Ryan Seacrest promised "some surprises," when he kicked off the Top 7 (finally) performance show on Wednesday night. By that he probably meant the seemingly random stew of celebrity visitors featured in the show: Demi Lovato stopped by to sit and kibitz with mentor Randy Jackson, who as a result seemed even more superfluous than usual. NFL Hall of Famer and Fox host Terry Bradshaw dropped in to hang briefly with the judges and then, for some reason, with the band. Seventeen-year-old Dutch DJ Martin Garrix and UFC women's champ Ronda Rousey popped up in the audience to spout a few platitudinous words of advice.
If the parade of visitors was an attempt to suck in new (or younger) viewers during a ratings-challenged season, it's hard to imagine how it would pay off. It did manage to fill a bit of time, as did yet another round of the contestants rattling off lists of things we didn't know about them (and in the case of Jena Irene, who described peeing in her pants during her first band performance, at age 12, things we might have preferred never to know) and flirting between Seacrest and Jennifer Lopez that's threatening to get out of hand. (The host's weekly leering at the female judge's clothing, revealing though it may be, would be called harassment in most other workplaces.)
There were duets (Alex Preston and Sam Woolf were again teamed up as teen-girl bait; Irene and Caleb Johnson had "a moment," Lopez said, with a potent "Gimme Shelter") and a terrible trio (Alabamans C.J. Harris, Dexter Roberts and Jessica Meuse gave a performance Harry Connick Jr. generously promised to forget). And then there were the solo performances, in which the top 7 sang songs chosen from a list suggested by their fellow contestants, a round the show was calling "Competitors' Pick."
Caleb Johnson kicked things off with "Family Tree" by Kings of Leon, suggested for him by roommate Alex Preston, which he sang with his usual bombastic enthusiasm. Keith Urban called it a "great" song choice that played to Johnson's strengths. Lopez dubbed it "pretty amazing" and suggested the rest of the contestants would have to "raise their game." And Connick said it was good to hear Johnson tackle something he seemed "so happy to sing," commending the way he'd done his own thing with the melody.
Jessica Meuse hoped to prove she was a "bad ass" by singing Miranda Lambert's "Gunpowder and Lead," a song picked for her by Woolf, but instead again proved that she has difficulty moving around the stage in anything but the most sleepy, awkward way. Lopez said that while she loved Meuse's voice, she thought she may have been off for the first time. Plus, she said, Meuse seemed "a little bit uncomfortable," perhaps overwhelmed by the stage pyrotechnics. The performance, she added, "just didn't seem natural to me." Connick agreed that there was "a lack of rhythmic delivery" when Meuse performed and suggested she watch herself dance in front of a mirror. "When your rhythm is in your body, it's going to inform everything from the neck up. It's going to drive everything," he said. Urban called it a "dissipation of energy on a song that is all about attitude and revenge" and said his attention was drawn everywhere but to Meuse herself, as she meandered around the stage. "You're way better than that," he told an incongruously smiling Meuse. "If you want to stay in this competition, get centered, get serious and commit to that lyric."
C.J. Harris, whose toddler son was in the audience, tackled John Mayer's "Gravity," a song chosen for him by Johnson, and he showed a far firmer grasp on pitch than he has in the past. Urban thought the performance was good, but suggested that Harris focus more on building in a dramatic arc. Lopez said it underscored Harris' increasing comfort on the stage, but she also urged him to stake out moments that would "lift the crowd." Connick told Harris he had "the greatest gift" a performer could have, which was "the ability to connect with an audience," and called it his "best performance to date."
Dexter Roberts performed -- solidly and straightforwardly -- a song selected for him by his roomie and pal Harris, Luke Bryan's "Muckalee Creek Water," which he said reminded him of home. Urban seemed to suggest Roberts had oversung a bit. "Don't let the adrenaline pull you out of the key," he cautioned. Lopez liked that the song choice was darker, edgier than Roberts' usual fare and thought that it "showed us a different side" of him, but urged all the contestants to try for something "spectacular" that would "rattle" the room. Connick, as usual, advised Roberts to make more creative choices and try to make the songs his own.
Alex Preston went with Roberts' song selection, Ed Sheeran's "A Team," a tune Preston had apparently performed in his online audition. Preston was clearly comfortable performing the song, and he did his usual intimate, musically interesting thing even more interestingly than usual. Lopez called it the "perfect song" for him. Connick agreed, saying there was "great beauty in smaller performances," and said that, though he had wondered whether Preston could win in that lane, his "conviction" was "so strong" he was starting to think he could. "That was my favorite performance of the night, by the way," he added. Urban admired the "artistic signatures" Preston used to make songs his own.
Woolf elected to sing "Sail Away" by David Gray, a song Meuse thought might help him connect to his teen-girl fans. (Aside: I am feeling sorrier and sorrier for Woolf as he is pressed harder and harder to embrace the ill-fitting teen heartthrob role the show has chosen for him. Do the producers feel that, now that he has been "saved," Woolf owes them that? Just let the poor kid make his music already.) In any event, Woolf's performance was looser and his outfit suited him well. Connick called him a "work in progress" with progress as the "operative word," but he didn't like his song choice. "Familiarity is your friend," he said. Urban liked the way he looked and thought he was starting to seem more comfortable. Lopez said Woolf came off as more connected when she looked into the monitor than when she looked at him on the stage.
Jena Irene went with Johnson's choice for her, Radiohead's "Creep," showing off her powerhouse vocals and agility at the piano. Her performance earned a standing ovation from Urban and Lopez and kudos from all three of the judges -- and positioned her as a front-runner. "I loved it. I love your fearlessness. I love how bold you are," Urban said, adding that Irene "owned that song." Lopez said that Irene could "sing anything" and that she Jena-fied every song she tackled, predicting she would be around next week and "for the long haul." Connick called Irene a "phenomenal talent," saying she sang with "great humility" and "intrigue." It was, he said, "unquestionably the best performance of the night," topping Preston's. "You are extraordinarily talented, and I think you did some major damage tonight," Connick added.
I'm putting Meuse, Woolf and Roberts (or maybe Harris?) in my bottom three, with Meuse as the most likely to head home. But what do you think? Who do you think is most vulnerable this week?