“No more Mr. Nice Guy,” Jennifer Lopez warned the Top 12 American Idol contestants last night. After quick snapshots and memories of “Home” — the theme of the show — each contender chose a song that should have shown what home meant to him or her. For them, the song choices touched on memories of hometown life, whether evoked by lyrics or just association in time and place. But, somehow, hardly any of the performances connected with those who were listening. It made for a very dull performance night. The only thing that was entertaining was the judges. They were great.
“Suddenly I See” by K.T. Tunstall, was the choice for Jena Irene, who said it was her close family ties at Farmington Hills, Michigan, that inspired her. “There’s no place like home,” she said. But if she suddenly saw anything, it was not the advice of the judges. It wasn’t a bad performance, it just didn’t go anywhere. Nothing connected. Judges agreed it was not the best song choice for her, though they still admired the uniqueness of her voice. Harry Connick, Jr. said he was “waiting for her to bust out”. Which she never did.
A favorite, Alex Preston, struck off in a different direction for this Mt. Vernon, New Hampshire native, accompanying himself on the electric guitar and singing a sort of rocker-blues version of “I Don’t Want to Be” by Gavin DeGraw. Jennifer said the arrangement did not suit the song, but gave him credit for taking a risk. Harry said Alex was a little overpowered, and though Keith Urban applauds originality, he cited the arrangement as unstable and not centering into the song. It was a mess.
Jessica Meuse took us to Slapout, Alabama, with a glimpse of her loved pets, and a wave to a supportive party in Montgomery in neighboring Montgomery County. She also said she even missed the cows, which prompted Ryan Seacrest to make a quip about steak night in Montgomery. Jessica chose “White Flag” by Dido, a song with a lot of passion, which she sang dispassionately. Her voice is still top of the line among the Twelve, but it was a lackluster presentation.
Though Harry said he understood Jessica’s need for understatement, this performance was like she wasn’t even present and was sharp throughout the song. It was actually Keith Urban who gave the top performance of the night when he belted out a line from the song with passion and presence, causing the audience to erupt in shouting and applause and Seacrest to say they were having to scramble for a call number for Keith. Kieth’s purpose was to show what they meant by singing to connect with people. “You’ve got to really believe it,” he said. “I don’t care about pitch if you sing it like you believe it.” This caused a continuing debate among the judges about pitch vs. connection. Jennifer just said she was hoping for a superstar performance and it didn’t happen.
Dexter Roberts pulled in the first consensus of “best performance of the night” from heretofore disappointed judges. Dexter said his song choice, “Lord Knows I’m A Lucky Man” by Montgomery Gentry, said just what he wanted to say to his supportive fans back in his hometown of Fayette, Alabama. He also mentioned the song was for his granny, who had passed away. Keith loved that he took little liberties with his phrasing, and that at one point, had to be inside the moment. Jennifer triggered all-around head nodding when she said the night so far had been hard on everyone. “You have to surprise us,” she said. Then she smiled and told Dexter, “And you did.” Harry summed it up with “best performance of the night.” Keith had mentioned that Dexter must have briefly forgotten the words, which turned into what he termed, “Inside the moment.” When Seacrest asked about it, Dexter simply replied as he walked away, “I don’t know. I was just grieving.”
Emily Piriz of Miami attempted a shout out to her Cuban heritage and the Latino audience, as well as attempting to pay homage to Jennifer Lopez by singing Lopez’s hit song, “Let’s Get Loud”. This big song completely overpowered Piriz. The cute, tiny performer seemed to be swallowed up by it. You could see Jennifer at the beginning of the performance smiling and gyrating and trying to encourage the young girl along. But even Jennifer soon slumped and her disappointment was evident. But she couldn’t bring herself to judge the petite contender harshly, praising her for representing the Latinos listening and saying Piriz did a really good job. But though Harry tried to soften his critique by saying it took a lot of courage to sing the powerhouse Lopez song, he told Piriz, “You have to match the intensity, like a locomotive. The production was too big for you.” Keith said he loved it, but wanted her to be more confident. Then someone mentioned the trademark “hair whip” that Jennifer does. It was a night of examples. Audience, judges, and host persuaded the beautiful diva to do the hair whip, And she did — to more loud applause.
Last week’s firecracker, Caleb Johnson of Ashville, NC, fizzled this week with the Rush song, “Working Man”. Caleb said Ashville was the home for eclectic music and he loved it. Caleb still has the big voice, but the arrangement just didn’t vibe. “There’s a big difference between being consistent and being predictable,” said Harry Connick. “Where are you going to take this forward?” Keith said Caleb was one of the best singers of the Top 12, and one of the best rockers in a long time. Jennifer just said it was a great job. To us watching at home, it lacked the power and energy we were anticipating. It was disappointing.
Keith gave M. K. Nobilette some pointers about how to hold her guitar while not actually playing and said hers was a good song choice of “Drops of Jupiter” by Train. Jennifer called it a nice song, and was pleasantly surprised when M.K. briefly raised her voice to a higher level in the middle of it. “But it still was not a breakout performance,” said the judge. A surprising statement from Harry brought a few boos. “It looks like you just don’t want to be here,” he said. “No, you can play and sing. But you’ve got to work on what’s hard for you. If you do that, you’ll improve.” M.K., an adopted child, has a look of sad-sweet vulnerability about her that comes through in her voice. But like Harry, I don’t know if she’s meant for American Idol. She’ll have to climb out of herself and into the limelight in order to go the distance.
Although C.J. Harris, another favorite of Jasper, Alabama, sang “Waitin’ on the World to Change”, by John Mayer, he still has not done what I know he can do with that voice. Jennifer “loved the performance”. Harry said C.J. was consistently sharp, but got across the emotion (which he did). “All that’s missing now,” said Keith, is to do something different to the song. You can do an artistic take. I kept waiting for you to do something great.” C.J. chose this song because he really is waiting for the world to change where people make no difference between black and white. “It shouldn’t be,” he said.
Young Sam Woolf moved from his native Michigan to Bradenton, Florida, where he’s living with his grandparents. He sang “Just One” by Blind Pilot, because it reminded him of Michigan and his old pals, and said hopefully he would connect. Sam sat at the edge of the stage crooning to bright-faced and eager young girls, which should have brought out every male instinct he had. But, bless his heart, he looked slightly terrified and a little teary. Harry said he really liked the song but it needed some “emotional dynamics”. Keith said he had a “tone like buttah (butter) — don’t you just love Keith’s down under accent!!?? Jennifer told Sam he needed to “push outside his comfort zone”.
Although young Malaya Watson, the Michigan band member, went back to her keyboard, got a different hairstyle, and seemed more subdued, she was still hard on the ears. She’s a sweet girl with a lot of young enthusiasm, but if there’s a great voice in there I haven’t heard it yet. However, Jennifer told Malaya she gave her “goosies” with her version of “Take Me to the King” by Tamela Mann. “It was like you were telling a story to us,” she said. “I had tears in my eyes.” Keith said it was a beautiful song, a great choice, and loved her range. Harry thought she was in danger of running off the track again. Yep, Harry. It sounded like steel wheels sliding against steel rails to me there at the end.
Ben Briley, whose too-fast and funky version of “Folsom Prison” last week left me cold, came out with a more than passable performance last night of “Turning Home” by David Nail. Ben’s personality has shone throughout the season and his great sense of humor never fails him. As the cameras took him back to his roots, with enough relatives to fill up his small town of Gallitin, TN, Ben quipped that he was pretty sure it was his huge family that kept voting him through. Jennifer told him there was “feeling there” in his choice of “Turning Home”. Hard-hat Harry claimed the song felt “shouted”, and didn’t connect. Booooo, Harry. Keith commented on Ben’s incredible voice. “You have the ability to take it where you want to go,” he said. “Don’t focus on technicality rather than emotion.” Then everything went “down home” when Seacrest brought out deviled eggs — Ben’s favorite food — and shared them around.
Majesty Rose of Goldsboro, NC, ended the night with “Fix You”, by Coldplay. I was disappointed in the performance, but Harry said he liked her confidence. Jennifer said she didn’t have to go far for the big thing. Keith said he was gonna see her next week. I think the show was running out of time and Majesty got short-shrifted on the comments. Maybe that was for the best.
But it was Jennifer who voiced the disappointment of judges and viewers alike. Like her, young or not, nervous or not, it’s time to step up to home plate and bat one out of the ball park. Of their performances Jennifer said, “It HAS to be powerful. You have to kill it. You don’t have to shout to do it. You just have to kill it.” —- Amen, sister.