It was a sad cut this week on "American Idol." Jessica Meuse, the pink-haired singer from Slapout, Ala., was eliminated just shy of getting the triumphant homecoming she deeply craved.
"I want to go out a hero, not a zero," Meuse had said at the outset of Thursday night's results show, when the top four would become the top three. Those three would be flown home on private jets to be greeted by screaming fans and local politicians and take part in parades and concert performances. The fourth, though, would just "go home, but not 'go home,'" she later observed. "That sucks."
All season, Meuse had struggled to look as comfortable onstage as she had sounded. Her eyes sometimes seemed devoid of emotion, her body stiff and immobile, in sharp contrast with her lush, full, supple voice. Harry Connick Jr. had suggested that Meuse dance in front of a mirror to loosen up. Keith Urban had pleaded with her to "release." Jennifer Lopez had suggested that it might be best for her to steer clear of certain sexy songs.
But even as the judges offered critiques that, no matter how well-meaning, could sound harsh, Meuse always kept smiling, always expressed joy at being where she was, doing what she loved. She'd declined, when asked several weeks ago, to regret anything. She had, she insisted, always remained true to herself, and what was more important than that?
But winning, or at least sticking around long enough to get that "Idol"-orchestrated hometown visit, clearly was important to the perpetually cool contestant.
Meuse kept her composure as first Jena Irene and then Caleb Johnson were told they'd be sticking around. She even held it together and kept smiling when Ryan Seacrest, somewhat abruptly, announced that Alex Preston, and not she, had secured the final spot in the Top 3.
But as the highlight reel of her time on "Idol" rolled, so did her tears. And as the camera cut in close, we watched the struggle to regain control of her trembling features play across her face.
And then she stepped out and sang her own song, "Blue Eyed Lie," as her Facebook "supporters" floated on the screen behind and beside her. Finding strength in the music, she seemed to pour her disappointment with "Idol" and its empty promises into the song's lyrics.
The judges rose to give her a standing ovation.
On the way out the door, Jessica Meuse had finally given them the raw, emotional performance they'd been waiting for.