It’s no secret that American Idol has shed a few (million or so) viewers in its 13th season — a development that really, truly breaks my Idoloonie heart.
But then, tonight, executive producer Per Blankens made us wait ’til the 16-minute mark of the show’s landmark 500th episode before we got a single musical performance. And in lieu of Season 13’s Top 3 fighting for our votes, we were forced to endure
The Following the following: a lengthy discussion of J.Lo’s sequined dress (“#MermaidPrincess,” suggested Harry Connick Jr., his soul letting out a silent scream); some wilted word salad from Randy Jackson (#NotWorthTranscribing); and finally, The Greatest Indignity of All (not the title of the Season 13 winner’s anthem, I hope) — a couple of handsome DJs spinning the wretched dance track “Selfie” while the judges played with their smartphones.
NEWSFLASH: THIS IS NOT COMPELLING TELEVISION — ESPECIALLY WHEN I’M MISSING THE SERIES FINALE OF SUBURGATORY.
(Sorry, I needed to get that out of my system.)
In all seriousness, though, I understand the basic need for filler — nine contestant performances won’t quite stretch over two hours of programming, even with the panel at its most verbose, and even with a good 15-20 minutes devoted to driving home the message that CALEB JOHNSON WAS UNDER THE WEATHER. The Idol resident physician, decked out in theatrical black scrubs, grabbed a mic and did his Hippocratic duty/the Lauren Alaina Shuffle (™ pending) by sharing the diagnosis.
When you’ve got insanely talented prior winners like Carrie Underwood and Jordin Sparks and Fantasia Barrino and Candice Glover and Kris Allen and Phillip Phillips — all of whom appear in my Idol 30 Best Performances gallery (which can be found at the bottom of this recap) — willing to tape special “thank yous,” however, why wouldn’t you kill time with some unexpected duets and trios and new music and whatnot? As Ryan Seacrest likes to tell us, “This…is American Idol.” And last I checked, the franchise has endured for 13 seasons only because the musical legacy of its alumnae proves that it truly is worth investing several hours a week in the Idolsphere every January to May.
OK, rant over. What’s done is done, and we can only hope that once the actual performances began, the core audience returned to the House That Kelly Clarkson Built. On that note, let’s get to letter grades for the night’s performances:
ROUND 1: “RANDY JACKSON’S CHOICE”
Caleb Johnson: INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart” — Grade: C- | Like polite dinner-party hosts afraid to tell a guest he’s got half a spinach leaf hanging from his teeth, Harry, J.Lo and Keith avoided Caleb’s butchery of a gorgeous INXS ballad on the basis of his bout with bronchitis and a vocal-cord hemorrhage. But riddle me this: Didn’t all of our panelists essentially say that regardless of illness or injury, “the show must go on” (yes, that was my subliminal means of getting you to think about Skylar Laine’s incendiary Season 11 Queen cover). So how come Caleb only got Stepford Feedback like “really good” and “nice job”? And even if one was willing to overlook the fact that Caleb hit some brutal notes on the second verse, that he slipped well behind the beat on the second refrain, that the lethargy of the number extended well beyond the lazy “flung onto a wooden throne” intro, there was the problem of Caleb’s melodic choices weighing down INXS’ soaring anthem with 50 lbs of meh. I mean, when you’re delivering a lyric like, “We could live, for a thousand years/ But if I hurt you, I’d make wine from your tears,” it’s got to be done with the insane conviction of a Kardashian sister staging a photo op. Instead, by continuously pushing the melody downward and never allowing it to soar, Caleb siphoned off all of the inherent urgency and desire that lives inside the lyric. I wish I could yell at Randy for the flop, but seeing how I’ve been pushing for someone/anyone to cover “Never Tear Us Apart” on Idol for years now, I’m gonna have to drop the blame solely on Caleb’s doorstep.
Alex Preston: Bastille’s “Pompeii” — Grade: B+ | It’s official: I can accept Alex as a potential Idol champ now that he’s successfully covered an uptempo track! Granted, this wasn’t a perfect performance, but I liked the flourishes of falsetto on the verse, the way Alex kept pace with the rapid wordplay, and even that unexpected move from guitar to drum at the midway point. Of course, said shift caused Alex to drop off the mic for a moment, and yeah, the sudden emergence of a British accent every time he hit the word “optimist” was a tad jarring, but overall, this performance felt like it could’ve existed in the world outside Idol (save for his odd floral blouse situation). Keith and Harry both complained that they could see the wheels turning in Alex’s head during the song, but the only discomfort I noticed was after Alex (finally) ventured away from the mic stand and toward the audience, then suddenly leapt backward at the possible touch of a SwayBot. Who can blame the guy, though? SwayBots not only can steal your rhythm, they can steal your soul!
Jena Irene: David Guetta (feat. Sia)’s “Titanium” — Grade: C+ | Like Alex, Jena also made a dubious fashion choice — sporting what my non-couturier self would call a “balloon-waisted Capri pant with loaded diaper insert.” Unlike Alex, though, Jena had some serious pitch problems happening for most of the verse (which seemed pitched a little too low for her comfort zone) and wound up giving her worst performance since Rush Week. Yes, things got better when the plucky teen was lowered down from a horrifying, 6-foot-tall pillar — note to producers: putting contestants’ lives/well-being at risk rarely yields top-notch vocals — but even the high notes (the only ones Harry thought mattered) were a teensy bit strident on this jam. The end result, if you’ll forgive the obviousness of this metaphor, was more aluminum than titanium.
ROUND 2: “JUDGES’ CHOICE”
Caleb Johnson: Imagine Dragons’ “Demons” — Grade: B- | Caleb’s demeanor was so weary on his second song tonight, I half expected executive producer Per Blankens to rush out at the end of the performance and wrap the big guy in one of those foil ponchos they distribute to collpasing marathon runners. Again, He Whom We Must Not Forget Is Ailing took a very straightforward (aka karaoke) approach to the tune, and while the vocal was marginally better than on “Never Tear Us Apart,” the end result was about as exciting as whatever’s on QVC at this exact second. (Unless that something happens to be discounted ponies…) Keith, who’s either losing his hearing or is working off a script, beamed that if you closed your eyes, you wouldn’t even be able to tell Caleb was under the weather. “You killed that song!” he declared, probably not using “killed” in the “bludgeoned with a hammer” sense. J.Lo, meanwhile,urged Caleb not to worry about singing in tune because
they can always fix your raw vocals with Auto-Tune emotional connection is more important than singing in tune. (Umm, would she have said that to Lazaro last season?)
Alex Preston: Rihanna (feat. Mikky Ekko)’s “Stay” — Grade: A | I’m not sure about Alex’s mustard suit and violet shirt (Randy Jackson Collection, perhaps?), but dagnabit, he scored big-time from a vocal standpoint, stripping bare Rihanna’s mournful ballad and adding some thunder-y Tedder-esuqe echoes and a string quartet, too. That final run on the chorus — the one that turned “Stay” into a six- or seven-syllable word — was downright revelatory, so good in fact that J.Lo made sure to make a “goosies” gesture when she knew the camera was cutting to her. Keith, meanwhile, astutely noticed Alex’s subtle, lovely shifting from falsetto into full voice on the “ooohs,” then promptly shifted focus and began complaining his microphone smelled like “parrot breath.” Nope, we wouldn’t want Alex’s fanbase to bask in his success for too, too long, would we, judges?
Jena Irene: Demi Lovato’s “Heart Attack” — Grade: B | Oh what I wouldn’t have paid to have Caleb’s doctor return to the stage and declare that Demi Lovato’s insipid ditty had been taken to Berklee College of Music Hospital with an acute case of lameness. I mean, the song is pretty terrible, and if I hadn’t seen the judges obsessing over Jena most of the season, I’d have wondered if they were attempting Syesha levels of sabotage (#HappyFeet #NeverForget). Ultimately, though, despite the limitations of a forced song choice, Jena hit her notes as strongly and aggressively as an MLB pro taking balls from a middle-school pitcher. (And there you have the night’s attempted sports metaphor.) If she’s good enough to clear the hurdle called “Heart Attack,” something even more interesting may be afoot.)
ROUND 3: SEASON 13 REPRISE (VOTED FROM A LIST OF TWO BY CONTESTANTS’ HOMETOWN RESIDENTS)
Caleb Johnson: Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” — Grade: B+ | I guess when Caleb realized he wasn’t in any condition to kill it vocally, he decided to literally kill his mic stand, slamming it down repeatedly like he was auditioning for the lead in Lifetime’s Lizzie Borden Took an Axe. The judges went crazy anyway — BREAKING: KEITH AND J.LO VALUE SPECTACLE ABOVE ALL ESLE — and then Keith took it two steps too far, declaring it “a moment of miraculous healing.” I mean, it was fun in a Rock of Ages touring production kinda way, but was it really the stuff of which confetti showers are made? We’ll find out Thursday night at 9/8c, I suppose.
Alex Preston: One Direction’s “Story of My Life” — Grade: B | They say in real estate, location is everything. And unfortunately, Alex’s perfectly-fine-but in-no-way-exciting One Direction cover wound up right next to the voting window, while his two superior performances sat a couple blocks away. (Why this guy’s original track “Fairytales” wasn’t offered as a reprise option is a mystery worthy of Jessica Fletcher.) Just as he did the first time he covered “Story of My Life,” Alex hit some sweet falsetto notes at the ends of phrases, but the subway-tunnel graphic behind him was so big and dominant that it actually caused my attention to drift. (Is it fair to say Alex was thrown under the train, rather than the proverbial bus, this week?)
Jena Irene: Radiohead’s “Creep” — Grade: A+ | Confession: I was bummed when I realized Idol was ending the night with reprisal performances — because repeats are kind of the worst, no? And yet, by the time Jena exhaled her opening “When you were here before…” I’d completely forgotten my boneheaded stance and found myself caught up in the rapture of one of the most precision-perfect, deeply felt vocals in recent Idol history. The tempo of “Creep” seemed just a tick faster than the first time Jena covered it, but more importantly, there was no botched lyric, as well as an ease of delivery that allowed the teenage contestant to dig even deeper into the bubbling cauldron of insecurity and angst at the core of the composition. As Jena pounded away at the keyboards, the song took on an operatic aura, megawatt vocals and outsized drama included. Whereas Jena’s first two performances seemingly left her in jeopardy, her third and final act wiped the slate clean and put her back atop the leaderboard.
SHOULD Go Home: Caleb
WILL Go Home: Alex
Now it’s your turn.
What did you think of Top 3 performance night? Which performances 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!