Welcome to the first half of the “American Idol” finale.
It's Caleb Johnson versus Jena Irene for the big prize, whatever that happens to be at this point in “Idol” history.
On Tuesday (May 20), each of the finalists will sing thrice.
On Wednesday, over two hours, we'll be treated to guest stars and group performances until we want to tear our collective hair out. Then somebody will win. And then I'll go recap the “Survivor: Cagayan” finale, hoping that Twitter doesn't ruin it for me first.
Let's get down to our Tuesday business…
8:00 p.m. ET. Ryan Seacrest is tuxed up for our first night at the Nokia Theatre.
8:01 p.m. Keith is keeping it casual, but Harry is also wearing a tuxedo. J-Lo has a black leather dress with a sparkling top. As she would
8:03 p.m. Caleb is wearing a lot of fringe. Jena is wearing gold stretchy pants. “You guys are amazing,” Caleb says. “I never thought I was gonna be at this stage in the competition or in front of all of these amazing people,” Jena says.
8:04 p.m. Jena asked Caleb to Fake “Idol” Prom. They danced. They took pictures. And then they realized that they were competing and blah blah blah.
8:05 p.m. Our three rounds are: Simon Fuller's Choice, Favorite Picks From The Season and First Singles. Jena won the coin toss and, not understanding basic strategy, elected to go first.
8:06 p.m. That means it's time for…
Singer: JENA IRENE
Song: “Dog Days Are Over”
My Take: A boring and predictable song choice from Mr. Fuller. Don't we already know how Jena sounds doing Florence and the Machine. The answer is: Just fine, but familiar. Jena sounds a little rough this week. Did she get Caleb's cold? Has she been over-rehearsing. It's not bad. In fact, there are interesting little twists that she's adding to the vocal, some phrasing choices that seem a little fresh. The stage stuff? It's more of the same — A little strutting, that one raised arm, etc. Finale night isn't the time to take big risks, is it? Probably not. That was just what you would expect it to be..
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: Keith praises Simon for his song choice. “The way that own that show is so good,” Keith says. He calls her for a few issues in breath control. Maybe that's what I was hearing. J-Lo says the energy in the room is electric. J-Lo thought Jena “sounded really good,” but had some initial “heebie-jeebies.” Harry thought it was fantastic and also praises her stage-craft.
Singer: CALEB JOHNSON
Song: “Dream On”
My Take: Again, a logical song choice by Simon Fuller. It feels like Caleb has already sung this Aerosmith favorite. And if he hasn't? It certainly isn't harmful to hear him do it. The beginning is a little staid, with Caleb letting the string section — not just a piddly quartet — carry the melody. Then on the chorus, Caleb does his thing, though he's mostly reminding me of how remarkable Steven Tyler's high voice is. Caleb absolutely slays the closing high upper-register part that closes the song, bringing the judges to their feet. It's what we were waiting for. He couldn't have done it last week and he nails it this week. For that, we're supposed to ignore that he's an octave lower than Tyler for the rest of the song. Tyler's dynamic range is sacrificed a little, but the crowd still loves it.
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: “That's what you've gotta do. This is the finale. This is it,” a very pleased J-Lo says, praising Caleb for seizing the moment and carping the diem. “That song, that may have did it right there,” J-Lo says. Harry wanted Caleb to have the same focus at the beginning as Caleb always shows at the end. “You literally had me at the opening phrase of that song,” Keith says, disagreeing with Harry.
8:20 p.m. Round One comfortably goes to Caleb. It's not a knockdown, but it's a clean 10-9 round.
Singer: JENA IRENE
Song: “Can't Help Falling In Love”
My Take: Oh, diminishing returns. There's just no way to do this one a second time and capture the essential emotion and energy that made the first one so special. Or maybe you can. What Jena can't do here is surprise us. That was beautifully sung. I wonder if Caleb will have the guts to change up his performance in Round 2, give us something we haven't necessarily heard.
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: Harry can hear the influences on the song. Is he trying to get her to credit Ingrid Michaelson? Keith calls Jena a trailblazer and a pioneer and says that she influenced somebody else? I'm not sure what that's referring to. J-Lo got the goosies.
Singer: CALEB JOHNSON
Song: “Maybe I'm Amazed”
My Take: Interesting that both singers got rock numbers to start and then had ballads singled out as their best performances of the season. We like watching both Jena and Caleb wail, but we also like it when they're changing things up. I think that Caleb is making the second half of this one a little more Caleb-y than it was the first time around? Dunno. Maybe I'm misremembering? Lots of gymnastics at the end, but was it perhaps a bit shallow? Did he he take away from the punch by trying to show off? I wonder.
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: Keith warns Caleb about getting caught up in the vocal gymnastics and losing track of the emotion. J-Lo says it's Caleb's soul that gives her the goosies and this performance didn't have enough heart. “These are two heavyweight fighters,” Harry says. All three judges agree that Caleb won the first round, while Harry and J-Lo give the second round to Jena. Keith scores the second round a tie. Which he can't do. Don't be a wimp, Keith.
9:42 p.m. I have to agree with J-Lo and Harry: Second round to Jena, again it's 10-9. So it's now a tie going into the last round with two singles that have been available on iTunes, but that I've avoided listening to.
Singer: JENA IRENE
Song: “We Are One”
My Take: I really don't think it's notable that Jena is “the first female Wild Card pick” to make the Finals. This sounds like with a little rearrangement it could almost be reggae. Changing the pulsing backing melody to a steel-drum and let the magic happen? It's not a great song. It puts Jena's voice in one place and doesn't give it anywhere else to go. And it doesn't give her any time to breathe. She opens it up a little bit at the end, but it's still better suited for the closing credits of a Disney Channel movie than any mainstream popularity. I don't think that was a good match with Jena's range or with her attitude. There's a darkness to Jena. She's not Goth, but she's a wee bit moody. There's no mood to that performance. It's bland and up-beat. If Caleb has a good single, that was an easily beatable performance, through no fault of Jena's.
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: J-Lo thought it suited her. Harry thought the song sounded just as good as in the studio. Keith thinks the song is perfect for Jena. Disagree.
Singer: CALEB JOHNSON
Song: “As Long As You Love Me”
My Take: Literally every lyric in this song is a cliche. Every. Single. One. This is a reminder that, for the most part, songwriters don't do songs these days that play to the strengths we know Caleb has. And it's a reminder of just how hard it's gonna be for Caleb to get enough good new songs to record a worthwhile album. This is so lackluster. Remember when Phillip Phillips actually got a great first single? How did that even happen? It remains one of the great “Idol” miracles. As with Jena's single, Caleb's single is pablum elevated slightly by a talented vocalist. I think Caleb had better vocals, but on a worse song.
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: Harry and Keith agree that America will have a tough choice. “I felt that you put it all out there and you went for it,” J-Lo says. Note that all three judges had nice things to say about Jena's song. Nobody had nice things to say about Caleb's song.
8:59 p.m. I give Jena the SLIMMEST of victories in Round 3 and, as a result, I've got her winning the night.
8:59 p.m. Why are Jena and Caleb badly singing “Breakaway” in front of a video montage? They're both confused by the melody here. This is not the way this show should have ended.
9:00 p.m. So yeah. MUTE. Jena won the night barely for me. And I'm predicting that she wins a SLIM victory on Wednesday night. But we'll find out tomorrow!
What'd you think? Who wins tomorrow?