Ryan Seacrest got seriously scruffy (and it kinda worked for him). Randy Jackson offered deep thoughts like “This is Top 4 — there’s no holding back” and “It’s all in or nothing.” (Hey, at least he didn’t add a rogue “dawg” or a “molten hot lava bomb” to his lingo.) And J.Lo did her patented strut-and-squat dance move (sans the usual backing track).
But for the first time in American Idol‘s 13th season, our humble contestants refused to be upstaged by the foolery. “Cut as many times as you like to La Lopez shaking her buns — the one on top of her head and also her derriere — but Thursday morning’s water-cooler buzz belongs to us,” Jena, Alex, Jessica and Caleb seemed to be saying in their finest moments.
[Also buzz-worthy? Ryan Seacrest announcing Season 14 audition cities — Minneapolis, New Orleans, Uniondale NY, Nashville and San Francisco — which a Fox publicist tells me is indeed an official confirmation that the network has renewed its reality singing juggernaut for Season 14.]
Oh, sure, there were some clunkers in the mix, to be sure. (Rule No. 1 of Idol Club: Never challenge Kelly Clarkson to a duel.) But each of our combatants had a championship round, a fist raised to the sky in triumph, the roar of the crowd drowning out Harry Connick Jr.’s music-theory lessons and Keith Urban’s knee-jerk use of “baby.” (Side note: How much would you pay to hear him put that word at the end of a sentence beginning with “a dingo ate my”? #ImGoingToHell)
And yes, we even got an Idol Moment so undeniable that I have definitive reason to update my Top 25 Best Performances of All-Time gallery before next week’s Episode No. 500. So on that note, let me jump right to letter grades for the Top 4:
Caleb Johnson: Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love A Bad Name” — Grade: C+ | Ugh. The only way this performance could’ve been more chained to the mid-80s is if Caleb had sung into a giant bottle of Aqua-Net instead of a microphone. And look, while I realize not every performance on a reality singing competition is going to be wildly original, when you’re choosing a song that’s so synonymous with a particular era, it’s important to find some way to revitalize it — or wind up sounding like nothing more than a bar-band cover artist. To his credit, Keith hinted at that problem in his critique, but quickly changed gears and praised the last few notes: “At the end, you took it to your own place!” So, wait, we’re basing our critiques on snippets of performances now?
Jessica Meuse: Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” — Grade: C- | You know when a victim in a horror movie runs up the stairs to get away from the masked, knife-wielding murderer instead of out the front door? That was exactly the image that sprang to mind when I heard Jessica was tackling “Since U Been Gone,” and alas, it got bloodier and bloodier as Jessica struggled against a verse that was pitched too low for her and a chorus so high that it stretched her instrument in uncomfortable ways. I could write more about my favorite Season 13 under-dog’s difficulties, but I’ll just take a lyric from Ms. Clarkson and let you know I’m so movin on…yeah-yeah!
Alex Preston: Alex Clare’s “Too Close” — Grade: B+ | Was there anything more annoying than J.Lo’s repeated critiques tonight that Alex’s quieter approach to music might put him at a competitive disadvantage compared to Caleb and Jena? (Well, actually, there was J.Lo completely dismissing poor Jessica’s existence when she asked Alex, “How are you going to top a Caleb, a Jena, a this or a that?” #ATHISORATHAT #THISISTHENEWJESS) I mean, let’s be honest: Alex is not a belter, nor has he ever pretended to be. That aside, though, while I mostly dug Alex’s deconstructed “Too Close,” the way he moved it away from dubsteppishness and into an acoustic space filled with intricate rhythms, I also understood Keith’s complaint that he “misses a bit of weight” in Alex’s performances. Whereas a contestant like Kris Allen (one of my very favorite Idols, BTW) knew how to play with dynamics — and knew how to make his voice fully cut through the IdolDome, despite not having the horsepower of an Adam or an Allison — every aspect of Alex’s performances and persona feels slightly muffled or muted. In that sense, J.Lo’s suggestion of “a dramatic dropout” — a moment where Alex’s voice would have to carry the weight of the song — might not have been a terrible idea. (Which is my muted way of saying it was an excellent idea.)
Jena Irene: Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker” — Grade: A- | Keith and Harry got on Jena’s case for not showing enough “energetic release,” which to my mind was like getting a four-star meal and then complaining that you didn’t like the pattern of the china it got served on. Like J.Lo noted (two agreements with her in this recap already; one more and I’m sending myself to the Silver Stools of Doom), Jena’s was a “commanding performance” — and one, I might add, without a single botched note, some glorious harmonizing on the final refrain and crisp diction that had to at least temporarily silence her harshest critics.
Caleb Johnson: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Travelin’ Band” — Grade: B+ | Once again, Caleb took a pretty straightforward approach to arrangement — what happened to the dude who flipped “Skyfall,” “Chain of Fools” and “Edge of Glory”? — but his vocals were effortlessly good, and in the final refrain, he even took some nice liberties with the melody and let his voice soar like a racquetball smacked upward by The Hulk. Will this performance be lodged at the front of my memory a year from now? Probably not. But it can’t be all marble staircases and crown molding on the Idol journey; you also need cement blocks to buld a foundation. (Or I think you need ‘em. Do any of us really have time to worry about what’s keeping our fourth-floor apartment from collapsing?) “What can I say, Caleb?” asked J.Lo. “This isn’t really a critique,” said Harry, after wondering how Caleb would feel if he got to tour with the Idol house band. “Randy’s expression says it all!” exclaimed Keith. Well, at least we’re not pretending the judges are looking for any more growth or improvement from Caleb!
Jessica Meuse: Pink’s “So What” — Grade: C+ | Strrrrrrrike two! Jessica declared coming out of commercial that this was the best performance she’s ever done — but she may feel differently when she returns to her hotel and plays back this performance on the DVR. I’m not saying the vocal was as bad as the black dinner napkin that hung down over Jess’ midsection like a poorly placed bib, but it also felt…irrelevant? Nothing Jessica has done all season has painted her as a cheeky pop-rock princess with a scathing sense of humor, which made her fist bumps and twinkling smile on “I’m gonna start a fight” seem like accessories she was borrowing from someone else’s closet. Maybe Jessica had to pick this track off a list of three or four ill-fitting tunes. But if not, I’ve got to ask — why didn’t she go with a stormy rocker in the vein of “The Crow and the Butterfly” or a rootsy jam like “Blue Eyed Lie” or even a cinematic slice of melancholy like “Summertime Sadness”? There are a million ways to lose a competition, but the song-selection-as-shoulder-shrug method may be the most depressing.
Jena Irene: Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” — Grade: B- | Twenty points to Jena for reinventing Gaga’s theatrical electronic track as a throbbing, guitar-driven headbanger. And ten more points for reconfiguring the melody in a way that took the track away from its pop-radio roots and into a more ominous place. And now let’s subtract 25 points for the way Jena went with an arrangement that was simply too high for her range, a misfire that — when it wasn’t pulling her slightly off pitch — was bringing a slightly strident quality to her vocal tone. If nothing else, though, at least J.Lo’s critique showed us exactly how the “I Luh Ya Papi” “vocalist” is hoping Season 13 plays out: “To me, like, you really give Caleb a run for his money,” Jennifer giggled, “when it comes to the really big performances! — not saying that Jessica or Alex are not in it, they are in it, they just do it in a different way — but you guys kinda go toe-to-toe on, like, ‘We’re bringing down the house right now.'” Alrighty then!
Alex Preston: Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” — Grade: B- | If this was a game of Family Feud, and we had to guess “The 3 Songs Alex Preston Was Most Likely to Have on His Season 13 Set List,” then “I’m Yours” would definitely get a ding-ding-ding from host Steve Harvey. Not only was the choice painfully predictable, though, but Alex didn’t even bother to put any kind of interesting twist on it (aside from red shoes that called further attention to Alex’s alarmingly rolled pant legs and exposed ankles). So yeah, he sang it OK, it was totally inoffensive and yet — like a six-month-old magazine in your dentist’s office — it was also completely forgettable. (Nice seeing Alex’s girlfriend, Season 13 Rush Week victim Jillian Jensen, in the audience, however, no? Snap poll: Do we want her to try out for Season 14? Share thoughts below!)
Caleb Johnson: Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” — Grade: A | No doubt Caleb can wail with the best of ‘em, but we’ve seen very limited vulnerability to date from the Season 13 rocker. Smart move, then, for him to strip this romantic ballad down to its piano roots on the opening verse and put the focus on the raw, aching quality of his vocals. Just as great, Caleb infused the performance with sweeping glory notes, hints of falsetto and full-on growl-ation. In a season where too many contestants got pinged for a lack of dynamics, Caleb’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” could serve as a training video. Great stuff — and Caleb’s best since “Skyfall,” or maybe ever.
Jessica Meuse: Lady Gaga’s “You and I” — Grade: A | If Keith and J.Lo wind up tying Jessica to a stake Thursday night and using Randy’s oversized glasses to start a fire that immolates her Idol dreams, at least girlfriend can hold her chin up while everything around her turns to ashes. With the count at 0-and-2, Jessica took a big swing, tackled a song Haley Reinhart covered gloriously in Season 10 (before Gaga had even released it) and delivered the kind of deeply felt emotion and connected grittiness that have been hallmarks of her best Idol moments. When Jess’ voice began to shred so achingly on the chorus, when she brought it back to an origami-delicate whisper on “something about this place,” when she got me swaying to the music as she ad-libbed over the final chorus, I imagined a confetti shower pouring down in the IdolDome. Not all of our favorites can be winners in the end, of course, but when they’re as hard-working and unassuming and talented as Jessica, you can only hope that they’ll leave a final impression as indelible as her “You and I.” [Judges comments left on the TVLine editing-room floor, because honestly, who cares what they say about Jessica anymore?]
Jena Irene: Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” — Grade: A+ | Chocolate ice cream and peanut-butter sauce. Fey and Poehler. Wine and television. Affirmed and Alydar. These are just a few classic pairings that never fail to satisfy, and I think it’s time we added Jena and her piano to the list, yes? And “Can’t Help Falling in Love” was a flawless example of the magic she creates when she’s at the keys — and utilizing her singular musical instincts to reinvent timeless tracks. I loved the way she came in just a beat late on the opening line, the way her timing forced the ear to lock harder onto the lyrics, rather than allowing the brain to unconsciously slip into all the versions of the song we’ve heard before. Even more impressive, though, was the way Jena instinctively added unexpected flavors to the melody — a very risky proposition when you’re dealing with an Elvis classic as cherished as anything in Grandma’s recipe box. Somehow, though, this 17-year-old girl didn’t hit a single wonky note — her ad libs adding heaping amounts of drama and longing, her fluttery high notes adding teenage-crush palpatations to the bridge, and that final refrain that I cannot wait to download on iTunes. (Except for some bonehead on the show’s production team decided to let the Idols record only one track per week — and then decided Jena’s Top 4 contribution should be “Heartbreaker.” Uff da!) And just like during Candice Glover’s epic “Lovesong” in Season 12, we even got a weird sound malfunction/Satanic visitation mid-performance. Is it possible the souls of Corey Clark and Paula Abdul are locked beneath the IdolDome, letting out howls of pain every time a jaw-dropping performance irrevocably reveals the eventual champion? We’ll know in two weeks!
Alex Preston: Coldplay’s “Yellow” — Grade: A | Yeah, Alex added yet another quirky cover of a midtempo, modern-rock ditty by a male vocalist to his Season 13 oeuvre, which normally might leave me feeling just a teensy bit unsatisfied. (Especially since it was done with marching-in-place-at-the-mic-stand predictability.) Alex’s saving grace, though, was that “Yellow” was so darn pretty. The way he allowed his voice to creep into a broken falsetto at the ends of lines, the focused dreaminess he brought to lines like “look at the stars/look how they shine for you,” the way the song became like whispered pillow talk to a lover rather than a plea for America’s votes. I dug it, and unlike La Lopez, I’m not even really worried how America is going to respond to it.
SHOULD BE BOTTOM 2: Jessica and Caleb (Caleb going home)
WILL BE BOTTOM 2: Jessica and Caleb (Jessica going home)
Yes, I realize my “Should Be Bottom 2″ prognostication doesn’t match up with tonight’s grades: Jessica only went 1-for-3 on a night where she needed a hat trick. But I firmly believe that in the wake of Caleb calling his fans “retards” last week, he needed to prove himself so spectacularly and/or apologize so publicly that it would overshadow the deep fear that he’s not truly ready to be the ambassador for this enduring franchise. I’d argue that didn’t happen tonight, and thus my feeling that Mr. Johson should be the one to fall short of a hometown visit.
Anyhow…enough about my opinion…
What did you think of Top 4 performance night? 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!