American Idol is one week away from the season 13 finale, and tonight it’s time for the Top 3 to go home. The Hometown visits are a staple of Idol, sure to be full of all the usual cliches: Crying families, hanging out with friends at a coffee house and performing at their old high schools as the town mayor declares it Contestant’s Name Day.

Amid these emotional visits, Caleb Johnson, Alex Preston and Jena Irene will all perform three songs to determine which two move on to the finale. Will Randy Jackson finally earn his paycheck as a mentor and pick good songs for them? Probably not, but let’s find out in the show’s historic 500th episode.

THIS…is American Idol!

The opening is a wonderful tribute to 500 episodes, going back to the start with Kelly Clarkson’s audition, showing us William Hung, current Congressional candidate Clay Aiken, all of the judges (even Ellen) and all of the winner reveals. Remember when this show was great and got, like, over 30 million viewers?

Ryan Seacrest lets us know that Caleb lost his voice and brings out the doctor to tell us that he has a bruised vocal cord, but can still perform. That should be interesting.

The first round will be Randy’s song choices, round 2 is from the judges and the final round is the hometown picks of previous performances.

For some unknown reason, we open with a performance of “Selfie” by the Chainsmokers. But since there’s no singing, it’s just a fustercluck of two DJ dudes running around taking selfies with the audience and the judges. So. Freaking. Stupid.

On the bright side, the 500th episode will be filled with congratulation videos from memorable Idol alums, starting with season 4 winner Carrie Underwood.

Caleb Johnson: “Never Tears Us Apart” by INXS

Wow, Randy actually makes a good choice. It starts off pretty good, slow and bluesy. But once he stands up, his vocal injury becomes apparent and he starts to go horribly awry. He sort of finds his groove again, but this is just really unfortunate. It makes sense since all of his screaming has caught up to him. This is going to be a weird night because the judges are nice, but it’s obvious that his problems are going to dramatically affect his performances tonight. They’re worried about him damaging his voice, and they make a big deal about how they refuse to let Caleb talk in between performances.

When he’s done, Keith Urban takes out a photo of his wife, Nicole Kidman, who is currently at the Cannes Film Festival. Then P2 offers a pre-taped congrats to Idol on its 500th episode.

Alex Preston: “Pompeii” by Bastille

Randy is definitely not phoning it in with his choices. It starts off as another typical Alex performance, then he tosses the guitar over his shoulder and starts banging a drum. And then he takes off the mic and moves around the stage, interacting with the audience. Who is this guy and where has he been? It’s that little bit of something different the judges and I have been begging for, and it’s uptempo. However, Harry Connick, Jr. thought it was too staged and he could see the wheels turning in Alex’s head. True, but at this point, Alex has set the bar so low for himself in terms of performance quality that he gets credit for not just standing and playing his guitar.

Jena Irene: “Titanium” by David Guetta

This is right up her EDM alley. The vocals are insane and the staging is crazier. She starts on a giant podium which lowers halfway through and she walks down the stairs and pumps up the audience. That’s when the performance really gets going and she is able to hype up a crowd. She’s current and entertaining in a way that no one else comes close to. The judges liked the high notes, but Jennifer Lopez thought it was stiff. Well, she did start on a small platform high in the air and then had to unclip a harness, so of course the first half was tentative.

Caleb Johnson: “Demons:” by Imagine Dragons

In round 2 the judges pick the songs and I’m so over Imagine Dragons songs on this show, but at least it’s not “Radioactive.” The performance is just really, really sad. He should NOT be singing tonight. His injury is clearly serious because he sounds awful. Keith must be going deaf, or just thinking about his wife at Cannes, because he thought it sounded great. I know having Caleb withdraw is not a good choice at this point, but he is very obviously hurting with his voice.

Alex Preston: “Stay” by Rihanna

He, of course, deconstructs it and is backed by a string quartet. It’s a really good version of the song and he sings it very well. I still feel like it’s a bit clinical and cerebral, as most of his stuff is. And I really don’t like the way he scrunches up his face or his baby vomit-colored suit. He impresses my brain, but I don’t get goosies like J. Lo does. Nor do I like his non-answer to Harry’s question about what kind of concerts he’d have. Still, it’s great for what it is.

Meuse and the Top 10

We see clips of Jessica Meuse’s hometown visit (since they set it all up anyway) and she’s in the audience with the Top 10. They hold up the Hunger Games hand salute (which is a hilarious comment on the brutal twists of the season). Also, we get a preview of some of the finale performances:

Darius Rucker with C.J. Harris and Dexter Roberts
Jennifer Nettles with Jessica Meuse
John Legend with Malaya Watson
Phillip Phillips with Sam Woolf

Jena Irene: “Heart Attack” by Demi Lovato

This is another good song choice that perfectly fits who she is and what kind of artist she’d be. This entire night seems designed to show us that Jena would deliver the most entertaining concert experience. She tells Harry that, in her concerts, she plans to have long instrumental breaks so she can “rage with the crowd.” Good for her. And in more good news for her, Demi herself will perform with the girls of season 13 on next week’s finale.

After a commercial, Ryan chats to Keith about the photo of Nicole Kidman on the Cannes red carpet and asks about her dress, prompting this brilliant exchange:

Ryan: “Who is she wearing?”
Keith: “Unfortunately, not me.”


Caleb Johnsonj:”Dazed and Confused” by Led Zeppelin

In the final round, the contestants’ hometowns picked which of their past performances to reprise. The vocals are still scratchy, but screaming actually helps make it sound better, though I’m sure it’s more painful for him and he probably did more damage to his cords. He rocks, but once again J. Lo and Keith ruin it by standing, swaying and pretending they’re fans at a concert and not judges. It’s definitely better than his first two performances, but not nearly as great the judges and audience seems to think. It wasn’t some kind of showstopping, groundbreaking, game-changing thing.

Alex Preston: “Story of My Life” by One Direction

Huzzah! This was my favorite Alex performance of the season and I’m happy to hear it again. The song just fits Alex’s style so perfectly and makes me really love what he does. The judges are cordial, but totally throw Alex under the bus when Keith says it wasn’t as good as “Stay.” I guess without Jessica Meuse, they need someone new to kick around, and for some unknown reason that person is Alex. Do they really want Caleb in the finale?

Jena Irene: “Creep” by Radiohead

Jena’s high school got to vote for this song and it’s announced by her kid brother. This is another perfect song and having her at the piano lets her go out on top. Harry thinks it’s even better than the first time. It’s magical and shows off her massive range, from raving with glow sticks to sitting at a piano and creating a moody intensity. The judges are a tad shameless in the way they obviously shill for her to win, but I can’t really complain because she absolutely deserves to win.

The night ends with confetti and a birthday cake to celebrate 500 episodes. By my count, Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks were the only winners who didn’t have video messages during the show.

Now it’s time to vote (for Jena Irene, please) and tomorrow at 9pm the American Idol results show returns to a full hour as we find out who goes home (it should be Caleb, but will it be?). We’ll also see a lot more from all of the hometown visits.

(Image courtesy of FOX)

John Kubicek

Senior Writer, BuddyTV

John watches nearly every show on TV, but he specializes in sci-fi/fantasy like The Vampire DiariesSupernatural and True Blood. However, he can also be found writing about everything from Survivor and Glee to One Tree Hill and Smallville.