American Idol Top 5 Performance Recap: Pay No Attention to the Kids in Front of the Curtain!

American Idol Top 5 recap jena irene my bodyWelcome to American Idol‘s Top 5 performance night — starring Ariana Grande, Zooey Deschanel, Jennifer Lopez’s thick mane of hair and Keith Urban’s solar-eclipse t-shirt. If that’s not enough star power, we’ve got Jason Mraz on mentor duty, trailed by The Ineffectual Bumbling of Randy Jackson (this summer’s tragicomic documentary outlining how to make a seven-figure salary by sitting on a couch in a total stupor).

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I know, I know, I’ve made this complaint before — particularly in the Reality Check video embedded at the bottom of this recap — that executive producer Per Blankens devotes far too much camera time on everything except for the guys and gals trying their darndest to achieve Kelly Clarkson success in a Redfoo world, but tonight was yet another example of shining a spotlight on the dinner rolls and house salad and treating the surf-and-turf main course like an afterthought.

At this rate, I’m half expecting the Season 13 finale to serve as a backdrop for a Kim-and-Kanye wedding special. (Yes, you have permission to unfollow me on Twitter if the previous sentence results in such blasphemous indignity.)

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I could continue this rant by calling out the inconsistent judging, the pre-critique commercial breaks (the better for J.Lo, Harry and Keith to memorize their producer-written sound bites?) and the lack of support for Idol grads’ excellent current releases (fun fact: Blake Lewis has a killer new CD coming soon to iTunes!), but let’s talk instead about the music. Because honestly, there were more good-to-excellent performances tonight than there were middling-to-poor ones. So let’s jump right to letter grades:

Alex Preston: The Neighbourhood’s “Sweater Weather” — Grade: B- | Question: Should Alex be required to successfully master at least one uptempo song during a live show if he wants to be the Season 13 champ? I know it sounds like an arbitrary rule, but I’d still vote “yes.” And alas, while He Whose Pants Must Be Cuffed hit most of his notes on “Sweater Weather,” his delivery had all the zest of a helium balloon 24 hours after the party, floating a couple feet above the dust bunnies behind the easy chair. I think the problem was that in Alex’s effort to keep pace with the rapid fire tempo, he completely lost his connection to the lyrics. I mean, in a song about sexual chemistry and seduction, there wasn’t an ounce of playfulness or a hint of crescendo — just words, scattered like buckshot in front of the mic stand. Which, naturally, prompted Harry to give him “an A+ for remembering all those words.” Damn, the bar does tend to get lowered for those who have a Y chromosome, no? (More on that theory in the next performance…)

Caleb Johnson: Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” — Grade: C | Wait a second, did J.Lo break out her “goosies” compliment for the night’s worst vocal performance? Or is it possible that somewhere between Season 11 and Season 13, the meaning of “goosies” changed (like the way today’s youth have determined that “sick” is a positive)? Whatever the case, as Caleb attempted his first stripped-down, delicate vocal in weeks/possibly ever, he ran into serious pitch problems — hitting a series of flat notes while almost sounding as if he was attempting a Steven Tyler impression. (Or, quite possibly, dude just had a cold?) To Caleb’s credit, he admitted in his post-commercial break interview that he’d struggled with intonation — something none of the judges mentioned — and mentioned his reservations about the song choice, too. But while that honesty deserves a hat tip, the limp arrangement — all strings and candelabras and ho-hum-ness — does not.

Jena, Alex & Sam: “Best Day of My Life” — Grade: B+ | A fun, energetic collaboration, with Jena’s harmonies proving particularly potent. I just have to ask, though, did Idol‘s powers-that-be turn down the volume on Alex’s mic? Conspiracy theorists, discuss! (Oh, and Question No. 2: How come J.Lo and Harry are always flapping their gums while the contestants are singing? #rude)

Jessica Meuse: Christina Perri’s “Human” — Grade: A- | I loved Jason Mraz’s instructions to Jess to widen her stance for a stronger, more commanding feel. And while girlfriend failed to take his last note and sling her guitar backwards on the final chorus, I still thought the end result was as emotionally stirring as it was beautifully sung. The way Jess’ quavery tone cut through the opening notes of the chorus, the drama she elicited on the “I can do it” refrain, even that fist pump action near the end, all contributed to Jessica successfully communicating the empowering message of a lyric (“Your words in my head, knives in my heart/ You build me up and then I fall apart“) that might just as well have been written from her to J.Lo, Harry and Keith, a trio of people who never can quite bring themselves to say “Great job!” and just leave it at that. To which I say, “Great job, Jessica!” And I’ll leave it at that.

Sam Woolf: Ed Sheeran’s “Sing” — Grade: B- | Look, I have to give Sam credit for at least attempting something new and slightly surprising by settling on a ditty with a driving, wickedly fast lyrical flow. (Yes, it was “America’s Choice,” but Fox’s official word was that the contestants were able to choose from a list of requested tunes, so let’s give Sam some credit here, yes?) The good news is that the opening verses, while not exactly a study in dynamics, were served up in tune and with a little bit of swagger, too. The bad news? As the Idol band — and especially Season 8’s Allison Iraheta on background vocals — mooved and grooved through the first repetition of the chorus, Sam fell so far behind the beat that it became very much a “weak impala straggling behind the herd” situation. As Harry sagely pointed out, the out-of-the-pocket approach sapped the tune of its funk, although in Sam’s defense, the wretchedly out-of-time movements of the SwayBots may have contributed to his difficulties. Making matters even more dire? J.Lo pointing out how the producers brought out Sam’s alleged celebrity crush (the aforementioned Ms. Grande) prior his performance, and her contention that it resulted in “butterflies and feelings.” Isn’t it adorable how sometimes we don’t think she’s reading from a script?

Jena Irene: Young the Giant’s “My Body” — Grade: A | Following Sam’s impala impression, Jena brought lioness ferocity to the stage for the night’s most electrifying performance. Every single note was in tune (although, if I’m being honest, Jena needs to watch her mic technique when she’s in motion, as she lost a word or two on the verse). The physicality was youthful and joyous — completely in keeping with the lyrics. And oh man, those massive high notes at the end were “just finished brushing my teeth” fresh — not in any way compromised by all the movement that came before it. More and more, Jena is looking and sounding like a star who could exist in the real world, and not just a reality-show contestant on a roll. I mean, seriously, if I paid $100 for a Jena Irene concert ticket and got 90 minutes of “My Body”-esque awesomeness, I’d be whipping out the credit card for a tour t-shirt on my way out of the venue. (Yes, that’s my request to the Idol Summer Tour merchandise folks to please make there are guys’ t-shirts in stock this summer, OK?)

Caleb & Jessica: The Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden” — Grade: B+ | Yeah, Jessica looked a little anchored to her spot on the stage. And yeah, Caleb didn’t really seem to know if he was supposed to be moving, but the duo’s faces registered genuine enjoyment and their voices blended beautifully, too. How nice of Jessica and Caleb, in fact, to set an upbeat tone via which Ryan could promote Ariana Grande’s new single! (It’s not like there are any Idol grads with recent releases to promote or anything.)

Alex Preston: A Great Big World (feat. Christina Aguilera)’s “Say Something” — Grade: A- | I was a little worried that this song — rocked twice on live TV last year (The Voice and the Grammys) by its original artists and twice on The X Factor by Season 3 champs Alex & Sierra — might feel a little like a threadbare hand-me-down at this point. But that bit of fretting underestimated how terrific Alex can be when he jumps off the diving board and straight into the deep end of a song. The sense of loss and impending heartbreaking percolating in the crannies of Alex’s voice made every single word of this ballad resonate. I’ll admit, I got distracted for a second trying to figure out the identity of Alex’s silhouetted duet partner/backup singer — for the record, it didn’t sound like Allison to me — but otherwise, this was close to perfect. Heck, I enjoyed this so earnestly that I didn’t even roll an eye over Harry’s remark about enjoying witnessing “a performer struggling with the emotion of a song but not giving into it.”

Jena Irene: The Zutons’/Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” — Grade: A- | PUT YOU HANDS UP…FOR ORIGINALITY! Yes, yes, yes…Jena could’ve chosen to follow Amy Winehouse’s template, neatly lining up note after note after note and getting gold stars from the judges in the process. Instead, she reinvented the uptempo track as a swaying, lite-jazz jam — one that brought out interesting colors in her vocal tone. On a gut level, I may have enjoyed “My Body” slightly more, but in terms of Idol strategy, “Valerie” was just as smart — if not smarter. I mean, by Top 5 week, isn’t it better to be owning your song choices rather than simply renting ’em? Being female — and being a teenager — it’s not a shocker that Jena didn’t get any credit from the judges for her musicality or inventiveness, but here’s hoping the lack of fawning won’t lead to a shock boot. (Ugh, I seriously hate myself for even typing that primal fear.)

Sam Woolf: The Fray’s “How to Save a Life” — Grade: C+ | When even J.Lo is forced to admit the opening verse made her go “Yikes!”, you know you’re not dealing with a personal best showing. But while the verses were perhaps pitched a tad low for Sam’s comfort level, the bigger issue — as Harry pointed out — was the lack of dynamics, the way nearly every line of the song was delivered at the same exact intensity level (somewhere around a 6.5 out of 10). Naturally, the night’s second-weakest vocal drew J.Lo’s second set of “goosies!” — she’s just messing with our minds now, right? — but if saner ears prevail, the Reluctant Heartthrob may have to settle for his Idol journey getting labeled with the slogan, “Nice guys finish fifth.”

Jessica Meuse: Lana del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness” — Grade: A- | First of all, are we discussing the most dramatically exposed leg since Angelina Jolie’s at the 2012 Oscars? Grrrrrllll, she works out! OK, with that out of the way, I’m gonna go out on a limb (leg? limb? get it?) and also say that with Jess’ husky lower register and her decision to slightly increase the song’s tempo, she actually upgraded it from Lana’s languid original. I loved that Keith pointed out the David Lynch mysticism of the performance, as Jessica’s voice transported me to humid, slightly ominous setting where, indeed, the “telephone wires above were sizzling like a snare.” That’s no small task — especially with the camera cutting to J.Lo’s face every 10 seconds — but Jessica achieved it by virtue of her impeccable phrasing and the way she stretched her voice to its peak on a very tricky bridge. Oh, sure, the whole thing left J.Lo cold, but then again, so did Haley Reinhart’s “Earth Song” and “You and I.” (Uh-huh, I went there.)

Caleb Johnson: Whitesnake’s “Still of the Night” — Grade: B+ | Yeah, I know Caleb’s final performance got the pimp slot and a Standing O from two out of three judges (plus special strobe-tastic lighting and extra reverb), but it seemed to me more like great karaoke than genuine musical ownership — despite the guy’s howlization packing as much boom-boom-pow as Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks. Maybe if you didn’t grow up in the ’80s, maybe if Tawny Kitaen isn’t part of your pop-cultural vocab, then Caleb’s “Still of the Night” felt rainshower fresh. But from where I sat, the Season 13 rocker merely put the “cover” in David Coverdale — and this late in the competition, I expect — maybe even demand — more. I would’ve dug an a cappella opening verse, or maybe an unexpected bit of theatricality (a sitar or a didgeridoo or a dubstep breakdown…I dunno?…ok, scratch that last, truly terrible idea). But dude, do something to let me know you thought deeply and strategically about removing the smell of spilled beer and peanut shells from the room. C’mon, when you’re one of only two contestants to never land in the Bottom 3, there’s room to take a risk!

SHOULD BE BOTTOM 2: Sam and Caleb (Sam going home)
WILL BE BOTTOM 2: Sam and Alex (Sam going home)

What did you think of Top 5 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!


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