Which one will you fall in love with tonight?
This is the question with which Ryan Seacrest opens Tuesday's American Idol, and not even he can hide the desperation within it. Four months and countless hours in, onto which of these six blank slates will you project some meaning? Will it be Caleb, “The Hard Rocker”? CJ, “The Roots Rocker”? Jessica “The Rebel”? Sam “The Heartthrob”? Alex “The Troubadour”? Or Jena “The Wildcard”? (Also, how much work did they put into these descriptors? Is Jessica a rebel because she has pink in her hair, or because she stubbornly refuses to look like she’s enjoying herself? Is Jena a wildcard because she got in as a wildcard, like CJ did, or is she a wildcard because they couldn’t think of a tidy noun for her, and “The Singer” or “The Person” seemed too vague?)
Tonight’s two themes are “country” (which must be painful for Dexter to hear, back on his couch in Pigsnout, Alabama, or wherever) and “rock.” It might force some of these kids out of their safe zones. I don’t know which one I’ll fall in love with tonight, but I am willing to give my heart. Let’s do this, guys. Let’s fucking do this.
Jena Irene: “Barracuda” by Heart
Okay. This is not an easy song to sing, for a million reasons. You need range, you need to be able to spit rapid-fire rhymes like Ann Wilson, and you need to make it sound semi-relevant in 2014. And she does! Not a bum note to be heard! She is wearing houndstooth tights that look like a Magic Eye picture, but when I stare deeply into them, I see hope. The judges love it. Jen thinks she could take the whole thing. She is right, in that this is the wide-openest playing field in Idol history.
Sam Woolf: “It’s Time” by Imagine Dragons
When your major issue is that you lack personality, it might be a mistake to sing a song whose chorus is “I’m never changing who I am.” It’s like you’re telling the world: “I am a gray henley shirt come to life — deal with it.” Sure, his pitch is mostly good, but he still refuses to connect with the camera or the audience. Keith tells him to “release what’s inside [him],” and that’s the problem: He already is. He is releasing cardboard.
CJ Harris: “American Woman” by the Guess Who, by way of Lenny Kravitz
You know how sometimes the judges say “I feel like I was watching the [insert name here] concert”? This song made me feel like I was watching the CJ Harris concert, and this was the song that made everyone decide to go to the bathroom at the same time. This one bites the Kravitz version super hard, but with the off-key vocals that are all Harris. Harry hammers him yet again for singing out of tune, and then apologizes for it, and call me a crank, but I think critiquing vocals on a singing competition show is totally appropriate.
Alex Preston: “Animal” by Neon Trees
Alex continues to look like a Rowan Atkinson character, and that’s not his fault, but how can I expect to fall in love if I don’t express what my heart is feeling? “Animal” is a fun song, and one of Alex’s major issues is that he doesn’t know how to have fun onstage, so right off the bat we’re in trouble. If he could cut the tiniest bit loose, he could make some real progress here, but he can’t and doesn’t. The judges agree with me. Jennifer is dressed like a gladiator cheerleader.
Caleb Johnson: “Sting Me” by the Black Crowes
“Okay, here we go.” Those are words I actually said out loud to my dog as this song started. This is not only the kind of thing Caleb can make a meal out of, it’s something that’s totally missing from the music world at the moment: total balls-out southern-fried rock and roll. He drops his mike right in the middle of the song, picks it up, and doesn’t miss a step. He flirts with the backup singers. He falls dead to the ground at the climax. It is a performance, and I shouldn’t be so surprised to see one at this stage of the Idol season, but I am, and I now see a viable role in the marketplace for Caleb Johnson. The judges love it.
Jessica Meuse: “Somebody to Love” by Jefferson Airplane
As her nature demands, Jessica rebels against the encroaching spirit of fun by making a predictable choice and singing it joylessly. It’s fine. She still looks and sounds like a singer the girls would go see on a Cloris Leachman episode of The Facts of Life. The judges basically say, “Congratulations on making noise come out of your mouth.”
AND THEN WE DO THIS ALL OVER AGAIN BUT WITH COUNTRY SONGS.
Sam Woolf :“You’re Still the One” by Shania Twain
If this is a country song, it’s a country song with an asterisk. Like, it hit the country charts and it was sung by an artist whom we identify as a country artist, but it is the most vanilla of pop songs no matter who sings it. Sam goes without his guitar for the first time this season, which allows him to approach the throng of teenage girls, but he does it with all the enthusiasm of someone who’s been told to approach a throng of teenage girls. To me, it sounds like something a really corny groom sings to his bride at a terrible wedding. A wedding with, like, a cash bar. Gross.
Listen, I could get into the whole thing where they bring out Grumpy Cat and everyone cheers, but let’s not. Because here’s the thing: The cat is not grumpy at all, that’s just the way his face looks, and now he’s being carted around to malls and photo shoots and desperate reality shows, so he has become more of a Terrified and Heavily Sedated Cat, which is a real bummer. Sarah McLachlan, please intervene.
Caleb Johnson: “Undo It” by Carrie Underwood
I could also write a thousand words about the insane homophobia on display tonight (Keith remarks that he heard a dude say “I love you, Sam!” Harry urges CJ to sing “American Woman” to Ryan, because he moisturizes his face or whatever!), but I must quickly tell you that everyone acts like it’s a great big deal for Caleb to sing a song originally sung by Carrie Underwood. It is not a great big deal. It is in fact a really smart choice for him. The judges say it can’t quite match up to his round one performance, and they’re right, so maybe they could have kept this show to one hour.
Alex Preston: “Always on My Mind” by Willie Nelson
And then out comes Alex to turn a country classic into something you’d hear in the end credits of a mumblecore film. This is what Alex does, and we’ve probably gotten to the end of what American Idol can do for him, but he’s got a bright coffeehouse future ahead of him no matter what happens. The judges giggle and mug and take selfies and do funny voices and pinch each other’s butts, because at this point they’re just trying to stay awake.
Jena Irene: “So Small” by Carrie Underwood
I’m starting to see where Jena fits into the pop world, too. She’s a big sister to the young record-buying public. (Sound-file-buying? Spotify-clicking? I am a million years old, get me a bicarb.) She’s a Demi Lovato without the Disney childhood. An aspirational figure. So a wet-noodle, milquetoast Hallmark card of a song like this is actually just the right thing. I’m now calling a Jena vs. Caleb finale, and I believe it might actually be entertaining.
CJ Harris: “Whatever It Is” by Zac Brown Band
What a pleasant song this is! I’m starting to understand why country is so wildly popular right now: All the '90s kids (like me) who used to listen to the Samples and kick hacky-sacks around are now old people who want to hear jangly, happy melodies and be able to understand the lyrics, and since mainstream rock is still stuck in its grim Staind moment, country fits the bill. I am thinking about this now, because there is very little to think about in CJ’s performance. Additionally, I will take this time to tell you that my favorite performances this season come from Jennifer Lopez noticing herself in her monitor.
Jessica Meuse: “Jolene” by Dolly Parton
I love this song. I love that this is a song about a man-stealing goddess super-ho. I love picturing the townspeople in the world of this song trembling in fear before Jolene’s ferocious beauty. “She’s coming! Avert your eyes, lest ye be seduced!” “Jolene” is a classic, and you simply cannot go wrong with it, unless you sing it without any kind of emotion, which is of course exactly what Jessica does. Hey, here’s an idea: You know that slowed-down version that everyone’s posting on Facebook this week? Why not do that version? Why not do something?
So that’s that. I think CJ might have reached the end of the road. I did not fall in love tonight, but I had a couple of brief flings, and sometimes that’s enough.