The first competitive co-ed show of "American Idol" Season 13 aired this Wednesday, with the refreshingly open-ended theme "This Is Me." (Not to be confused with Jennifer Lopez's 2002 album "This Is Me…Then," thank gawd.)
That's right: no Big Band Night, Sixties Night, Disco Night, Burt Bacharach Night, Pat Boone Night, Barry Manilow Night, etc. The top 13 contestants could pick any song they wanted (well, any song they wanted that Fox could clear, that is), any song that "truly defines them as an artist and as a person."
And one thing was made clear: With a few exceptions, most of these young contestants do not define themselves with ballads, with anything from the Diane Warren catalog, or with anything recorded before 2002.
[Related: Surviving Randy Jackson's "Idol" Workshop]
It was a nice change of pace, I must say. After many seasons of "Idol" being regularly (and rightfully) criticized for its fuddy-duddy themes and heavily recycled ancient songs (how many times did we need to hear "Hallelujah" or "Feeling Good," seriously?), it seemed like the show was finally making a good-faith effort to appeal to what people in the biz like to call "millennials."
So we got to hear a lot of songs we hadn't heard on "Idol" before, which was a good thing. And while not every contestant did an amazing, goosies-inducing job, they all seemed genuinely excited by (and familiar with) their song choices, and this was also a very good thing.
Here's how everyone did Wednesday:
Dexter Roberts – Once again, Dexter didn't bring much originality to the stage. His song this week, Chris Young's "Aw Naw," was another predictable bro-country staple, like his Craig Morgan cover last week. But Dexter did bring the sort of energy needed to open the show with, if not a bang, then certainly not a whimper. The uptempo song showcased what Dexter called his "fun" side ("You are F...U…N," said Ryan Seacrest; I'm sure Fox censors heaved a sigh of relief when that last consonant left Ryan's lips), and Dexter's electric playing was solid. I just wish he'd chosen a more adventurous song. The judges called Dexter "likable," but there was a lot about his performance they didn't like, actually. "That was an excellent cover version of that song. What you have to figure out is how to make it a Dexter Roberts performance," said Keith Urban. "Maybe the way to make it more you is to use that personality more. I'm not sure if that was your nerves holding you back," said Harry Connick Jr. Said Jennifer: "The song was low for you, too. That's not the sweet spot of your voice." Dexter's death-spot placement and mixed reviews could lead to voters saying "aw naw" to him this week.
Malaya Watson – Malaya, with her "Slyoncé" (Sly Stone + Beyoncé) style, is possibly the most energetic contestant ever on "Idol." She makes Norman Gentle seem sedate. And that's what I love about Malaya. Her goofy enthusiasm is infectious. And I still love the girl, but I do think she let her song this week, Bruno Mars's "Runaway Baby," run away from her. Her performance was manic and scattered, her enunciation was garbled (although, to be fair, her braces may have been the issue there), and she just didn't seem ready for prime time. But at least she gave it her all. J.Lo told her, "You just command that stage the way a superstar is supposed to, and I do love that about you," but added, "It wasn't your best vocal performance…at the end it went off the rails for me." Keith said, "What you have to do now is figure out how to put that [energy] in a performance, where you're on top of the song, not floating around it." I do hope Malaya is safe this week. I was hoping to see her float to the top this season.
Kristen O'Connor – Not to be mean, but Kristen is kind of dull. So dull that when she was asked on the spot to recite five fascinating factoids about herself, she was utterly stumped. Well, I can list one fact about Kristen: She'll be in the bottom three this week. Her ill-advised cover of beloved original Idol Kelly Clarkson's "Beautiful Disaster" was not a total disaster, but it certainly wasn't beautiful, and it certainly wasn't enough to prove she'd deserved to be a Wild Card pick last week. This performance was pageanty, Stepfordian, and instantly forgettable. Harry called Kristen a "really strong pop singer," but said he didn't feel the emotion behind the song. Jennifer said the performance seemed overthought. Only Keith was totally kind, praising the song choice and Kristen's "control and dynamics." I agreed with J.Lo and Harry — and I think America will, too.
Ben Briley – Well, there was nothing pageanty or Stepfordian about this guy! Ben had personality for days, not just in his jocular interview with Ryan, but when he tore into Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" with wonderfully snarling, reckless abandon. But unlike Malaya, Ben stayed in control, not getting the least bit winded despite the lightning-speed tempo of his very unique cover version. ("I'm sure Johnny might've done that tempo, probably with some stimulant assistance," Keith joked.) Ben revealed that he always opens his bar gigs with this song, and it showed: This was the performance of a pro. I was surprised that Keith didn't appreciate it more, actually. "Don't ever sacrifice your artistry in the midst of [trying to entertain]. There's a fine line of a performance coming off kitsch," warned Keith. Thankfully, J.Lo and Harry enjoyed this. "I like that you picked up the tempo. That was a good example of showing us who you were, taking a song that everybody knows and making it more your own," said Jennifer. "I didn't think it was kitsch at all. It was unquestionably the best performance of the night," said Harry. I agreed. Ben is quickly becoming one of my favorites, only a week after I was furious that he'd taken a place in the top 30 away from Neco Starr. I realize now that Ben definitely deserves his place on this show.
C.J. Harris – C.J. was a real disappointment for me this evening. I'd rooted for him all season, and I was shocked when he didn't get voted through by America last week and had to be saved as a Wild Card. But this week, if he doesn't get voted through, I won't be so shocked. I know I said just a few paragraphs ago that I was pleased with the lack of balladry on Wednesday's episode, but C.J. is one contestant who would've been better off doing a ballad. Darius Rucker's lighthearted romp "Radio" was all wrong for him; it had no substance, no grit, no gravitas, and the performance was throwaway. Frankly, he was upstaged by his awesome cousin, that kid in the yellow shirt who was featured in several cutaways grooving in the audience. I wasn't grooving nearly as enthusiastically, and neither was Harry. "It's a fine song, but it seems like it would be among 20 songs in a concert. I want to hear that sort of cry in your voice, and hopefully America will let you stay around for a while so that we can all hear it," he said. Keith and J.Lo were more appreciative, but really, if C.J.'s excellent "Shelter" performance last week wasn't enough to secure America's vote, I don't think "Radio" will be, either.
M.K. Nobilette – M.K. continued to establish herself as one of the most interesting and unique contestants in "Idol" history with this fantastic performance. Her song, Allen Stone's "Satisfaction" (not the Stones' "Satisfaction") was one of the more daring choices of the night, and it allowed her to bring all of her swag to the stage. It was very different from her mellow "All of Me" effort last week, but it was just as effective, proving that M.K. has the diversity to tackle different themes every week on "Idol" (even if there is a Barry Manilow Night this season). "I thought it was cool to hear you sing a song like this, which is different than what we've heard you sing. I enjoyed it," said Harry. "I didn't know that song, but I loved it, and I loved how you delivered it. It was smart for you to do a song like that and show people a different side of you. You are awesome," said Jennifer. "This is what I love about 'Idol,' that we get to watch this growth in all of you as artists," said Keith. I have a feeling that M.K. will have plenty of time to grow on this show, because she's not going anywhere for a while.
Majesty Rose – Majesty offered some actually interesting facts about herself: She's left-handed, she dances ballet, and she loves big hair. And then, as if all that weren't enough for her to quality as the Coolest Girl in the World (or at least the Coolest Girl Besides M.K. Nobilette), she came out with some especially big hair and did Janelle Monae's "Tightrope." Yes, it was a slightly predictable song choice, not quite as magical as last week's "Happy" (Harry advised Majesty to mix up her song selections in future episodes), but that's like saying this one hot fudge sundae wasn't quite as delicious as this other hot fudge sundae. What I am trying to say is…it was still an awesome performance. I don't know if this charismatic cutie is even capable of giving a non-awesome performance. Jennifer summed it up best with: "I just love your individuality. There's nobody like you. You're blessed. That was great."
Jena Irene – Jena explained that she chose to sing Coldplay's "The Scientist" because it was the first song she learned to play on piano. So, you know, I thought she'd play the song on the piano, and that she'd have a Kate-Epperly-in-Season-9-esque "wow" moment with it. But for whatever reason, Jena didn't do that — though she did make a valiant effort to turn "The Scientist" into sort of a Heart-style '80s power ballad, which was bold of her. Overall, this was not my favorite performance from Jena, but she showcased some Ann Wilson-esque vocal chops that actually made Jennifer jealous ("You're like a powerhouse singer, which makes me really angry!" J.Lo semi-joked), so bonus points for that, I guess. Harry loved Jena's phrasing choices, but spent way too much time grilling her about the lyrics' meaning. (Harry really needs to stop doing that. It's getting annoying.) Keith thought the performance was pitchy in the beginning, but said Jena "owned the song" by the end. I think Jena will probably be safe this week, but next week, I want to see her back at her piano. My feelings about Jena Irene in Season 13 are exactly the same as the judges' feelings towards Angie Miller in Season 12: Piano is the way to go for this girl.
Alex Preston – Not to be confused with the aforementioned "Beautiful Disaster," Alex did Jason Mraz's "A Beautiful Mess." It was not a mess. It was better than Jason's version, actually. It was a gentle and intimate but never-boring performance, full of lovely and tender moments. (Side note: Alex's girlfriend, Season 13 "Idol"/Season 2 "X Factor" contestant Jillian Jensen, was sitting in the audience next to Season 3 "X Factor" champs Alex & Sierra. Fun fact: Alex Preston was playing Alex Kinsey's guitar this evening, and that guitar, along with Jill, was obviously a good-luck charm.) Oddly, Harry said Alex's performance "was so inward that I didn't really feel what you were trying to sing about. I'm not saying you have to perform it on a big, grand level, but I felt like it was really introspective. I'm not sure that did you a service tonight." Harry was dead wrong, and I loudly booed my TV screen. Keith, thankfully, appreciated what Alex was trying to do, saying: "It did the opposite for me. It pulled me in. You were so inside and in this little world, but I was interested." Said Jennifer: "I'm going to agree with Keith here. I was caught up in the emotion and the mood of it. It was a nice change from what everybody else is doing. I loved it." Wow, whoever thought I'd be agreeing with Jennifer Lopez over musical expert Harry Connick Jr.? But Harry was way off-base in this case. I thought Alex was one of the best performers of the night.
Jessica Meuse – After struggling through a very awkward Luke Bryan cover last week, Jessica rebounded like a champ this Wednesday with a full-on rock song, Shinedown's "The Crow and the Butterfly." This was the perfect song for her. She rocked it, and she rocked it hard. Last week, she didn't seem to connect to what she was singing, but this week, doing her "This Is Me" song, she committed to every raspy word. "That was a very bold but cool song choice…there was a dark, haunting quality to it. That's what you've got in you as an artist. There's an edge in your voice that is really appealing," said Keith. "The sound and the power of your voice gave me goosies everywhere. It was my favorite vocal performance of the night so far," said Jennifer. "I thought that was strong, man. I heard a different sound of your voice. Nice job," said Harry. And just like that, Jessica was BACK and better than ever. And I bet somewhere in New Jersey, Stephanie Hanvey's stage mother was fuming — and maybe booing her TV screen.
Emily Piriz – It's pretty hard to top Pink's famous aerial-stunting rendition of "Glitter in the Air." It's even hard to top Season 11 contestant Erika Van Pelt's version from 2012's "American Idols Live!" tour. I don't think Emily matched the greatness of either. Her "Glitter in the Air" performance was very dinner-theater, very cabaret, very old-fashioned (despite "Glitter" being a recent hit), and I couldn't connect with it. It was one of the most technically proficient vocals of the night, but that wasn't enough for me. However, the judges were more impressed than I was. "Pink is one of my favorite artists. That's a tough song to take on, but you did it so beautifully," said Jennifer. "I thought you sang the melody well and conveyed the emotions well. You did what you were supposed to do. I'm proud of you," said Harry. Keith actually said this was one of his favorite performances of the night, even though he thought Emily needed a little more edge, some "yang" added to her "yin." I guess there just wasn't nearly enough yang for my taste.
Sam Woolf – Sam is so cute he makes Majesty Rose look like Susan Boyle, and he could win this season. But he could lose momentum if he keeps doing performances like the one he did this week. His cover of Matchbox Twenty's "Unwell" was…just…so…sleepy. Give me Ben Briley's sped-up "Folsom Prison Blues" over Sam's slowed-down "Unwell" any day of the week. This sounded like a 45rpm record being played at 33 1/3 (that's a vinyl reference, if any of you confused millennials were wondering), and the song went nowhere. It just plodded along, endlessly and emotionlessly. I was underwhelmed, and so were the judges. "I think the lyric is so important in that song, about being messed-up, and I wish that your vocal mirrored that. I wish it was more messed-up. The song was good; it wasn't great. It was nice," shrugged Harry. Keith said the tempo was too slow. Said J.Lo: "You're like a quiet storm. Now you just have to come alive a little bit more onstage. Sometimes it's a little deer-in-the-headlights." I am sure Sam will be safe this week. But this performance was, well, just too safe, and I hope he "messes it up" more next time.
Caleb Johnson – Caleb is one guy who's not afraid to get messy onstage, and I love that about him. I also love his mix of new-school and old-school. His song choice, "Pressure and Time," was by a modern band, Rival Sons, but it had a '70s stadium-rock vibe that totally worked with Caleb's throwback style. He was giving me some Meat Loaf realness, some Stillwater-in-"Almost Famous" realness, some Bo Bice-doing-"Whipping Post" realness, and I was thoroughly rocked. "You're so ready for the rock-star life. I can see you on the bus with your band, just wreaking havoc, girls everywhere, breaking hearts and the whole thing. But the thing is, you have the goods to back it up," said Jennifer. Keith warned Caleb not to be too retro, but said he was entertained. Harry's critique was a bit passive-aggressive, when he said it was "great to hear some rock 'n' roll on 'Idol,'" but then compared Caleb to Journey's Steve Perry-soundalike replacement Arnell Pineda and suggested that Caleb would be a great stand-in singer for Rival Sons. I actually think Caleb would be a great American Idol.
So now it's time to predict who won't be an American Idol. Who will be the first top 13 contestant to get voted off this season? I think the best performances of the night were by Ben, M.K., Majesty, Alex, Jessica, and Caleb, and I am sure they'll all be safe. So will Sam, as I mentioned. What about the rest? I'm predicting a bottom three of Dexter, Kristen, and Emily, with Kristen going home.
Tune in Thursday to see if I'm right — and to see performances by reigning "Idol" champ Candice Glover and a singer-songwriter that many of this season's contestants could learn a thing or two from, the fabulous Jake Bugg. See you then!