I’m not gonna lie to you: I went from mildly concerned to truly and deeply vexed during the first half-hour of tonight’s American Idol Top 13 performance episode. We had Mumbles McGillicuddy, Wacky Sharpenstein, Blankity Blankerson and Speedy McCountry all hitting the stage and delivering varying degrees of the night’s opening song title: “Aw Naw.”
Was it simply a case of nerves or could it have been those pesky in-ear monitors? Was it the fact that the first 15 rows of the audience were populated by the cast of AMC’s exciting new spinoff series The Swaying Dead? Or maybe, just maybe, it was the presence of “mentor” Randy Jackson, offering pre-performance soundbites so hollow that I swear I saw a woodpecker fly out the center of one of ’em.
[Side memo to executive producer Per “Uncle PB” Blankens: STOP TRYING TO MAKE THE DAWG HAPPEN.]
But if you were a little patient and willing to play through the pain, if you didn’t switch channels to Mixology because of the simple fact that they used an Adam Lambert tune in their promos, there were rewards to be reaped.
The Season 13 judges’ panel — even J.Lo, or perhaps especially J.Lo — offered straightforward, astute feedback and showed a willingness to not cover its critiques in a poncho of butterflies. And little by little, the contestants started getting better — with five or six vocalists delivering promising enough performances that you could almost imagine ’em getting the confetti shower that a dapper Ryan Seacrest talked about at the top of the show.
TONIGHT’S SET LIST WITH LETTER GRADES
Dexter Roberts: Chris Young’s “Aw Naw” — Grade: C | Dexter’s a charming kid with a decent voice, but his diction tonight was so atrocious, I only understood maybe a third of the words splilling out of his mouth. Yes, I should probably be thankful for said fact, considering that the title of his chosen ditty sounds like the unofficial motto of the Professional Bull Riders Association, but still… If Mr. Roberts survives into Top 12 week, might I suggest he remember his Hollywood Week promise to “Dexterize” everything he sings, and then rework a completely unexpected song choice into his preferred bro-country wheelhouse?
Malaya Watson: Bruno Mars’ “Runaway Baby” — Grade: D+ | Please, please tell me I was halluscinating that final bit of banter where the judges encouraged Malaya to bring her tuba to the stage in the coming weeks. With her carefully crafted wackiness and “puppy greeting its family after a week’s vacation” energy, the kid is already teetering on the edge of being labeled a joke contestant. A giant brass instrument is not gonna help matters. But back to “Runaway Baby”: Was anyone else confounded by the fact that Randy, in his mentorly wisdom, apparently did nothing to dissuade this teenage girl from choosing a frenetic funk jam with lyrics about a lothario on the prowl for a one-night-stand? I’m guessing the only reason Harry Connick Jr didn’t ask Malaya if she understood the meaning of the song was because her nasal, out-of-tune delivery presented far greater problems. When J.Lo tells you you’ve gone “off the rails,” a Bottom 3 placement seems almost guaranteed.
Kristen O’Connor: Kelly Clarkson’s “Beautiful Disaster” — Grade: D+ | “I have a lot to prove,” Kristen explained, prior to her performance. And alas, after subjecting the audience to a turgid, beauty-pageant arrangement of a song that proved far too range-y for her voice, that statement has now been bolded, italicized and underlined for emphasis. The judges cut Kenzie Hall, Sarina-Joi Crowe, Tessa Kate, Jillian Jensen, Nica Nashae, Austin Wolfe, Andrina Brogden and Paisley Van Patten for this? Dial 1-855-I-CAHHHNT.
Ben Briley: Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” — Grade: C+ | Look, I appreciated Ben’s attempt at originality, the way he cranked up the tempo and added a little O Brother, Where Art Thou? rollick to a country-blues classic. The trouble was, like a souffle that collapses before you’ve taken it out of the oven, the end result was a mess. As time went zipping on, Ben’s words began to slur into a sludge of consonants and his voice began to tighten up into an almost unpleasant growl. On the plus side, though, the neatly trimmed beard and black leather cap provided a solid style upgrade. And if I’m being completely honest, the guy’s willingness to take a massive risk — albeit an ill-advised one — at least has me intrigued to see what he’ll cook up next week. (And I do hope there’s a next week.)
C.J. Harris: Darius Rucker’s “Radio” — Grade: C+ | In the 13-course meal that was tonight’s Idol, C.J.’s “Radio” was the house salad with some shredded carrots, two tomato wedges and a little oil and vinegar. Which is to say it wasn’t terrible — not by any stretch — despite C.J. sounding intermittently winded and not landing some of his held notes as cleanly as he might’ve wanted to. The bigger problem for C.J. is that, at this stage of the competition, it’s often better to be bad (and activate your terrified fan base) than boring (and have folks forget to cast votes altogether). We’ll see if my theory holds true — with C.J. occupying a Silver Stool of Doom (™) — come Thursday night.
M.K. Nobilette: Allen Stone’s “Satisfaction” — Grade: B- | M.K.’s got a tone that’s undeniably sweet with just a hint of cragginess, kind of like a toasted English muffin with butter and strawberry jam. (Holy crow, I am hungry while I write this!) And the good news is that “Satisfaction” — in addition to being the most unexpected song choice of the evening — showcased the best parts of her instrument. Harry, though, summed up perfectly M.K.’s biggest problem: Whenever there are pauses, whenever she’s waiting for her next note to arrive, you can almost see M.K.’s attention drift. And that lack of on-stage fire proved especially problematic on a swaggery soul jam like “Satisfaction” than it did on the quieter fare she served up in her previous performances. M.K.’s stage presence could easily improve with time and experience — but by my calculations, she’ll need to pull that off in the next two or three weeks, tops.
Majesty Rose: Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope” — Grade: B+ | Did a contestant actually cover Janelle Monae on Idol? A week after covering Pharrell? Oh, yes she did. And despite a couple tiny glitches — was it me, or was the mic positioned in a way that a couple of Majesty’s notes were inaudible? — the season-long fave held her position near the front of the pack, and did it with just the right balance of confidence and humility. (How could she ever have worried?!) There’s a freshness to Majesty’s voice and an unexpectedness to the way she zigs and zags through a song that has me practically ready to pre-order her album. And, um, it’s only Week 1 of the finals!
Jena Irene: Coldplay’s “The Scientist” — Grade: B+ | I’m not sure how or why somebody — Jena? Randy? Rickey Minor? — decided to pick up the tempo of Coldplay’s gorgeously mournful ballad here, but I’ll admit it took my ears (and Jena’s voice) a few bars to adjust. Once the train got out of the station (so to speak), though, I definitely found myself sitting in the luxury car — the one with fine dining and comfy seats — thanks to Jena’s insanely luscious and intensely emotional delivery. She hits big glory notes with such effortlessness — and yet infuses them with an individuality that many “belt-y” types can’t — that I get excited thinking about the possibility of her exploring more offbeat, unexpected terrain. Here’s hoping the 17-year-old has the creativity and the guts to go there!
Alex Preston: Jason Mraz’s “A Beautiful Mess” — Grade: A- | Harry complained about the “inward” vibe of Alex’s quiet, acoustic number, but I couldn’t have disagreed more. By choosing a lesser-known song and performing it with the intimacy of a whisper, Alex was able to highlight the limberness of his instrument, his ability to swoop into gritty places and then flutter into a delicate falsetto. Plus, Alex also made an incredibly verbose song sound deceptively breezy. The presence of X Factor Season 3 champs Alex & Sierrra (and Idol Top 30 contestant Jillian Jensen) in his cheering section hints that Alex is most likely a “musician’s musician” — and if he can succeed in looking perhaps just 10 percent less irked while he’s singing, he might turn out to be America’s musician, too.
Jessica Meuse: Shinedown’s “The Crow And The Butterfly” — Grade: A- | Is anyone else stoked that Top 13 night played out like a Jeopardy category called “Songs You’ll Never, Ever Expect to Hear on Idol” (with Jessica’s pick in the $800 box)? In all seriousness, though, the bewitching quality of Jessica’s pipes — paired up with the dark poetry of Shinedown’s lyrics — transported me…I’m not sure where, exactly, but to a mindspace much moodier than your average talent-show cover of “I Have Nothing” or “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch.” J.Lo made a good point that Jessica’s sometimes stilted body language needs to match the limberness of her vocals — it might’ve been nice if she’d worked the stage and dragged the mic stand behind her — but hearing her harmonize with Season 8 standout (and current Idol house band background vocalist Allison Iraheta) was like a zing of minty toothpaste washing away the plaque of the night’s opening five performances. J’approve!
Emily Piriz: Pink’s “Glitter in the Air” — Grade: B- | Emily’s voice is very pretty — and I don’t mean that in a dismissive way. She reaches for glory notes with as little strain as I do when I grab a block of cheddar out of the cheese drawer of my fridge. But as Keith sagely noted, Emily’s rendition lacked the grit and ferocity — “the yang” — that Pink uses to make her crowd-pleasing pop hooks so special. In her fab silver minidress — her eyes locked on the camera with guided-missile precision — Emily embodied the perfect prefab Idol contestant (a “package artist!” as Kara DioGuardi used to say). But as far as convincing me that she’s a viable artist with a visceral connection to her music? I’m gonna suggest Emily YouTube Season 11 alum Erika Van Pelt’s Idol summer tour cover of “Glitter in the Air” as a beginner’s tutorial.
Sam Woolf: Matchbox 20’s “Unwell” — Grade: B- | Sam’s been so adorably solid in every prior instance this season that he can afford a misfire or two, but “Unwell” nevertheless provided a crisp and unwelcome slap to Idoloonies who’d already placed their bets on his inevtiable march to victory. As Harry noted, Matchbox Twenty’s jam is all about being messed up — feeling on the edge of a breakdown — and yet Sam delivered it with all the edge and humor of an Ivory Soap commercial (although he did deliver it with perfect pitch). Perhaps the inexplicably sluggish tempo robbed the song of any sense of urgency. Perhaps it was the song choice itself that was the problem, too straight-up-the-middle pop for a kid who’s been dabbling in Ed Sheeran and David Gray. Or maybe it was that terrible SwayBot in the blue dress who kicked off Sam’s performance by desperately seeking screentime. Whatever the case, methinks it’s time for Sam to challenge himself a little — maybe flip the script and choose something by a female artist — to keep himself out of the midpack swamp in the coming weeks.
Caleb Johnson: Rival Sons’ “Pressure and Time” — Grade: A- | OK, yeah, Caleb got crazy smoke machines to aid in building the drama of his Rock God aspirations. And yeah, the dude’s styling still reads very “midsize city Rock of Ages production.” But those things aside, “Pressure and Time” displayed a ferocious energy and vocal spotlessness that was in short supply among the Top 13. Caleb delivers his campy brand of old-school rock as if he doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone: He believes he’s a star, and that swagger — which is backed by a powerful set of pipes — then becomes a very easy stock to purchase. Yes, Keith’s right that Caleb’s got to avoid coming off too “retro,” that he’s got to find a “little twist” — which may be as easy as cutting a couple inches off his shaggy hair and appointing Chris Daughtry as his fashion inspiration — but that’s a minor hurdle compared to the ones faced by Malaya, Kristen, Dexter and C.J., no?
Should Be Bottom 3: Malaya, Kristen, Dexter (with Kristen going home)
Will Be Bottom 3: Kristen, C.J., Ben (with Kristen going home)
And with that, I pass the mic to you. What did you think of the Top 13? Who were your faves? Who’s in trouble? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments!