Greetings once again, Idol nation! Bill King here filling in one last time for regular recapper John Kubicek, who has other pressing obligations due to the random switch to Tuesday night. So I will be your viewing partner for the final meaningful performances of American Idol XIII, while he’ll be back Wednesday for all the fun stuff and the crowning of our next musical superstar.
I have been an unabashed Jena Irene supporter since day one, so it’s pretty gratifying to have watched her blossom into a deserving bearer of the American Idol mantle. I even remember the day I welcomed Mr. Kubicek to the fan club, following his placement of her atop the Top 11 Performance Rankings after her Paramore cover. “Glad to see you’re finally jumping on board the Jena bandwagon with me. It’s comfy. I’ve been here since the beginning,” I wrote.
And hats off to her stylist, because Jena’s appearance has come a long way from the frumpy Michigan teen who auditioned in the Motor City. She didn’t look bad in the beginning or anything, but she’s really settled into her persona and sense of style, with her increased confidence exuding as she looks to become the first wildcard to win the whole shebang.
In her favor, she has the two best performances of season 13 with “Creep” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” (the three best, if you consider that she did “Creep” twice), and she also gives off a Kris Allen vibe in the way she makes every song a Jena original.
But standing in the way is her opponent, equally deserving of his spot in the final two. In fact, I pegged Jena and Caleb Johnson as the finale combatants all the way back at the Top 9. And while she has matured as a singer and performer, Caleb has been as consistent as they come in both look and stage presence, rocking out week after week. But I guess there’s not that much room for growth when you scream-sing so effectively. Until, of course, you can’t.
The real issue facing Caleb is the bruise on his vocal chord and whether or not it has healed enough to allow him to do his thing. He took a major step back last week, albeit not his fault, with two of his three performances painful for everyone involved.
His body of work got him here, but I don’t think it’s strong enough to propel him ahead of Jena. He needs his A-game, or we could be looking at the most lopsided win since Phillip Phillips and his gee-tar coasted past Jessica Sanchez.
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THIS … is American Idol!
Jena and Caleb will each be singing three times, including coronation songs that have been available on iTunes for a week or so. Jena’s “We Are One” strikes me as having a bit more radio appeal, though I’m not as much a fan of the audio effects that just aren’t my cup of tea.
Caleb’s song, “As Long As You Love Me,” written by Darkness frontman Justin Hawkins and sharing a name with a Backstreet Boys ditty, feels a bit more Rick Springfield-esque, but it could just as easily catch on. Once he’s allowed to progress into the kind of rock star he will be, I see him ending up in the vein of Kings of Leon lead singer Caleb Followill. And I wrote that before I realized they were both named Caleb. (On a side note, wouldn’t “Use Somebody” be a perfect choice for Caleb? Either one. A chance to be subdued, emotional and powerful.)
There’s also Simon Fuller’s choice and another reprise from earlier in the season.
Anyway, enough with the talk, let’s get to the music! Jena won the coin toss and chose to go first, so she’ll be kicking things off. And remember, the blog is live, so keep your comments coming at the bottom of the page, and I’ll respond as often as I can. Now let’s go out and win this thing! Who are you rooting for?
The Wild Card vs. the Wild Child
Before we get to the songs, Jena asks Caleb to the prom, and they yuk it up in a dress and baby blue tux before Seacrest announces they’re squaring off in the finals. Then we get some trash talk and balloon smashing before we jump right into Jena’s first performance. Simon has chosen Florence + the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over.”
It’s energetic, fun and basically technically flawless, fitting for a potential American Idol champion and a great way to kick off the show. But I don’t love the song choice as much as the judges do. Florence has such a unique voice that this comes across as mimicking instead of original.
Still, she has a good time with it and with the crowd, and she sets the bar high to start.
Caleb’s First Vocal Test
For Caleb, Simon picks Aerosmith’s mega hit “Dream On,” and man, oh, man, is this one going to test the pipes. He sounds great to start, with the restrained parts. Then once it opens up, you can tell he’s still holding back a little, even cutting off some of the more elongated notes to save something for later. That is, of course, until the super high part, which he slays.
To me, he looks like he’s in pain. But he powers his way through it and does everything he can to match Jena. It’s a hell of a song choice under the circumstances, and Caleb comes through.
Jennifer Lopez praises him for seizing the moment and says, “That may have did it right there.” Easy, girl. Harry Connick, Jr. praises his powerful lower register, which he still wants to see more of in the non-screaming moments. Caleb had Keith Urban from the first line. If anyone was worrying about the judges favoring someone, they’re certainly doing what they can to level the playing field.
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Jena’s Take 2 Take 2
During a fan question about their pre-show rituals, Jena is hilariously serious while trying to be funny, and her facial expressions jump around drastically like she’s in a sitcom.
The middle round is a repeat of a previous performance, and since they also did that last week, you can trust Jena is singing “Can’t Help Falling in Love” again. It puts her at the piano and gives her a chance to connect emotionally with the crowd.
Much like her reprise of “Creep,” this one is even better than the original. Goosebumps all over. It’s absolutely flawless, from her tone to her facial expressions, and it’s probably the best performance of the entire season. But now she’s chasing Caleb instead of vice versa, and his next song might be the deciding factor.
Harry says it is absolutely beautiful, Keith calls her a leader, trailblazer and pioneer, and J-Lo believes her soul comes through overwhelmingly on this song in particular. Inspiring, to say the least.
Maybe I’m Amazed By Caleb
For his reprise, Caleb is doing a different take on Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,” which he sang during love week. As John pointed out then, it exposed some of the flaws in his abilities as an emotional singer, as his strength is the screaming (evidenced by his first performance). That being said, it’s probably a smart choice for voice preservation purposes, but he definitely needs to figure out how to reign it in properly.
It’s a slightly more rocker version than last time, and while it sounds great, there’s a few ups and downs. No criticisms of his voice, but I’m not getting the feeling that he’s amazingly in love with someone. It just doesn’t compare to Jena’s round two performance.
Keith advises Caleb not to get so caught up in the vocal gymnastics that he loses the meaning of the song, while Jennifer wants him to hold back the head bang and slow down the always-revving engine. It was more power and less heart. Harry agrees, but he says these are two heavyweights battling and polls the judges.
Harry and J-Lo both agree that Caleb won the first round and Jena the second, but Keith gives the first round to Caleb and inexplicably calls the second a tie. Oooookay, no judge swaying going on here. Personally, I call the first round a tie, with maybe a slight edge to Caleb (going second helps). But round two was a runaway.
The Coronation Round
This one is a bit of a crapshoot, as the new original Innerscope Records song is just as important as the performance. Jena’s “We Are One” starts off with that slowed-down lower register that she struggles with sometimes, and this is no exception. But as usual, she excels during the chorus.
It’s a very pop-y song, and a lot of it is more or less forgettable. She works the crowd without detracting from the vocals for a change, and she sings the song as well as it could be sung. But if Caleb’s rock number ends the show with a memorable bang, it could pose problems for her.
Jennifer hasn’t heard the song before, but thinks it suits her. Harry says it was just as powerful as the recorded version, and Keith calls it the perfect song for Jena. Really, J-Lo? Couldn’t find three minutes to give it a listen ahead of time?
Caleb and the Final Important Performance of 2014
Caleb’s coronation song is “As Long As You Love Me,” and much like the Darkness classic “I Believe in a Thing Called Love,” it’s a throwback to big flipping hair and smashing guitars. The lyrics are a bit cheesy — “As long as you love me, we don’t have to be together 24/7” — but it has a decidedly AC/DC sound to it, and and he’s so happy that he’ll get to rest his voice soon that he leaves it all on the table.
He loses a bit of steam at the end, but overall, he does a kick ass job on a bad song. I have to give the third round to him, by a smidge, through no fault of Jena’s. They should get the coronation songs out of the way first, because if Jena closed out with her reprise, she’d win for sure.
Harry calls it Frazier vs. Ali and wishes America luck. Keith congratulates both of them, and J-Lo thinks he went for it and sounded good. And on that note, good night America, you’re on your own.
Just for good measure, they make the obviously exhausted Caleb and Jena sing us out with Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway,” and they both sound truly horrible. No bonus points for either side on this one. The rest of the finalists join them to alleviate some of the tension, but it’s not a great way to close out the night.
Now it’s up to voters, and while I give Caleb the overall three-song win, Jena still had the performance of the season. So did Caleb do enough to overtake Jena? Or much like Caleb’s body of work got him this far, will Jena’s carry her across the finish line in first place? I know who I’m pulling for, and I hope she wins, too. Does the person you want to win match who you think will? Watch live with John on Wednesday night to find out!
Now … who wants to marry Harry?
You can watch the American Idol season 13 finale Wednesday night at 8pm (and continuing until 10:06pm, if that affects your recording plans) on FOX.
(Image courtesy of FOX)