Credit: Michael Becker / FOX
American Idol went home this week, forcing its remaining 12 contestants to power their way through songs that reminded them of their humble beginnings. Results were, as they say, mixed, and much of the show was given over to the judges (well, mostly Harry Connick, Jr. and Keith Urban) telling the singers exactly how they needed to improve in order to make it to the seemingly far-off May finish line. It’s still early in the season, though, and having too many good contestants at this point is actually not good for the show’s dramatic development! Better to watch these rough-hewn kids from all over this fine nation’s map blossom into stahhhs, baby, stahhs.
This week’s contestants, in order of personal preference:
1. Dexter Roberts. He’s kind of a bashful spaz, but damn if his version of Montgomery Gentry’s “Lucky Man” wasn’t the night’s top performance. It was simple and lovely, communicating the appeal of the song and the singer simultaneously. Dude seriously needs some media training, though.
2. Malaya Watson. In a startling rebound from last week’s overly showboaty performance that landed her in the bottom three, Malaya returned to the piano and to her roots, singing the Kirk Franklin-penned “Take Me To The King.” (Yes, that King.) While her braces caused her a little bit of enunciation difficulty, her tone was stunning (Jennifer Lopez claimed to get her first “goosies” of the season) and the overall performance doubled as a reminder that Malaya is much more than a tuba-wielding geek girl.
3. Caleb Johnson. As the singer who, after so many years, brought the crypto-libertarian Canadian trio Rush to American Idol, Caleb deserves a place in the show’s official history books—never mind that even though he told Ryan Seacrest that Rush was his favorite band of all time, his version of “Working Man” once again revealed that his true musical idol is Whitesnake frontman David Coverdale. (Note to Jimmy Page: if you have a hankering to do another Coverdale/Page-type project again but don’t want to shell out the cash for the Snake Charmer, this is the dude to get in touch with.)
But don’t take my word for it. What did the true Rush believers at Counterparts, the official Rush message board, think?
“40 years later and their debut album gets them a commercial for one of the largest retailers and a spot on one of the top TV shows. Amazing!”
“That was a good cover. The musicians were kicking ass and the singer was great with strong pipes. A country artist and a pop artist headbanging(sort of). He also managed to get high praise from Jennifer ‘dat ass’ Lopez.”
“Hate to say it, but that singer and the band sounded better than the real thing.”
“Mmmmm, not so fast my friend. That dude sounds better today than Geddy does today, and probably has a more listenable voice than Geddy did in his prime. But, Rickey Minor and company are good, but they most definitely do not sound better than Rush.”
So: mixed-to-positive results! I wonder how many Rush fans voted for Caleb sight unseen just on principle.
4. CJ Harris. A perfectly fine version of “Waiting On The World To Change” that also doubled as a reminder that racism still exists. The night was dominated by Connick discussing when it was OK for singers to go sharp—he was basically wielding a stank-o-meter of sorts, saying getting carried away in a song’s emotion and going off-pitch was preferable to going off-pitch because of too much screwed-up concentration. This is true! CJ’s performance was sharp, but the acceptable kind, because he was really feeling his song. (Which, by the way, isn’t a rewrite of “A Change Is Gonna Come” or “People Get Ready” as much as it is one of “Shake You Down.”)
5. Alex Preston. He picked Gavin DeGraw’s “I Don’t Wanna Be” because the two of them played a show together in Boston last year. (DeGraw has something of a history with the adult-contemporary station up here, which only underscores Alex’s decision to have him represent “home.”) The arrangement was a bit weird—think the verses of Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So,” only slightly more herky-jerky—and his pitch wavered from time to time, but he was one of the better performers on a night filled with stumbles.
6. Majesty Rose. Majesty closed the show with Coldplay’s “Fix You,” and it started off delicately, showcasing her ability to give even Chris Martin’s pap a gentle punch. Unfortunately, she tried to have a Big! Idol! Moment! on the chorus, and that resulted in her hitting a note so off, it conjured up memories of Danny Gokey. That she placed so high is a testament to the overall strength of her performance.
7. Ben Briley. I didn’t really connect with the small-town-big-family boy’s version of David Nail’s “Turning Home”; the most memorable thing about his performance was the way Ryan Seacrest brought out deviled eggs (his favorite food) afterward.
8. Jess Meuse. The pink streaks in the hair of Slapout, Alabama’s biggest pop star are growing by the week! Jess performed Dido’s “White Flag,” which is apparently a staple of her sets back home—and judging by the nasal performance she gave, it’s a song that’s been in her repetoire for a long time, and one that she hasn’t refined much since she actually learned how to, you know, sing. I’m still rooting for Jess, but I hope she goes back to singing from her gut next week.
9. Jena Irene. The thing about Jena is that she has a huge, gigantic voice—think Hayley Williams with a bit more of a rounded low end, or Amy Lee with added yelp power. Finding songs that fit this vocal aesthetic is not an easy thing to do, and KT Tunstall’s upbeat “Suddenly I See” (which she allegedly picked because she sings it in the car with her mom) did not do her voice any favors. Her voice wobbled all over the place as it gamely attempted to fit inside the song, making for a big happy-faced mess.
10. Sam Woolf. The token teen idol was placed amidst a crowd of adoring ladies for his performance of Blind Pilot’s “Just One.” I appreciated the stripped-down nature of his performance, and it sounded good, but there’s just something about this kid that makes me feel like I’m watching him through a one-way mirror. I doubt this will stop him from being a member of the season’s Top Three, however.
11. MK Nobilette. MK and her family of stepmoms hail from San Francisco, and so she decided to sing a song by the pride of the Bay Area… Train. But the thing about “Drops Of Jupiter”—for which I have a small affinity, because it’s like a millennial-absurdist rewrite of “She Talks To Angels”—is that it works, Tae-Bo references and all, because of the goofy smarm possessed by Train singer Pat Monahan. MK’s whole appeal is antithetical to that; she has a rich, syrupy voice underneath her shy exterior, and if she can properly harness the divide between those two seemingly opposing forces she can be compelling in an “Elliott Smith on the Oscars” kind of way.
12. Emily Piriz. Singing a song originally by one of the judges is always a risk, and Emily took it, picking Jennifer Lopez’s “Let’s Get Loud” as a tribute to her Floridian roots. But how do you sing “Let’s Get Loud” and then get swallowed up by the band? She looked like she was having fun on stage, at least.
MY VOTES: Keeping in mind that I’m doing this in a semi-strategic way, because the female contestants look to once again be at a disadvantage poll-wise: 50 for Malaya and CJ; 30 for Alex and Majesty; 25 for Jess and Dexter; 21 via Google and 12 via text for Caleb (because get it?).
THE BOTTOM THREE: Another all-lady bottom three—this time, Jena, MK, and Emily got sent to the stools. Will next week bring the first Man In Peril of the season?
WHO WENT HOME: Emily, whose lackluster version of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals’ “Stars” wasn’t enough to get her the save from the judges.
FILLER ALERT: Idol is still in hour-long results show mode (half-hour episodes begin later this month! COME ON SPRING) and the first segment of Thursday’s show was more like a therapy session, with the contestants being lectured by Connick on exactly why he was being such a hard-ass about things like, you know, pitch and enunciation. He pointed out to them that he wasn’t there to mentor (a role that he had been very good in during years past!) but to judge, and it was a somewhat tooth-pulling segment in which . There were a lot of complaints on Twitter about this week’s episode feeling pretty green, and I feel like that’s a bit of a selective-memory thing—I seem to remember Top 12 weeks from years past, even good years past like the Kris Allen/Adam Lambert-headlined Season 8, having their rough spots. Things will really start to gel, and the contestants will feel comfortable, in due time.
Meanwhile, Phillip Phillips—the Season 11 winner who proved to the world that Idol winners could be pop stars again—came back with his new single, a Mumford-lite jam about fire that had all the elements for raging international success: strummed guitars, wordless choruses, life-or-death lyrics. When it was over I felt like engaging in some sort of commerce, preferably while standing in the middle of a festival’s field. So, good job?
SPEAKING OF NEXT WEEK: The theme is the grandly titled “Songs From The Cinema.” Oooh. (Can someone encourage MK to sing “Miss Misery”??)
Maura Johnston is a writer living in Boston. She’s on Twitter - @maura