The self-regard — or #Selfie-regard — that has defined "American Idol" this season hit a new level on Wednesday night's show, on which the top three performers — Caleb Johnson, Alex Preston and Jena Irene — competed to move on to next week's finals and finale (to air, atypically, on Tuesday and Wednesday nights).
Put partway out to pasture by Fox at the upfronts this week — its on-air hours cut to just 37 next year, from 50 — the show celebrated itself on the occasion of its 500th episode with video tributes from most of the past winners, including Carrie Underwood, Phillip Phillips and Lee DeWyze (remember him?), confetti and cake.
"We got the cake," chanted Randy Jackson, who, like Ryan Seacrest, has been there since Day 1 of "Idol," though in a reduced capacity this season, as a sheet cake created in "Idol's" image was wheeled out.
Pictures — countless selfies — were taken. To entertain the kids, the DJ duo the Chainsmokers showed up to perform their song "#Selfie," heard for the second time on the show this season.
And then there were the contestants' performances.
Johnson, Preston and Irene were tasked with singing three songs apiece. Round 1 would be a song selected by mentor Jackson. For Round 2, each would tackle a song chosen by the judges. And in the third and final round, the contestants would reprise songs, selected by their hometowns, that they had sung previously this season (yawn).
Before the singers performed, though, the show's doctor was hauled out to explain that Johnson was suffering from bronchitis and sinusitis and a "small vocal cord hemorrhage," which he compared to "a runner who's running with a badly bruised ankle." However, the doc said, "I think he's gonna do fantastic."
Not surprisingly, it wasn't Johnson's best night.
He sounded tentative on Jackson's pick for him, INXS's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," but the judges gave him the benefit of the doubt. "I know you wanted to do so much more with that song, and you can and we know that you can," judge Jennifer Lopez told him. "But the truth is you on your worst night are better than people on their best night. So you should be very happy … it was still a stellar performance."
Johnson loosened up a bit on his judge pick, "Demons" by Imagine Dragons, but you could hear the rough spots in his voice. "I'm so feeling for you right now," judge Keith Urban told him, comparing confidence-crushing vocal injuries for singers to "a footballer's knees." Still, Urban said, Johnson was doing "such a great job of working through" it.
It was for his final song, the reprise of his show-stopping take on Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused," that Johnson had saved all his energy. He hit notes full on, interacted with the band, and repeatedly smashed his microphone stand on the stage in a move that seemed premeditated. It would have been more impressive if we hadn't already seen Johnson kill that song, if not that mic stand, before. Still, it brought Urban and Lopez to their feet to dance, and Lopez pumped up the crowd until they began to chant Johnson's name.
"If ever there was like a complete moment of miraculous healing, that would have been it," Urban said. "I want to throw stuff. Let's throw stuff." Lopez called it a "true 'Idol' moment" and predicted that Johnson would make the finals. And judge Harry Connick Jr. commended the singer on taking "full advantage" of his opportunities.
(Aside to Seacrest: Please stop leering at Jennifer Lopez. When you say a song "did something" to her, and that "by seeing that happen to" her, "it did something to all of us," we know what you mean, and it's creepy.)
For Preston, Jackson picked Bastille's "Pompeii," which the singer livened up by flinging aside his guitar and picking up his drumsticks partway through, then by abandoning his instruments altogether and striding around grasping audience members' hands. Lopez said the performance had evoked "a different Alex," the "elevated Alex that we've been looking for." Connick found the performance a little "piecemeal" but said it had showcased Preston's talents. Urban said it had been "shaky" in spots, but he really liked the drum moment.
The judges were more enthusiastic about their own pick for Preston, Rihanna's "Stay." Urban and Lopez gave the performance a standing ovation. Lopez said she'd known Preston would "sing the heck out of that song" and that he had made the song his own. Both she and Connick called it "beautiful," and Urban commended Preston for making "artistic choices" and "owning a song." "The arrangement was killer," he said.
Preston's hometown song pick was One Direction's "Story of My Life" and, sadly, it was his weakest performance of the night. He seemed rushed and nervous, and the jittery moving footage of a train track on the screen behind him only heightened the impression that the song itself went nowhere. Lopez seemed to talk around the performance, though Connick called it "classic Alex" and "really strong." Urban noted that it was a comedown after Preston's previous performances, but noted that, on the whole, the singer's averages over the course of the evening were solid.
Irene was the most consistent performer of the evening — and she proved she could make a dramatic entrance, descending from a lift high above the stage while performing Jackson's pick, David Guetta's "Titanium." Connick called the performance "high-risk, high-reward" and commended her ability to hit high notes and increasing comfort onstage. Urban said she balanced "killer" vocals and "fun," telling her, "You inspire." Lopez was a little less impressed, saying the performance had felt "a little stiff" and "shaky."
But the judges were universally pleased with Irene's performance of their own pick, Demi Lovato's "Heart Attack." Connick admired that "even in songs where there's not a whole lot of room to be original and change it up," Irene always managed to do so. Urban called her pitch and phrasing "so bullet" and her range endless. Lopez said Irene had appeared both "very loose" and "in control" and then patted herself and her fellow judges on the back, saying the song had been "perfect" for Irene, "if I do say so ourselves."
Actually, the perfect song for the singer was probably her final one, at the piano in a repeat rendition of Radiohead's "Creep." Connick called the performance "brilliant," "even better than" the first time Irene had sung it, and a "great way to end the show." Urban called Irene's "progress" since her initial audition "mind-blowing," "magnificent" and "exactly what 'American Idol' is about." Lopez said that, though she was only 17 years old, Irene had proved she was "going to be so hard to beat."