With fewer singers each week, American Idol‘s producers find themselves with more and more time to fill. Wednesday, they trotted out a random assortment of celebrities — Terry Bradshaw, UFC women’s champion Ronda Rousey, teen EDM musician Martin Garrix and former X Factor judge Demi Lovato.
As for the songs, the producers went with a Competitors’ Pick theme, where each finalist had to choose from a list of material selected by the other contestants. Caleb Johnson seemed to particularly relish the idea, to the point that Randy Jackson had to remind him, “That does not mean sabotage.”
The results were one of the most musically satisfying shows of the season, with one singer in particular solidifying her position in the competition.
Here’s how I ranked the solo performances:
Jena Irene, Creep (Radiohead). Johnson picked this song for Irene because of her “powerhouse voice” and “dark elements.” Irene returns to the piano for a performance that combines tenderness and harsh dissonance. When the guitar enters, it’s jarring, but it unleashes Irene’s inner Hayley Williams in a way we don’t see often. She also finds the emotional arc of the song, bringing it back down to an achingly vulnerable finish. “I love your fearlessness, and I love how bold you are,” Urban says. Lopez adds, “You Jena-fy everything that you do. … You’re going to be here for the long haul.” Connick calls her a “phenomenal talent” and says she’s “unquestionably the best performance of the night. … I think you did some major damage tonight.” Grade: A
Alex Preston, The A Team (Ed Sheeran). There’s a lot of Sheeran and his idiosyncratic delivery in Preston, so Roberts’ choice was a good one for him. Preston plays with the melody a little but wins the crowd over in a big way. “I agree with them, Alex,” Lopez says. “You should thank your boy Dexter, because it was a perfect song for you.” Connick agrees: “You realize that there’s great beauty in small performances,” he says, adding that Preston’s conviction in those seems to be winning over the audience. Urban praises the unique flourishes he brings in at surprising, and surprisingly natural, moments. Grade: A
Caleb Johnson, Family Tree (Kings of Leon). Johnson’s roommate, Alex Preston, couldn’t have picked a better song for Johnson. The Kings of Leon tune finally shows the classic rocker in a contemporary context. There’s still plenty of that ’70s rock, like with the Steven Tyler mic-stand move he used to start the song. But it’s just different enough — both from what he’s done from the Kings original — that he makes it something special. “That was a good choice, man,” Urban tells him. “You’re such a consistent, dynamic performer week after week.” Lopez tells him it’s dangerous to put him first in the lineup because then everybody else has to measure up. Connick liked the way he changed the melody: “Great way to start the show.” Grade: A
C.J. Harris, Gravity (John Mayer). Harris’ gravelly Gravity,…