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'American Idol' recap: The top 8 tackle the '80s

With Sam Woolf back in the fold this week after last week's save, the "American Idol" top eight tackled songs of the '80s, a decade in which none of them -- nope, not one --  was actually alive.

If that fact alone doesn't make "Idol" watchers over age 24 feel old, Caleb Johnson added an extra insult before stepping onto the stage to sing Journey's "Faithfully," a song guest mentor and Season 7 "Idol" winner David Cook encouraged him to approach with "reverence." 

Johnson said he planned to go out there and "make some old ladies cry." (I trust he wasn't referring to the likes of Jennifer Lopez, who did seem moved by Johnson's performance.) And if that wasn't smug and snide enough, later, when Ryan Seacrest asked him what he had been thinking while singing with a tender look on his face, Johnson replied, "Just give them the baby face."

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Which brings us to one of the problems with "American Idol" this season. It's not that these top eight  singers aren't talented. (They all are.) It's that none of them seems to possess all the qualities that add up to looking like a winner -- a star inevitably on the rise. Johnson has the voice and showmanship, but not the personal appeal. C.J. Harris has the heart and tone, but not the reliable grasp on pitch. Jessica Meuse has the looks and voice, but seems seriously disengaged whenever she's onstage. The musically gifted Woolf just looks terrified, albeit somewhat less so this week than previously.

And on and on. Even the ones who come closest -- Alex Preston, though he really does need to mix things up a bit, and Jena Irene, let's say -- are not quite there yet. But hey, we've still got more than a few weeks to go. There's time for all these young (very young) people to learn and grow.

So in addition -- again -- to duets of varying quality (Preston/Woolf and Irene/Johnson, quite good; Harris/Malaya Watson, not very good at all), the top eight performed as follows:

Jena Irene
Irene started the show off with an interesting arrangement of "I Love Rock 'N' Roll" by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts (she'd recently sat next to Jett's tour manager on an airplane, she said), beginning slowly at the piano and then taking a stroll and ending up center stage. Keith Urban admired Irene's willingness to take a risk by changing up the arrangement and the "originality" he said she always brought to her songs.  Lopez rightly noted that the song "languished a bit in the middle." And Harry Connick Jr. said he "wasn't really a fan of the arrangement," though he did love that she was always "pushing" to try something new. He added that the performance felt a bit too "choreographed," and he encouraged Irene to kick back and do her own thing a bit more.

Dexter Roberts
Roberts kept it country and sang the Georgia Satellites' "Keep Your Hands to Yourself," and while he said he'd been working on enunciating his words more clearly, he clearly still had a ways to go. Lopez said he'd sung "kind of perfect," as always. She added that, while the judges routinely got on Roberts for singing anthems and "not owning them" or "having enough personality," this time around, he'd done it. Connick said, after Roberts' "really, really great" performance last week, he could "almost do no wrong" with him. "Yes, it was another anthem song. Yes, you sang it in a kind of basic way," Connick said. "But coupled with what you did last week, I thought it was fine." Urban encouraged Roberts to "do something unexpected," like kicking over his mike stand.

Malaya Watson
To me, Watson's take on Chaka Kahn's "Through the Fire" sounded breathless at times and shouty at others. The judges love her, but even they seemed to temper their praise more than usual. "There's never any doubt in your vocal ability," Urban said, but he encouraged her to "try and lay back into" her singing. Lopez called Watson "our little baby" and complimented her "vocal ability," but said she needed to just "relax up there." Connick said he was impressed by Watson's ability to "hit that Chaka note in full voice," but felt she'd "sacrificed" the early part of the song in anticipation of it. "You're going to hit it anyway," he said. "All you need to do is focus right when that note comes."

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Jessica Meuse
Meuse gave a vocally solid but physically meandering and expressionless performance of Blondie's "Call Me." As she casually strolled the stage, she showed no sense of playfulness, stomp or urgency. Connick told Meuse she needed to "sing that shuffle," "feel that groove" and "rip up that pocket." Seeing Meuse's amused look, Connick emphasized, "You've got to feel that and sing it and walk it and feel it." Urban agreed, saying he was still waiting for Meuse to "release" completely into her performances. Meuse was "almost there," he told her, but still seemed "slightly outside it." Lopez had a more song-specific response. "That song is a sexy song," she said. "If you can't tap into that part of yourself and forget about everything else, then that's not a great song for you, no matter how great you sound on it."

Sam Woolf
After getting a lecture from Cook about enjoying his time in the spotlight, Woolf slipped into the audience to sing Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time." He may not have seemed thrilled to be surrounded by young female "Idol" fans, but he did seem more engaged, looser and less terrified than he has in the past. Urban complimented him on his "musicality," saying it was "probably why we saved you last week." Lopez said she thought he'd done "a great job," adding that she loved the way he sang and could sense him "trying to feel it" -- she even thought she saw him make himself blush. "That's what's supposed to happen," she added, encouragingly. "You're supposed to feel something." Connick, however, thought Woolf could have looked away from the camera and at the "beautiful young girls" around him. "It's OK to look at them," he urged, suggesting that Woolf pattern himself after a young Ricky Nelson. "Learn from people that went before you," he said. "Something may click."

Alex Preston
Preston reworked the Police's "Every Breath You Take" so that it barely sounded like the same song -- but was not at all dissimilar to the arrangement of other songs he's sung so far this season. (He apparently got some pre-performance feedback from Jason Mraz, with whom he has "had coffee.") Connick "really liked" the way it "sounded like a new tune" but warned him that he needed to worry about making his performances "stageworthy." "At some point, the coffeehouse treatment is going to catch up to you … in this competition," Connick predicted, "so think about how you can be more of an entertainer." Urban commended Preston on "dismantling" and "rebuilding" such a popular song, calling it a "bold undertaking," but encouraged him to "take some liberty with the tempo." Lopez told Preston she loved his "voice" and "what you do," but felt what he'd done to the melody had cost the song its soul.

CJ Harris
Harris brought his usual soulfulness and struggles with pitch to Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'." "There's never been a contestant that I root for note by note the way I root for you every single time," Lopez told him, noting that Harris' performance had gotten better as he went along. Still, she said, he had "to touch people's hearts," something the other contestants didn't always do. Connick agreed, saying Harris managed to make a connection "virtually every time" he got onstage, and adding that if he could manage to sharpen his ear, he'd be "tough to follow -- because that connection thing is the most important of any of the attributes." Urban called it a "great rendition" and admired the "survival tone" and "optimism" in Harris's voice.

Caleb Johnson
Whether or not Johnson made the "old ladies cry," as he set out to do, with his rendition of Journey's "Faithfully," he certainly elicited an emotional look from Lopez and prompted Urban to hold up an image of a lighter on his cellphone. Connick said he was excited not only by Johnson's "really consistent powerful vocal" but also his ability to "sing something with a little bit more subtlety," which he had been waiting for. Urban called it "killer" and the "perfect song" for Johnson and compared its functionality to a "fanny pack." Lopez said it was "no small task to take on Steve Perry," but seemed to think Johnson was up to the task.

So who will go? I'll put Watson, Harris and Meuse in the bottom three, with perhaps Watson going home. Really, though, it could be anyone. No one really lighted the stage on fire or stumbled all that drastically.

What did you think of the performances? And who do you think is most in danger?

ALSO:

'American Idol' recap: The band plays on

'American Idol' recap: Sam Woolf gets the save

'American Idol' recap: Top 8 show how far they've come

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