Longtime "Idol" viewers may have attempted to adjust their TV sets Wednesday, when the top 10 finalists performed actual modern songs by the likes of Pink, Zedd, One Direction, and fun. — as opposed to, you know, the "Songs of Pat Boone" theme-night fare that contestants always had to sing during the series' crusty Nigel Lythgoe era. This was "American Idol"? Really?
Actually, throughout Season 13, the show has thankfully rejiggered its tried-and-true but done-to-death songbook, adding a slew of newly cleared, relatively new tunes. And this week, when the top 10 were tasked with singing only hits that came out after the year 2010, the show felt fresher and cooler than it had since…well...maybe since Adam Lambert, Kris Allen, and Allison Iraheta were still competing in Season 8.
But that being said, not everyone thoroughly nailed it on this thoroughly modern evening. Some still struggled with the age-old issues that have felled contestants since Season 1. Here's how everyone did:
M.K. Nobilette – M.K. did Pink's "Perfect," and it was not perfect. The message of the song was perfect for M.K., actually — she's far from typical "Idol" material, and that makes her a potential role model for all the misfits and quirky kids watching at home. And the performance started strong, with M.K. singing to a mirror a la Michelle Chamuel on "The Voice" Season 4. But she just didn't have the voice, or the energy, to take on this massive anthem. Plus, she facepalmingly messed up towards the end, coming in at the wrong time, and that totally threw her off her game. Her copycat styling (magenta hair streaks, tomboy rocker-chick wear) only emphasized the fact that she seemed like a poor woman's Pink. Or a pale Pink, if you will. Keith Urban said she needed to "own the stage" more. Jennifer Lopez said she didn't show "conviction" or do a good job recovering from her mistake. And Harry Connick Jr. griped, "I did not think that was one of your stronger performances…If you're not going to sing it as well or better than Pink, it's not going to work out well for you." I think this off performance, compounded by her negative critiques, death-spot placement, and past track record of ending up in the bottom three, will lead to M.K.'s downfall this week. Oh well. I like her, so I'm glad she at least squeaked into the top 10. Hopefully by the time she's on this summer's tour, she'll have honed her performance skills a bit.
Dexter Roberts – Dexter did Florida Georgia Line's bro-country megahit "Cruise," probably the most predictable song choice he could've made this week. I keep waiting for Dexter to surprise me — to take on something unexpected and outside of his wheelhouse and Dexterify it — but now I just don't know if he has that sort of creativity in him. J.Lo said Dexter needed to rally the crowd more. Harry said, "You didn't do anything different…Unless you get bigger than these songs, it's going to come across as being generic. I felt like you were meandering and bereft of joy." Keith the country man was more appreciative, saying "Cruise" suited Dexter artistically — but even Keith admitted that Dexter had struggled to make the song his own. Sigh. Dexter always plays it so, so safe, and so far that's served him well and played to his country base…but I don't think plodding performances like this one will take him all the way to the finale.
Jena Irene – When I found out that Jena wouldn't be playing Zedd's "Clarity" on piano, I was disappointed. But my disappointment lasted all of, like, four seconds. Once I realized how much Jena, in her '90s-retro clubwear, commanded the stage, I was delighted that she'd decided to go in a full-on dance direction. Her ability to hit the song's glory notes and control her breath while running around and working the glowstick-wielding crowd was beyond impressive, and after the limp performances by M.K. and Dexter, she provided exactly the shot of adrenaline this episode needed. "[Electronic music] could be your wheelhouse. You could succeed in that. It's exciting to think about what you could do. I felt like I was at Ultra for a minute," said Harry. "That's the best performance of the night so far. You have such a strong signature sound. No matter what you sing, Jena, you sound like Jena," said Keith. "I wish [the performance] had been longer," said Jennifer. I felt like doing a happy dance for Jena after this. She was fantastic this evening.
Alex Preston – Alex was skerred to do "Story of My Life" — the first One Direction song ever performed on "Idol" — because if he didn't do a bloody brilliant job, he'd certainly face the wrath of Directioners everywhere. But he needn't have worried, because I think those hard-to-please Directioners will actually be Supervoting for him and hailing him as America's answer to Harry Styles. Yes, he was that good — good enough to win over the staunchest 1D haters, even. And he certainly won over the judges. "That was great. It was like you merged American Authors with 1D and did your Alex thing with it and made it your own. You always sound like Alex, play like Alex, and move like Alex," raved Keith. "I loved it. I thought your vocal was so beautiful. I was so in the song with you the entire time. When we talk about owning the stage, that was it. You evoke greatness," said Jennifer. "You just hit the bullseye on the artistry target. I think you may be leading the pack," said Harry. I think Alex is headed in just one direction: straight to the Season 13 finale.
Malaya Watson – Malaya took on Bruno Mars's heartbreak ballad "When I Was Your Man" (a song that powerhouse winner Candice Glover did last season), and this could have been a major misstep. After all, the sweet 16-year-old confessed that she has no romantic experience to draw from. ("No one's ever held my hand, except when I was young and crossing the street," she joked.) And this is a very passionate, keeningly romantic song. But man, Malaya sure faked it well. I guess she isn't just a great singer and great tuba player, but also a great actress. She pulled it off and did her "Slyoncé" thang. "I'm not going to lie, I was ready to hate on you…but I had goosies when you hit the middle of that song. It was sung so beautifully, so tenderly, with so much feeling and love. It was awesome. Beautiful," raved Jennifer. "The thing I liked about it the most is how sincere you were about it, interpreting the lyrics. I can feel that you were completely present in every single word," said Harry. "Tonight you pulled me back and it really pulled me in. Great job," said Keith. I think all of America fell in love with Malaya tonight.
Caleb Johnson – Everyone seemed so shocked that this Meat Loafian rocker did a Lady Gaga song. But I was pleased that Caleb was smart enough to realize that "Edge of Glory" is basically a Bob Seger/Bruce Springsteen homage. (Clarence Clemons played on the original recording, after all.) I didn't think this was a bad fit or odd choice whatsoever. Caleb belted it like he was auditioning for "Rock of Ages 2," and I enjoyed his wild vocal theatrics. But he only made it to the edge of glory — not quite all the way. The vocals were on point, but the emotional connection was slightly missing. "It was loud. The whole thing was loud. You do loud well. But I hope I get a chance to hear you do something softer and more intimate at some point," said Harry. "For me, energy-wise, I felt an imbalance. Like, your voice was too big for that. But you nail it vocally every time," shrugged Keith. "You sounded great, but it was lacking the feeling for me. I believe you in your other performances, but here, I didn't feel like you were singing about anything. If you're going to pick a song by Lady Gaga, make sure it's one that you feel every word," said J.Lo. I still thought this was semi-glorious, and I'm not worried that this leftfield song choice will instigate a backlash the way Ben Briley's "Bennie and the Jets" did last week. But maybe Caleb should do some Whitesnake next week, just to make sure he doesn't lose his core audience.
C.J. Harris – I was concerned about C.J.'s song choice, Hunter Hayes's "Invisible." C.J. excels when he does raw, gritty, bluesy tunes, not country teen-pop. C.J. actually did a decent job of emotionally connecting to Hunter's stirring, string-laden ballad, but the song was all wrong for his raspy voice. This Sharpy McSharperson performance was really painful. By the end of it, C.J. looked positively defeated. He knew he hadn't done well. "I'm rooting for you, I really like you, you have a special voice…but it was really shaky. The believability and all that, you've got going on. All I would ask is you work on knowing how to stay in pitch," said Keith. "There's no doubt that your heart is in it. And I love that about you. I just hope that you get the [pitch] in control," said Jennifer. Keith and J.Lo claimed that C.J. had done a much better job in rehearsal, but Harry didn't care about all that, and likely neither will "Idol's" voters. "I specifically don't go to rehearsals because I don't care about what you do in rehearsal. I want to see what you do when the red light is on," explained Harry. "You really seem to feel the lyric…but you have a tendency to sing sharp. Work with the people that 'American Idol' so graciously provided for you. It's something that you can fix. You're talented enough to do it, but you must get the pitch in check." Let's see if C.J. is even around next week to take Harry's advice.
Jessica Meuse – Jessica picked Foster the People's "Pumped Up Kicks," the perfect song to showcase the shadings of her personality. Jessica has such a pretty, sweet voice, but there's a hardness and a darkness and a sadness to her — and there's a similar dichotomy in Foster's misleadingly peppy tune. I appreciated the twanginess that Jessica added to the song, and she definitely Meuseified it. But Jessica once again polarized the judging panel. J.Lo said, "I was happy with that performance. It felt right in your wheelhouse. You sang it perfectly. It felt really good to me." Keith agreed: "I thought it was good. I like the fact that it's kind of weird…It kind of almost had this '60s country-pop thing to it, which is trippy." But Hatchet Harry called this performance "one-dimensional" and then proceeded to harp on the song's murderous lyrics, thinking Jessica hadn't interpreted them accurately…which led to what felt like a 17-minute argument between the judges that probably continued well into the commercial break. "I don't endorse homicidal behavior at all," Jessica explained. Good point, Miss Meuse. Not everything has to be so literal, Harry.
Majesty Rose – Last week, former frontrunner Majesty was shockingly in the bottom three…or maybe not so shockingly, since her performance of "Frozen's" Oscar-winning power ballad "Let It Go" was stone cold awful. She just didn't have the big voice of Idina Menzel (or even Adele Dazeem) to pull that one off. "If I can just grab America's heart, I think we can be friends again," Majesty said this week, before wisely going back to the folk-pop that had made her first audition so special. Doing an Aloe Blacc-inspired version of Avicii's "Wake Me Up" with acoustic guitar was a shrewd move. It wasn't an amazing performance, but it was pleasant: She was in tune, she looked poised, and she seemed in control (unlike last week, when she let "Let It Go" get away from her). Again, the judges were split. Harry thought Majesty had made a comeback, saying, "I really like what you did with that tune. I thought you took it in a completely different direction. I think you're very smart and complex. You challenged [the audience] with a new interpretation of the song." (Side note: This comment made me wonder if Harry had ever heard Aloe Blacc's acoustic version of "Wake Me Up." My guess is no.) Said Keith: "I disagree with Harry on this…I just didn't really care for the arrangement. But your voice always delivers." And Jennifer remarked, "Tonight I saw something in you that I have never seen: a little fear. I feel like what happened last week really affected you. But you can't let it do that when you're out onstage. That's part of show business. Halfway through, I started hearing the Majesty that I knew; I don't ever want to see that other girl ever again." Will see any version of Majesty again, next week? My prediction is yes…but I am beginning to wonder if she can actually win this thing.
Sam Woolf – Sam was another "frontrunner" and "fan favorite" who ended up in the bottom three last week. And it wasn't just because he sang first. It was because he brought absolutely no swagger or attitude to his cover of the Beatles' raucous "Come Together." Sam actually never brings any swagger or attitude to anything he sings. He's just too meek, too young, too deer-in-headlights. His performance of fun.'s appropriately titled "We Are Young" was an improvement over "Come Together," and that — along with his pimp-spot placement — should keep in out of danger this week. But this fun. performance was not very fun; he sucked all the zest and joy out of this lively anthem, almost as if he'd taken the period in the band's name too literally. And he certainly didn't have the big personality or big voice of fun.'s Nate Ruess. Keith and J.Lo praised this performance, but Harry was right when he scolded Sam with: "You have to come out on the stage and be self-assertive. Where is that voice of that guy that came in on the first [audition] day and sang 'Lego House'?" You know, I miss that guy, too. Hopefully we will see him next week.
But who won't be around next week? My prediction is the bottom three will comprise M.K., C.J., and Jessica (all that inter-judge arguing and talk of homicide made Jess look bad), with M.K. going home.
Tune in Thursday to see if I'm right! Until then, Parker out.