The “American Idol” top-10 performance show, in which the singers took on songs that, since 2011, have charted in the top 10, had its share of curiosities: an opening tribute to selfies, set to the Chainsmokers’ viral creation "#Selfie”; ongoing friction between Harry Connick Jr. and Keith Urban, culminating in each doing an impression of the other; the moment Jennifer Lopez loudly booed Connick; Ryan Seacrest’s offer to hold 16-year-old contestant Malaya Watson’s hand.
Most curious of all, though, was how uneven the talent this season is proving to be.
At this point in the competition, it appears clear that several of the contestants (MK Nobilette, Sam Woolf) don’t yet have the confidence to step comfortably into the spotlight under broad scrutiny. Others hold appeal, but lack consistency (C.J. Harris, Jessica Meuse, Majesty Rose, the aforementioned Watson). Others are consistent, but lack appeal (Dexter Roberts, Caleb Johnson).
Right now, only two contenders appear to have the musicality, creativity, self-possession and stage presence — the raw talent and “artistry,” as the judges might say — to be music success stories, if not stars: Jena Irene and Alex Preston. And even they are going to have to up the ante to really connect and keep our interest.
As for the performances …
M.K Nobilette sang a dramatically imperfect version of Pink’s “Perfect,” with which she had hoped to inspire her fans. Singing first into a mirror (remember when Michelle Chamuel did that on “The Voice”?), then while touching audience hands and finally as she wandered around the stage, she lost the rhythm, the melody and the lyrics.
Urban thought she’d recovered well. Lopez did not. “Don’t ever let that happen,” Lopez said. “You have to just go for it.” Connick believed that, in addition to mucking up the words, Nobilette had failed to connect with the song emotionally. Nobilette, though, thought her performance “was pretty solid for what it was.” Perhaps her upbeat attitude in the face of adversity, if not her singing, will inspire her fans.
Dexter Roberts picked a song, Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” that was right in his lane, but instead of revving things up and taking the song somewhere new, his performance never quite got out of neutral. By the end the energy of the crowd just seemed to sputter and die.
Lopez said that it was “really good” but that he’d missed the opportunity to pump up the crowd. Connick emphatically did not think it was good, calling Roberts’ rendition “generic,” “bereft of joy,” and “meandering.” (Cue that boo from Lopez.) Urban said it had been a good song choice and had shown promise and Roberts’ “artistry” at the beginning, but had then veered off course. “You have to own it,” Lopez advised.
Jena Irene, seeking to bring electronic music to “Idol” — it’s “where my heart is,” she said — sang “Clarity” by Zedd, showing off her pipes, her belly and her ability to command a crowd. “Everyone, get those glow sticks up!” she ordered in what was, as Urban noted, the best performance of the night thus far.
Even Connick was impressed, telling Irene he thought electronic music might be her wheelhouse and that he was “starting to get a really clear idea” of who she was. Urban said she looked comfortable, never “desperate,” and had made the song her own. “No matter what you sing, Jena,” he said. “You sound like Jena.” Lopez loved it so much she wished it had lasted longer, but advised Irene to “hold the middle” of the stage.
Alex Preston bravely took on One Direction’s “Story of My Life,” fearing backlash from the boy band’s die-hard fans. “If I do bad,” he noted, they’ll “hate me.” He did well enough to make Lopez dance in her chair and, after he finished, allowed himself a pained-looking smile.
Urban said Preston had shown himself to be a real artist, telling him he’d done his “Alex thing.” Lopez called the vocal “beautiful” and said he’d owned the stage, adding that he reminded her of Buddy Holly, without the glasses, and evoked “greatness.”
Connick, too, offered high praise, telling Preston he had “just hit the bull’s-eye on the artistry target” and was “so consistent with your artistic choices.” Connick said he was “really beginning to know who” Preston was, and that he was “leading the pack in that category.”
Oh, and to allay Preston’s fears, Seacrest read a message of support from One Direction’s Niall Horan. I guess now that Woolf seems endangered, the show is seeking to anoint another teen heartthrob.
Malaya Watson continued her recent upward trajectory with Bruno Mars’ “When I Was Your Man,” leaving the gender as it was written (as Candice Glover did when she performed the song last season) and dedicating it to guys she knows who have messed up relationships. Her vocals soared in spots, though the performance was not quite spotless; it would have been nice, at some point, for her to have gotten up from her stool.
Still, it gave Lopez “goosies” and prompted Connick to gush about Watson’s sincere lyrical interpretation, saying she was “present in every single word.” Urban said she had knocked it “out of park vocally” and had pulled him in by pulling back.
Caleb Johnson tackled Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory,” which he noted had “lots of great rock undertones.” The slowed-down version showed off Johnson’s powerful vocals, but never tipped over the edge and soared.
Connick liked that Johnson “took a straight-up, middle-of-the-road Gaga pop tune” and put his own spin on it with a “halftime groove,” giving him an “A for originality.” Urban complimented Johnson’s “killer tone” and “interesting song choice,” but “didn’t dig the halftime feel.” “Your voice is like a locomotive, and if the track is not there with you, it’s like there’s an imbalance,” he said.
Lopez didn’t mind the halftime factor, but thought Johnson’s performance lacked feeling. “I didn’t feel like you were singing about anything,” she said, but rather “just showing off vocally for us.”
C.J. Harris brought in a string section to back him on Hunter Hayes’ “Invisible,” but he could have used someone to throw him a rope: He was off pitch; his voice cracked in spots.
The judges all said they were rooting for him -- Urban and Lopez noted that he’d nailed the song in rehearsal — but urged him to get a handle on staying in tune under pressure, when the cameras rolled. “You have everything else going for you,” Urban said.
Later, Harris said he believed he’d manage to get his nerves under control. “Over time, it’ll work out,” he said.
Jessica Meuse took on “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster The People, noting the disparity between the lighthearted tune and dark, dark lyrics. It was her strongest performance in weeks. Lopez told her she’d sung it “perfectly.”
Connick, however, was irritated that Meuse had sung the “provocative” lyrics while smiling, saying he sometimes wondered “where the cry is” — along with the laugh, joy and pain — in Meuse’s performances and labeling them “one-dimensional.” He was waiting, he said, for Meuse “to emote on a different level.”
Meuse was left stammering that she didn’t endorse “homicidal behavior,” but was rescued by Urban, who said he thought she’d done a good job of making the song her own, giving it a “ ‘60s country pop” trippiness. Lopez also jumped in to defend her. “Some pop songs are like that,” she said, with different things going on at the same time, and this one, she said, was “complicated.”
Majesty Rose, chastened by a bottom-three placement last week, started off shakily on a folky take on Avicii’s “Wake Me Up,” finally waking up about halfway through. Connick said he really liked the way she’d taken the song in a “completely different direction,” calling it “smart” and “complex.” Urban disagreed, saying what made Avicii’s version so good was the fusion of folk with a “driving dance” element, without which the song “didn’t work” for him.
Lopez said she’d detected fear in Rose’s performance for the first time, and gave her a lecture about not letting it affect her when she was onstage. “That’s part of show business,” she said. “There are always going to be people who tell you you didn’t do well” — or times when you mess up — “but you’ve got to come back the next time and not let it affect you.”
Sam Woolf could probably have used Lopez’s lecture, too. He put on his jaunty little hat and sang “We Are Young” by Fun, but didn’t look like he was having too much of it. Urban and Lopez thought he’d done a good job, but Connick with only seconds left in the show, urged him to get over his timidity and “own it.”
I think Nobilette could be toast this week. Who do you think should be sent home?