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In the Still of the 'Idol' Night: Caleb Johnson Rocks the Top 5

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks
May 1, 2014

OK, allow this article to serve as your own personal DVR. It's time to fast-forward to the final five minutes of this Wednesday's "American Idol" top five show. The episode actually featured several standout numbers, but if you only watch one "Idol" performance this week — nay, this season — make it this one:

Yes, Caleb Johnson — the seeming immaculately-conceived-in-the-wrong-decade lovechild of James Durbin and Meat Loaf, the rock 'n' roll Viking of Season 13 — did Whitesnake's "Still of the Night." On a fan-request-themed episode, this was all the brilliant concept of an Oregonian viewer named Cameron Martin (although I'd tried to put the idea out into the universe a few weeks ago), who declared in an amateur video message: "It requires power and range, and you have all of them. Just go out there and crush it!"

And Caleb did just that. This performance rawked so hard, all that was missing was Tawny Kitaen cartwheeling on the hood of a Jaguar and Caleb's name spelled out in some pointy, umlaut-augmented, Gothic font behind him. Someone please give me that Cameron Martin guy's home address, so I can send him a thank-you gift basket, stat.

[Photos: The "Idol" Top 5 Take Over Yahoo Music's Instagram]

The judges — two of them, at least — were just as appreciative. About a minute into Caleb's pyrotechnic performance, when he hit a glory note with more hair-raising power than an entire industrial-strength can of '80s Aqua-Net, Keith Urban and Jennifer Lopez jumped to their feet and started banging their heads like they were extras in a scene from "The Decline of Western Civilization, Part 2." I'm sure if cigarette lighters had been allowed inside the building, they would've been flicking them, too.

Stuffy old Harry Connick Jr., who probably wouldn't get out of his seat for anything, even if the building actually were on fire, seemed less enthused. Maybe that was because he wasn't joking when he said he'd assumed Caleb would be doing a Cole Porter song by a similar title. But during his critique, Harry had to admit, "You just can't sing that song any better than that, man. Fantastic job."

Some other contestants did fantastic jobs Wednesday, refreshingly with some much more modern songs by artists like the Neighbourhood, Lana Del Rey, A Great Big World, and Young the Giant. Here's who rocked it… and who didn't:


Alex's attempt to do something more uptempo last week with Neon Trees' "Animal" was somewhat of a disaster, but thankfully, he fared much better this week with the Neighbourhood's "Sweater Weather." This wasn't exactly "The A Team" or "Always on My Mind," and I still prefer Alex sweet, slow, and stripped-down, but this was nice. And I was impressed by how he nailed every word in this semi-rapped, syllable-packed, auctioneer-paced tune. Keith thought Alex did a "good job," but wanted to hear "more soaring with the vocals." Jennifer passive-aggressively complimented Alex with: "I can see why America chose this song for you. It's an easy song for you. Almost like you could do this in your sleep." Harry was, surprisingly, the nicest, saying he could imagine Alex's version on the radio. And thus, all was good in the Neighbourhood.

Alex's next number, A Great Big World's "Say Something," was right in his wheelhouse. This was real magic Alex: tender, tearful, and intensely emotional. Harry called it "the performance of the night." (Side note: He hadn't seen Caleb sing yet.) Jennifer said Alex "took it to another level." And softy Keith, who seriously looked like he was about to cry, said, "If there was a perfect marriage of song and artist, it was that. Absolutely beautiful."


We already know that Caleb rocked his second song. But his first number, Aerosmith's "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," was unfortunately a miss. Aerosmith for Caleb, sure. Give him a barnstormer with some swagger, like "Love in an Elevator," or really anything off "Toys in the Attic." Seriously, give him "Big Ten Inch [Record]" and let the Fox censors go nuts. But this dreary, done-to-death Diane Warren shlockfest? To quote last week's special "Idol" guest, Grumpy Cat: NO. Even Caleb admitted to Ryan Seacrest that he wouldn't have picked this song for himself, a confession that hopefully didn't trigger a backlash from all the viewers who did pick it for him. This was just OK; by Caleb standards, it was actually dull. J.Lo said she got "goosies," but Harry said Caleb got into too much of a staring contest with the camera and didn't interact with the audience enough, and Keith didn't think Caleb connected to the romantic lyrics. Caleb was lucky he had two songs this week, or the "thing" he might have missed could've been advancing to the top four.


"Human" by Christina Perri seemed like a real statement of intent by the judges' unofficial Season 13 punching bag, who'd been in the bottom two the previous two weeks. "Your words in my head, knives in my heart/You build me up and then I fall apart," she emoted, the swells of a string quartet underlining her every bittersweet word. This performance felt like a breakthrough. All the vulnerability that the judges had been requesting from this (admittedly at times rigid) performer, she really gave them — and hey, she didn't even have to dance around her hotel room to do it! But even then, the judges couldn't bring themselves to unconditionally praise her. "It wasn't my favorite performance you've done, but I'm really proud of you, because every week you take our comments seriously and you improve," grunted Harry. "My favorite part of the song was when your voice started to break from fatigue or whatever it was. That was the most human bit," said Keith. Really? Keith's favorite part was when Jess sounded TIRED? I thought she had a spark I hadn't heard from her in a while.

Lana Del Rey's "Summertime Sadness" was another smart pick for Jessica, as it totally played into that bad-girl, Southern Gothic thing she's got going on. She really brought the drama with this one: Jessica Rabbit gown, Angelina Jolie-worthy leg flash (complete with a glimpse of thigh tattoo!), and Loretta Lynn-as-produced-by-Jack White realness. Harry, usually Jessica's harshest critic, actually told her this performance was a "perfect marriage of voice and song." Keith loved the David Lynch vibe of the performance. But J.Lo said Jessica left her "a tiny bit cold." What? Was Jennifer even watching the same performance I was? I thought Jess smoldered.


Oof. For his first performance, Sam did "Sing." No, not the Travis song. That would have been much better. It was Ed Sheeran's "Sing." Now, yes, Ed's oeuvre is usually suitable for Sam. He memorably auditioned with "Lego House," after all. But "Sing" is very different from "Lego House." It's a fun, funky song, almost a disco song. And Sam just isn't a fun, funky, disco kind of dude. He barely smiled, he looked stiff, and he completely failed to get into the chorus's falsetto groove. I'd blame the surprise visit from his celebrity crush Ariana Grande, right before he performed, for throwing him off… but really, Sam is always just a little off his game. Actually, despite his branding this season as a boy heartthrob, he's got no game. "You said you would get funky, and you did," insisted Sam's biggest supporter, Jennifer. "Relatively funky," corrected Keith, who said with a shrug: "You did as good a job as you could. It's a tough song. That's all I can say." Harry wanted more rhythm, but interestingly, he didn't instruct Sam to dance around his hotel room. Go figure.

The Fray's "How to Save a Life," Sam's second song, was a much better fit. This might have been my favorite performance from Sam this season. Jennifer thought the start was shaky, but she got "goosies" in the end. Keith said basically the same thing, minus the goosies. Harry thought Sam had pitch issues, but said, "The last line of the song had a little break in your voice, a little cry in your voice, and I wish you had sung the whole thing like that." You know, I've been waiting for Sam to have some big emotional breakthrough, some moment when he totally connects and emotes. I doubt that's going to happen at this point, so I think this might be as close to a Sam epiphany as we're going to get. So let's just appreciate it.


For her first number, Jena did Young the Giant's "My Body," and she moved her body. No one, except maybe Caleb, works the stage and crowd like Jena, all without letting her movement compromise her amazing vocals. She truly tapped into this song's anthemic power and performed, raising the energy in the room following the more tepid and tentative Sam. Not to sound like Randy Jackson, but I felt like I was witnessing a Jena Irene concert, dawg. Keith called her a "lean-in performer." Harry told her, "You probably move more than the other remaining competitors. I think that's huge. You actually move to the beat. You look like you're having fun." I know I had fun watching this.

"Valerie" is a song that's been remade many times — the most famous version is the one by Amy Winehouse with Mark Ronson, while few people (including, apparently, the "Idol" judges) seem to realize that it was written and originally recorded by Liverpool indie blues-rockers the Zutons. Jena tried to have her own way with it this week, turning it into a smooth-jazz cabaret number. Well, props to her for taking a risk, but it was a risk that didn't quite pay off. She sang it well, but this didn't feel cool or current. Keith said he would have preferred a more uptempo rendition. Said J.Lo, "The tempo and the arrangement was so not you. It's so older and not where you belong." Harry summed it up with: "It wasn't your best, it wasn't your worst."

So, who will do best and who will do worst when it comes to the voting? I predict Jessica will end up in the bottom two again, but I think this Thursday might finally be Sam's time to go. All I know is, Caleb has to stay. He needs to be on this season's finale, dueting with guest star David Coverdale, after all.

Parker out.

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