Caleb Johnson was like a Roman candle accelerated by a voice and range that garnered the first standing O of the season. He rocked that American Idol stage like he owned it with his high energy choice of “Pressure and Time” by Rival Sons. You could tell he was awesome by the look on the drummer’s face. He was grinning like a cheshire cat. Caleb was the last, but definitely not the least of the thirteen contestants to sing tonight.
This week’s theme was “This is Me”. The Top 13 were to select songs that would showcase who they are as a person and as a performer. Some either didn’t know who they were or what they wanted to be, or just didn’t understand the meaning of the theme. Others made me want to hear more.
I seriously disagreed with judges over Tennessee’s Ben Briley, but not because of his singing ability. Briley chose Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”, stating “This is how I want to start this gig.” As most people know, “Folsom Prison Blues” is about a man serving a prison term. The original song has a driving beat, but Cash’s voice sets a counterpoint to the tempo, driving the words and the emotions with an almost deadpan voice, reflecting his bleak and hopeless future.
Briley sang the same words, but the tempo was manic. He sang it upbeat like a really rocking jailbird — like Elvis’s “Jailhouse Rock”. Briley’s version lost all perspective and robbed the song of its meaning. I can’t help but think back to the fifth season of American Idol when Chris Daughtry sang another Cash song, “I Walk the Line”. Chris’s version was the same lyrics, but the sound was entirely his own. He worked with the meaning of the words, giving it a slower, darker, more serious slant than Cash’s original. And it gave me chills. Nobody who ever heard it ever forgot it.
Keith Urban had the right of it when he advised Briley to be careful of his intention and to not sacrifice artistry for that quick tempo. Jennifer thought it was a good example of making the song his own. But I was especially disappointed in my favorite judge, Harry Connick, Jr., who is always beating the drum about contestants understanding what they are singing about. He hates for someone to smile while singing a line about something sad. But for Briley, who totally destroyed the essence of “Folsom Prison Blues”, all Connick could say was that he liked the tempo and applauded Briley for choosing a song that harkened back to an earlier time. I’m at a loss as to where Connick was coming from on this one.
C. J. Harris sang “Radio” by Darius Tucker, and gave an excellent reason for his choice. He had fond memories of listening to the radio growing up in Jasper, Alabama, and how the songs would make him feel better. C. J. is one of my favorites this season, both for who he is and as a singer with a unique voice, but his performance tonight was not his best. Jennifer said he had a little trouble with his pitch. Harry described C. J’s uniqueness best when he said, “I love the cry in your voice. But it was just an okay song choice.” Keith had no problem with the song choice and told C. J. he had “soul” and “swagger”. “I think you’ll go through,” Keith predicted. “I’ll hear other songs from you.”
Majesty Rose gave a standout performance with her choice of “Tightrope” by Janelle Monae. Her reason for choosing this song was that she “wanted to walk that balance between humility and confidence”. I was already cheering her attitude even before she nailed her song. She looked super great, and worked the stage like a pro. Keith called it a “killer song choice”, and that it brought out her spirit and personality. Jennifer’s take was, “You have your own style. There’s nobody like you. This was perfect for you and way to work the stage. It comes natural to you. You are blessed.” Harry liked the mystery of her music, because there were any number of ways she could go with that voice. At least that’s what I think he meant.
Another gorgeous girl with a great voice is Jena Irene who chose “The Scientist” by Coldplay as her song, which she learned on the piano at age nine. Though she started off a little rocky, it didn’t take long for this wild card contestant to get in the groove with a brilliant performance. Jennifer told her she had a unique voice. “I was worried for the first few seconds,” she said. “That was a tough song, but you pulled it out.” Keith called it a little pitchy at the beginning, but “you leaned into it and owned it.” Harry mentioned that the melody she sang drove the lyrics, but his main question was why was it called “The Scientist”, as no scientist is mentioned in the song. Ryan Seacrest took it upon himself to look it up and said the scientist grieved over the fact that he spent so much time with his work he neglected the love of his life. Harry accused Seacrest of making it up.
Alex Preston of New Hampshire, who writes poetry and loves extreme sports, says he is a romantic. His choice for This is Me night was “A Beautiful Mess” by Jason Mraz because, he said, it’s how he looks at life. Preston’s introspective, moody melody, which he sang backllighted by a soft red aura, drew me into his song. Keith said, “It pulled me into you,” while Jennifer felt very caught up in the mood and the emotion. She called it a “really nice change from what everyone else is doing.” Harry was not so taken with the inward direction the song took and called it too introspective. I loved it and agree wholeheartedly with Jennifer and Keith.
Jessica Meuse said it was hard to choose one song because there are so many sides to a person. Meuse gave an outstanding performance of “The Crow and the Butterfly”, which, like Jennifer, gave me “goosies”. Keith called it a “bold but cool song choice” that had a “dark, haunting quality to it”, and that she had “an appealing rasp to her voice.” Harry thought it was cool to hear something different, a different sound to her voice. I don’t care for this Slapout, Alabama, girl’s life attitude, but boy would she make another great girl rocker on the order of Joan Jett.
Young Sam Woolf, who is so sweet and shy, has a voice I could listen to all day. He sang, “I’m Not Crazy, I’m Just a Little Unwell”, or just, “Unwell”. Jennifer said his voice was amazing, but he needed to come alive a little more on stage and that he had a “deer in the headlight look”. Harry called him a perfect singer, but wished he had messed this song up a little bit. Keith said the tempo was a little slow, but “great way to hold the center”. I just love to hear him sing, and hope to hear him a lot, lot more.
M. K. Nobillette looked great with a little make-up job and a beaming face. She chose the song “Satisfaction” by Allen Stone. Judges agreed they enjoyed watching her grow and loved her new look. Jennifer was glad that M. K. showed the audience a different side of her with this choice, and all three judges applauded her singing ability. I didn’t like the song, or the performance, but loved her sound.
Dexter Roberts of Fayette, Alabama, acquitted himself well with “Aw Naw” by Chris Young. His performance was very upbeat and he told America he wanted to come across as a fun guy. And, indeed, Dexter has a great personality. Keith said it was an excellent version, but would like Dexter to make it a “Dexter Roberts performance”. Jennifer said it was really good, but a little low for his voice. Harry said he would like to see him use his personality more.
Judges tried to smooth over Malaya Watson’s not-so-stellar performance of “Runaway Baby” by applauding her energy and command of the stage. Harry mentioned the discipline needed to play her tuba, suggesting she could use that same discipline with her voice. Keith said being a singer was about learning and growing. “You need to be on top of the song,” he said, “not floating around it.” Jennifer said it was not her best song.
Kristen O’Connor, for whatever reason, seems to have lost the edge she had during the tryouts. She did a lackluster performance of Kelly Clarkson’s “Beautiful Disaster”, which was a disaster. Harry said she sang out of tune and he didn’t feel her song. Keith said she had great range, but, in short, her timing was off. Jennifer told her to stop thinking [and just sing]. “Share a moment with everyone,” she said. I hate it for Kristen because I know she can sing so much better than that. She is pretty and likeable, but it’s like the stage dwarfs her, and there is no life in her performances.
Emily Periz sang a Pink song, “Glitter in the Air”. She was okay, but nothing to write home about. In some parts she sang so low for her voice range I thought she had forgotten the words because I could hear no sound. I think the judges danced around this one, too. In some of these cases I dearly wanted to send out a call for Simon Cowell. Jennifer told her it was a big song to take on, but that she sang it with a lot of emotion. Harry said it was not an easy song to sing, but that she sang the melody well and he was proud of her. Keith thought it was a beautiful vocal and a beautiful song. “I love Pink,” he said, “but there’s a yin and yang to everything in her songs. Don’t forget the yang. Where’s the balance? Where’s the edge?” Emily Periz has a good voice. I just think she bit off more than she could chew. Wrong song for her.
My daughter-in-law Tammy is a big Pink fan and knows every run and every nuance of her songs. “She sang it exactly the way Pink sang it except for maybe a little extra run,” Tammy told me. “She didn’t change anything at all. I thought American Idol contestants were supposed to ‘make it their own’. But this girl was no match for Pink in sound or look. Pink has a rough, edgy look. This girl looked too perfect.”
Okay. I began with Caleb Johnson and I’ll end with Caleb Johnson. Keith said, “Dude. You’ve got some serious pipes. That was a great song. It taught me a lot about who you are. All you need is a little twist to set you apart.” Jennifer said he was so ready to be a rock star and she painted a picture of the rock star life for him. “And,” she said, “you’ve got the goods to back it up.” Harry said it was great to hear some Rock n’ Roll back on Idol. But I think Keith said it best — “Dude. You got some serious pipes!”