The American Idol trek to the top gets tougher once the Top 10 gets whittled down to a handful, and for a few weeks now, every judge on the panel has pleaded with talents to reach for “moments” within performances that demonstrate worthiness to captivate an audience and take the ultimate title. This week, some experienced those fleeting feats, and everybody felt love, whether from birthday wishes, heartfelt heartache from untimely passing, or just pure fan frenzy. Ryan Seacrest even got his own fan sign signed by the judges! Keith Urban didn’t come through on that promise to Harry to wear a suit, but Jennifer Lopez shimmered in burgundy and gold, and each one of the judges offered wisdom to help each singer stay in competition, and start their artistic careers. The challenge of the week was for each of the six to sing a rock ‘n roll selection, and then a country one, and seal their stage presence while nailing the song. Who took on that tall order with super talent?
Jena Irene did a whale of a job with her opener of Heart’s “Barracuda.” Keith Urban raved “what a great way to start the show,” yet he still wanted “more release,” which became his request of the night. Jennifer Lopez wanted more letting loose and going for it, too, and Jena related how nerve-racking it becomes to the first onstage. Harry Connick, Jr. thought it was “perfect” for Jena. In complete contrast, rising tween heartthrob band, R5, was camping it up in the audience. Sam Woolf celebrated his 18th birthday quietly with cupcakes, but he put on his most boisterous performance yet with Imagine Dragons’ “it’s Time,” naturally with his usual screams of support. Jennifer Lopez praised that she “got goosies” for the first time with Sam, and she loved his emphasis on the lyric of “never changin'” relating that she and her fellow judges want each of the talents to retain their uniqueness and grow into their future as artists. Harry Connick, Jr. felt Sam’s sense of commitment in the “perfect song,” and Keith Urban felt his own moments in the high note , and the last note, a hint of gravitas. CJ Harris went with the Lenny Kravitz rendition of “American Woman.” The song was definitely something different for the soulful country singer, and so was his look. The performance seemed not CJ-enough, and while Harry praised that he’s come to love the cry in CJ’s voice, this performance only came to “pretty good.” Keith Urban reflected that the song was “all attitude,” hard for a sweet, easy-going CJ to muster, but that he had to learn to pull it from somewhere, even someone outside his own life. Jennifer Lopez loved his look, but also conceded that he didn’t pull this one off. Alex Preston came further out of his quiet shell with Neon Trees’ “Animal,” and his fans loved it. Ryan even made overtures to Alex’s musical inspirations, which he gave as Jason Mraz and Jeff Buckley, to drop by the show. Keith Urban heard the band as being on top of Alex’s performance. Jennifer Lopez said there was “something missing,” and maybe the performance was “too contained.” Harry wondered if Alex wasn’t struggling to catch his breath, but was glad for the up-tempo song. Keith proposed that wearing socks might have been the detractor! Leave it to Caleb Johnson to leave at all on the stage, and he certainly owned it again with The Black Crowes’ “Sting Me.” He lapped up pitching lines with his backup singers like a puppy, and fell to the floor at the close with a playful head rub! His notes go places where no one else dares tread, and the stage is familiar territory for this birthday boy, who turned 23 this week. Jennifer Lopez gave a standing ovation, not just for Caleb’s singing, but for his stellar recovery of a rolling microphone, that was “the moment” of the night, and could not have been better, even if it was choreographed! Keith Urban said he was the “spackle” over that glaring hole, and Harry Connick, Jr. could do nothing but rave, until Randy Jackson had to interject “That’s rock ‘n roll!” from his chair! That was approved as a genuine moment “release” according to Keith, too. Jessica Meuse channeled Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane on “Somebody to Love,” and got rhythm this week by dancing to Jason Derulo. Keith Urban asked for yet more release, but Harry Connick, Jr. deemed Jessica “really strong.” Jennifer Lopez wanted more freedom and feeling from the song. Still, it’s clear that Jessica is taking all the panel’s guidance in, and showing that she’s in it for the long haul.
The country selections started with Sam Woolf doing Shania Twain’s “You’re Still the One.” Sam is really showing that he’s trying to get those connections, but cute only goes so far, and there’s not a well of deep, dripping emotion from the 18-year-old. Keith primarily urged Sam to “just relax” now he’s found an audience. Jennifer Lopez simply said “he’s so cute it’s crazy,” while Harry Connick, Jr. said that now that he’s “found the people,” he needs to work on not making everything “so perfect.” At first, it’s all about the sound, and then it’s about not making it all about the sound! Caleb Johnson went for Carrie Underwood’s Kara DioGuardi hit, “Undo It,” doing a better than commendable job, but hard to measure up to his “moment.” Jennifer Lopez said he did “a great job,” Keith Urban quipped that he “can’t wait to hear Caleb’s country song later,” and Harry Connick, Jr. remarked that it felt “forced.” Caleb never looks forced on any stage! Alex Preston had big shoes to fill with Willie Nelson’s “Always on My Mind,” but he truly did a nice job, and made his own memorable effort. Harry Connick, Jr. praised that he felt “lucky” to hear Alex’s rendition, but Keith Urban couldn’t hear enough heart ache. Jennifer Lopez thought it brought the perfect, beautiful balance between Alex’s signature stylings and the original melody. Jena Irene chose another Carrie Underwood classic, “So Small,” and made it her own, not trying to sound like the original, but still packing an emotional punch. Keith Urban called Jena “everything Idol,” meaning she embodied everything the show strives to bring out. Jennifer Lopez said that her voice was so lovely that “the band goes away.” Harry Connick, Jr. had a dissenting opinion, saying he wasn’t sure “where you were going” with the song. America is likely very sure that Jena won’t be going anywhere but up in the competition. CJ Harris chose Zac Brown Band’s “Whatever It Is,” and expectations were high, since this sort of song slides into CJ’s style, but both Keith and Harry noted the sharp singing, and advised about song selection. Jennifer Lopez said she was looking for “a tiny bit more,” too. CJ dedicated the song to a girl back home who passed too soon. No one can fault his giving heart. The vote will decide if CJ stays. Jessica Meuse closed the night with Dolly Parton’s love torn, “Jolene,” and Harry really “felt it,” and Jennifer saw emotion in the eyes. Keith Urban couldn’t cope with the dark edge in the arrangement. Both songs considered together, it was Jessica’s best night in a long while.
Thursday will reveal the five who will keep to their American Idol climb. Will America’s decision be fair or fickle?
American Idol broadcast, April 23, 2014 FOX Networks.