'Idol' Top 8 Redux Recap: The Good, the Bad, and the '80s

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Wednesday night on "American Idol" had the potential to be totally awesome. It was '80s Night.

Not only was it '80s Night, but Season 7 winner David Cook — master of radical (literally radical, as well as in Valley-Girl-speak "radical") '80s remakes, the only contestant to ever cover Duran Duran on the show, and a dead ringer for Social Distortion's Mike Ness nowadays — was the guest mentor. (David was filling in for decidedly less rad regular mentor Randy Jackson. You'd think with all the bragging Randy has done about playing with Journey in the '80s, he would've stepped up to the plate this week.)

Additionally, the contestants did a fun photo shoot wearing blindingly colorful outfits that looked like a Rubik's Cube had exploded all over them (or a herd of My Pretty Ponies had thrown up all over them). Again, very awesome.

So I excitedly settled in with a six-pack of Tab and some Handi Snacks, and I got ready for a night of covers of these sorts of songs and, hopefully, Caleb Johnson doing Whitesnake's "Still of the Night" or some Skid Row.

However, '80s Night just wasn't as rad as I'd hoped. Yes, there were a lot of fun, loose moments — Keith Urban rocking a Billy Ray Cyrus mullet (which, ironically, was an improvement on his current Kate Gosselin 'do); Harry Connick Jr. bizarrely hoisting a girl on his shoulders, stadium-spectator-style, during one of the more rocking numbers; all three judges inexplicably busting out an a cappella version of Madonna's "Like a Virgin" that was way better than anything else Jennifer Lopez has ever sung; Randy trying to get Ryan Seacrest to try on his old Journey leggings. Good times.

But most of the contestants' song choices? Lame to the max, dude. Certainly none of them had a David Cook-does-"Billie Jean" watershed moment. And the contestants weren't even wearing their above-mentioned Rubik's-explosion outfits anymore!

Here's what happened:

Jena Irene – Wearing a plaid-on-plaid ensemble that seemed borrowed from Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" video wardrobe (SPOILER ALERT: This will not be the last Cyndi Lauper/"Time After Time" mention in this recap), Jena took on Joan Jett's "I Love Rock 'n' Roll." (Never mind that it's actually a '70s song, originally by the Arrows. Young Jena, who like everyone in this year's top eight wasn't even born in the '80s, probably used to think it was a Britney Spears song.) Jena made the risky decision to start the song slow and rather un-rockingly at her piano — a stylistic choice that even flummoxed risk-taker David, so that seemed like a bad sign. But he came around, wise man that he is, and I did too; Jena had a Tori Amos/Regina Spektor thing going on. Honestly, not to sound like the Season 12 judges harping on Angie Miller or anything, but I wish Jena had just stayed at the piano; her performance became a lot less interesting once the tempo revved up and she started doing a more straightahead version. Keith liked the performance from beginning to end, but J.Lo griped, "For me, it languished a little in the middle. And it was a little low. But at the end of the day, you put your stamp on it and I liked it." Harry also gave Jena a mixed review, saying, "I wasn't a fan of the arrangement, but what I did love is the fact that you're trying and twisting and manipulating these arrangements and pushing." So, would I put another dime in the jukebox to hear this? Sure — but not much more than that. This wasn't Jena's best.

Dexter RobertsUgh. "Keep Your Hands to Yourself," by the Georgia Satellites. The same novelty song that once felled "Voice" contestant Jake Worthington. After having a breakthrough moment with a tender ballad last week, Dexter should have known better than to pick a song just because it's gone over well when he's played it in bars. Those bars are full of drunk people, not speed-voting grandmas and tweens. Dexter performed with a lot of energy and seemed to be having a grand old time, but he didn't embody the goofy swag of the original Satellites' recording, and you would think after all the times Dexter has performed this song in all those bars, he would have perfected his enunciation a little more. My favorite part about this number was the shredding 12-bar guitar solo, which made me wish Keith would get up onstage and jam with Dexter. Keith just wished Dexter had cut loose more. "Feel free to kick your mic stand and do something unexpected to be memorable," Keith advised. Harry and J.Lo thought Dexter did a good job. Then Harry almost kicked Keith in the head. Man, the judges were really loopy tonight. Were they drunk?

Malaya Watson – I'm not sure if Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire" was the best choice for Malaya. Chaka's "I Feel for You," sure. But "Through the Fire" is VERY tough, and though Malaya had some standout moments, she definitely struggled. After being in the bottom three last week, this was not a smart risk, especially with the Judges' Save no longer in play. I'm worried for the girl; this "firecracker" may make it through the fire, but she may not make it through Thursday's elimination night. Keith and Harry thought Malaya was overthinking the performance and holding back. Jennifer told her to relax.

Side note: Then Ryan, obviously "Idol's" most fashionable cast member (he refused to put on Randy's Spandex pants), noted that Malaya's giant hoop earrings were very Jody Watley-esque. At that point, the three judges revealed their lack of familiarity with the Watley catalog — they confused Jody's "Don't You Want Me" with the Human League hit by the same title — which of course proved that they're totally disqualified to judge any music program and should all be fired. (Brush up on your Jody knowledge here.)

Jessica Meuse – When I found out that Jessica planned to cover Blondie, I rejoiced. I was less delighted when I found out she'd be doing the Giorgio Moroder-penned "American Gigolo" theme song, "Call Me." There were so many other Blondie songs that would've worked better with Jess's pretty, gritty twang: "In the Flesh," "The Tide is High," "Pretty Baby," and "Picture This," to name just a few. Vocally, this was actually turned out fine, and she certainly looked like a rock star, but she seemed so stiff and uncomfortable. Stripped of her guitar and wandering through the audience awkwardly attempting to flirt with Keith and Harry, she barely cracked a smile, despite David's advice to enjoy herself more onstage. Jessica just doesn't do sexy well. "You need to feel that groove," said Harry. "I'm still waiting for the rest of the release," said Keith, somewhat ickily. Jennifer put it best when she said: "When you sing a song like that, it's like, 'Call me, don't call any other girl. Call me.' Blondie was the epitome of looseness and sexy-cool. That is a sexy song. We didn't get that part of it." Will anyone call Jessica's voting line for "Call Me?" Or will this be the first week that she's in the bottom three? I'm worried for Jessica.

Sam Woolf – Sam got the Judges' Save last week, and some people (like me) thought that was undeserved, after his many underwhelming performances and several appearances in the bottom three. This was his time to prove he'd deserved that second chance. Taking on Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" was a massive, do-or-die risk for Sam. It's a very emotional song; I can't even make it through the final train scene of the song's music video without sobbing. Sam's version left my eyes dry (seriously, I'm more emotional when singing Cyndi songs), but I don't think he'll be on a train going home this week. The performance showcased two things Sam does have going for him: a beautifully pure tone of voice, and a cool guitar arrangement that, in his own David Cookish way, made the song his own. I still don't think this kid can win, but this was his best performance yet. "I love the fact that you did that with the acoustic guitar solo…There's a musicality. Now it's about performance. Loosen up and lay into it. The vocal ability is there," said Keith. "Listening to your voice is such a treat. It really gets showcased when it's just you and the guitar. That is your strength," said Jennifer. Harry once again told Sam to look at the girls in the audience, and to also look up Ricky Nelson videos on YouTube — both good pieces of advice. If there's ever a Ricky Nelson Night on "Idol," Sam will probably do great.

Alex Preston – Alex was the only contestant who dipped into the new wave genre this week, taking on the Police's "Every Breath You Take." His delivery was a little too sweet (he didn't seem to realize that it's a stalker song, not a gooey love ballad), but his voice just sounded so gorgeous, as did his guitar playing. This kid is the real deal, and every breath he takes, every move he makes, I love watching (and hearing). I do worry that he took such liberties with such a huge, well-known song; that could turn off some viewers. Keith appreciated Alex's boldness, saying: "Dismantling that song and rebuilding it, with so many different factors to it — I commend you so much for that." But Jennifer said, "I missed the melody of that song. When that song was number one for a gajillion weeks in the '80s, that such was a transcending song. To change it that much for me lost the soul of it." Harry praised Alex for putting "your own touch on a song that is one of the most popular songs from the '80s," but warned him, "At some point, that sort of coffeehouse treatment will catch up to you in this competition. Think of how you can be more of an entertainer." Hey, I was entertained. I hope America was too. Alex deserves to be in the finale.

C.J. Harris – Not to sound petty, but C.J.'s cover of Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'" just fell apart. The arrangement was actually lovely, but the same issues that have plagued him since his first audition hindered him here. And this was especially noticeable once the far superior backup singers came crashing in. We are down to the top eight, with the finale only a few weeks away; how many more weeks will C.J. be given a pass just because he's likable? Likability alone won't sell records or concert tickets in the real world. It was so frustrating when J.Lo told him, "There's never been a contestant that I've rooted for note by note the way I root for you, every single time…You have the ability that maybe some of the other contestants struggle with, which is to touch people's hearts." Or when Harry said, "You can't really define it. There's a connection that you have virtually every time you get up there. That's an incredible gift…That connection thing is most important." Or when Keith said, "You've got a survivor tone in your voice…That's the bit in your voice that I love, that optimism." I'm not optimistic that C.J. can win. If he hasn't sorted out his pitch problems by now, he's not going to sort them out while Season 13 is still on the air.

Caleb Johnson – So, Caleb did not do Whitesnake or Skid Row. Nor did he do any Iron Maiden. (To imagine Caleb doing Maiden isn't that much of a stretch; during new "American Idol" producer Per Blankens's tenure on "Swedish Idol," one of that show's contestants actually covered "Run to the Hills"!) But at least Caleb did Journey's "Faithfully," complete with plenty of hair-flipping (Caleb's hair looked especially Drybar-pretty this evening) and pyro. I'm sure Randy enjoyed it — he played bass for Journey once, in case you didn't know, dawg. I enjoyed it too; I wanted to put on Randy's Lycra Journey pants and dance around the room while watching this. Caleb sang his face off, did the much-missed Steve Perry proud, and even made J.Lo shed a few '80s-mascara tears. "We've been wanting to hear you sing something with a little bit more subtlety. And that's exactly what you did. I'm proud of you," said Harry. "It was killer. It was a perfect song for you. It was a lighter moment," said Keith. "It's no small task to take on Steve Perry. The way he sang that song is like one of the gods…I thought it sounded amazing," said Jennifer. I am sure all of Caleb's fans will faithfully vote for him this week.

But wait — there were duets, too! Let's count them down, Casey Kasem-style, from worst to best:

C.J. & Malaya, "I Knew You Were Waiting for Me"Yikes. I wasn't waiting for this. George Michael and Aretha Franklin, these two are not. Malaya fared much better and sold the song with her vivacious performance, but this was still a mess. Harry even pulled a Simon Cowell and likened it to "regional theater." Not good.

Sam & Alex, "The Girl is Mine" – Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney, these two are also not. Alex was the far stronger performer, unsurprisingly, and the boys' vocal blend was nice, but there was a lot of awkwardness going on here.

Dexter & Jessica, "Islands in the Stream" – Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, these two are not. But this was much better than I'd expected. Jessica was lovely in her floor-sweeping Loretta Lynn gown, showcasing a flirtiness and playfulness that had been missing from "Call Me." Dexter sounded like a Nashville pro. There was a connection between them that seemed believable. This duet might be the thing that saves Jessica this week.

Caleb & Jena, "It's Only Love" – Oh, this was only amazing. Caleb had a really good night, and Jena proved she really does love rock 'n' roll with this fiery performance. You know what this felt like? A really great "Voice" battle. All that was missing was the boxing ring.

So now, it is prediction time. Who's at risk this week? This one isn't as hard to figure out as a Rubik's Cube. I think Sam bought himself some more time ("Idol" boy heartthrobs tend to go home in seventh place, not eighth), but the other two contestants who joined him in the bottom three last week, C.J. and Malaya, will likely find themselves there again this Thursday. (Their terrible duet secured that fate.) As for the other contestant who'll round out this week's bottom three, I fear for both Jessica and Jena. And if either of them go home Thursday, because the judges aren't able to save them, I'm going to be very, very angry.

See you then. Parker out.

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