Wednesday's top six theme on "American Idol" was "A Little Bit Country and a Little Bit Rock 'n' Roll" — because, you know, nothing ropes in those all-important younger viewers like a Donny & Marie reference! The bigger draw was no doubt Internet sensation Grumpy Cat, scowling in a way that could make even Simon Cowell look like a real pussycat, even when Caleb Johnson gave her a cute smooch.
Forget about Randy "The Dawg" Jackson; can Grumpy Cat just be a regular "Idol" cast member on Season 14?
Judging from the look on Grumpy's face, she wasn't impressed by any of the night's performances. And yes, there was reason to be grumpy this Wednesday, since a few contestants missed the mark, as they sang one rock song and one country song each. But thankfully, there were some standout moments. Paws up!
[Related: Yahoo Music's Exclusive Grumpy Cat Interview]
For her rock song, Jena sank her teeth into Heart's "Barracuda" — a very cool and very rockin' choice. Heart power ballads like "Alone" have been done on "Idol" many times, of course, with mixed results… but "Barracuda" was an "Idol" first. This was a superb vocal workout; few contestants this season would be able to take on the almighty Ann Wilson, but Jena's one of them. However, Jena didn't do much to change up the song, which was unusual for her. And that was mildly disappointing. Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr. thought Jena seemed tense and needed to "release" more. Jennifer Lopez said Jena, who admitted she was nervous to open the show, seemed too much in her head; however, J.Lo still said Jena has a "real chance" of winning this season. I think Jennifer was onto something there — Jena has gone from Wild Card to frontrunner in the past few weeks — but I prefer it when Jena changes up her songs more.
For her country number, Jena took on another vocal powerhouse, Carrie Underwood, doing "So Small" with her so-big voice. This time, she definitely did her own interpretation. There was really nothing country about this version at all; it actually had an Amy Lee-meets-Lea Michele vibe instead. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing — Jena shouldn't try to be something she's not, and she's not a country singer — but this was a strangely pitchy vocal for her. When she finished, she got a chagrined look on her face and even admitted that she'd messed up. Keith, the country expert on the panel and therefore the judge I'd expected would be hardest on Jena, was surprisingly kind, raving: "You are SUCH a good singer! You are everything 'Idol' has always been about." J.Lo got "goosies." Only Harry was critical, saying he didn't like the liberties Jena took with the song. Overall, Jena didn't have her best night, but I still think she will be safe. Even an off night for Jena is still pretty good.
For his first number, Sam attempted to rock out on Imagine Dragons' "It's Time." It was just a'ight, to quote The Dawg. I wouldn't exactly say Sam brought rock 'n' roll swagger to the stage. Even when he tried to rally the audience to clap along to the song's breakdown, there was a limpness and flatness to his demeanor. Caleb Johnson, this kid is not. But I suppose Imagine Dragons' pop-rock was a better choice than, say, Led Zeppelin or Rush, and vocally, Sam was solid as usual. I just didn't understand why the judges heaped him with so much praise. J.Lo said she got (wait for it) "goosies." Harry claimed Sam was "blossoming" and "adding layers." Only Keith said anything constructive, telling Sam: "You've got a lot of stuff in you. You have a lot of real emotion, real pain, real anger, frustration. Tap into that." Keith was right. I still don't think Sam has reached his potential… and I don't know if he will reach it the next four weeks. No goosies here, for me.
My goosebumps remained unraised for Sam's country song, Shania Twain's "You're Still the One." Sam's vocal sounded pleasant enough, but his delivery was so tense, all furrowed brow and white-knuckled mic-stand grip. There was no affection or sweetness in his voice or face; just like with "Hey There Delilah" a few weeks ago, I didn't believe he was singing this with any love interest in mind, even when he attempted to serenade the teen girls in the front row. Keith told Sam he needed to relax more. Harry said Sam's vocals didn't have enough dynamics or character. Jennifer just gushed about freakin' cute Sam is. Is Sam still the one the "Idol" powers-that-be are pushing for the win? It may seem so, but I don't know if either of his performances this week were enough to keep him out of the bottom two.
C.J. attempted to swag it up, doing the Lenny Kravitz version of "American Woman" while looking incredibly uncomfortable in a shoulder-padded Captain EO jacket. That was just wrong. Keith thought C.J. was disconnected from the rock-god persona that a song like this required. J.Lo thought C.J. mostly pulled it off, and bizarrely liked his outfit and said he "looked the part" (um, no), but she also told him: "Rock 'n' roll is not your thing." Harry once again criticized C.J.'s intonation and said, obviously, "It's important to remember that there's lots of things that go into making a performance. One of them is singing in tune." Ugh. I think the American women who vote for "Idol" will unfortunately heed C.J.'s musical warning and stay away from him after this.
C.J., the closest thing left to a country contestant in this competition following last week's elimination of Dexter Roberts, should have had a rebound with his second song. But instead of doing a heartfelt, crying-in-yer-beer country ballad, which would have showcased his grit and soul, he did a blandly shuffling-along Zac Brown Band song with the noncommittal title "Whatever It Is." This was entirely forgettable. "I have to say, I expected a tiny bit more from you," said Jennifer. "A medium-tempo, easy song like that is not going to kill… You can't get by with songs like that anymore," warned Harry. Keith agreed that it was a throwaway song choice. Even though C.J. later dedicated the song to a girl who'd passed away in his hometown, that emotion did not come through in his performance, and the dedication, however well-intentioned, was too little, too late.
Alex took a chance with his rock song, Neon Trees' "Animal" — a bold departure from his usual introspective singer-songwriter fare. Sadly, it wasn't a risk that paid off. Alex just isn't a party-anthem kind of artist. And he got really winded, too, trying to keep up with the song's brisk pace. I wished he'd instead done some Jeff Buckley, the artist he cited as his chief influence. (Hey, Jeff Buckley rocks. "Last Goodbye" would have rocked!) Keith didn't think Alex "dominated" the song. Jennifer thought something was "missing" and that the performance was too "contained." But surprisingly, Hatchet Harry was quite kind, saying: "At this point in the competition, I don't think it's correct to say that you get a pass, but you kind of do, because you're so good all the time… Here's what I dug about it, it was the first time I've heard you sing an upbeat tune. Now I know you can do that." OK, so now that we know that Alex can do uptempo material if he has to, can he just do more Damien Rice next week? This did not work.
Thankfully, Alex did have a second song, Willie Nelson's "Always on My Mind," which allowed him to showcase what he really does best: "a sensitive interpretation with a beautiful tone," as Harry put it. Now, this gave me some real goosies — especially when he broke out that falsetto at the end. Alex changed up the song just enough to make it his own, while staying respectful to the classic original. "I feel very lucky to have heard that. It was exactly what it should have been. You're an artist," said Harry. J.Lo said this was "really beautiful." Keith wanted more heartbreak in the performance, but praised Alex for having a signature sound, saying, "I always know it's you."
Finally, it was time for some REAL RAWK. It was a given that Caleb would slay his first number; even if he did a David Archuleta song, he'd rock it. "Sting Me," the first track off the Black Crowes' sophomore album "The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion" and the song Caleb actually did, might not have been the most obvious choice, but it was an awesome choice. It was love at first "Sting" for me, the moment Caleb started belting this barnstormer. Caleb did Chris Robinson proud and once again proved he is the most consistent entertainer on this show. Even when he dropped his microphone, he caught it like a pro and turned what could have been a setback into part of his rock revue. J.Lo gave him a standing ovation, exclaiming, "That was some real rock 'n' roll… You created a moment!" You know, somewhere in that audience, I bet Grumpy Cat was attempting to suppress a grin. This was great.
Caleb's country song was basically another rock song: a hard-charging version of Carrie Underwood's "Undo It." I admired his interpretation; Caleb is not a country artist, but he made a country song his own, the same way Adam Lambert made "Ring of Fire" his own on Season 8's Country Night. I didn't really want Caleb to go country. But maybe Keith did, since he snarkily quipped: "I can't wait to see what country song you do later!" The other judges were kinder, though they admitted that after the tour de force of "Sting Me," this second performance was bound to be a letdown. It was too bad for Caleb that he couldn't have a big finish with his Crowes cover, but he's in no danger this week.
After Jessica received some completely undeserved harsh critiques last week and landed in the bottom two for the first time this season, she came roaring back this Wednesday with something to prove. And she proved it, all right. Singing her rock song, Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love," she was back in her element, standing at a microphone with her guitar, not prancing around to a Blondie disco song or trying to take dancing tips from Harry. Harry explained his critique from last week, saying: "I wanted you to dance in your hotel room, not onstage. That's not what you do. I just wanted your body to inform the rhythmic delivery — which is what I just saw. Nice job." Keith still felt a disconnect, and J.Lo wanted Jess to be more free onstage. I understood what they were saying (sometimes Jess does seem a bit low-energy), but I was glad that Harry gave Jessica her due. I did my own little happy-dance over that.
Of all of the top six contestants, Jessica was the one who'd do best with this week's dual theme, so of course her comeback continued with her country song. Her cover of "Jolene" owed as much to the White Stripes' garage-y version as it did to Dolly Parton's original, and there was real passion and pain in her vocals (and in her eyes). Jennifer called this performance "magnificent." Harry told Jessica, "You delivered in a strong and convincing way." Keith, however, hated the arrangement, griping, "I love that song the way Dolly does it. I don't think it needed the weight and darkness the way the band played it." Well, I guess Keith isn't a White Stripes fan, then. But I have a feeling Jessica made lot of fans this evening.
My prediction is Jessica won't be in the bottom two this week. So who will be? I think it's a given that C.J. will be up for elimination, along with probably Sam, although it'll be C.J. who'll go home. And if anyone else goes home on Thursday's results show, I'm going to be very, very grumpy.
See you then. Parker out.