“American Idol” is a journey and even if we haven't always been overjoyed with this season's journey, I feel like we're moving toward the correct destination.
Jena Irene, Caleb Johnson and Alex Preston have been, for me at least, the clear Top 3 for nearly two months. I honestly don't care what happens from here, because while I like Alex, Jena and Caleb, I don't have a passionate singular attachment to any one of them.
So… May the best singer win!
Click though and follow along for what I assume will be three performances apiece tonight…
8:02 p.m. ET. Oh right. This is the 500th episode of “American Idol.” So we're doing a full montage of “American Idol” through the years. We even got a brief momentary reminder that Ellen DeGeneres was an “American Idol” judge. And I think if you go back and look at that Season 1 reveal, you may have spotted Brian Dunkleman, but I'm not sure.
8:04 p.m. Or is tomorrow the 500th episode? Yeah. That one, I think. So it's not too late for “Idol” to bring back Dunkleman tomorrow night.
8:05 p.m. Uh-oh. Drama. Caleb has bronchitis. He has a small vocal chord hemorrhage. The doctor signs off, so I guess that's OK. And why waste time on Caleb when Jennifer Lopez is so, so, so shiny.
8:07 p.m. We will, indeed, get three performances apiece tonight. The themes: Randy Jackson's Choice, Judges' Picks and Hometown Choices.
8:08 p.m. We're getting a tease of the various small town arrivals. For those who were curious, my dad wasn't able to make it to any of Alex Preston's New Hampshire rallies over the weekend. Oh well.
8:08 p.m. Inexplicably we're starting with The Chainsmokers, performing their song “Selfie,” which shouldn't be confused with the horribly named ABC comedy. I don't know why this is happening on a Wednesday episode or why it's happening at the start of an episode or why it's happening at all. The judges are going around taking selfies and J-Lo is bopping around beautifully, but… NO.
Singer: CALEB JOHNSON
Song: “Never Tear Us Apart”
My Take: Randy wanted to choose a song for Caleb that was current and that would make Caleb seem contemporary. So he went with an INXS song from 1987. Well-played, Randy. I don't know if they intentionally gave Caleb a staging for a sick guy, but he's slumped in a chair for the first half of the performance and his eyes are, indeed, utterly dead. Honestly, I'd never know there was anything wrong with Caleb's voice, but I'd definitely know he was sick. Caleb is grinding out there. He's trying to raise his energy but he just doesn't have it in him tonight. The effort is totally game and I can only imagine that every high note is, as the song's title suggests, tearing him apart. That was heroically sluggish, I would say. I can tell he's a mess and he deserves all credit for doing as well as he did. But…
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: Keith thought Caleb was a pro and he worked right through it. “You on your worst night are better than people on their best night,” J-Lo says, shimmering and calling it “stellar.” Harry doesn't want Caleb to hurt himself. Harry urges Ryan and Caleb to have their post-performance conversation telepathically. Ryan hugs Caleb. Dude. He's GERMY. Stay away, Ryan. The show can't go on if Ryan's sick. He has no replacement. No, not even Dunkleman. Keith has a picture of Nicole Kidman from Cannes where her new film premiered to dreadful reviews. Our Guy Lodge gave it a D-. He was not the harshest critic out there. Sorry, Keith.
Singer: ALEX PRESTON
My Take: This is another, apter, attempt for Randy to help a finalist seem modern. Alex has a percussion circle here! It's like Blue Man Group only without the blue. Is Alex also sick? Or is he being overwhelmed by the arrangement? He seems distracted and one-note. Whoa! Hello, Drummer Alex! We knew he had all of these instruments in his back pocket, but this is a surprising one to see get an “Idol” showcase. And guess what? After a lifeless first half to the performance, the drumming seems to engage and energize Alex. The second half of the performance is dynamic and in all ways improved.
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: J-Lo felt that the percussion was Alex creating a moment. “It was a different Alex,” she says, after displaying her ability to rub her stomach and pat her head. Harry felt this song gave Alex everything he needed. The only catch for Harry was that he felt like he saw the wheels turning in Alex's head. I agree with Harry's suggestion that this performance will get better after he's done it a few more times. Keith thought the moment with the drums was the best part of the performance.
Singer: JENA IRENE
My Take: Jena is atop a perch in the middle of the stage. I can't tell what's about to come. Are there steps? Is she going to bungee jump? And why am I being completely distracted by the precariousness of her position? Ah. Steps. That was a little disappointing. There's a lot going on here and Jena is the third straight artist to take a long time to fully lock into her performance. The closing stretch is fantastic. The first stretch was a bore.
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: Harry says that the song was a high-risk/high-reward proposition with its big notes, but she hit all of the big notes. Keith likes that Jena has fun in addition to being a killer singer. Uh-oh. J-Lo has to play Negative Nancy. She cringes and braces for the boos. J-Lo says that the beginning was shaky and she never felt Jena loosen up. I certainly agree with the first part there. When Jena was on the platform, that just wasn't great. When she got down on the stage, she was in her zone. Randy agrees with J-Lo and with me, but he's impressed with Jena's growth throughout the competition.
8:46 p.m. Round One goes to… Nobody. Push. All three performances started lifeless. And all three found moments by the end. Alex's drumming was the most memorable part of Round One, but I also think his first half was the worst of the weak first-halves. I blame The Chainsmokers and “Idol” for thinking that was a good idea.
Singer: CALEB JOHNSON
My Take: I'm really worried for Caleb. The first song I said that I couldn't really hear the sickness in his voice, but as this one begins, Caleb sounds weak and wobbly and uncertain. Even as the song gets high, you can hear Caleb seeking for power on notes that he normally blows out without any effort. The guy who's performing right now just isn't good enough to advance. Do we pity him and support the body of work? Well, sure. But that was painful and unpleasant to listen to. I'm rooting for Caleb, because this is so hard for him.
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: “If you close your eyes, you really wouldn't know that,” Keith says. He's wrong. Keith has had vocal chord surgery, so he knows the feeling and insists that Caleb killed it. Keith also says this is the first time he's heard a Steve Perry vibe from Caleb. Really? Not in… the Journey performance? J-Lo wanted Caleb to just sing the emotion of the song, not to worry so much about calculating the notes. Harry wants to know what kind of record Caleb would make if he won. Caleb wants to do originals. OK. This was Harry's way of avoiding telling Caleb how sad he sounded.
Singer: ALEX PRESTON
My Take: Alex is a tough guy to pick songs for. You don't want to give him something too obvious, but if you give him something that's to far out of the box, it could be a disaster. This Rihanna choice runs the risk of the latter. Alex definitely Alexifies the song, in that I've never had to listen to the lyrics of this song before. Unfortunately, it's not a song that benefits from enunciated and molassesified lyrics. J-Lo may be getting goosies, but I'm watching a singer struggle to give profundity to a song that isn't hugely profound. I like what Alex is doing here. It's an amusing experiment, making an unmusical song musical. But it's not a song that rewarded that treatment, or it isn't rewarding the treatment as much as other things Alex has rearranged this season. Keith and J-Lo disagree with me.
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: “I knew that you would sing the heck out of that song,” J-Lo says, calling it “beautiful” and “all yours.” Harry also loved it, but he wants to know what kind of performer Alex is. Alex says that he likes jamming and he promises his concerts will be fun. Keith thought Alex owned the song.
9:18 p.m. Phil-Phil, Jennifer Nettles, Darius Rucker and John Legend are among the guests “Idol” has been able to dig up for the finale.
Singer: JENA IRENE
Song: “Heart Attack”
My Take: There are some rhythmic differences on this song from the things that Jena has been doing lately, in that it matters how you deliver the lyrics, because otherwise you can't hit the beats at the right time. Jena is not a singer who does lyrics very well. Her tendency is to accentuate the size of notes rather than the specific words she's singing. Last week's Elvis performance was one of the rare moments I felt her going for lyrical nuance. She handles the phrasing here without actually getting any of the words. Honestly, other than “heart attack,” did you get a single word Jena sang? I sure didn't. But she sang that decently, melodically.
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: Harry wants to know what Jena would be like in concert. It turns out she'd like a lot of instrumental breaks so she could rage with the crowd. Keith loves Jena's range. J-Lo thought this performance was loose and “great” and “awesome.” Demi Lovato is gonna perform at the finale as well.
9:30 p.m. Round 2? Dunno. I know Caleb lost. I can't tell you who won.
Singer: CALEB JOHNSON
Song: “Dazed and Confused”
My Take: Under normal circumstances, I'd like Ashville's choice for Caleb. Tonight? I'm worried. Has Caleb been saving up for this? He's much steadier in the beginning and when he hits the band accompaniment, you can can sense J-Lo and Keith's relief that he came as close to nailing it as he did. This is utterly by Caleb's standards, strained and shrill. But unlike the first two songs, he's got the fire back in his eyes. He's playing with the band. He's moving around. And he's got J-Lo standing and moving around. Whenever J-Lo starts dancing, the “Idol” director has the difficult choice of whether to ignore the performer and concentrate on J-Lo or to ignore the show's true money shot by focusing on a relatively unknown kid. For the most part, the camera is on J-Lo. Caleb closes by smashing the mic stand and shrieking with reckless abandon. He's correctly decided he'll have a week to recover after this one and there's no percentage in leaving any gas in the tank. You can see how much that took out of him, but the effort he put into that performance was not unimpressive at all. Good for Caleb to bounce back after that second song.
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: Keith refers to Caleb's moment of “miraculous healing.” “That was a true 'Idol' moment,” J-Lo says. Harry thinks the show is about taking advantage of opportunities and Caleb took full advantage.
Singer: ALEX PRESTON
Song: “Story of My Life”
My Take: I'm shocked that in an open vote, Alex would get to re-cover One Direction. Alex isn't the sort of guy to rest on musical laurels and this is a new arrangement from the one he did the first time. It's not as melodic as the first arrangement and it puts more of the focus on Alex's guitar-playing. I think the pace has been accelerated and, in the process, it lost some of the emotion it had the first time around. That wasn't bad, but I also think it had to be better.
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: “It's hard, because all of you are amazing,” J-Lo says. Harry felt it was “another sorta classic Alex performance.” Keith felt like Alex peaked with his previous song, but that his averages tonight were strong.
Singer: JENA IRENE
My Take: OK. Jena's locking this down. When Jena gets on the piano, she says, “Get out of my way.” The piano slows things down and I questioned Jena's commitment to lyrics last song, but she's enunciating and massaging words here. Yeah. I'm reasonably confident Jena will be able to ride this performance into the Top 2 and that she deserves to. Good stuff, Jena. This was the only one of the three repeat performances that improved on the first time we heard it this season.
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: Harry also doesn't envy the voters. Keith says Jena's progression this season has been mind-blowing. “It's so easy for you and I just feel like you're going to be so hard to beat.
9:57 p.m. Randy and Ryan are having a cake to celebrate 500 episodes. Please let Dunkleman jump out of the cake? Nope.
9:58 p.m. No matter whether you take a season-long worldview or you just judge on tonight's performance, Jena Irene has earned her place in the finale. Judging on the season as a whole? Caleb would be my pick to join her Judging on tonight's performances cumulatively? Alex probably deserves that finale place. But judging on the last performance alone tonight? Caleb. So… I don't know.