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‘American Idol’ Top 12 Night: Go Big or Go Home

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‘American Idol’ Top 12 Night: Go Big or Go Home

photo: Fox

The theme for this Wednesday's "American Idol" show was "Home," which meant the top 12 performed Phillip Phillips's "Home," Chris Daughtry's "Home," Carrie Underwood's "Temporary Home," and Carrie's version of Mötley Crüe's "Home Sweet Home." Just kidding! It was actually another open-ended theme night, on which the contestants could sing any song that reminded them of their respective hometowns.

None of the contestants went for obvious homages to particular cities or states. There would be no "Georgia on My Mind," no "New York State of Mind"…and sadly, no one did my favorite song about my own hometown, Bran Van 3000's "Drinking In L.A." (Maybe next week? Maybe if it's '90s Week?) But there were still some interesting song choices, and some great performances. As for the not-so-great performers? Well, one of them will probably go home, for real, after this week's votes are tallied.

Here's how everyone did this Wednesday:

Jena Irene – I'm still unsure what K.T. Tunstall's "Suddenly I See" had to do with Jena's hometown of Farmington, Michigan. (Jena said something about it reminding her of family vacations; I assumed it reminded her of the Farmington Wal-Mart, since this song has become that chain's unlikely commercial jingle.) Anyway, this was a solid performance — Jena worked the crowd and seemed confident and fresh — but it wasn't an amazing performance. "It wasn't the most wow song to pick, but it still showed how you can make every single song your own," said Jennifer Lopez. Harry Connick Jr. liked how Jena "messed with the melody," but said, "I was waiting for you to bust out. You're 17. You should be climbing all over the ceiling with that song. Great to see that energy, but I wanted more." Uh oh. Suddenly I saw an elimination in Jena's near future.

Alex Preston – I cringed when I learned that New Hampshire boy Alex planned to cover Gavin DeGraw's "I Don't Want to Be." It was a sentimental choice for Alex, because he once opened for a local Gavin concert, but I didn't think I needed to hear this song covered on "Idol" ever again. I was wrong. To employ the above-mentioned singing-show cliché, Alex totally made the song his own, giving it a blisteringly bluesy vibe. No wonder Gavin had been so impressed by young Alex when they'd met. Unfortunately, the judges weren't as impressed. "It wasn't your best vocal performance. The arrangement didn't quite suit the song. It overtook your performance," said J.Lo. "I'm so used to hearing you in an intimate, introspective context. I think you're good at that… I didn't really like this as much as some of the other things you've done," said Harry (completely failing to mention that he'd actually criticized Alex last week for being too introspective onstage). Keith thought the performance was "unstable" and that Alex seemed nervous. I disagreed. I thought Alex seemed like a budding star. But I'm not nervous myself; I know this guy has a fanbase and is in no danger of going home this week.

Jessica Meuse – Jessica is from the awesomely named tiny town of Slapout, Alabama. Sadly, there is no song about Slapout, although there should be. Jessica should write one. But instead, she did a soft-rockin' song I never thought I'd hear from her: Dido's "White Flag." I didn't expect this to work, but it did. Jessica infused the bland wine-bar ballad with a sense of drama and darkness it never had before, and turned it into a sort of witchy, Stevie Nicks-goes-country torch song. Her pitch was not perfect, but her delivery had a lot of heart. But once again, the judges were unimpressed, and they slapped the Slapout girl with some harsh critiques. Harry said the performance was "understated and blasé," criticized her sharp notes, and told her, "I feel like you weren't really present." Keith didn't mind Jessica's pitch issues, but didn't think she showed enough emotional conviction. Jennifer thought Jessica seemed uncomfortable and said, "It was so sharp through the whole thing that it was a bit distracting." The debate about just how much Jessica had bombed apparently raged during the commercial break, and even continued once Ryan Seacrest welcomed viewers back to the show — which didn't seem fair to Jessica. But she surprisingly had her own white-flag moment and humbly agreed with the judges. I hope Jessica doesn't go down with the "Idol" ship, but this was not a good look for her.

Dexter Roberts – Alabama boy Dexter dedicated Montgomery Gentry's "Lucky Man" to a loved one who passed away, and he finally showed an authentic, emotional side of himself (as opposed to his usual bro-country, bar-band persona). I had no idea Dexter had a performance like this in him, and I totally think this is the direction he should go in from now on. "That was the perfect song. It was an incredible moment, because it was so vulnerable. Well done," said Keith. "I feel like we're being a little hard on everybody tonight…but we don't have to be hard on you right now," said J.Lo, who namechecked the country kid who won her first "Idol" season, Scotty McCreery. Even Hatchet Harry called this "unquestionably the best performance of the night." And thus, Dexter received the first 100 percent positive critique of the episode, and really his first 100 percent positive critique of Season 13. He was a lucky man this evening.

Emily Piriz – "Let's Get Loud," by "Idol's" own Jennifer Lopez, was an odd choice for Emily. While I appreciated the uptempo vibe (way too many "Idol" contestants rely on snoozy balladry), it just wasn't uptempo enough. Or loud enough. Emily may have sung it way better than J.Lo ever did (well, duh), but she didn't have J.Lo's onstage fire. Jennifer was too flattered (and admittedly biased) to critique this, but Harry said, "Let's be honest. That song is like a big locomotive train going down the tracks. You have to match the intensity of the train, otherwise you're just going to be a passenger. You have to drive the train. The production was too big for you." Keith actually loved this performance and said, "You're going to be here next week, I guarantee it." We'll soon find out if Keith was right, or if Emily ends up on a train back to her hometown of Orlando.

Caleb Johnson – Last week, Caleb professed his love for Rush. That had me stoked, but I still never thought I'd hear a Rush song on "Idol." Ever. I just didn't think the powers-that-be would allow it, or Rush would clear it, or Caleb would take the risk. But this week, Caleb surprisingly took on Rush's "Working Man" — and he worked it, all right. I would have preferred "Tom Sawyer" or "Red Barchetta," but hey, it was A RUSH SONG ON "AMERICAN IDOL," belted with full-gale force, ending with a dramatic collapse to the floor, so I sure wasn't going to complain here. This was kind of awesome. I just wish Harry had thought so. Harry called the performance "predictable," despite the fact that, like I just said, I doubt anyone had ever predicted there'd be a Rush cover on this show. Harry also blasted Caleb for being too "consistent," which made no sense. What's wrong with Caleb being consistent, if he's consistently awesome? Thankfully, Keith and J.Lo were kinder. Keith told Caleb, "You're seriously one of the best singers I've heard in a long, long time," and Jennifer said, "I love you. You're what I've been waiting for all night." Now please excuse me while I (wait for it) rush to my phone to vote 50 times for Caleb.

M.K. Nobilette – Last week, M.K. did a somewhat obscure song by Allen Stone, and despite giving a great performance, she ended up in the bottom three. Maybe that's why she went with a more commercial song this week: "Drops of Jupiter" by Train. Other than the fact that Train hail from M.K.'s hometown of San Francisco, this song choice was all wrong. I didn't like M.K. in granola-girl coffeehouse mode so much; I prefer her with a bit more swag. This was basically a boring performance from one of Season 13's least boring contestants. Such a bummer. "I feel like it wasn't a breakout performance. At this point in the competition, we need that from you guys," said Jennifer. "Your vocals are fine, but you have to keep working on connecting," said Keith. "I get the feeling that you don't want to be here," said Harry. Well, I want M.K to be here. I just hope if she's here next week, she does something much more exciting than this.

C.J. Harris – After a weak couple of weeks (so weak, in fact, that he didn't even get voted into the top 13, and only made it through as a Wild Card), C.J. was back in fine form this Wednesday. It seemed choosing a song that actually meant something to him — John Mayer's "Waiting on the World to Change," inspired by unrest and injustice in his Alabama hometown — made all the difference. C.J. should only ever pick songs he believes in and connects with. This was not a flawless vocal, but as Harry put it, "There's an example of a person that sang consistently sharp, but I felt something." Said Jennifer: "This is what music is about. It's about changing the world. It's about putting a message out. I'm glad you were singing about that when you chose your song." Keith thought the performance was more of a straightahead cover, not original enough, but I think C.J. did enough with the song to ensure his safety this week.

Sam Woolf – Sam's cover of Blind Pilot's "Just One" was just nice. And just one-note. It certainly was not stunning; it was more stunted, as in emotionally stunted. "The thing that keeps coming to mind with me about you is emotional dynamics. I'm starting to think there's one beat when you sing. That's all I've heard. I think you need to try something else," said Harry. "We're at a point in the competition where we need to see more super-wow performances. You have to push outside your comfort zone," agreed Jennifer. Keith did say, however, "I guarantee you'll be here next week." I'm sure Keith was right: Sam's devoted fans, the "Woolfpack," will keep him safe. But if Sam keeps giving safe performances like this, he may lose momentum. He's a young kid, only 17, but he has been through some hard times in his past, so he needs to tap into that pent-up pain and give a raw, heartfelt performance that truly resonates.

Malaya Watson – Malaya was in the bottom three last week, so she tapped into her faith this week, doing Tamala Mann's "Take Me to the King," the first gospel song she ever learned. To be honest, I kind of missed the kooky, wild-eyed, wild-haired "Slyoncé" of Malaya's past numbers (we got a glimpse of that at the end, when Malaya stepped away from her piano and let loose). But this was, for now, exactly the kind of performance Malaya needed to give in order to get back in America's good graces. "It encompassed the vulnerability in your voice at the beginning, and the completely insane power and range you have there. Beautiful," gushed Keith. "I had goosies from head to toe and tears in my eyes, because I'm so proud of you," said Jennifer. "I felt that you were in danger in some previous performances of running off-track. This felt very focused to me…I'm really proud of you. You didn't go off the rails," said Harry. I don't think Malaya will be in the bottom three this week.

Ben Briley – Speaking of going off the rails, Ben's manic Johnny Cash cover last week was polarizing. (I loved it, but some country purists reacted to it the same way they did when Adam Lambert sang an unorthodox "Ring of Fire" in Season 8.) This week, his performance of David Nail's "Turning Home" was not as fun, but it showed another, more serious side of his persona. So it seemed like a smart song choice. But he still ended up being polarizing. Jennifer loved this performance, saying, "That's what I've been looking for all night. Thank you so much. Somebody singing with feeling." But Harry and Keith weren't feeling this. "I did not connect with it, and it felt shouted to me. I'm waiting for a knockout performance, and I haven't seen it. It was OK. It wasn't great," said Harry. "There was so much focus on the technicality of the notes, I lost the story. I lost the emotion from you," said Keith. Then everybody ate some deviled eggs (Ben's favorite Southern dish), and all was right with the show again. I personally think Ben is a good egg, and I believe America will vote him through.

Majesty Rose – After doing uptempo retro-R&B jams over the past couple weeks (Pharrell's "Happy" and Janelle Monae's "Tightrope"), Majesty took Harry's advice to switch things up and did Coldplay's tender ballad "Fix You" this week. The performance started strong, with Majesty making goosies-inducing eye contact with the camera...but then, things started to get not so Majestic. When she went for the big power notes, she completely missed the mark, and for the first time this season, she didn't seem like a frontrunner. What a disappointment. "I wish you had stayed in that quiet zone. I liked the beginning. I wish it had stayed quiet like that," said Harry. "You don't have to always go for the big thing. Sometimes the small thing where you had us was great. It didn't quite work out," said Jennifer. Keith agreed with his fellow judges, but added, "I know one thing: We'll see you next week." I am sure Keith was right, but I hope next week, Majesty gets back on track. She can fix this.

So now, it is prediction time. Which contestant is going home this week, literally? I think the bottom three will be Jena, M.K., and Jessica — with, sadly, M.K. getting the boot. But I hope I'm wrong. Tune in Thursday to find out if I am. Parker out.

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