‘American Idol’ recap: Top 4 sing about love, make judges gush

Though only four singers remain in this season’s “American Idol” competition, the audience was treated to 12 -- count ‘em -- songs on Wednesday night. The top 4 each tackled three songs, looking at different aspects of love: breakups, dedications and make-ups. It was a jumbled, mish-mashy sort of theme, and it generated an uneven batch of performances. But the ones that were good were very, very good indeed.

Here’s how the three rounds went down:

Round 1: Breakup songs

Caleb Johnson channeled his irritation at a girl who once refused to pick up his calls into “You Give Love a Bad Name,” by Bon Jovi, startling Keith Urban by invading his personal space. Urban said it was a “great way” to kick off the show, and that he liked that Johnson had managed, at the end, to do his own thing with the song. Jennifer Lopez said she always felt as if she were “at a rock concert” when Johnson performed and that he was “ready for prime time.” Harry Connick Jr. called Johnson’s performance “fantastic,” but suggested that he might come up with a few “different licks” because he always seemed to use the same one.


Jessica Meuse mused on all the “duds” she’s dated and then turned in a rather dud-like performance of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.” Lopez said Meuse’s “attitude” had been “right,” but that it hadn’t been the best song choice for her vocally. Connick told Meuse he was “glad you have two more songs because I know you can do better than that,” urging her to push herself to show her feelings even more. Urban thought that attitude was a matter of “confidence” and told her she needed to “pull out all the stops.”

Alex Preston did a “broken-down version” of Alex Clare’s “Too Close,” inspired by a relationship that broke down due to distance. Connick admired the way Preston spent “so much time deconstructing these pieces of music and reassembling them” in his own way, saying it showed that he was “concerned about the music” he played. Urban agreed, but said he sometimes felt Preston’s performances lacked “weight,” urging him to take more command of the phrasing. Lopez said she loved what Preston did with his songs, but was concerned that “every time” he got onstage, he was pretty much doing the same thing. She advised him to think about “creating a moment” that would help him win the competition.

Jena Irene shared the story of her first heartbreak, at age 14, and then poured that emotion into Pat Benetar’s “Heartbreaker,” eliciting varying responses from the judges. Urban said Irene was a “killer singer” with a “great range,” but felt her movement onstage was not propelled by the music. Lopez disagreed, calling the performance “controlled” and “very commanding,” and complimenting Irene on her growing confidence. Connick said “vocally,” the performance was a “10 out of 10 ... really amazing.” But, like Urban, he perceived a “disconnect” between the music and the movements. When Irene blamed her high heels, he urged her to take them off and “jump around.” Or, Lopez suggested, Irene could “stylize” the movement -- and demonstrated.

Round 2: Dedications

Johnson dedicated CCR’s “Traveling Band” to his own band, back home in Asheville, N.C., and seemed to have an especially good time playing off Ricky Minor and his band. Lopez said Johnson had “killed it again” and would be “tough to beat.” Connick called the performance “fantastic” and noted how “lucky” the contestants were to have the support and “musicianship” of the “Idol” band. Urban said it was no coincidence that the energy had “exploded” when the band was onstage.

Meuse sent her performance of Pink’s “So What” out “to all those people” who gave her the drive to succeed by not believing in her. It was another misfire. Connick said Meuse was “terrific” and had “an incredible voice,” but “those two songs that you sang tonight were not the best songs for you.” He said he was hoping for better in her third song. Urban and Lopez agreed.

Irene’s take on Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” went out to all her fans, and likely pleased them. Urban called the performance “really, really good” and especially admired that Irene had “changed the melody for the chorus” because it allowed her “to let all the other parts of the song be potent and powerful.” Lopez disagreed about the chorus, but said Irene was “a force to be reckoned with in this competition” and was “toe to toe” with Johnson when it came to “bringing down the house.” Connick called the performance “really strong.”

Preston dedicated “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz, whom he said he loves, to his girlfriend, former “Idol” and “X Factor” contestant Jillian Jensen, whom he presumably also loves. (She was in the audience to watch him perform.) Preston’s performance, beneath colorful paper lanterns, was a little breathless, though at the end he finally seemed to take control. Lopez reiterated that, though she and the audience loved Preston, he might want to do something surprising that would take things “up a level.” Connick said he was disappointed that Preston hadn’t done his usual thing, deconstructing the song and then putting it back together. “That’s your strength,” he said. “Stick to it.” Urban said Preston had “started to liberate the phrasing,” finally, at the very end.


Round 3: Make-up songs

Johnson told a story about being surprised in the midst of his first kiss, and then surprised everyone with a tender, passionate take on Paul McCartney’s “Maybe, I’m Amazed.” It was an amazing performance, much more nuanced than Johnson’s usual shtick. Urban and Lopez gave him a standing ovation. Connick gave him very high praise, saying it was “so nice” to hear him “sing softly.” “Caleb, that was absolutely phenomenal,” he said. Urban called it a “killer, killer performance.” Lopez said it was “probably” Johnson’s “best performance since the beginning.”

Meuse refused to declare who she was thinking about as she was singing Lady Gaga’s “You and I,” but whatever thoughts she was keeping to herself, they paid off with her best performance of the night. Urban called it “the perfect song” for her. Lopez said it was the song everyone had “been waiting for” and “really highlighted” the “strengths and qualities in your voice.” Connick was impressed that, after getting heat from the judges earlier in the night, Meuse “came out swinging, on a song that was perfectly suited” to her and “killed it.”

Irene’s final performance -- Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” accompanying herself on piano -- was the talker of the night, if only because of Lopez’s over-the-top response to it. After getting bleeped out for an enthusiastic swear mid-performance, Lopez rose to her feet and, after Irene had finished singing, ran up onstage, declaring, “I have to kiss you!” “This is my third year doing this,” Lopez said. “I’ve never gotten up to kiss somebody after a performance.” She added that she was “so moved” by Irene’s “beautiful” performance she “could cry.” Connick called the performance courageous and “absolutely incredible.” Urban called Irene “a species unto yourself,” “like a musical platypus.” The performance, he said, was “spellbinding.”


Preston took the energy to a quiet intensity with Coldplay’s “Yellow,” and the judges seemed pleased. “You really needed that,” Connick told Preston, adding that on an evening of “great performances, “that was one of them.” Urban said it was a “song perfectly suited” to Preston, and that he’d imbued it with his “poetic vulnerability.” Lopez said “everybody in the room” had “felt” the performance and told Preston, “I think you’re integral to this competition.”

With the top 3 hometown visits on the line, Meuse seems most at risk, unless things take an unexpected turn. What did you think of the performances? And who do you think the top 3 should be?