Alex Preston, Jena Irene, Caleb Johnson
American Idol celebrated its 500th (!) episode Wednesday night, with tributes throughout the broadcast from past winners. But really, the visits only served as a reminder of how far the show has fallen since its Kelly Clarkson/Carrie Underwood heydays.
But that's not the only depressing aspect of tonight's show: We learn right at the start that Caleb Johnson has "no voice," after suffering from bronchitis, sinusitis, and a bruised vocal chord. Yikes.
Each finalist will perform three songs in this round: The first is Randy Jackson's pick, the second is Judges' Choice, and the third is selected by fans from the singer's hometown. But first, the evening kicks off with The Chainsmokers (?) singing a song called "Selfie," which makes me die inside. Also, isn't that an ABC show?
Jessica Meuse: "American Idol is like The Hunger Games"
To the (important) performances!
Randy's Pick: "Never Tear Us Apart" by INXS
The performance: This is an interesting song choice for Caleb, but ends up falling kind of flat. Personally I'm not a fan of the revamped arrangement, and it's clear that Caleb's vocal injury is no joke. He misses a couple of notes, and is obviously holding back a bit (both of which are rarities for him). And his "woo" run toward the end of the song is just out of place.
What the judges say: Keith Urban compliments Randy's song choice, and notes that Caleb did a "really good job" in spite of being under the weather. Jennifer Lopez says she could tell Caleb wanted to do more with the song, but notes that on his worst night, he's better than "people" on their best night. Harry Connick Jr. also loves the song choice and warns Caleb not to hurt himself.
Judges' Pick: "Demons" by Imagine Dragons
The performance: Caleb's still struggling, but this song is less of a strain on his ailing voice. However, it's very low-energy, especially for Caleb. It's odd not seeing the band behind him — and while the goal is probably to prove that Caleb can do more than just '80s hair rock, the end result is just a bit of a snoozefest.
What the judges say: Keith compares Caleb to Steve Perry, and says he's doing a great job of working through his illness. J.Lo says Caleb should rely on emotion to carry him through the songs rather than the limitations he's facing tonight. Harry asks Caleb what kind of record he would make after the competition. ("Powerful, soulful rock 'n' roll," and all original songs is the answer.)
Hometown Pick: "Dazed and Confused" by Led Zeppelin
The performance: Obviously Caleb has been saving his voice for the final number, which has Keith and Jen out of their seats rocking out at the judges' table. It's a flawless performance, bluesy and sultry and completely rocking all at the same time. Caleb destroys what's left of his vocal chords on the last note, after also destroying the mic stand. The lengthy standing ovation he receives is well-deserved.
What the judges say: Keith says Caleb's "miraculous healing" makes him want to throw stuff. (R.I.P. Keith's chair.) J.Lo says it was "ridiculous," and Harry calls it "absolutely fantastic." (Check out Caleb's previous performance of "Dazed and Confused" here.)
Add new fall shows to your Watchlist
Randy's Pick: "Pompeii" by Bastille
The performance: Finally, an up-tempo(ish) number from Alex! Can he pull it off? Eh. The song strangely feels a bit beyond his range in parts, and it was probably a bad call to have Alex switch to the drums midway through the song, as he first suffers a microphone malfunction and then (perhaps as a result) forgets some lyrics. Props to him for trying to step it up in this semifinal and work the crowd a little, though.
What the judges say: J.Lo praises Alex for the percussion and playing to the crowd. Harry says the performance gave him a needed boost, but didn't like that he could see "the wheels turning" as Alex was trying to be a jack of all trades. Keith agrees, but compliments Alex's singing while he's at the drum set.
Judges' Pick: "Stay" by Rihanna
The performance: Good job, judges! This is simply gorgeous, minus one wince-worthy falsetto "woo" from Alex and a misfire on the last note. It's nice to see him trade in his singer-songwriter routine for a straightforward ballad performance. The arrangement is great, the delivery is moving, and this is the strongest performance of the night at the point at which it's performed.
What the judges say: Jennifer says Alex owned the song and made everyone forget about Rihanna. Harry asks Alex what a concert of his would look like (a lot of jams). Keith loves Alex's artistic choices, even the extended falsetto.
Hometown Pick: "Story of My Life" by One Direction
The performance: Alex hasn't made leaps and bounds of progress since he performed this song way back during Top 10 week, although the arrangement is slightly different this time around. The moving subway backdrop is just distracting, though. So, it's fine, but this is unfortunately a missed opportunity for him to turn in another J.Lo-patented "Idol moment" a la "Stay."
What the judges say: "America really has their work cut out for them," Jen notes. Harry calls it "another classic Alex performance." Keith says that "Stay" was a hard song to follow, and that this song called for Alex to take a little dip.
Get hot scoop on all the new fall shows
Randy's Pick: "Titanium" by David Guetta and Sia
The performance: Is it just me, or does Jena sound a bit off key at the start of this track? These first three performances are making me wonder if there's something going wrong with the contestants' monitors (which has been a recurring problem this season, according to exit interviews with the eliminees). Of the three finalists, Jena is definitely the most skilled at pumping up a crowd, and the song comes to life in its final third.
What the judges say: Harry loves the song choice and says Jena killed all the big notes. Keith is "inspired" by Jena's balance of having fun and owning a performance. J.Lo agrees with Harry that Jena hit all the right notes, but said it was "shaky" at the beginning and "stiff" throughout.
Judges' Pick: "Heart Attack" by Demi Lovato
The performance: Like her previous number, this one starts out a little rough for Jena, but she wraps her voice around the chorus like she's never going to let it escape. Love her natural rapport with the guitarist as well.
What the judges say: Harry cautions Jena to maintain the same energy level at the beginning of the song as the end of the song, and asks her what her demeanor would be like in concert ("a lot of instrumental breaks, so I could just rage with the crowd"). Keith gushes over Jena's pitch, phrasing and range. Jen says Jena looked more loose and in control.
Hometown Pick: "Creep" by Radiohead
The performance: Jena's Top 7 week performance of "Creep" is arguably the song that solidified her as a true contender this season, and it's a tough — if not impossible — one to top. But she does it here, infusing the song with emotion and intensity that makes it clear just how much she's grown as a competitor and singer throughout the course of the season.
What the judges say: Harry points out Jena's range and reiterates how much he loves her at the piano, noting that her rendition is even better this time around. Keith calls Jena's progress "mind-blowing." Jennifer says she's "going to be so hard to beat."
What did you think? What was your favorite performance of the night? And who deserves to go to next week's final? Sound off below!
American Idol airs Wednesdays at 8/7c and Thursdays at 9/8c on Fox.