Wednesday's "American Idol" top eight show was bookended with performances for the record books, as Jessica Meuse and Alex Preston became the first contestants in all 13 seasons to sing original songs in the finals. Yes, other past contenders — Angie Miller and Paul McDonald, for instance — performed originals during their respective seasons, but not at this crucial, late stage in the competition.
This was gutsy gameplay by Jessica and Alex (most "Idol" voters prefer safe, familiar material), but it did showcase their artistry and set them apart as singers who could actually make credible albums after Season 13 is over. And since both contestants had never been in the bottom three before, and there is still a Judges' Save up for grabs, they could probably afford to take the risk. The opportunity to share their own music with such a massive audience (snark about this year's ratings all you want, but millions of record-buyers still watch "Idol") was, understandably, too big an opportunity for them to pass up.
Actually, one contestant who did pass up the opportunity was Caleb Johnson (the season's only other top eight contestant who's never been up for elimination). This week's theme was "Back to the Start," meaning the finalists performed their audition songs — and while the Caleb audition that made it to air was his original tune with the awesomely speed-metallic title "Into the Void," this Wednesday Caleb opted to reprise his un-aired audition of Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools." At first, this seemed like a cop-out…but once viewers got a screaming, searing earful of what Caleb did with the song (a radical reworking worthy of Cook/Allen/Lambert), it was clear that he was making a credible artistic statement of his own.
As for the other finalists, some of their audition do-overs evoked nostalgia in the best way, reminding us why we first fell in love with these kids back in January (which now seems strangely long ago). Other performances were just evidence of squandered promise and sad reminders of how much certain contestants had plateaued.
And then…there were some duets. Two of Wednesday's duet performances were so good, I'm already hoping they'll be on the setlist of this summer's American Idol Live concert tour. But if the other two duets are performed on tour…well, let's just say that'll be my cue to go buy a soft pretzel or visit the ladies' room.
OK! Let's get to the recapping!
Jessica Meuse – At first I was worried if Jess had what it took to open this show with panache. She looked more stunning than ever with her LRD (little red dress) and Drybar blowout, but her low-energy personality didn't match her fiery-red exterior. ("How are you feeling?" Ryan Seacrest asked her. "I'm. Excited." was her answer, drawled in a monotone usually associated with DMV employees and/or Ben Stein.) But once Jessica got onstage to perform her feisty original, "Blue-Eyed Lie," her eyes lit up. And so did the stage — and hopefully the "Idol" switchboards. She was intense, she was crazysexycool, and she had that woman-scorned thing going on, a la Pat Benatar or Courtney Love or Alanis Morissette. Keith Urban thought Jessica needed to move around a bit more, but he still loved the performance and compared her to Grace Slick. Harry Connick Jr. didn't mind Jessica standing still, and he compared her to Nancy Sinatra and '70s Cher, telling her: "I remember liking the song when you first sang it. I like it more now." And Jennifer Lopez said, "I love it. I can hear your album, I can hear the type of stuff you'll sing about. Great job." Yes, this was stellar. Meuse is best when she follows her own muse.
C.J. Harris – C.J. had pitch issues when he first tried out with the Allman Brothers' "Soulshine." And he's had pitch issues ever since — even though J.Lo assured him back then, "We can fix that." This week, C.J. vowed that this second "Soulshine" performance would be a major improvement. And it was better vocally...but not by much. He still struggled, and by making the song more upbeat this time, with sort of a bouncy Bonnaroo vibe, he lessened its emotional impact. This performance didn't have a lot of soul, and it didn't shine. The judges thought this version was better, and Harry commended C.J. for his progress, but then J.Lo gushed, "There's something that comes from you that touches my heart. I'm rooting for you…I think that's your gift as an artist. You just touch people. You had me since the first moment you walked in. It doesn't matter." Actually, Jennifer, it does matter. This isn't "RuPaul's Best Friends Race." It's a singing competition. Likability will only take a contestant so far. If a contestant is still having pitch problems when it's down to the top eight, perhaps it's time to stop rooting for him.
Sam Woolf – Sam seemed like such a frontrunner back when he auditioned in Boston with Ed Sheeran's "Lego House." But since then, his house has come crumbling down. Seriously, every performance he's given on the live shows has been so stiff, it's like Sam is actually made of Legos. OK, that's enough bad Sheeran similes/metaphors/puns for now. My point is, Sam hasn't really connected with any of his material except "Lego House," so this was his chance to redeem himself. But I don't think he did. He performed a slower version this time, in what appeared to be a Lamps Plus showroom — and while his voice was lovely (Sam is one of Season 13's most pitch-perfect singers; C.J. should probably take some tips from him), he still had that lamps-are-on-but-nobody's-home look in his eyes. Harry suggested that in the future (assuming Sam doesn't go home this week), shy Sam should single out one female audience member and "make [eye] contact. It'll change your world, I promise you." Keith and J.Lo claimed that Sam has been improving from week to week. But I think he's just not ready for prime time, and his time is up.
Malaya Watson – Malaya did Aretha's "Ain't No Way," and there ain't no way she'll be going home after this tour de force. Really, this girl's never had a boyfriend, never had her heart broken? Well, then, she's as fantastic an actress as she is a singer. Malaya dug deep for this one, delivering a passionate, dynamic, can't-look-away performance. She oversang here and there, but for the most part she proved that she's been listening to the judges' critiques and has learned how to rein in her manic personality when necessary. Now, this is a contestant who's making progress! Said Keith: "You were in such good control. You didn't try too hard. Fantastic." Said Jennifer: "It's like you're blossoming into this star before our very eyes. You're the same little crazy girl that walked in, but you're gaining poise and realizing your position. You're going to be such a huge star. You're going to run away with this competition." And Harry summed it up with: "You're doing everything right. That was a really, really strong performance."
Dexter Roberts – I'd assumed that Dexter would be doing "Drive" by Season 9 "Idol" contestant Casey James (that was his audition that aired earlier this season). But instead he reprised his other audition song, Brett Eldredge's "One Mississippi." (Sorry, Casey, no royalties for you this week. Bummer.) But this was probably the right decision for Dexter. Week after week, he's done uptempo bro-country, and week after week, the judges have asked him to switch it up. Finally, he listened, and a serious ballad like this really brought out the best in his voice. (Although I'll admit my ears were more delighted by the voice of Dexter's backup singer, Season 8 "Idol" alum Allison Iraheta.) "We got to hear so many little nuances in your voice that we haven't heard since we first met you...everything we have asked you to do, you did with that one performance," said Jennifer. "You sat on that stool and you sang the crap out of that song. It was great to hear you sing. I think you really needed this this week," said Harry. "You've grown in leaps and bounds, man," said Keith. If Dexter keeps doing ballads, going for that Rascal Flatts vibe, he may go very far in this competition.
Jena Irene – I've always argued that there are certain singers whose catalogs should be avoided by most talent show contestants. These artists include Queen's Freddie Mercury, Heart's Ann Wilson, and the holy trinity of Celine/Mariah/Whitney. And a recent addition to this blacklist is Adele. Few singers can tackle any of these icons' songs without setting themselves up for epic failure. But for the second time this season, Jena pulled off an Adele cover. This time her version of "Rolling in the Deep" was slow and slinky, even a bit of a Goth (which I suppose was a natural continuation from last week's Evanescence cover). There was also a touch of quirky soul that sounded like the lovechild of Haley Reinhart and Blake Lewis, if that makes sense. (It makes sense to me.) I appreciated that Jena was willing to take such a risk with such a familiar and much-loved song, and I hope the risk pays off for her. "What I love about that performance is you took that song which we know so well, and you made it your own and you never let that go. Some people might hate it, but I thought it was bold and I loved every second of it," said Keith. Jennifer, aka Captain Obvious, told Jena to come out every week and try to win, which was about as useless as most of Randy Jackson's "in it to win it" advice. Harry said he finally realized that Jena doesn’t have a speech impediment. Some weird critiques, there. But I don't think Jena's in any danger this week.
Caleb Johnson – Caleb did two impossible things this Wednesday: He somehow turned Aretha's aforementioned "Chain of Fools" into a Whitesnake song (I totally felt like rolling around on the hood of a Jaguar while watching him sing), and he managed to reach the bar set so high by his astounding "Dazed and Confused" performance last week. "You are a blues warrior. You're a soul conqueror. You, Caleb, are a rock 'n' roll Viking," howled Keith. Harry griped that Caleb gives too many "big and loud" performances and needs to switch it up soon, but Harry was wrong. Caleb should keep cranking it to 11, methinks. This rock 'n' roll Viking seems unstoppable at this point, and it's quite easy to imagine him on Season 13's finale, performing some legendary hard-rock duet a la Adam Lambert with KISS or James Durbin with Judas Priest. (Is David Coverdale free in May? Give that dude a call, Fox.)
Alex Preston – Closing the show was Season 13's arguably artsiest contestant, crooning his supercool original, "Fairytales." It was indeed a fairytale ending to the night. This was a little jammier, bluesier, and rockier than the introspective troubadour's usual fare, with some killer John Mayer-esque guitar work and angry, tortured vocals, but it still felt comfortable and warm. (This wasn't like that time when Casey Abrams did that bug-eyed, bared-teeth version of "Heard It Through the Grapevine" and freaked everybody out.) "The things we loved about you in the beginning are the things we love about you now, but you've grown," said Jennifer. "I like the fact that you did the original. I enjoyed the arrangement," said Harry. "It was an original, but half of these guys [in the crowd] were singing it with you. That's a very good sign," said Keith. I'd never seen Alex come alive onstage like this; like Jessica, he's clearly at his best and happiest when doing his own material.
As for the duets, the judges didn't critique those, but I have a few things say about them. Here's my ranking, from best to worst:
Jena & Alex, "Just Give Me a Reason" – A pairing between the belty EDM/rock diva and mellow singer-songwriter shouldn't have worked, BUT IT TOTALLY WORKED. This was an awesome yin/yang situation. These two complemented each other so well and truly connected. And they gave viewers two more big reasons to vote for them.
Caleb & Jessica, "Stop Dragging My Heart Around" – Yes, it was another Stevie Nicks number (after last week's "Rhiannon") for Stevie-soundalike Jessica, and yes, this got a little "Rock of Ages" in parts. (The always-theatrical Caleb probably would've preferred it if they'd been singing "Close My Eyes Forever" by Ozzy Osbourne and Lita Ford. And I would've loved that too, actually.) But this still rocked, and occasionally Jess and Caleb gave me some Elise Testone/Phillip Phillips Season 11 realness.
Dexter & C.J., "Alright" – Egad. C.J. was off-pitch, again. Dexter stayed in pitch, but he disappointingly reverted back to his boring bro-country, bar-band self. This was not alright.
Sam & Malaya, "Lucky" – Double egad. Suffice to say, Jazon Mraz and Colbie Caillat, these two are not. Malaya squandered much of the good will she'd earned with "Ain't No Way," and Sam ONCE AGAIN failed to connect. These poor kids looked awkward and sounded worse. More like "Unlucky," amirite?
So now, it is prediction time. Who's going home Thursday? Despite that terrible "Lucky" duet, I do think Malaya did enough with her solo to save herself. The contestants at risk will likely be C.J., Jessica (only because she sang first), and Sam, with C.J. probably going home. But if it is Jessica who somehow winds up with the fewest votes, I bet she'll get the Save. And that's no blue-eyed lie.
Tune in Thursday to find out if I'm right! Until then, Parker out.