Several questions before Wednesday (April 30) night's “American Idol”:
1) Why is the announced theme “America's Request” and not “America's Choice”? Is America going to make a suggestion followed by, “Pretty please?” and then Caleb Johnson's gonna be all, “Nuh-uh, America”?
2) FOX only said that the singers would be doing *a* song requested by America. What else will fill the time on Wednesday?
3) How excited do you think Alex Preston will be to have Jason Mraz as his mentor this week?
On to the full recap, after the break…
8:02 p.m. Zooey Deschanel, Alex Preston's celebrity crush, makes a guest appearance to intro the show, following in Kevin Bacon's show-plugging footsteps. This is quite a week for Alex, eh?
8:04 p.m. Jennifer Lopez is wearing a short silver pillow case, it would appear.
8:05 p.m. Ah. The Finalists will honor two requests apiece this week. Guess that fills the time!
Singer: ALEX PRESTON
Song: “Sweater Weather”
My Take: Jason Mraz is definitely bringing his particular low-energy charm to a show that probably doesn't need low-energy. This isn't a song that I know, but it's definitely well-suited for Alex. You know how everybody was trying to tell Alex about “eye contact”? Well, happy now? In an effort to make eye contact, Alex has instead decided to give America the stink-eye. It's half-wink, half-raised-eyebrow, entirely awkward and ineffective as a connecting gesture. We're at the point where we've got to nit-pick things like that, because this isn't an especially hard song for Alex and he's musically cruising through it. There's nothing here we haven't heard before a dozen times from Alex, but it's blandly fine. This shows almost none of Alex's range, but at least lets him down some more rapid-fire vocal delivery. But the eye contact fail? It's dire. Keep trying, Alex!
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: Keith would have liked to hear a bit more soaring from the vocals, referring to the “linearity.” That's his way of saying “that was one-note.” “It's an easy song for you. It's almost like you can do this in your sleep,” J-Lo says aptly. Harry gives Alex an A+ for remembering the lyrics. Harry calls it “a strong opening to the show.”
Singer: CALEB JOHNSON
Song: “Don't Wanna Miss a Thing”
My Take: Boooooring, America. I guess this gives Caleb a ballad and he hasn't had enough ballads this season, but… Yawn. I expect more creativity out of America. And the arrangement is, if possible, even less inspired than the song choice. The string quarter, the fake cathedral backdrop, it all makes it seem like Caleb is playing Quasimodo in a rock musical of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Boy I hope America does better for Caleb's second song, because this was my least favorite Caleb performance of the entire season. Yes, he hit the notes, but at what cost?
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: J-Lo felt that it was a challenging song for Caleb and that he made it into even more of a ballad than Steven Tyler does on the original. J-Lo got goosies. Harry felt that Caleb spent too much time addressing the camera and needed to sing to the people in the room. Keith thought it was a great song for Caleb, but he's trying to think of how to get Caleb to “the next level.” “You must let the feelings drive that ability, not the other way around,” Keith explains. Harry likes that. Caleb says he wouldn't have chosen that song for himself because it has been done so much. Agreed.
Singer: JENA, ALEX & SAM
Song: “Best Day of My Life”
My Take: Oh. We're doing trios? The theme of this first trio is “Jena Irene is ready to win 'American Idol' and Alex and Sam are not.” It's like she's the lead singer and they're kicking around to back her up, sluggishly. Keith stands. Austin Mahone does not.
Singer: JESSICA MEUSE
My Take: Jessica relates to this song, because she's human. Jason Mraz had a lot of advice for Jessica, which he had to deliver with Randy standing over his shoulder nodding and going, “Yeah.” As anybody seeing any of Jason Mraz's suggestions manifesting themselves in this performance? Totally, this is a good vocal for Jessica. It's got less of the goat-bleating that sometimes infects her singing. Some of the higher notes on the chorus sure sound sharp to me, but I just don't like Jessica as much as some people seem to. I've made my peace with that. There's a bit more life in Jessica's eyes than normal, but in the second half there's also a lot of emotion in her voice that's hampering her ability to hold some of the notes. This is another lackluster “Idol” evening, isn't it?
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: Harry felt that Jessica was thinking about a lot of the input she's gotten and he thinks it's obvious she wants to get better. He says there were pitch issues, but she was focused on the meaning of the song. Keith liked when her voice was breaking in the second half, calling that the most human bit he saw. J-Lo felt there was a moment that Jessica got lost in the performance and that that gave her a moment.
Singer: SAM WOOLF
My Take: Why didn't we just call this “Easy-Listening Night” on “American Idol”? Sigh. Ariana Grande comes out to give Sam two of the most awkward hugs imaginable. It's another “Random Celebrities We Could Convince To Drop By” evening. Whee! Sam promises to get funky for America, but did he succeed? Well, he's trying. And I'm giving points for effort tonight. Both Sam and Alex were stuck in “Sleepy Frat House Mixer Entertainment” mode for their first performances, but Sam seems much more at-ease. Once again, it's not a complicated vocal — and Sam has limited the dynamic range from the Ed Sheeran original — but there's some jauntiness to it.
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: Keith felt Sam did as good a job as he could have. J-Lo teases an embarrassed Ariana Grande and says that this was a funkier version of Sam. Harry suggests Sam was laying way back on the vocals and he wasn't in the groove. Harry goes so far as to accuse Sam of “diffusing the funk.”
Singer: JENA IRENE
Song: “My Body”
My Take: Jena had worries about compromising her vocals during the opening part of the song that she spent in the audience. And she probably wanted to adjust those worries a little more. She's initially very audible. Once she actually gets up on the stage, her comfort level increases immediately and she's suddenly able to do what we expect from Jena. She's loose and bopping around the stage, while maintaining the big belting. She's either caught up in the music, or she's doing a good job of simulating being caught up in the music. That was far from a perfect performance, but it was definitely the best solo of the first half of the show.
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: J-Lo likes Jena's signature and evolving style. Harry agrees that the little signature things help in the long-run. Harry raves that Jena moves to the beat and that she looks like she's having fun. “You're a lean-in performer,” Keith says, calling it “killer,” or maybe just calling Jena “killer.”
Singer: CALEB & JESSICA
Song: “Beast of Burder”
My Take: Yes, my math was off earlier when I suggested we were doing trios. Obviously you can't do two trios with five people. We've seen this before, but Caleb brings out a little swagger in Jessica. Every time we see it, I like it. This is a vastly better version of Caleb than what we saw earlier and it's more successful as a duet than the earlier song was a trio. Ariana Grande almost looks like she's enjoying it.
Singer: ALEX PRESTON
Song: “Say Something”
My Take: Smart Alex! He's going pure acoustic initially and even when the band joins him, it's a stripped down arrangement. This is just straight-up earnestness and musicality from Alex and it works well after his bland opener. He isn't trying to dance or to get the crowd involved. Instead, he's sitting on a stool and he's pulling us into his performance rather than clumsily projecting out. Do we assume that's Allison Iraheta providing capable and pleasing backing vocals? That was a good bounce-back performance from Alex and probably one of his better performances this season (definitely tonight's best). That was all him and he sold it. Maybe the second half of this show will turn things around?
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: Harry felt Alex struggled with the emotions of the song without giving in. Keith felt it was a perfect marriage of song and artist. “It was really a beautiful performance. Congratulations,” J-Lo says.
Singer: JENA IRENE
My Take: This was a tight turnaround for Jena. This is Amy Winehouse track is a good pick for Jena's voice and she's determined to keeping showing off her comfort on the stage. She doesn't quite prowl, but she makes good use of the space and honors each segment of the band. It's a very likable performance, without blowing me away especially. Jena has been smart about not wallowing in that Winehouse/Adele/Duffy “old soul” genre, but I think there were Winehouse songs that might have let her wail more.
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: Keith says that kind of song is strong for her and she was, once again, “killer.” J-Lo didn't love the tempo of the song for Jena. Harry asks Jena what she wants to be known as after this experience. The answer? “Jena.” Well… OK.
Singer: SAM WOOLF
Song: “How To Save a Life”
My Take: Sam's trying to make this sound like the Fray original and, as a result, he's pushing his vocals in a way that isn't natural for him at all. This was a song that was chosen without an understanding of what Sam does or doesn't do well. This vocal needs to soar. It does not. It's entirely Earthbound and one-dimensional. I think that's a dangerously bad performance and will probably make Sam vulnerable.
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: J-Lo thought the beginning was “a little bit shaky” but it got better and gave her goosies. Harry felt there were pitch issues and dynamic issues, but he liked the “cry” in Sam's voice at the end. Keith agrees with Jen.
Singer: JESSICA MEUSE
Song: “Summertime Sadness”
My Take: We've never seen that tattoo on Jessica's upper-thigh before. So… there's that? Remember the bleating that was gone in the first performance? It's back! I don't get this song request at all. Did somebody think that because Lana del Rey has dead eyes and Jessica too often has dead eyes that this would be a good match? The closing vibrato is unappealing and so at odds with the flow and vibe of the song. Maybe I just need for this “American Idol” season to be over.
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: Harry disagrees with me totally and says it was a perfect song for her. Oh well. He calls it a perfect marriage of voice and song. I disagree. Keith liked the deep part of her register that the song brought out. J-Lo wanted just a bit more from Jessica's body and the feeling, saying it left her “a tiny bit cold.”
Singer: CALEB JOHNSON
Song: “Still of the Night”
My Take: There we are. Much better. Whitesnake on “Idol.” I'd rather hear Caleb do “Here I Go Again,” but that's just my own Whitesnake preference. This is utterly satisfying and totally takes me back to rocking out in elementary school. The Aerosmith request to start the show was stupid and good have put Caleb in a little danger. This request was perfect and eases Caleb right out of danger. Yep. That rocked. And I can now pretend “Don't Wanna Miss a Thing” never happened.
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: “Awesome. Absolutely awesome, Caleb,” Keith says. “That's what we call bringing down the house,” J-Lo says. Harry makes a Cole Porter joke but adds, “You just can't sing that song any better than that.”
9:58 p.m. Alex and Caleb's second performances were my favorites of the night.
9:59 p.m. You know my feeling: Either Jessica or Sam has to go home. I think it's Sam's turn.
What do you think?