If you've been thinking to yourself, since the "American Idol" live shows began, that the performances this season have been somewhat less than stellar, the "Idol" judges apparently share your concern.
"Now we're into the competition," Jennifer Lopez warned the top 12 before they took the stage to perform songs that reminded them of home. "It's, like, no more Mr. Nice Guy, no more excuses. You've got to come out here and … own it. You have to really start giving superstar performances because America's just not going to take that. They want the real deal, and that's what we're looking for tonight."
The gauntlet had been thrown down, but, to continue the metaphor, it kind of just laid there. Few of the contestants seemed interested in picking it up.
Yes, friends, even on a night targeted at tugging the old heartstrings (who doesn't get a little emotional when thinking warm thoughts about home?), we got another round of uninspiring, amateurish performances.
Jena Irene started things off on an upbeat note singing KT Tunstall's "Suddenly I See," because it reminded her of family road trips, while comfortably working the stage.
Keith Urban said her stage presence was "really coming to life," though he wasn't thrilled about the song choice. Lopez felt she was "right there at the precipice of really blossoming onstage." And Harry Connick Jr. said he enjoyed the way Jena had "messed with the melody a little bit" but wanted to see even more energy.
Alex Preston performed Gavin DeGraw's "I Don't Want to Be." (DeGraw had once offered him encouragement.) It was not Alex's strongest performance. He seemed to have difficulty maintaining his breath.
Lopez complimented Alex on his look, telling him that his colorful suit, with its rolled-up pant legs, made him "look official." She expressed less enthusiasm for Alex's vocals, which, she said, were overpowered by the arrangement. Connick agreed, but said he admired Alex for trying something different. Urban said he kept thinking of the word "instability," and chalked up the breath and pitch issues to nervousness. Still, he said, he always applauded Alex's "originality."
Jessica Meuse, singing Dido's "White Flag," which reminded her of her teenage years, also seemed to run out of air and veer off pitch. It was probably her worst "Idol" performance to date. Connick called it "kind of blasé" in terms of intonation and emotion. Urban argued that pitch would have been unimportant had the emotion been there. Lopez noted that, while Jessica had been sharp and emotionally lackluster, she looked great.
Dexter Roberts slowed down his country groove and got vulnerable with Montgomery Gentry's "Lucky Man," sitting and strumming along on his acoustic guitar. Urban called it "the perfect song" for Dexter's voice and admired the way he "took little liberties with the phrasing," finding opportunities to "pull it back" and "tell a story."
Lopez seemed ready to compare Dexter unfavorably to Season 10 winner Scotty McCreery but then switched gears and said Dexter had done a good job. Connick was uncharacteristically effusive, telling Dexter he'd turned in "unquestionably the best performance of the night."
Emily Piriz, who, in case you (like Julie Horowitz of New York) were wondering, has a serious boyfriend in the Marine Corps, acknowledged her Cuban American heritage and chose a song by a fellow Latina, one Jennifer Lopez. (Way to angle in on multiple voting blocs, Emily.) She danced around to Lopez's "Let's Get Loud," and the crowd seemed fired up, but the vocals didn't match the energy. The song was pitched too low for her.
Lopez gave Emily kudos for "representing for all the Latinas out there watching" and said that, while it was "hard to watch someone do your song," she was happy to know the song had meant something to Emily growing up. "I loved it," Lopez concluded, noting that she was "biased."
Connick was far less enthusiastic, saying that, while it "took a lot of courage to sing that song in front of Jennifer," Emily had failed to take ownership of the song. He compared it to a "big locomotive train going down the track" and said she'd failed to drive it. "The production was too big for you tonight," he said.
Urban disagreed, telling Emily he'd "loved it" and guaranteeing that she'd be back next week. His request for a "hair whip" was spontaneously met by Lopez — a "super risky" move, she said, due to her exceptionally short skirt.
Caleb Johnson worked the stage in his usual way with "Working Man," by his "favorite band," Rush. Again there were smoke (this time, projected) and dramatic moves with the mike (this time, no mike stand), and he ended in a heap on the floor — with another out-of-control-hair situation.
Connick told Caleb that his consistency as a performer ran the risk of becoming predictable. "I almost know how I'm going to feel before I hear you sing," he said, advising Caleb to push his rock 'n' roll persona forward and make it more fresh and modern.
Urban said Caleb was "seriously one of the best singers I've heard in a long, long time," but said his challenge was going to be how to make that lead-singer-in-a-rock-band thing work without a band around him. Lopez said he'd done a "great job."
M.K. Nobilette, who'd landed in the bottom three last week, tried to evoke hilly San Francisco with her take on Train's "Drops of Jupiter," but alas, the performance fell flat. Urban liked the song choice but felt a lack of connection. Lopez called it "nice," but not "a breakout performance." And Connick told M.K. that, while he perceived "glimpses of joy," he got the feeling M.K. didn't "really want to be here" when she performed and urged her to practice the things that make her "uncomfortable."
CJ Harris performed John Mayer's "Waiting for the World to Change," noting that there were still "problems in the South" (he's from Jasper, Ala.) he hoped might one day be rectified. Lopez "loved" it. "This is what music is about — changing the world … putting a message out," she said. Connick said CJ had sung "consistently sharp" but managed to make him feel something anyway. And Urban urged CJ to do "something different" to a song in the future to make it more his own.
Sam Woolf, this season's designated teeny-bopper heartthrob, sang Blind Pilot's "Just One," seated downstage, wearing a jaunty little hat, surrounded by young, adoring audience members. Connick called it a "pleasant performance" but said Sam needed to change things up in terms of "emotional dynamics." Lopez also urged him to "push out of that comfort zone," but Urban took a more positive spin. "I guarantee you'll be here next week," he told Sam, comparing his vocal tone to butter. "If you made an album tomorrow of original songs, I'd go and buy that record. I would."
Malaya Watson's performance also got high marks from Urban. After finding herself in the bottom three last week, she vowed not to find herself in those stools again. "They were not even comfortable," she said. So she returned to her sweet spot (hair soberly flattened for the occasion), seating herself at a piano to sing what she said was the first gospel song she ever learned, Tamela Mann's "Take Me to the King."
Urban stood and whooped and called Malaya's performance "beautiful," vulnerable and powerful. Lopez said she got "goosies from head to toe" and tears in her eyes because she was "so proud." Connick too said he was impressed with Malaya's "focused," gutsy performance. There were, he said, a "few little problems," but the "message was there" and she "started from point A and … saw it all the way through."
Ben Briley tackled "Turning Home" by David Nail, saying, "I'm a simple guy, and I grew up in a simple town, and it's something I'm really proud of." If his performance was calculated to evoke emotion, not all the judges were feeling it. Lopez said he had her. But Connick said he couldn't connect with it, saying it "felt shouted" to him. "It was OK; it wasn't great," he said. Urban suggested Ben had been so focused on "the technicality and the notes and the range" that he'd lost the story and emotion.
Majesty Rose, one of the season's most solid performers, took on Coldplay's "Fix You" because it evoked her time as a "struggling teen." She started off quiet and intimate, playing her acoustic guitar, and then went big as the band joined her but seemed to lose something in the transition. The judges wished she'd kept the song quiet and intimate. But it was still probably the most emotionally powerful performance of the night.
Who do you think will head home this week? I'm putting M.K. and Malaya back into the bottom two, and predicting Emily and CJs might join them there. You?