I don’t want to sound like a miserable old codger, breath reeking of Werther’s Originals and cantankerousness, shaking a freshly cut lilac branch at the neighbor kids and screaming “Get the heck off of my lawn!” But man oh man, tonight’s installment of American Idol put me in a bad mood. And this despite Season 7 champ David Cook pinch-hitting for “mentor” Randy Hackson — typo, and it stays! — and offering the kind of cogent, specific, pithy (not to be confused with pitchy) advice the Idoloonie Nation has been longing for all season.
So, paraphrasing ’80s icon Clara Peller, what’s my beef, exactly? Well, we had the show’s MVP judge Harry Connick Jr. begging for attention all night like a toddler whose mommy is on the phone with the cable company. We had wide-eyed Sam Woolf being encouraged to look directly into the eyes of the SwayBots. (Nooooo!!!!) And worst of all, we learned that Mr. Cook — insightful and music-loving as ever — didn’t get face time with the Season 13 Top 8 until Monday, long after the song-selection and -arrangement processes had been completed. (Side note: Had I realized how many times we’d see Randy shadowing David, without uttering a single word, I’d have suggested a drinking game. Then again, I got drunk off the sheer enjoyment of seeing The Dawg get back-burnered.)
Oh, and did I mention the judges’ panel openly disrespected ’80s icon — and enduring EDM-soul stunner/Grammy winner — Jody Watley, in the process?
What we were left with was a collection of performances that spanned the map from innnnnteresting to inept, from adequate to addled — which might’ve been fine had this been Top 13 or Top 12 week. But during Top 8 redux? The absolute predictability of song choice and the tentative approach to vocals set off every alarm bell in my Idol-obsessed skeleton. It’s as if there’s an iceberg-shaped hole in the cruiseliner, and the ship’s crew is busy polishing the shuffleboard table on the lido deck.
I know, I know, this recap sounds like a monologue from Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino — filtered through a reality TV-obsessed filter — but I mean it as a wakeup call to a group of aspiring music stars who are simply too talented to be written off as the last inhabitants of a decaying talent competition. As long as Phillip Phillips and Kelly Clarkson and Chris Daughtry are relevant to the Billboard charts, as long as Kris Allen and David Cook and Didi Benami are producing kick-awesome music to fill our iTunes, then there’s still a need for Idol. And I won’t hear any argument to the contrary!
Here’s hoping Mr. Cook — or one of his fellow Idol University grads — is already working with the future Top 7 to ensure that flame doesn’t get extinguished.
On that note, let’s jump right to letter grades for this week’s performances:
’80s Night Grades
Jena Irene: Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock N’ Roll” — Grade: B+ | OK, the arrangement was a little disjointed, and Jena’s sultry piano intro got cut too short. But nevertheless, the teenage belter’s interpretation made sense, considering Joan Jett’s ditty is as much a tale of seduction (of the teenage boy standing by the record machine) as it is about loving the headbangiest genre of music. Jena’s risky approach to the rhythm — a few moments were strangely reminiscent of Diana Ross’ “Upside Down,” to my ears — and her gargantuan riff on the final refrain put this one firmly in the win column. As Mr. Cook pointed out, it might have some viewers incredulously asking “What is she doing?” but at least it wasn’t dull or wrong-minded.
Dexter Roberts: Georgia Satellites’ “Keep Your Hands To Yourself” — Grade: B+ | David’s advice to Dexter — don’t mumble, and don’t get out-waked by the guitarist (because it’s just walking) — seemed simple enough, but it paid dividends for the mid-pack country crooner who seems determined to last longer than his detractors predicted. Yeah, it helped that “Keep Tour Hands to Yourself” was the night’s best song choice (both in terms of unpredictability and vocal suitability), but Dexter delivered it with energy and a heretofore unseen sense of abandon. Plus, he damn near hit every note. Now if we could just permanently retire the backwards baseball cap…
Sam & Alex: “The Girl Is Mine” — Grade: C+ | Alex declared in the guys’ post-performance interview that he felt like he and Sam were “jamming in the hotel room,” which was apt. The energy level was very “pre-room-service coffee” and the inherent sense of playfulness in the lyrics dissolved into something less engaging than corporate wall art. Just because the only place you can hear the original is in the waiting room at your dentist’s office doesn’t mean it should cause drowsiness and fatigue, fellas!
Malaya Watson: Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire” — Grade:
C- D+ | Well, one way of looking at it is that Malaya put a literal spin on the song title — seeing how the bulk of the high notes sounded like they were coming from someone trapped inside a burning building, screaming wildly for the good folks from the Fire Department to come and save her. Too mean? Maybe. But someone has to speak truth to this hot buttered wreck of a vocal, since the judges’ complaints were limited mostly to Malaya focusing so far ahead on the glory notes that she forgot to infuse the verse with passion. “Not many people can hit that Chaka note,” said Harry, ignoring the fact that Malaya had botched it. But yes, Malaya’s Jody Watley-esque hoops were fly, despite not being nearly large enough to match the original’s signature look.
Jena & Caleb: “It’s Only Love” — Grade: B+ | Jena and Caleb actually sounded really good together on this Tina Turner-Bryan Adams duet — matching each other’s intensity and clearly having fun doing it. Unfortunately the song itself is kinda draggy and repetitive — not exactly “Slow Ride,” is what I’m tryin’ to say — but I’m hopeful this matchup added to the individual contestants’ vote tallies. They deserved it.
Jessica Meuse: Blondie’s “Call Me” — Grade: B- | As she does every week, Jess hit her notes like little ducks in a county-fair shooting game, but to what end? As J.Lo sagely noted, Jess needed to deliver the refrain — “CALL ME!” — with the force and ferocity of a woman demanding her lover have eyes (or a speed-dial setting, at least) for no other. But in Jess’s hands, the song might as well have been titled “Call Me?” Which is crazy. Because when Jessica talks about her music, she does it with such singular passion, a passion that burned even brighter when she sang her own original tune (“Blue Eyed Lie,” currently at 51 playcounts on my iTunes) last week. But tonight’s cover felt like a shoulder shrug at best, a surrender to the idea that, “Well, I don’t really dig any of the songs on the list, so I’m just gonna try to get through the least of the evils involved.” This is not how you win American Idol. This is how you finish 7th on American Idol. And I really think Season 13 of American Idol needs Jessica Meuse — grown woman, skilled songwriter, broke musician — to keep things interesting. So Jess, if you’re reading this, you’ve got to dig deeper in the song selection department. Call me, call me, anytime, K?
Sam Woolf: Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” — Grade: B | This was probably Sam’s best vocal since Hollywood Week — with his clear, sweet tone floating over a sparse, acoustic rearrangement of a classic ’80s ballad. I liked that Sam played with the tempo in spots, took little liberties with the melody, and harmonized with the electrifying Season 8 standout Allison Iraheta. (You’ve bought her band Halo Circus’ single on iTunes, yes?) My only complaint was that the staging — Sam lowered into a pit of SwayBots the better to underscore the producers’ “heartthrob” story arc — made him seem a little uncomfortable, a mood that kept him from fully nailing the emotional side of the performance. Harry, doing the worst mentoring of the season (if not his entire life), suggested Sam actually make eye contact with the grinning, mooning girls (who are paid $5.50 per shriek by producers). Dude, you might not have a problem with putting one of those short-shorts-clad tweens on your shoulders for an entire critique, but don’t drag poor Sam into it.
Malaya & C.J.: “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me” — Grade: D+ | Nope, the less I say/think/remember about this cataclysmic collision of poorly matched voices, the better. (Damn, remember when Jessica Sanchez and Josh Ledet took this one on in Season 11?)
Alex Preston: The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” — Grade: C+ | I didn’t realize it was possible to neuter a song — not until tonight, anyway, when Alex took the Police’s haunting classic about obsessive (and unreturned) love, brought it down to the vet’s office and asked for the ultimate equipment change. Yeah, I know, I’m always ranting about how contestants need to steer clear of karaoke and give us interesting arrangements, but as David Cook pointed out, Idol is like a chess match, and not every risk pays off. Like J.Lo pointed out, the way Alex stripmined the melody robbed the track of any intensity (or any discernible hook). Even worse though, Alex’s twee twist — all plinking acoustic guitar, sweeping strings and wide-eyed romantic vocals — sounded like it was tailor-made for a bride walking down the aisle at a beach wedding, a completely incongrous approach to a song about a man keeping constant and unwelcome vigil over a woman whom he’s accusing of breaking bonds and staying out all night. There wasn’t any irony or humor in Alex’s approach either, just a blasé approach in which lines like “I feel so cold and I long for your embrace” got tossed away like melon rinds.
Jessica & Dexter: “Islands in the Stream” — Grade: B- | Yeah, this sounded fine. I won’t remember it in a week, but it sounded fine. Well, maybe I’ll remember Harry disrespectfully screaming like a lunatic from the rafters instead of doing his job and critiquing the performance, but anyway…
C.J. Harris: Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” — Grade: C- | It seems to me as though the judges have almost given up on pointing out C.J.’s consistent pitch problems — since no amount of discussion seems to be leading to improvement, anyhow. Instead, we’ve moved on to the “You Know How to Connect With People!” arc. To which I say, if you’re a singer, and you want to connect with me, you have to hit more than one-third of your notes correctly. Anything less — like C.J.’s strained, frequently sharp mangling of a Tom Petty jam — and you’re actually not connecting. Not with me, anyhow. No matter how sweet a guy you seem to be. (We’ll leave the rooting for C.J. “note by note” shenanigans to J.Lo, who I think was trying to say in the nicest way possible that she never knows when dude is going to start singing off key.)
Caleb Johnson: Journey’s “Faithfully” — Grade: B+ | Whether you find him intriguingly retro or just old-fashioned, whether or not you’re irked by his dismissive comments about wanting to “make old ladies cry,” you can’t say Caleb doesn’t normally have an excellent grasp on intonation. Tonight, though, as he attempted to show us a softer side and caress the verses a bit, I thought the resident rocker sounded strained, maybe even a tiny bit haggard, as if his voice didn’t quite know how to carry itself if it wasn’t in full-throttle mode. Sure, the sea of sparks behind Caleb and Keith’s iPhone candle app added to the carefully constructed “Performance of the Night” narrative to which the producers were committed, but when the best compliment Keith Urban can think of is comparing you to a fannypack, maybe you’re not taking enough creative risks or living up to your prior highlights, eh?
Should Be Bottom 3: C.J., Malaya, Sam (C.J. going home)
Will Be Bottom 3: Malaya, Jessica, Jena (Malaya going home)
What did you think of the Top 8? Who were your faves? Who’s in trouble? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments! And for all my reality TV-related news, interviews and recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!