Is 'American Idol' waving a 'White Flag' with these mediocre Top 12 performances?

By Annie Barrett
March 06, 2014 at 06:31 AM EST
Fox
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The judges are settling into their grooves: Keith Urban is like a hungry fly on a pat of buttah, excitedly reinventing ways to describe how he felt something, Jennifer Lopez cuts to the heart of the matter in a kind way (and may whip her hair if you challenge her/plan it ahead of time), and Harry Connick Jr. brutally cores out the heart of the matter in a way that could potentially destroy a contestant’s confident mindset. I’m so glad they’re not just blindly agreeing with each other. Their conflict in the face of placid mediocrity is somewhat working, even if it’s obvious they don’t even really believe what they’re saying. Because the bottom line is that these Top 12 contestants are JUST NOT GREAT.

How do you move past that? Aside from the jittery antics of Ryan Seacrest, my favorite part of American Idol is the potential for magic — and when I say magic I do NOT mean a giant computer screen that’ll tell me who’s trending on Facebook in groups of six — moments after the sixth person has performed! That is just aggressively useless and misleading. Even CNN would scoff at this bizarre incorporation of social media.

Okay. Slap out of it, Barrett! Let’s get to the down-“Home” performances:

Jena Irene, KT Tunstall’s “Suddenly I See”: For me, the best part about Jena’s segment was when she spoke of her supportive family and gushed, “Thank God there’s phones!” True all-encompassing statement right there. She showed she can wriggle around onstage and engage the audience with this one, but it was not the best song choice and the whole production, with pics of Jena’s face flying by on the “sunny field” backdrop from Windows 98, looked like take five (of 46) of a commercial. A lot of Jena’s notes here just disintegrated into the ether; I prefer when she showcases more strength.

Sometimes Harry the Contrarian takes it too far, right? “You should be climbing out on the ceiling with that song,” he suggested to Jena. Nope! What a liar. NO WAY would Harry ever want to watch and/or listen to that. None of us would! It’s just something to say, I guess. Someone wanted him to say that. Yuck.

Alex Preston, Gavin DeGraw’s “I Don’t Want to Be”: Alex still presents British to me, but less so this week as those royal blue cropped pants seem like something Ron Burgundy would wear in the present day. In a nightmare. I am really not into cropped pants; they give me disturbing flashbacks to a childhood of pants that were always too short not on purpose. Pants these days seem so highly evolved; why not go for the whole leg? They can do that now! Evolution. And yet… I suspect deep down that cropped pants may look better on Alex than normal pants would. But we don’t know for sure. I’ve had a pretty rough 30 seconds here; thanks for taking this magic-devoid Idol journey with me.

J. Lo liked Alex’s rolled-up pants (witch!) but thought the arrangement overwhelmed his performance. Harry agreed, while Keith got intriguingly metaphysical with things — the song was kind of around Alex instead of him being at the center of it. I think Alex was a lot more confident and commanding in his own way than the judges credited him for, but will admit it didn’t quite dazzle as a TV performance. I liked that he played an electric guitar this time; this seemed to be all that mattered to a blissfully unfazed Alex.

Can we put Alex’s “This is your gentle, sweet” Grandma in the Top 12 after someone gets voted out tonight? That would rule.

Jessica Meuse, Dido’s “White Flag”: Arrrrrrggghh! This was the biggest disappointment of the night for me because I love this song and I love Jessica’s voice. Harry and Keith argued for two whole segments whether someone can sing off key and still compel an audience (Keith and J. Lo say yes, Harry says no). I’m on Team Harry here, in Jessica’s case. She was off-key to my ears, and no matter how much she was feelin’ the song, I was too distracted by that to enjoy it. I would LOVE a bonus segment to the episode in which we get an unfiltered hidden-camera run-through of the dozens of times Jessica has played this tune as part of her set in a smoky bar. I’d also love to hear her reaction to watching/listening to her performance on playback.

Hands down, an in-key “White Flag” from Jessica would’ve been tonight’s home-run for me. By far!

“I’m sure y’all are correct, ’cause you’re way more accomplished than I am.” –Jessica Meuse in perhaps my favorite measured reaction to the judges in Idol history.

NEXT PAGE: Puppies! / J. Lo whips her hair Dexter Roberts, Montgomery Gentry’s “Lucky Man”: This dog trainer’s dog just had puppies, so does he even need to sing? Put him on through! But Dexter should have no problem sticking around this week after offering up his sensitive side and bein’ “real mellow” about it on this slow number. Harry called country music “one of the last vestiges for soulful, introspective, clever lyrics.” Someone download this man a few Robyn singles, stat!

Emily Piriz, Jennifer Lopez’s “Let’s Get Loud”: Sorry, fellas! J. Lo Jr. has a boyfriend in the Marine Corps. Way to make her cry right before her performance, producers. Ha, maybe that was J. Lo’s call. This was neither a rollicking sexy party nor a vocal stunner — so even though the song riled up the crowd and hello OMG the real Jennifer Lopez is sitting right there, it never really amounted to anything. For example:

Seems like a lot of pressure to put on the brass section! This just didn’t work.

And the teased pony suddenly made sense.

Caleb Johnson, Rush’s “Working Man”: Here’s a weird thing: I think I would like Caleb better if I saw him livin’ in the limelight in a different Asheville, NC bar each week (10 different music venues on one street!) than if I saw him perform 10 times on the American Idol stage. His performance style is predictable, yes. But that VOICE! Aside from Malaya’s occasional power notes later on, Caleb had by far the most energy and vocal strength of the night, and his precision outshone Malaya by miles. This guy is a technician. And no one’s ever done Rush before on Idol, so big hugs to him just for that. (How is that possible? They even had a Rush Week!)

J. Lo went ahead and assured viewers of what’s in store for Caleb later in the season: He’ll sing softly. Bear some other stuff out. Discover himself without a band.

NEXT PAGE: M.K.’s back in the atmosphere M.K. Nobilette, Train’s “Drops of Jupiter”: Yikes. Awkward. Train?! I feel I can just end the M.K. discussion right there. Well, I should discuss the disturbing animated kaleidoscope of San Francisco imagery. Agh! I get that there are a lot of hills and one can feel disoriented there, but come on. Vocally this was a mess, almost an embarrassment. Bring it home, Harsh Harry!

“I still get the feeling you don’t really want to be here.” Whoa. Harry! Where did that come from? He’s said in the past that he wants M.K. to feel more confident, like she belongs there, but never that he questioned her actual desire. And yet, I get where he’s coming from. When I picture M.K., a buoy comes to mind. A buoy in an incredibly still pond. It never travels. It’s fine with its lot in life and the fact that it’s bobbling along in water. Nothing’s better than a swim. But is that all there is? Will she ever plunge for something beyond the surface?

Really think about buoys.

I did like the rest of what Harry suggested to M.K., which was basically to please find a way to get excited and look alive.

C.J. Harris, John Mayer’s “Waiting On the World to Change”: Speaking of deep thoughts, “There’s a problem in the South,” said C.J. “I don’t think it should be that way — everyone should love each other no matter what the color of their skin, rich or poor.” He’s the perfect mouthpiece for this compelling sentiment, and so is this song, which C.J. sang exactly like the original. I thought he did it well, though Harry said he was consistently sharp. But Keith wondered where C.J.’s artistic take on it was. He has to do more than a straight cov-ah.

Sam Woolf, Blind Pilot’s “Just One”: Realizing that Sam is never going to switch up his performance style of calmly singing things very well while making so-so eye contact with the camera, someone had the bright idea to plant him in the middle of a swarm of googly-eyed teen girls. Just bring the horse to water, and the water will drink in him! It’s the famous “move the stool” strategy.

Weird Santa vibe?

The hat worked for him. (This is one of the very few times I’ve ever said that.)

Harry demanded some emotional growth from Sam, and Keith got that, but Keith also thought Sam’s voice was “like buttah” and would buy an album of original songs from him tomorrow.

NEXT PAGE: Harsh Harry for the soul-crush! Malaya Watson, Tamala Mann’s “Take Me to the King”: This gospel tune, which Malaya wisely started at the piano so she could CALM DOWN, was a vast improvement on last week’s mess, which landed her in the bottom two. She hit a few power notes I was Feelin’ with a capital F, honey. I still wouldn’t call it a consistent performance, but along with Caleb’s prog rock workout video, it was the the most compelling song of the night for me. (Things are looking pretty bleak, y’all.) Harry commended Malaya for not running off the rails (a triumph!) and trading the message of a gospel song vs. the familiarity of a pop song. Will it work?

Ben Briley, David Nail’s “Turning Home”: Poor Ben had no family or special friends in the audience, so the camera cut to two empty chairs to signify the gaping void in his life. I thought this was a solid performance by Ben — vocally it was spot-on, but performance-wise, once again, he just didn’t leap out at me with any sort of magic. (Where are the wizards this season? Whither the fairies? I must have gnomes!) I think this is maybe what Keith was trying to say, but more nicely, when he belabored Ben’s focus on the technicality of the notes. “You could close your eyes and sing and not move a muscle and you would hit me more,” he promised. Eh? Really? What would be the point of that? Guaranteed the vocals would sound exactly the same.

Harsh Harry for the soul-crush: “I did not connect with it and it felt shouted for me.” And he wasn’t buying that Jennifer disagreed. “Do ya?” he challenged her. Okay, now everyone just shut up and eat a deviled egg. (Jealous!)

Majesty Rose, Coldplay’s “Fix You”: Extricating herself from “the quiet zone” at the beginning of the song was a mistake — but hey, at least she tried it. I still want to see a complete slowed-down performance from her. So a bit of a disappointing week for Majesty. However: How adorable was that opening segment of her hometown and her preschool kids?! I suspect that if Majesty Rose is your preschool teacher, you are set for life in terms of a positive mindset and The Warmth of Human Possibility Glowing From Within. For LIFE.

Singers “guaranteed” for the Top 11 according to Keith Urban: Emily, Sam, and Majesty.

Now here it is, your moment of Zen:

He’s such an Ellen.

Which of the Top 12 did you love/loathe tonight — or were they all just a heavy sigh of indifference?

Discuss!

Follow @AnnieBarrett

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