Tonight’s theme is “I’m With the Band,” and it entails Rickey Minor and the American Idol band breaking out of their stage-left corral and joining the Idols onstage. Keith says: “I hope it’ll bring out the comfort level of the performers,” and after the last few awkward, tentative weeks, I do too. We all hope these kids will develop some kind of personality, and while moving the band four feet to the right seems like an odd way to do it, I’m down to try whatever. Let’s all be with the band.
Tonight’s special guest mentors are Patrick Stump and Pete Wentz from Fall Out Boy, who offer this sage advice: “As performers, you need to entertain people.” The Idols’ eyes widen and their heads nod, and you think, Oh wait, this is the first time our top nine has heard that particular piece of instruction. Will it work?
We go directly into our first group number of the season, and the results are unclear. It’s a medley of Coldplay’s “Clocks,” the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” and Fall Out Boy’s “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark,” three songs that have nothing in common except that you’ve heard them all too many times. The medley gets progressively shoutier, up until the FOB part, in which Malaya and Jena prove that they can’t yet move and sing at the same time; they sound like they’re singing through a cardio-kickboxing class.
And then, somewhere around 8:30 p.m., the show actually begins. Let’s discuss it.
Alex Preston: “Don’t Speak” by No Doubt
Alex is doing Jason Mraz doing No Doubt, right down to the white-boy scatting. It’s interesting, in that it’s clear he spent all his time learning the song and none of his time trying to understand its lyrics; the result is a breezy, beachy, Sunday-Funday sad desperate breakup song. And while it’s exactly the kind of thing you can picture Alex doing in an Alex show, it’s also the exact moment in the Alex show when you’d go to the bathroom. Keith thinks it’s a little too mellow; Jennifer says it sucked the energy out of the song; Harry says he’s safe in the competition, so he can take some chances, like by maybe moving around the stage. I think Alex is so committed to being a coffeehouse entertainer that moving around the stage has never occurred to him.
Majesty Rose: “Shake It Out“ by Florence and the Machine
She’s dressed like an Andrews Sister, like Annie in the Annie reboot if they kept Annie set in the FDR administration. This is a good choice for her; it splits the difference between the indie Starbucks vibe she generally gives us and the crowd-pleasing sing-along she needs to do to survive. She’s sharp through the whole thing, but she’s got pep. Her spirit is back! Harry says she’s close to breaking through, and, you know, that’s faint praise to give to someone in the top nine of American Idol. Break all the way through already.
Dexter Roberts: “Boondocks” by Little Big Town
The problem with Dexter Roberts is, in microcosm, the problem with modern country: It’s all very folksy and ingratiating, but where is the soul? Beyond the down-home hillbilly fridge-magnet poetry, where is the personality? It’s turning into a Jimmy Buffett contest out there, and Johnny Cash must be spinning in his grave like Wonder Woman. Anyway: In Dexter’s intro package, we learn that he calls his grandfather his “grandpappy” and pronounces the word help like hep. Amazing. Dexter again fails to connect with the crowd in this performance, and as Harry points out, he sounds generic. But as I said, modern country is generic, and one gets the sense that every printer in Nashville is spitting out a recording contract as we speak, so who even cares how he does in this competition?
Right now, Keith gives Harry a giant gummy bear that is so big and purple and sugary-looking that it gives me type 2 diabetes on the spot. Harry takes a big old chomp out of it, and then Jennifer does the same and the crowd goes crazy. That’s how starved this audience is for something to happen. Jennifer Lopez is eating a piece of candy? Yes! YESSSSSS!
Malaya Watson: “The Long and Winding Road” by the Beatles
Okay, Malaya’s vocal performance is pretty much perfect — or at least perfect by tonight’s significantly lowered standards — but the band’s arrangement of this song is such boilerplate R&B, it sounds like it’s coming from some kind of chitlin-circuit touring musical. (“Tyler Perry’s I Got to Sing to Keep From Cryin’, Lord, in This Beauty Shop Full of Characters” or something.) Malaya’s making smart moves here; she’s going back and forth between fun pop numbers that prove her commercial viability and big show-stoppers like this that show she can sing. Harry tells her she wins the award for Most Consistently Improving, but reproaches her for talking about her growing stardom. “Work on your craft, forget about stardom,” he says. To a child.
Sam Woolf: “Hey There Delilah” by Plain White T’s
It’s amazing that it took Sam this long to take on “Hey There Delilah,” because in many ways, Sam is “Hey There Delilah”: gentle, inoffensive, forgettable, inexplicably a lot of people’s favorite thing. You can already hear how this sounds. Jennifer asks whether there’s a Delilah in this particular Samson’s life, and he’s cagey about it, probably because he is prepubescent and also a marionette.
Jessice Meuse: “Rhiannon” by Fleetwood Mac
Don’t tell anybody, but I started to like Jessica a little bit last night. She displays a little soul here, a tiny bit of vulnerability. She’s a tiny bit warmer than she’s ever been. It might be because she’s performing without a guitar for the first time and she’s like a child whose binky is in the wash. But it’s something. Voice-wise, she’s still a little overly vibrato-y, and the comparison to Stevie Nicks does her no favors. (And if you’re going to go Stevie, maybe try something a little less iconic and more direct? “Gypsy,” maybe? “Silver Springs”? There is a reason only one person has tried to sing about Welsh witches.) The judges say more or less what I just did.
CJ Harris: “If It Hadn’t Been For Love” by the Steeldrivers
Now, I love CJ, and I love it when people bring little-known songs to American Idol (though I later find out that Adele did a version of this song, so never mind maybe), but you cannot overlook the fact that CJ is off-key through this entire performance. Like, literally never for one second on key. This probably won’t matter in the age of pitch-correction, but it really stands out tonight. Harry again, for the one millionth time, urges CJ to work on his pitch, and who knows if it will work or if it will matter; again, have a seat, CJ, Nashville is getting your room ready.
Caleb Johnson: “Dazed and Confused” by Led Zeppelin
Of course, this performance is perfect. This is exactly what Caleb wants to do, because Caleb is one of those guys who listens to the classic-rock station in his town and never moves the dial ever and says I want to do that, and has the talent to do that. But the problem with Caleb is that he doesn’t seem to have given it much thought beyond that simple desire; he wants to be Robert Plant, but he hasn’t given any consideration to what being Caleb Johnson would mean. You get the sense that if Fuel came calling — the way they did to Chris Daughtry after he was eliminated — Caleb would just be like: Yeah, sure, let’s do this, no questions asked. Anyway, Caleb, alone among the Idols so far, actually interacts with the band, and generally behaves like the baby rock star he is. The judges love it. The crowd loves it. He’s going to win this thing, isn’t he?
Jena Irene: “Bring Me to Life” by Evanescence
I will never understand why people attempt this grim, boring song, but here we go again. It actually suits Jena’s voice fairly well, although she’s still all sharp edges in the louder parts. She takes Caleb’s lead and does a sort of back-to-back thing with the band’s guitarist, so she earns some rare band-interaction points. The judges all give her high marks, and you get the sense that they just want to go home. So do I, and I am home.
So there it is! The Idols were kind of with the band! The band was like: I guess we’re here together, but we’re just kind of hanging out, seeing what develops. We’re not, like, exclusive or anything; why, what’s your deal? I think Sam and Majesty are in trouble, and I think the gang at 19 Entertainment is having an emergency meeting about how on earth they’re going to market a Caleb Johnson album.