Duel at the Nokia Theater
On the scene at the Nokia for the performance finale
Did Lauren Alaina almost drop out of the ‘Idol’ finale? Her music coach gives EW the exclusive scoop
‘American Idol’: Scotty and Lauren’s journeys to the finals