American Idol went back to the '80s Wednesday night, with the Top 8 finalists performing song selections from music's most fluorescent decade — despite the fact that none of the contestants were alive in the 1980s. (Think about that for a second. Feel old yet?) They get help from a nearly unrecognizable David Cook, who returns to the Idol stage this week to act as a mentor.
We get our first elimination of the night fairly early, when judge Keith Urban opts to ditch his bitchin' mullet ("sixty thousand dollars' worth of hair extensions," quips his co-panelist Harry Connick, Jr.) within the first five minutes of the show.
Song: "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" by Joan Jett
The performance: We could have done without the piano intro, because Jena's swingin' bluesy take along on the karaoke classic is inventive and personalized enough on its own. Of everyone in the Top 8, it's really only Jena and Caleb who demonstrate consistent comfort with working a crowd, and Jena's ad-libbing at the end of the song closes out a top-notch performance.
What the judges say: Keith likes Jena's piano intro and compliments her originality, but Jennifer Lopez thought it "languished" a bit in the middle. Harry's not a fan of the arrangement, and says the performance was a bit too choreographed, and he and Jennifer both basically tell Jena to ignore the Idol producers' advice, which is amazing.
Song: "Keep Your Hands to Yourself" by Georgia Satellites
The performance: This one is a little rough. Dexter starts off out of sync with the band, and has a tough time recovering. His vocals feel rushed for the remainder of the song, and the whole thing feels a bit phoned-in, to be quite honest. Definitely one of his weaker performances to date.
What the judges say: J.Lo says the performance was "perfect," and Harry says that Dexter's performance from last week was so good that he "bought himself" a free week. (What?) Keith says the intro felt a little awkward and encourages Dexter to improvise a little in the middle of the performance, i.e. kick a mic stand. Harry demonstrates.
First duet of the night: Sam and Alex
Song: "The Girl Is Mine" by Michael Jackson feat. Paul McCartney
The performance: Ugh, duets. At least these two sound fairly pleasant together. Their call-and-response portion at the end is enjoyable, but other than that, the song basically flatlines.
What the judges say: Harry asks Sam how he feels after getting saved this week, and Sam responds that he's been working on connecting with the audience. J.Lo and Keith say they can notice his improvement, but we can't.
Song: "Through the Fire" by Chaka Khan
The performance: Malaya nails most of the big notes in this song (and screeches on the others), but the performance mostly just leaves us scratching our heads. It doesn't seem like she's connecting with the words beyond just reciting them from memory. Let's also remember that Malaya is only 16, and the intensity of this song might be a bit beyond her years.
What the judges say: Keith compliments Malaya's vocals but coaches her to "lay back into" the song a bit more. Jennifer and Harry agree, with Harry adding that it seemed like Malaya was just working up to the Big Note throughout the entire performance.
Second duet: Caleb and Jena
Song: "It's Only Love" by Bryan Adams
The performance: Finally! A duet where the participants not only look like they're having fun, but one that sounds pretty damn good to boot.
What the judges say: Not much, because Harry derails the performance by watching it from the audience and putting a young girl on his shoulders. (Side note: Ryan Seacrest looks so concerned about this, does he not? The girl looks a little frightened as well.)
Song: "Call Me" by Blondie
The performance: Jessica looks super uncomfortable without her guitar, but does her best to settle into the performance. Her vocals are great, but would pack more of a punch if she was a little looser on the stage and put a little more passion into the performance.
What the judges say: Harry tells Jessica to "feel the groove" and "sing the shuffle." Hopefully she knows what he means, because we don't! Keith says he's waiting for Jess to "release completely" into her performances. J.Lo suggests that she put a little more attitude and sex appeal into the song.
Song: "Time After Time" by Cyndi Lauper
The performance: Idol continues to hammer square-peg Sam into the "Ladies Man" hole by surrounding him with a group of starry-eyed girls. (Many of them look to be about 12, and this is awkward.) His folksy arrangement of "Time After Time" is fine, but might've worked better on a piano or just as a straightforward cover. There's still nothing exciting about Sam, unfortunately.
What the judges say: Keith loves the arrangement but says Sam still needs to loosen up. Jennifer loves his voice and notes that he's trying, and Harry says Sam should be looking at the girls around him rather than the camera. Oy, this is painful.
Third duet: Malaya and C.J.
Song: "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)" by Aretha Franklin and George Michael
The performance: "You know who we should put together for a duet? The two contestants who have most consistently struggled with pitch and tone throughout the competition." The less said about this, the better.
What the judges say: Harry calls the performance "more regional theater" than anything, but Jennifer says Malaya and C.J. were at least cute together.
Song: "Every Breath You Take" by The Police
The performance: Alex's strings-and-plucked-guitar arrangement is a little too treacly for us, but the vocals are great and transform the somewhat stalker-ish song into a wistful ode to a lost love. He'll earn points for originality, and again, there was nothing wrong with the vocals.
What the judges say: Harry loves that Alex made it sound like his own song, but notes that Alex needs to be an entertainer rather than just a performer. Keith agrees that Alex needs to move past the coffeehouse schtick. J.Lo is the dissenting vote, saying that Alex's arrangement "lost the soul of the song."
Fourth duet: Dexter and Jessica
Song: "Islands in the Stream" by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers
The performance: The lack of chemistry between these two is almost comical, and totally distracts from the vocals. Dexter is at least trying, but Jessica looks like she'd rather be anywhere else than on that stage with him, and almost visibly recoils when he touches her elbow at one point. Also, she should sue whoever put her in that dress.
What the judges say: Nothing. Harry and Keith leave Jennifer at the table to go sit among the audience members.
[Ed. Note: Keith and Harry's impromptu rendition of "Like a Virgin" at this point in the broadcast is the best performance of the night.]
Song: "Free Fallin'" by Tom Petty
The performance: We'll choose to focus on C.J.'s pretty jacket to take our mind (and ears) off of this extremely, um, rough rendition of the Tom Petty classic. Let's just say Jerry Maguire did a better version in his car.
What the judges say: Jennifer says it "started off shaky" but got better by the end. Harry agrees, but gives C.J. another lesson in pitch and intonation. (Seriously, how long can this routine continue?) Keith loves the originality of the soft arrangement and compliments C.J.'s "survivor tone."
Song: "Faithfully" by Journey
The performance: Automatic points because this is not "Don't Stop Believin'." More points for Caleb listening to Harry's advice and doing something softer (but still with a little bit of an edge) this week. He has a few intonation problems, likely because he's out of his element, but this is definitely one of the better performances of the night.
What the judges say: Harry thanks Caleb for showing off his softer side, and Keith (who was holding up a lighter via his iPhone) also loves the performance. J.Lo says it was "amazing" even though Caleb was visibly "out of his element."
What did you think? What were your favorite performances of the night? Which '80s hits are stuck in your head now? And who do you think will be going home on Thursday? Sound off in the comments!