The four singers still taking center stage on American Idol had the daunting challenge of taking on three songs apiece this week, all reflecting aspects of love, as in breakups, dedications, and make-ups, all put in verse. Jennifer Lopez looked ready for love, dressed so pretty in pink, and Keith Urban looked dashing, too, in his T-shirt and suit jacket. Harry Connick, Jr. was showing his softer side, too, offering more reflective, counseling critiques, with hardly a word on pitch. The piano man did make note of Ryan Seacrest sporting scruff on his friendly, familiar face, but only in fun. It was time to proceed with performances that would bring the panel, well, two of the panel, to their feet, and even to a very special delivery!
The breakup songs
Caleb Johnson kicked off the night with Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name,” seeming to give the song a bit less power than his typical performance, the reason for which would come later, but he still put the total Caleb stamp on the classic, even singing straight to Keith as a lover scorned! Keith told the North Carolina rocker that he was once more, “killer,” remarking that “you took it to your own place.” Jennifer Lopez noted that she always felt she was at a rock concert whenever Caleb comes to the stage. Harry Connick, Jr. liked the performance, yet urged Caleb to develop his own arsenal of personal ad-libs to add dimension. Jessica Meuse went with Kelly Clarkson’s “Since You’ve Been Gone,” exuding more emotion than ever, not with a head bang, perhaps, but at least with an expressive head bob! She seemed to be in guitar girl glory, but the panel didn’t feel it. Harry Connick, Jr. said he knew she could perform “better than that,” looking to her next performances to redeem her. Jennifer Lopez praised that she felt the song fully, but also felt that the song didn’t complement Jessica’s voice. Keith Urban tried to give Jessica spark by acting like a fan, and said she needed to “pull out all the stops” for her coming performances. Alex Preston chose Alex Claire’s near-anthem, “Too Close,” and took it “unplugged.” Harry Connick, Jr. couldn’t say enough about how he loved the way Alex deconstructs songs, then builds them back his own way. “I dig that, Bro,” was his summation. Keith Urban challenged the New Hampshire lad to “take command” and play around with phrasing even more. Jennifer Lopez said that she wanted Alex to make his own moments, and that maybe a “drop-out” line or word would create a showstopper, prompting Harry and Keith to act out that direction, particularly Keith, who went under the desk! Jena Irene just graduated from high school this week, so her attention may have been divided, but it didn’t show, as she performed Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker.” Jena is a kindred spirit to the original rock queen– a petite, dark-haired lady who packs a punch that equals the towering music gods. Keith Urban said he didn’t feel Jena’s “full release” in the song, and encouraged her to be driven by feelings with the music. Jennifer Lopez was all praise for the performance, remarking that it was “perfectly controlled” and putting Jena in command. Harry Connick, Jr. still deemed it a “10 out of 10,” but agreed that feeling has to drive the notes, telling her to take off her high heels. Jennifer came to Jena’s defense on the shoes, and demonstrated how to “walk it with attitude” on stage.
The reason Caleb was saving all that energy on his first song was evident when he blazed through Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Travellin’ Band” like nobody’s business. He dedicated the song to his own band, rocking the rafters. Truly, it was a performance that at least equaled the original, and still remained all Caleb. Jennifer Lopez could only say “You killed it again. You’re going to be tough to beat.” Harry rightly praised how lucky Caleb was to have the caliber of band onstage with him that American Idol provides, and Caleb has never failed to give credit. Keith Urban credited Caleb, pointing out how the band “lit up” whenever Caleb performed. He said it only took a look at Randy Jackson’s expression to know what was happening! Jessica picked Pink’s iconic hit, “So What,” as her next selection, and she was a rockstar, coming out stomping and moving like never before. Harry Connick, Jr. praised the performance as “terrific,” but didn’t like the song, and Jennifer agreed, saying, “it’s not right for you,” Keith Urban, also concurring. Jessica herself felt it was her best performance to date, and her growing confidence was clear. Jena said she was about to “rage” just before performing Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” but some of Jena was lost in the translation. The panel seemed stiff watching her, but still loved her artistic changes. Keith like her changes in the melody. Jennifer said she was going toe to toe with Caleb, but seemed to “come out of the song” at the end. Harry critiqued it was an interesting choice, and “a nice job.” Alex went back to his old friend and mentor, Jason Mraz, choosing “I’m Yours” as his ultimate pledge of love. His girlfriend was even watching in the audience, so one would think that would heighten the mood. Jennifer Lopez said that the feeling was lost for her, though, because the performance “stayed too linear,” like a copy. Harry Connick, Jr. also noted only a single chord change as its only difference from the original. Keith Urban said he loved the “liberated” feel of the last eight bars. It has to be difficult for these very young performers to absorb how to become original artists, and still perform perfectly enough to take a competition.
The make-up songs
Caleb had big shoes to fill with Paul McCartney’s ageless “Maybe I’m Amazed,” and he took it to amazing places! Standing ovations came From Keith Urban and Jennifer Lopez, and Harry gave his highest praise ever, saying he loved how Caleb proved that he could sing softly, and called the performance “phenomenal.” Keith Urban said his wife was going crazy at home, hearing one of her favorite songs performed like that. Jennifer Lopez raved that it was Caleb’s best performance “since the beginning.” Not a bad way to end any three songs! Jessica put the invisible ink treatment to her other two performances, leaving only an amazing impression with Lady Gaga’s “You and I.” Every line was emotion- packed, and the song perfectly fit, as Keith Urban aptly noted, as well as Jennifer. Harry put it best, saying “the girl from Slapout killed it” even after two songs getting knocked, praising that it’s “this song that’s gonna be remembered.” Jena Irene centered herself on her piano bench for her final performance, Elvis Presley’s “I Can’t Help Falling in Love,” in tribute to her mother, radiant in pink, even in the dark. Her changes were so striking, yet so emotional and soft, anyone could’ve heard a pin drop, but no one dared move, except Jennifer Lopez, who rose from her seat at the close, personally delivering a kiss for the first time to any contestant. She kissed Jena softly on the cheek, beaming with smiles, saying that Jena’s version of that song was a “complete reinvention.” Harry Connick, Jr. commended the courage it took to do that “incredible” performance, and Keith Urban gave Jena a whole new name, “a musical platypus,” and called her performance “spellbinding.” Alex had a daunting task in following that performance, but he, too, took a subtle turn with Coldplay’s “Yellow.” Harry Connick, Jr. said “you needed that tonight,” as Keith Urban applauded Alex’s “poetic vulnerability.” Jennifer Lopez said that this was the performance from Alex that people will take home.
Praise and pitfalls aside, America has a very tough, life-changing vote to be revealed on Thursday!
American Idol broadcast, May 7, 2014 FOX Networks.