Jennifer Lopez making stank face and whipping her hair back and forth. A bored teenage girl with a “Sam Woolf” sign coming to life once a camera gets thrust in her face. Randy Jackson sitting on a couch, compiling his grocery list.
These are not the images that lead to true American Idol Moments (™) — or as Goosies From the (Seven-Figure) Block calls ‘em, “moments-moments” — but inexplicably, they’ve become the visual focus of executive producer Per Blankens and his Season 13 team. “Pay no attention to the six kids singing their hearts out! We’re paying mid-six-figures for Keith and J.Lo’s hair and makeup, and we’re going to get our money’s worth, dammit!”
That’s a shame, really. Because tonight, on Idol‘s Top 6 performance telecast, two-thirds of the season’s much-maligned contestants refused to bring their grandma’s stuffing to the Thanksgiving table (metaphorically speaking), carried genuine feeling and artistry to the stage and earned the right to bask in a little uninterrupted camera time. In other words, they were damn good as they navigated a dual theme of country/rock.
But look, I like to think of TVLine as a safe place for the Idoloonie Nation, a forum where we can tear away the husks of Harry Connick Jr.’s neediness and the silk of special guest Grumpy Cat’s fur, then chow down on the delicious sweet corn served up by Caleb, Jessica, Jena and Alex. (Oh, did I already reveal my cards and let you know I am expecting — no, demanding — a C.J.-Sam Bottom 2 come Thursday? Whoops!) The table is set, so let’s jump right to my letter grades for tonight’s performances:
Jena Irene: Heart’s “Barracuda” — Grade: A | Can I admit I was a little anxious on Jena’s behalf tonight? I mean, bad enough that she got the tough show-opening slot (for the second time in three weeks), but then having to work her way through the deadly obstacle course of Ann Wilson’s vocal template? Yikes, it’s probably an easier job being the Idol stylist who has to tell J.Lo that the show’s run out of body glitter. Turns out, though, my fretting was for naught. Right from the opening verse, Jena gorgeously handled the rapid-fire wordplay, the piercing high notes and even the shifting rhythms of Heart’s classic rock anthem — all while infusing it with her trademark husky tone and playing beautifully with the band. She was, to sum things up in one word, stupendous. The judges, however, started muttering complaints about Jena looking tense and needing to “release” a bit more, but I think maybe it was just a case of them being programmed to always find some fault with the first two numbers of every episode.
Sam Woolf: Imagine Dragons’ “It’s Time” — Grade: C+ | Oh Idol producers, just because you instruct every camera operator in the studio to film Sam in extreme closeup, and just because you keep jabbing those soulless girls in the front row with 100-volt prods so they’ll scream like they’re at a One Direction concert, doesn’t mean Sam is ever going to embrace the “heartthrob” label you keep foisting on him. So just cut it out already! But let’s talk music, shall we? As always, Sam showcased a scratchy-sweet tone and solid grasp of pitch. But on the flip side, except for that intense glory note near the end, I didn’t feel like Sam had read and reread the lyrics, lived in them till they fit as comfortably as an old t-shirt, and then delievered them with the kind of conviction that made you feel his only purpose in life was to convey the message of the song. That shortcoming is most likely a product of Sam’s youth and inexpeirence, but as Keith noted, it’s probably not going to be solved before the competition is over — especially if he winds up going home as a fifth-place finisher next week. (Yeah, that’s my subtle way of saying Sam has in no way proven himself to be Top 4 material. Somewhere, Allison Iraheta, Chris Daughtry, Jason Castro, LaKisha Jones, James Durbin and Amber Holcomb are nodding their heads in agreement.)
C.J. Harris: The Guess Who’s “American Woman” — Grade: D+ | I appreciated Keith’s advice that perhaps a nasty-lothario anthem wasn’t the best choice for kind and gentle C.J. But the problems on this performance ran deeper than lyrical connection. For starters, C.J.’s pitch was as bumpy as an airplane with the fasten-seatbelt signs illuminated (resulting in yet another “intonation” lecture from Prof. Connick.) And then there was the lack of propulsion in C.J.’s delivery; the band was rocking hard, but C.J.’s vocal had all the driving force of a Matchbox car being pushed out into Freeway traffic. Is it too cruel for me to say I hope the lyrics “I gotta go/ Bye-bye” prove to be prophetic? Actually, don’t answer that.
Alex Preston: Neon Trees’ “Animal” — Grade:
B- C+ | I wavered back and forth between a B- and a C+ for this performance, but after a second listen, it’s clear the lower grade is warranted. The faster-paced “Animal,” while representing a badly needed departure from Alex’s standard operating mid- to slow-tempo ouevre, didn’t bring out the best in the New Hampshire native’s voice. The opening verse, while a bit nasal, bopped along OK, but by the time Alex reached the bridge, he wound up sounding winded and struggling to sing in tune. And it’s not like he was throwing himself into the physicality of the song with much gusto, either. The judges, though, couched their criticisms with phrases like “a little bit something missing” (J.Lo) and “release a bit more” (Keith) and “you kind of get a pass” (Harry). What’s that, Connick? Oh, yeah, we already knew Alex gets a pass: Dude has been glued to the mic stand all season without any complaint. If Jessica were guilty of the same crime, you guys would have her pilloried in the public square!
Caleb Johnson: The Black Crowes’ “Sting Me” — Grade: A- | Caleb kinda sorta had to be great on the “rock” half of the show, and thankfully he didn’t disappoint (even with a momentarily dropped microphone throwing him off for all of 2.4 seconds). I loved the Season 13 goofball’s interactions with the backup singers during that vampy verse, the hair-whipping abandon he brought to the stage and especially that supersonic howl he used to cap off the performance. Sure, I’d have preferred it if Caleb had been more careful about his diction — was I the only person unable to grasp at least a third of the Black Crowe’s words? — but I also wouldn’t argue too vehemently against J.Lo that the dude had himself a moment.
Jessica Meuse: Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” — Grade: A- | Congratulations to me, I’m a psychic now! That’s because, even before Jess sang a singly, solitary note, I knew exactly the lack of enthusiasm and nitpicky dismissiveness J.Lo would bring to her critique. Oh, you saw it coming, too? Yeah, I guess we all saw it coming the second the cameras cut to #ILuhYa and she was furiously scribbling a note instead of executing her hair-ography. Keith wasn’t much better, really. But at least this week, Harry got it right, telling Jessica she’d proven herself to have “a fantastic voice” and having brought intensity and a “rhythmic delivery” that — if there is any justice left in the Idolsphere — will propel her right into the Top 5. (I dug Jess’ quavery tone on this jam, too, it’s worth noting, as well as the sly, sexy smile she used to punctuate certain lines and phrases. How come nobody made mention of that!?)
Sam Woolf: Shania Twain’s “You’re Still the One” — Grade: B- | Granted, this “first dance at the wedding” favorite was probably two sizes too big (emotionally) for innocent Sam, but I appreciated his decision to tackle a female artist for a change, and to apply a touch of sandpaper to a polished gem of a ballad. It may not have been the deepest musical moment of the night, but it sounded good to my ears. Sure, Harry was right that the performance could’ve used more in the way of dynamics, but J.Lo (shedding a good chunk of her hard-won credibility this week) had nothing much to offer than an ode to Sam’s cuteness. I mean, if all this grown woman is going to act like a 13-year-old grabbing a Tiger Beat at the checkout counter, maybe she should consider exiting the judges’ table and wading into the SwayBot pit from whence she came!
Caleb Johnson: Carrie Underwood’s “Undo It” — Grade: A | Keith made a little dig at the end of critiquing — “I can’t wait to hear what country song you do later” — that seemed to indicate a lingering displeasure over Caleb emphasizing the rockier elements of Carrie Underwood’s smash, rather than really wading into a true Nashville moment. I guess I got what he meant, but I didn’t really give a hoot — since I was too busy enjoying the way Caleb dialed the angst and fury of his performance all the way past 11. Personally, I enjoyed “Undo It” even more than “Sting Me,” perhaps because Caleb’s masculine approach brought out a little added menace in the lyrics, or perhaps because Carrie’s melody pushed Caleb’s voice to new and growly heights or perhaps because his ad-libs over the final chorus were so magically on-the-mark. Caleb poured so much of himself into the performance that he broke out sweating and asked to borrow Randy’s fan. (That’s just how he kids! Everyone knows Randy doesn’t have any fans! Badum-bum.)
Alex Preston: Willie Nelson’s “Always on My Mind” — Grade: A- | Like J.Lo, I really enjoyed Alex’s acoustic lullabye arrangement of this sad-timey classic because it took the melody in new directions without ever losing sight of (or respect for) the original. Even the imperfections — the flat conversational opening lines, Alex’s crackly falsetto at the finish — added to the beauty of a guy pleading his case in front of his neglected woman. Plus, on a shallow note, Alex’s cream-colored jacket with the sequined lapels was pretty nifty — one of the more un-cautious fashion decisions by a fella this season.
Jena Irene: Carrie Underwood’s “So Small” — Grade: B+ | “I messed up — sorry,” offered an adorably contrite Jena after she noticeably botched a big note right near the end of her performance. But aside from that glitch, the rest of Jena’s night was…well, I can’t say great, but I can certainly say…interesting? J.Lo alluded to Jena’s voice dominating the mix, and it did: The sparse, piano-heavy backdrop was oddly airy, leaving Jena’s big, booming voice to float over the top as it shifted from whisper to wail and back again. ( “I could put her voice on toast, it’s so good!” I wrote in my notes.) Yeah, I might have preferred the whole thing to come a half step down, the better to protect Jena’s voice from straining, but the good moments were copious — and really, really good
C.J. Harris: Zac Brown Band’s “Whatever It Is” — Grade: D | Not in tune? Then not in my Top 5. What say you, America?
Jessica Meuse: Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” — Grade: A | I’m not gonna make mention of what the judges did (and didn’t) say about Jess’ show-closing rendition of Dolly’s plea to the Other Woman. It doesn’t matter, in the end. What did matter, to me anyway, was seeing a bright, committed young vocalist reinventing a hallowed country classic in a way that made me hear it with fresh ears (while playing to her own strengths). Gone was the quiet, acoustic template, the whispered plea made over tea. In its place, we had a raucuous band of musicians amping up the noise, with Jess making a full-voiced entreaty to Jolene as her world was crumbling down around her. Capped off with a final falsetto yodel (that gave me shades of Jewel), this is one I’m gonna have to consider adding to my Top 25 All-Time Idol Performances gallery. Yeah, I really loved it that much.
SHOULD BE BOTTOM 2: Sam & C.J. (C.J. going home)
WILL BE BOTTOM 2: Sam & C.J. (C.J. going home)
What did you think of the Top 6? Who were your faves? Who’s in trouble? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments! [Programming Note: We'll have a new episode of Reality Check again next week -- we didn't film one for this week due to me being out of the country. Sorry!] And for all my reality TV-related news, interviews and recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!