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'American Idol' recap: The top 8 tackle the '80s

April 10, 2014|By Amy Reiter
  • Caleb Johnson sings Journey's "Faithfully" on "American Idol."
Caleb Johnson sings Journey's "Faithfully" on "American… (Michael Becker / FOX )

With Sam Woolf back in the fold this week after last week's save, the "American Idol" top eight tackled songs of the '80s, a decade in which none of them -- nope, not one --  was actually alive.

If that fact alone doesn't make "Idol" watchers over age 24 feel old, Caleb Johnson added an extra insult before stepping onto the stage to sing Journey's "Faithfully," a song guest mentor and Season 7 "Idol" winner David Cook encouraged him to approach with "reverence." 

Johnson said he planned to go out there and "make some old ladies cry." (I trust he wasn't referring to the likes of Jennifer Lopez, who did seem moved by Johnson's performance.) And if that wasn't smug and snide enough, later, when Ryan Seacrest asked him what he had been thinking while singing with a tender look on his face, Johnson replied, "Just give them the baby face."

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Which brings us to one of the problems with "American Idol" this season. It's not that these top eight  singers aren't talented. (They all are.) It's that none of them seems to possess all the qualities that add up to looking like a winner -- a star inevitably on the rise. Johnson has the voice and showmanship, but not the personal appeal. C.J. Harris has the heart and tone, but not the reliable grasp on pitch. Jessica Meuse has the looks and voice, but seems seriously disengaged whenever she's onstage. The musically gifted Woolf just looks terrified, albeit somewhat less so this week than previously.

And on and on. Even the ones who come closest -- Alex Preston, though he really does need to mix things up a bit, and Jena Irene, let's say -- are not quite there yet. But hey, we've still got more than a few weeks to go. There's time for all these young (very young) people to learn and grow.

So in addition -- again -- to duets of varying quality (Preston/Woolf and Irene/Johnson, quite good; Harris/Malaya Watson, not very good at all), the top eight performed as follows:

Jena Irene
Irene started the show off with an interesting arrangement of "I Love Rock 'N' Roll" by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts (she'd recently sat next to Jett's tour manager on an airplane, she said), beginning slowly at the piano and then taking a stroll and ending up center stage. Keith Urban admired Irene's willingness to take a risk by changing up the arrangement and the "originality" he said she always brought to her songs.  Lopez rightly noted that the song "languished a bit in the middle." And Harry Connick Jr. said he "wasn't really a fan of the arrangement," though he did love that she was always "pushing" to try something new. He added that the performance felt a bit too "choreographed," and he encouraged Irene to kick back and do her own thing a bit more.

Dexter Roberts
Roberts kept it country and sang the Georgia Satellites' "Keep Your Hands to Yourself," and while he said he'd been working on enunciating his words more clearly, he clearly still had a ways to go. Lopez said he'd sung "kind of perfect," as always. She added that, while the judges routinely got on Roberts for singing anthems and "not owning them" or "having enough personality," this time around, he'd done it. Connick said, after Roberts' "really, really great" performance last week, he could "almost do no wrong" with him. "Yes, it was another anthem song. Yes, you sang it in a kind of basic way," Connick said. "But coupled with what you did last week, I thought it was fine." Urban encouraged Roberts to "do something unexpected," like kicking over his mike stand.

Malaya Watson
To me, Watson's take on Chaka Kahn's "Through the Fire" sounded breathless at times and shouty at others. The judges love her, but even they seemed to temper their praise more than usual. "There's never any doubt in your vocal ability," Urban said, but he encouraged her to "try and lay back into" her singing. Lopez called Watson "our little baby" and complimented her "vocal ability," but said she needed to just "relax up there." Connick said he was impressed by Watson's ability to "hit that Chaka note in full voice," but felt she'd "sacrificed" the early part of the song in anticipation of it. "You're going to hit it anyway," he said. "All you need to do is focus right when that note comes."

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