So tonight's “American Idol” theme is basically Deja Vu?
Wednesday's (April 2) “Idol” theme is officially Back to the Start and it apparently means that we're going to be hearing the Top 8 sing the songs they auditioned with. Are we really deep enough into this season to be getting repeat performances? Don't we want to hear singers do fresh things? I do. But maybe I'm wrong? To me, this feels like a theme that's intended to help sagging frontrunners like Sam Woolf, but what do I know.
Click through and we'll celebrate what is sure to be a filler-filled telecast together…
8:00 p.m. We've got eight performers and two hours. Are we going to get to duos this week? Trios? Something so that this isn't just wheel-spinning for a full two hours?
8:01 p.m. The filler starts with a tribute to funny moments from the judges in the auditions, but not new moments. “American Idol” clip show! And a baby picture of Ryan Seacrest.
8:04 p.m. It's a short white party dress for J-Lo tonight. Or is it a nightie?
8:05 p.m. The contestants are, indeed, doing duets in addition to singing the songs that earned them their Golden Tickets. Up first…
8:06 p.m. It's Jessica Meuse, who has to stand by the judges awkwardly as they remember their first meeting with her. She's a foot away from Harry and it's just plain weird.
Singer: JESSICA MEUSE
Song: “Blue-Eyed Lie”
My Take: No! Don't show clips of the performance we're about to watch. I hate this format tonight. Jessica is doing an original, which has been rearranged for the whole band. It's an intriguing choice. Initially, it's just Jessica and her guitar, doing the straight-armed playing that Keith liked so much when we auditioned. There's a lot less of the goat-voice on Jessica's original, opting instead for something that's a bit Grace Slick-lite. I'm not sure this is a great song, but it's a very decent song and Jessica's level of relaxation is vastly higher than on anything she's done for weeks. She smiles a couple times and emotes throughout. Straight-armed guitar-playing aside, she's pretty wooden, but that was a much, much better performance. I haven't seen that side of Jessica in a long time. Temporarily, I'm reminded of why she's here.
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: “That was a great start to the show,” Keith says. Keith mentions the Grace Slick comparison and also mentions that she's not moving from the waist down. Two apt comments from Keith! J-Lo says this was “really perfect,” claiming she can hear Jessica's album. Harry compares it to Cher or Nancy Sinatra from the '70s. Harry doesn't think Jessica needs to move if her intensity level is there.
Singer: CJ HARRIS
Song: “Soul Shine”
My Take: “Come on y'all,” CJ inexplicably urges the “Idol” audience. Dude. Don't encourage them. I'd start every performance on that stage with, “Shut up, y'all.” We're getting songs tonight that the singers feel confident on, songs they felt confident enough to bet their “Idol” futures on in the first place. That's probably why CJ is at least somewhat less sharp than he has been through the last month. This is a song he puts a lot of himself into, even if he seems to be playing The Old Blues Man at times. It's a part he pulls off well and you can see that there's real emotion at the end. This is a much better start to the episode than we had last week. CJ and Jessica would have been at the bottom for me last week and they've both already been solid tonight.
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: J-Lo suggests that CJ's soul was radiating from him. “You are special enough to be here and your voice is special enough to be here,” Harry says, confident that CJ has been taking their advice on the pitch problems. Keith thought CJ reined it in better than he did in his audition. A couple fans from the audience come up to hug CJ, as we then cut uncomfortably to CJ's emotional girlfriend.
Singer: JENA & ALEX
Song: “Just Give Me a Reason”
My Take: This is an interesting frontrunner duet pairing, plus they're doing a song that was actually designed as a duet. As a result… It's reasonably nice. Perhaps recognizing that this is a team performance, Jena's pipes are admirably controlled her, while Alex has a personality that's well-suited to be a complementary piece in a duet. Jena probably “won,” but neither is treating this like a “Voice” Battle, thankfully. I'm always relieved when things like that aren't painful and that wasn't painful at all. Yay.
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: We won't judge these. Whew.
Singer: SAM WOOLF
Song: “Lego House”
My Take: Sam looked like a real force in that first audition, but he's been such a cold fish that even the love of squealing tweenage girls hasn't kept him from making multiple Bottom 3 appearances. Can he recover whatever mojo he might have had? Sam's got a lamp-filled living room set around him. Did somebody mishear “Lego House” as “Lampo House”? This is a more strange-forward cover than his first audition, which was slowed down and quirky. This is an attempt to be poppier while still showcasing some of Sam's guitar musicality. And you can see he's trying to be livelier. It's only sometimes working, but I'd say that was only 75 percent deer-in-headlights, not 100 percent. It was totally listenable and pleasant as a vocal. I think it was the least interesting and exciting of tonight's solos so far, but it was a small step forward for Sam, which is probably all the producers wanted.
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: Judging after the commercial? Weird. Harry tells Sam to acknowledge the screaming people in the crowd, to pick somebody to look at and smile at them. They tried telling him that previously. It didn't work. Keith says Sam is getting better week-to-week. There isn't any evidence of this at all. J-Lo says we got “just a glimpse of the magic of Sam Woolf.”
Singer: JESSICA & CALEB
Song: “Stop Dragging My Heart Around”
My Take: These pairings have, so far, been smart. Rather than putting Jessica with one of the country guys, they matched her with Caleb, the wily veteran. Caleb's strength is the thing that Jessica is so inept at, namely showing personality. In this case, Caleb practically forces Jessica to perform with him. He flirts with her. He prowls her like some sort of animal. He engages Jessica in a way that she can't engage herself. Caleb was the better vocalist there, but that's the most human Jessica has ever been. She's all smiles. It's weird. And it's probably good for her.
Singer: MALAYA WATSON
Song: “Ain't No Way”
My Take: I'm disappointed that Malaya didn't have braces when she was born. Malaya's got a bunch of weird fashion choices going on tonight, but it's not my job to critique a 16-year-old girl's personal style. That lie the judges are telling about Sam “growing” each week? It's probably actually true of Malaya. Her only limitation is training and preparation and control, the things you gain by years of doing this, or by a couple months on “American Idol.” The key difference between this and her original performance is that she's smoother and more controlled and she seemed to know what she's doing. That was a really good vocal. It wasn't strained and it only occasionally felt forced. If she did this same song again in three weeks, there would be that much more improvement, I'd wager.
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: Keith says something about growth. J-Lo says that Malaya is “blossoming into a star.” “You're gonna run away with this competition,” J-Lo predicts. “You're doing everything right,” Harry says. Harry's only advice is to work on her runs, something about using all 12 notes and being in synch with the chords.
9:07 p.m. Early voting is in. It's fake, silly Facebook voting. Guess what? Old people like Jessica and young people like Sam and… oh, who cares. Who's next?
Singer: DEXTER ROBERTS
Song: “One Mississippi”
My Take: Dexter has opened up his vocal for this poorly staged performance that finds him perched uncomfortably atop a stool in the middle of a sea of fog. I really can't say if this is another respectable bit of country karaoke from Dexter, but I know that he's singing bigger tonight than he has in the past. His voice sounds richer and more capable of reaching and touching people in the back row. He needed a good performance. And he got one. Nobody is sucking, tonight! Guess what, kids? I think we're having a non-elimination episode tomorrow.
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: “I guess you showed us,” J-Lo says. Oh! It was Allison Iraheta backing Dexter up. She was good and he was good with her. I'm glad the show is attempting to boost her profile. “You sat on that stool and you sang the crap out of that song,” Harry says. Keith wants Dexter to concentrate just a bit more on the lyrics.
Singer: MALAYA & SAM
My Take: Pairing the cute kids together is another wise move. Can we just skip the Dexter/CJ duet, though? Actually, I want to skip this duet as well. It's more sweet than successful. Malaya and Sam both have nice voices, but neither is experienced enough to pull off the touch necessary for this song. The harmonies are, alas, sloppy and amateurish. Sam definitely felt more comfortable, while I think that was tough for Malaya for some reason.
Singer: JENA “GINA” IRENE
Song: “Rolling In The Deep”
My Take: Oh right! I'd forgotten Harry's speculation about Jena's speech impediment in that first audition. Ha. Now Haley Reinhart will always have my ideal “American Idol” version of “Rolling in the Deep,” but I love Jena's ballsy remixing of the first half of the song. The result is that I'm reflecting on how great Jena's voice is, rather than reflecting on her not being Adele or even Haley Reinhart. My sense is that this arrangement probably wouldn't have been anywhere near the juggernaut that Adele's original was. It's not nearly as catch. But whatever the arrangement is, it's still Jena's job to sing the notes and she sings the hell out of them. Every week, she gets closer and closer to putting this thing in the bag. There are people who can beat her, but Jena is the person who I have the easiest time imagining winning.
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: Harry now knows that Jena doesn't have a speech impediment. He thinks this competition is getting tough and that she did a great job. Keith appreciates that Jena never went into the Adele version and that she stayed true to her non-Adele version. J-Lo's advice is to try to win. Keith mocks her, but J-Lo says not everybody thinks that way and that Jena should try to destroy everybody else.
Singer: DEXTER & CJ
My Take: Yeah. This is OK and I like their Wincing Guitar Guys vibe, but… no. We got spoiled by those first two duets tonight, didn't we? The only think I know is that unlike the “Idol” audience, J-Lo has enough rhythm to clap with the beat. Just another reason to love J-Lo.
Singer: CALEB JOHNSON
Song: “Chain of Fools”
My Take: This means Alex got the Pimp Slot and since he sang an original for his audition, that's not a huge surprise. Caleb vows that he's going soulful/powerhouse tonight. Based on the stained glass backdrop, Caleb appears to be taking us to church, but the arrangement is much less soul and much more rock. That's splitting hairs, of course, because Caleb tears into the song the way he tears into everything. Allison Iraheta again! Maybe because Caleb was so great last week, this week my response is just a general smile and an appreciative nod. That's what he does. He does it well. He plays around with the band. He plays around with the backing quartet. And he bellows will welcome authority. Shine on, you crazy diamond. Etc.
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: “You are a blues warrior, you are a soul conquerer, you Caleb are a rock-n-roll Viking,” Keith says. J-Lo thinks Caleb brings it every week. Harry says it was a great performance, but he wants just once to see Caleb do something soft and quiet. I think Caleb would argue that that's what the “Skyfall” was for.
Singer: ALEX PRESTON
Song: “Fairy Tales”
My Take: Alex begged to play the violin as a child. Strange kid. The difference in complexity between Jessica's original and Alex's original is rather vast. With the advantage to Alex's song, if you're curious. This is a good song. I'm not sure it's got enough of a hook to be a success, but it's a nice blending of mature lyrics and musicality. Alex had had a couple straight weeks with very, very minor stumbles. This gets him back on-track. Last week, it was a two-person race with Caleb and Jena. This week? Three!
Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr Say: J-Lo noticed a new move from Alex. Harry was pleased. Keith noticed that the other Finalists were singing along with Alex. That's nice.
9:59 p.m. Older voters like Dexter. Younger voters like Jena. I'm glad Ryan at least admitted that it's meaningless to judge Alex's vote totals 10 seconds after he finished. Anywho…
10:00 p.m. That was the season's best episode so far. People were good. Jena, Alex and Caleb are my Top 3, as usual, with Malaya just a hair behind. If anybody's going home tomorrow, it's CJ, but I wouldn't be surprised to get a “Nobody's Going Home” surprise, either via the Save or just announced at the end instead of the Save. But CJ, Dexter and Sam would be my Bottom 3.