American Idol got a little bit country and a little bit rock 'n' roll and a little bit of Grumpy Cat last night for its top six performances. For the first time, each of the remaining contestants performed two songs a piece. The first half of the show? Marked by rock songs of all sorts, from Neon Trees to Heart. The second half was all country with two tracks by Idol alumna Carrie Underwood and a few comfy classics.
At this point now more than ever, the frontrunners for the real American Idol season 13 are clear. This game is either set to be won by Jena Irene, Caleb Johnson or Alex Preston, all of whom easily had the best performances of the night. Alex stole the show away with a soft rendition of Willie Nelson's "Always On My Mind" while Jena and Caleb each killed their country and rock songs with their balls-to-the-wall voices. Those kids can WAIL.
And then, there's the singers who are just inching evermore toward the door, namely Jessica Meuse and C.J. Harris, who were both so lifeless in their performances that I doubt their real drive to be on this show.
Regardless, this show was not "awful," no matter what that meme-able cat would try to say. Let's look at the good, the bad and the totally mediocre from this week's live performance show.
Alex Preston, "Always On My Mind": Sometimes it's those quiet ones that will really get you feeling some type of way, and boy, was that the case for Alex Preston's "Always On My Mind" (originally by Willie Nelson). A little smoke on the floor and a moon in the background gave the perfect bit of ambiance for this quiet little performance, but the small emotions of longing and regret really played through here. Alex was in his own little world for this performance, but he shared a bit of it with us, and it was quite special.
Jena Irene, "Barracuda": Damn, this girl can kill some classic rock. Jena Irene is well known at this point in the Idol game for her insane yelling ability, which oftentimes comes across as oversinging but can otherwise be seen as nothing but a thing of raw power. For the classic Heart song "Barracuda," Jena's yell was all about the latter, as she wailed on every note but still managed to wrangle in the insanity. Here, Jena also proved she would be a noteworthy rock frontwoman as she intermingled with the band's guitarist and even sang a rocking duet with one of the backup singers. Kudos, barracuda!
Jena Irene, "So Small": Sometimes it's hard to remember that Jena Irene was a wild card pick for season 13 and almost got sent home in the live shows' second week, because she is such a frontrunner right now (up there with Alex and Caleb). For country, she sang Carrie Underwood's "So Small," and her powerful voice played really well off of the original version. It'd still be nice to see Jena sing something quietly and have a truly subdued moment, but she balanced this performance really well, and I will make no light of the real emotion behind her here... Sometimes, Jena's voice almost sounds like a sob, and for heartbreaking songs like this one, it really plays to her advantage.
Caleb Johnson, "Undo It": While the rock half of this show was always going to be an obvious win for Caleb Johnson, the country half was less assured. So, he was smart to take on a big ol' revenge anthem and went for Carrie Underwood's 2009 track "Undo It." Of course, he gave a guitar heavy, rasp heavy performance and it worked a little better than it should have. It may have been nice for him to take it down a notch again, but Caleb was playing to his strengths, which is a good strategy at this point in the game.
Caleb Johnson, "Sting Me": Duh. Rock week was always going to be killer for Caleb Johnson. It's almost not even worth discussing, because of course he totally slayed the Black Crowes' "Sting Me." He slithered around the stage like an ol' pro, taking his microphone stand with him the whole way, as he is wont to do. He blasted out those notes like the rising rock god that he is, and yeah, he nailed it. For good measure, he left us with a big fat high note at the end. Because rock.
C.J. Harris, "Whatever It Is": Did C.J. Harris even attempt to not be flat for his version of Zac Brown Band's "Whatever It Is?" It's like he's not even trying to be on key. This normally gripping song was killed by the ever-present boredom of C.J., this time mixed with a bunch of wrong notes! Yay! But really, this was awful and so dully mid-tempo and even forgettable. I'm having that problem again of even thinking of anything to remember about this performance, and I finished watching it about 90 seconds ago... C.J. is basically doomed in this competition.
C.J. Harris, "American Woman": At the beginning of this season of American Idol, I really liked C.J. Harris, but with each week that's passed, it just seems like he is biding his time. So, for the rock part of the show, C.J. took on another classic rock hit with The Guess Who's "American Woman." He had the right sort of attitude to tackle this track but his vocals were just not quite there. C.J. was all over the place with his pitch and he also just couldn't seem to clear some sort of frog out of his throat. But, at least it wasn't super forgettable and boring, like his take on John Mayer last week. I still yawn just thinking about that.
Jessica Meuse, "Jolene": Jessica Meuse is capable of singing country, so why she closed out this episode of American Idol with a total rock spin on this Dolly Parton country classic is just beyond me. This song was also beyond Jessica's emotional abilities (like most songs) as she just sucked every ounce of pain and love and desperation from this song. Seriously. This girl is flatter than a Coca Cola left out overnight in the hot summer. I just want her to do something. Anything. Have any sort of emotion. I'm basically desperate for it, because I think Jessica has so much raw potential. It's just that she doesn't want to be on American Idol.
Jessica Meuse, "Somebody To Love": Jessica Meuse. You were in the bottom two last week. Isn't it about time you act like you even somewhat enjoy being on stage? Isn't it about time that you, like, show any emotion or interact with the audience or move around? No. OK. COOL. Yeah, Jessica is a great singer and singing Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody To Love" was a perfect choice for her vocally. She just was SO uninteresting to watch sing it. Sigh... her time is probably just as limited as C.J.'s unless she gets herself a more accessible personality.
Sam Woolf, "You're Still The One": UGH. This song is just so good. I forgot about that for a second. Sam Woolf's take on the classic Shania Twain love anthem "You're Still The One" was just so lovely. He sang it incredibly straightforwardly, but there were little ticks of happiness in him that it really did feel like he was singing to someone he was meant to be with for a long time. Did you catch that little smile? That little tip to the screaming girls? So nice.
Alex Preston, "Animal": Alex Preston made me not hate Neon Trees. Good for you, Alex Preston! He battled the band's "Animal" as a rocker, and it was actually really nice to see him do something not so serious and a little more upbeat. He was lighthearted enough, but the thing was... Alex stayed stationary at the microphone. It just would have been nice to see him move around the stage a little or interact with the audience or band, like Jena did with "Barracuda." Vocally, we all know Alex is going to be great by now, I just want a little more energy.
Sam Woolf, "It's Time": I still don't know how I feel about the judges using this season's lone save on Sam Woolf, but I will say this kid has vastly improved since almost getting the boot a few weeks ago. He really seems to be connecting with the audience and his vocals are a little stronger than before. That said, I don't think he has quite to confidence and presence yet to overcome all those drums from Imagine Dragons' "It's Time," the song he chose for the rock half of the show. Vocally, Sam was solid as a rock, keeping right in the middle of the pitches and even doing a few little flares and dips of his voice near the end. But he got a little lost in the epicness of the music. This was a totally solid take though, in the end.