American Idol Top 11 Performance Recap: Take This Sinking Boat, and Point It Home [Updated]

american-idol-top-11-recap-jena-ireneAt the risk of the universe saddling me with a hot pink catsuit, a gigantic tuba and a filthy trucker hat — three of the wardrobe items prominently featured on tonight’s Top 11 performance episode of American Idol — I’m gonna make a controversial confession: I miss theme weeks.

Don’t get me wrong: If executive producer Per Blankens does the unthinkable and reverts to some done-to-death cliché — like Motown or Disco or Songs From the Year You Were Born —  then part of me will root for The X Factor to reach up from its freshly dug grave and pull the House That Kelly Clarkson Built down into the fiery pit, Drag Me to Hell-style.

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But Season 13’s looser guidelines — “This Is Me,” “Home,” “Any Song That Ever Made Its Way Into a Movie” (AKA “Songs That Were Done Better by Kris Allen”) — have, in too many instances, allowed contestants to choose songs they know so well or have performed so many times that it allows them to avoid any kind of risk and any kind of innovation or electricity that comes with it.

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The good news, however, is that after Top 12 Week’s total drubbing amongst the Idoloonie Nation and the Season 13 panel/Harsh Harry, a handful of kids dug deeper — in their vocals, in their song choices, in their arrangements — to try to prove themselves worthy of a legacy including (but not limited to) such past Idol standouts as Kelly and Carrie and Haley and J.Hud and Kris and David (pick your fave) and Candice and Elise and Melinda (and the list goes on and on).

The night wasn’t perfect — and didn’t warrant as many Standing Os as Keith and Jenny From the Block distributed — but it was one giant leap in the right direction.

Now, if Uncle PB can find the right mix of themes — or if “mentor” Randy Jackson (or a replacement for “mentor” Randy Jackson) can discourage contestants from choosing ditties that have been done to death or covered in a legendary way in prior seasons — Idol might just be able to get its groove back.

On that note of positive daydreaming, let’s jump right to letter grades for tonight’s performances:

Sam Woolf: The Beatles’ “Come Together” (Across the Universe) — Grade: C |  Look, I’m well aware that my inner Idol Historian can be a little ponderous, but that said, wouldn’t it have been nice if Sam had done a cursory Google search and determined that Carly Smithson, Kris Allen, Crystal Bowersox and Candice Glover had all previously tackled the tale of Old Flat-Top with (respectively) more power, more playfulness, more didgeridoo/creativity and more stankaliciousness than he could’ve ever hoped to muster? By comparison, Sam’s rendition was tentative and middling and behind the beat — failing not only to groove up slowly, but to groove in any way whatsoever. The encouraging take-home message was that Sam realizes he needs to stretch himself beyond his established coffee-house cutie-pie persona, but that’ll require a belief in his musical vision and a belief in the power of his own voice that he’s not currently exhibiting.

Jessica Meuse: Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound Of Silence” (The Graduate) — Grade: B/B+ | I was so captivated by the opening third of Jessica’s performance — when it was just her and her acoustic guitar — that I wondered for a second if I’d need to find a place for it in my 30 Best Idol Performances of All-Time gallery. And then, suddenly, a weird metronome-y clicking kicked in, somebody in the band botched their guitar line and two renditions of the Simon and Garfunkel ditty collided. The Season 13 rocker chick lost her way for a second — and maybe never returned to the brilliance for which she was initially headed — but as Harry noted, you have to give the woman credit for staying composed and staying the course. And I, for one, hope the voting public heeds his words — and backs ’em up with their votes.

C.J. Harris: The Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See” (Blow) — Grade: B+ | Even with the threat of Randy Jackson becoming my life mentor for the next three months, I don’t think I’d be able to recall one interesting thing C.J. did during the first three weeks of live performances. So imagine my shock tonight when the Alabama native hit reverse as if he’d just driven past a “Free Gemstones” kiosk and delivered a gritty, emotionally connected bit of blues that had Harry declaring he’d sang his way “back to the forefront” the Season 13 proceedings. It didn’t hurt that Rickey Minor & Co. seemed to add extra oomph to every part of the arrangement — especially the piano and guitar lines — but it was C.J. who led them down the rocky southern road. Now let’s see him do this two weeks running, and then maybe I won’t scoff at J.Lo cooing “front-runner!”

Dexter Roberts: Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” (Forrest Gump) — Grade: C+ | This was the musical equivalent of a $5 pitcher of Coors — crowd-pleasing, goes down easy, not gonna remember it in the heavy-lidded morning. Granted, Dexter’s lack of baseball cap and nifty haircut — apparently, the Idol stylists’ strike is officially over? — represented a major presentation upgrade, but at the end of the day, adding a University of Alabama football chant in the midst of a straightforward karaoke arrangement doesn’t mean you’ve taken a single risk or displayed an ounce of originality. And shouldn’t those be baseline requirements if you want to make the Idol tour?

Ben Briley: Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” (27 Dresses) — Grade: C | OK, get out your “Hypocrite!” signs and get ready to hoist ’em in the air. Because after criticizing Dexter for playing it depressingly safe, I’m gonna take poor Ben to task for playing it risky and delivering something depressing in the process. Again, credit must be given for Ben’s dapper green velvet jacket and well-groomed beard (finally!), but his hotel-lounge arrangement and peculiar phrasing of Elton John’s grooviest jam felt positively anemic compared to the original (and stacked up against Haley Reinhart’s epic, exuberant Season 10 take — which contained 77% more “hardcore bangage”). Even worse, though, the country rocker ended his rendition with a series of falsetto notes that sounded like a distress signal or the soundtrack to the “universal sign for choking.” If I got to tamper with the votes, Ben’s spaced-out effort wouldn’t result in elimination — just a good, solid scare — but I’ll be shocked if he’s not in the Bottom 3 come Thursday night.

Majesty Rose: Idina Menzel/Adele Dazim’s “Let It Go” (Frozen) — Grade: D+ | It pains me to write this because I’ve really adored Majesty all season, but this performance was a tragic case of trying to chop down a regal old elm tree with a Ginsu knife. The gap-toothed beauty has a gentle, bubbly tone and a great grasp on emotional nuance, but she’s not a Broadway belter with the power and range to tackle an animated princess ballad — especially not when she’s vacantly skipping around the stage and running out of air in the process. The judges all began their critiques as though they were about to eviscerate Majesty, then reversed course and said things like “superb” and “mostly good” and other words of encouragement. Still, their “What. Just. Happened.” expressions told the tale of a front-runner who’d just face-planted — and who could’ve used a harsh sting of criticism so she  can learn from it, regroup, and never tackle a power ballad (at least not without a radical rearrangement) ever again. (Side note: My use of the always-sharp Ginsu in the preceding analogy was not meant as a bitchy commentary on half of Majesty’s notes tonight, but in hindsight, it certainly could’ve been.)

Caleb Johnson: Adele’s “Skyfall” (Skyfall) — Grade: A- | Can we get a slow clap for Caleb, a guy who entered Top 11 week near the front of the pack and, instead of playing it safe and trying to hold his position, took one of the season’s biggest risks and put more distance between himself and his rivals in the process? I mean, for starters, it’s not every day you hear a male singer tackling Adele on a reality singing competition — let alone a guy with major classic-rock inclinations. The genius thing is, though, Adele’s James Bond theme has all the inherent drama and scale that a voice like Caleb’s needs to shine. He showed such wicked precision and enviable restraint on the verse that, as a result, the chorus became all the more spine-tingling. Granted, time limitations meant the song never quite got the chance to ramp up as fully as it ought to, but that pause before the line “We will stand tall” — and the ferocity of his sweet ad-lib — may have given him a fast-forward pass ’til Top 9 or Top 8 week at minimum.

M.K. Nobilette: Bob Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love” (Hope Floats) — Grade: B | M.K.’s rendition was like a wildflower on the side of the highway: Delicate, pretty, a little ragged in spots and, while not exactly one-of-a-kind, certainly enjoyable in its own quiet way. I’m still not sure why M.K. traveled forward toward the judges’ table and appeared to be directly delivering her lyrics to Harry, J.Lo and Keith — on screen, the choice just seemed…perculiar? — and she still needs to try harder to not allow dead spaces to creep into the midst of her phrasing, but she’s setting herself up for an improvement arc. And what Idoloonie doesn’t love an improvement arc?

Alex Preston: Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s “Falling Slowly” (Once) — Grade: B+ | OK, so we’re four weeks in to the voting rounds, and Alex has now performed three songs either done incessantly (“I Don’t Want to Be”) or completely epically (“Volcano,” “Falling Slowly”) by prior Idol standouts. If I didn’t know better, I’d think the guy might be a glutton for unflattering comparisons. Still, while Alex’s take on the Oscar-winning anthem didn’t pack the oomph or the dynamic rise and fall of Kris Allen raising his hopeful voice back in Season 8, it did contain enough intriguing melodic and rhythmic twists that it couldn’t be dismissed as karaoke. Keith was right, the guy has a “raw fragility” to his voice that really captures the attention. And while he’ll need other colors and moods if he’s serious about taking a confetti shower on the Idol stage two and a half months from now, “Falling Slowly” was the perfect palate-cleanser after last week’s reggae-tinged misfire.

Jena Irene: Paramore’s “Decode” (Twilight) — Grade: A | I remember an old perfume ad from the ’70s with a tagline: “If you want to get someone’s attention…whisper.” But if you want to blow someone’s damn mind — or at least mine — you whisper, and then your roar, and then you bang on the piano, and you pretty much create an entire weather front right there on the Idol stage (stormy, with a chance of flailing!) because you’re adding huge portions anguish and ferocity to a bubbling cauldron of musical emotions. OK, yeah, I just wrote one of my most ridiculous sentences in 10 years of recapping Idol for a living. But Jena was simply that exquisite — easily sliding to the top of her range at a full banshee howl and not looking the slightest bit stressed, I might add — on a song that seemed to personify exactly the kind of artist she could be in the real world. I can’t even apologize for my effusiveness.

Malaya Watson: Jennifer Hudson’s “I Am Changing” (Dreamgirls) — Grade: B+ | Keeping it really real*, Malaya is no Jennifer Hudson — not at the age of 16, anyhow — and the judges interestingly couched their praise with comments about how great she’ll be in a few years’ time. Unfortunately, those very same judges are the ones who put Malaya in the Season 13 Top 20, and so we’ve got to rate her on what she’s doing now — not on what she might do in the future. The good news for Malaya, however, is that — despite Keith’s very fair assessment that she needs to find “places to rein it in” in a song — she showcased pretty accurate pitch and a heckuva lot of passion on Dreamgirls‘ ballad of self-discovery and self-awareness. And even when she went for the jugular — and then put the jugular through a meat grinder — her voice didn’t get tight and screechy in the way it’s done previously. The kid seems to be developing a better handle on her own instrument — on its capabilites and limitations — and combined with her big, goofy stage presence, that should at minimum make her a lock for the Idol Season 13 tour. (*That Randy-ism was used mockingly, I promise.)

Should Be Bottom 3: Sam, Ben, Dexter (Dexter going home) (And, yes, I realize this is at odds with my overall grades, but prior weeks ought to count for something, yes?)
Will Be Bottom 3: Sam, Ben, Jessica (Ben going home)

What did you think of the Top 12? 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!