Wednesday night, American Idol reached Episode No. 500. The show pulled out all sorts of stops to celebrate, even bringing out a cake at the end. Winners from across the show’s 13 seasons sent in video shout-outs, and The Chainsmokers started off the show so everybody could take a #Selfie.
The show had plenty of late-season plot twists, too. Alex Preston was sick over the weekend, but Caleb Preston had all but lost his voice at showtime. The producers brought out the show’s physician, Dr. Shaun Nasseri, to explain that Johnson was suffering from bronchitis and sinusitis and had a minor vocal-cord hemorrhage. “He’s like a runner who’s running with a badly bruised ankle, but I think he’s going to do fantastic.” Ryan Seacrest kept his banter with Johnson to a minimum, at one point letting him answer questions by writing on sheets of posterboard.
The night broke down into three rounds: One new song picked by mentor Randy Jackson, one new one by the judges and one early-season favorite selected by the hometown fans.
Seacrest also announced the first pairings for next week’s finale show, which will take place Wednesday (the performance showdown will air Tuesday). They include: C.J. Harris and Darius Rucker, Jessica Meuse and Jennifer Nettles, Malaya Watson and John Legend, Sam Woolf and Phillip Phillips and Demi Lovato with the female finalists.
As far as the performances, Preston probably won the night, with Irene finishing strong. But one big question remains: How much sympathy vote will Johnson get?
RANDY JACKSON’S CHOICE
Caleb Johnson, Never Tear Us Apart (INXS)
Jackson said he wanted to give Johnson something that would help him sound contemporary and hint at the kind of artist he could become. So he goes with a 27-year-old INXS tune, which does take Johnson outside his usual stylistic choices. “It gives you a chance to be bluesy,” Jackson tells him. “It gives you a chance to show your voice and be range-y.”
Johnson begins the song sitting in a throne-like high-back chair, and he struggles a bit at the upper end of his range. But if Seacrest hadn’t said anything at the top of the show, few people would have noticed. He’s a pro, that’s for sure.
Keith Urban tells Jackson he made a great call. “I could hear the voice in certain spots, but you’re such a pro, you worked right through it.”
“You on your worst night are better than people on their best night,” Jennifer Lopez says, adding that she wants Johnson to pace himself. Harry Connick Jr. liked Jackson’s choice because it made him work within confines. He’s mostly concerned that Johnson not hurt himself tonight. Grade: B+
Alex Preston, Pompeii (Bastille)
Jackson considered Jeff Buckley and Calvin Harris before settling on Bastille’s current hit. “I think it’s modern, and I think, in an uptempo way, this is the kind of band song you might do,” Jackson tells him.
Preston’s song definitely sounds more contemporary than Johnson’s did. But the tech crew screws him when he switches from the guitar to the drum next to him — his mic isn’t on. He gamely keeps going, delivering a solid performance.
“We’ve been telling you to create moments,” Lopez tells him. And he had her from the moment he picked up the drumsticks, then went over to the crowd. “It gave you everything you needed at this point in the competition,” Connick tells him, adding that he thinks he should do the song on the road. Urban agrees: “There were a few shaky bits, because you’ve got to remember so many things right now.” Despite that, “the coolest moment was when you went to that drum and sang.” Grade: B+
Jena Irene, Titanium (David Guetta featuring Sia)
Irene reminds Jackson of “a little bit Paramore and a little bit EDM,” he says, which led him to Titanium. Irene says she actually considered performing the song last week: “We’re on the same page.”
Irene looks fantastic as the song begins, standing high above the stage on a small platform and looking vaguely metallic with shiny fabric draped from her waist. Her vocal performance doesn’t bear up against the look. She starts sounding flat and seems to struggle with her pitch at various spots throughout the number. Nice finish, though. Will the judges call her out?
Well, not all of them. “Another great song choice from Randy,” Connick says. “Everybody just wants to hear if you can hit those high notes. … You killed all of those important notes.” Urban says, “You’ve got such a great balance of being a killer stealth singer and performer, but you have fun.” Lopez is the one who’s going to call her on the problems, and Irene can tell. “Oh, no,” she says. “Yeah,” Lopez tells her. Acknowledging that Irene hit the high notes, Lopez says, “In the beginning for me, it felt a little shaky, and I never felt you loosen up.” She thinks Irene will murder the judges’ choice, though. Wow — how often does Lopez criticize a singer when Urban and Connick rave? Props to her. Grade: B
Caleb Johnson, Demons (Imagine Dragons)
Johnson sang an Imagine Dragons number during the Hollywood Round, so the judges decided to return to their catalog. And it might have been a great choice, if Johnson’s voice weren’t fading fast.
Here’s where his voice problems hit him hard, and the look on Johnson’s face shows he knows it. All he can do is push through it and pray he has something left for his own song.
“I’m so feeling for you,” says Urban, who has had vocal-cord surgery, “but if you close your eyes, you really wouldn’t know it. … You killed that song, and it’s the first time I noticed a Steve Perry vibe in your voice.” Lopez tells him that he’ll recover, and that he’ll need to rely on other things besides the quality of his voice to get through: “You started singing the emotion of the song, you started singing the lyrics of the song, and you hit them effortlessly.” Connick realizes a critique is both moot and brutal. He wants to know what kind of record Johnson might make. Johnson replies, “really just a powerful, soulful record, heavily influenced by a lot of older bands.” Grade: C
Alex Preston, Stay (Rihanna feat Mikky Ekko)
For Preston, the judges wanted to give him a song that he could really reinterpret. And Preston pulls it way, way back, beginning with just his acoustic guitar and slowly adding a string quartet and a basic drum rhythm. It’s simple but extremely effective, the first excellent performance of the night.
Lopez is smiling big. “I knew that you would sing the heck out of that song. Oh, my God. It was beautiful.” They forgot about Rihanna, she says: “It was yours.” Connick wonders what it would be like to see him in concert — would he talk to the audience or just sing song after song? Preston says that at his hometown concert, he and the band did extended jams. “That’s what it’s all about, man,” he says. Urban likes the artistic choices he makes. The microphone’s pop shield may smell like parrot breath, but he loved Preston’s performance. Grade: A
Jena Irene, Heart Attack (Demi Lovato)
Like Irene’s first performance, Heart Attack is a bit of a mixed bag, though it’s hard to tell whether it’s a problem in the mix or if Irene just has a hard time cutting through the band’s sound when she’s in her lower register. I’ll defer to the judges on this one.
Connick thinks she finds a way to be original even when the melody doesn’t allow for much of that sort of thing. He wonders what she’d be like in concert, and Irene says she’d have a lot of instrumental breaks “so I could just rage with the crowd.” Urban thinks she’s “bullet” with her range and her pitch and her phrasing. He likes when she’s with the band onstage. Lopez thinks she felt loose and free: “That was a great song for you, if we do say so ourselves.” Grade: B+
Caleb Johnson, Dazed and Confused (Led Zeppelin)
The hometown crowd picked an early-season highlight for Johnson to revisit. He feeds off the energy of having the band onstage and singing a familiar song. The voice hasn’t quite come back, but Johnson has some misdirection in mind. He finishes by smashing the mic stand repeatedly against the stage and then just throws the mic to the floor. Urban and Lopez, who have been standing the whole time, go bonkers.
“If ever there was, like, a complete moment of miraculous healing, that would have been it,” Urban says once the audience clamor subsides. “I just want to throw stuff.” Lopez says, “That was a true Idol moment. That was ridiculous.” Connick praises Johnson for taking advantage of the situation. “That was absolutely fantastic.” Grade: A
Alex Preston, Story of My Life (One Direction)
Preston’s hometown will have done right by him if whatever part of the One Direction crowd still watches Idol gets the vote out for him. With Johnson’s voice trouble, he’s been given a golden chance to make next week’s finale. It’s not his best performance of the night; in fact, it’s probably the least impressive. But it’s a very likable song, so it shouldn’t hurt him any. Might even help, voting-wise. He’s certainly had remarkably contemporary song selection in all three rounds.
Lopez thinks all the singers have been amazing tonight and that Preston did a great job. Connick praises the hometown’s song choice: “I think it was very strong, nice job.” Urban found it a step down from Preston’s version of Stay, but he’s not complaining overall. Grade: B
Jena Irene, Creep (Radiohead)
Farmington, Mich., helps Irene by giving her a chance to return to what’s arguably her best moment of the season. And, if anything, she does an even better job this time than she did back in the week of the top seven.
“There’s so many ways you take the stage, Jena,” Connick says, “and something happens — you’ve heard this a million times — when you sit behind the piano. … It’s a great way to end the show.” Urban disagrees with the “I don’t belong here” lyric — “You so belong here.” He’s impressed with the way she has gravitated toward the production aspect of the performance. Lopez says, “I think you’re going to be so hard to beat.” Grade: A