American Idol is taking its Top 8 back to the 1980s tonight.
And judging from the song spoiler list I just saw, we’re going to be treated to classics recorded by everyone from Michael Jackson to Joan Jett to Cyndi Lauper.
The big question, of course, isn’t what the Idols are singing.
It’s whether they can build on the moment created by last week’s performances, the best we’ve seen yet from this group.
And they have to deal with this reality: There is no more save opportunity. The low vote-getter heads home tomorrow night.
The singers will get tips this week from one of the all-time masters at re-imagining songs on American Idol — David Cook, the Season 7 champion.
1. Jena Irene: She’s going to start the night with “I Love Rock and Roll” by Joan Jett. And she plans to start it slow, sitting at the piano. David says he wasn’t sure what she was going for at first, then started to appreciate it. Personally, I loved that opening. I started wondering whether Jena’s mic was working when she started walking around the perimeter of the stage. But then she returned to the stage and delivered a fantastic finish. That final line was sensational. And I give her high marks for not delivering a straightforward cover of the well-known rock anthem. Grade: B+
2. Dexter Roberts: He’s singing “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” by Georgia Satellites, and he loves it because it offers an opportunity for a guitar solo. David’s advice: Make sure the fans can understand what you’re singing. Not sure Dexter got the message. At least not during that opening. In the confines of a shortened Idol song, that was an awfully long guitar solo, part of which Dexter spent touching hands with members of the audience. I, for one, wish he had cut loose just a little more. But that was better than Dexter’s early performances. And he delivered a pretty solid vocal. Dexter gets solid reviews from the judges. Grade: B–
3. Alex Preston and Sam Woolf: They’ll sing “The Girl is Mine,” by Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney. Well, this is going better than Sam’s duet with Malaya last week, but probably not as well as Alex’s duet with Jena. After a strong start, they tried harmonizing, and that didn’t go so well. And then I sorta just lost interest because Sam seemed to be straining to hit notes on his second solo part and Alex seemed to just be going through the motions. Grade: C+
4. Malaya Watson: She’s going to sing “Through the Fire” by Chaka Khan. Gotta say, the Idols seem to be getting very good advice from David Cook. Really rough opening by Malaya. I could barely hear her over the music. The bad news: it just keeps getting worse. Oh, my, my, my Malaya. I’m not even sure what to write about that performance. That was several major steps in the wrong direction for someone who had been building some momentum. Malaya tells the judges she was just trying to stay in the groove of the song. Hate to say it, but I don’t think she ever found the groove. The judges were incredibly kind with those critiques. Grade: F
5. Jena Irene and Caleb Johnson: Now the two contestants who should be the finalists if the show ended now square off singing “It’s Only Love.” Imagine this: A high-octane, fun duet by two really good singers who know how to cut loose, have fun on stage and still sound great. Dare I say the best duet we’ve seen so far in Season 6. Very nice job. Grade: A–
6. Jess Meuse: She’s going to sing “Call Me” by Blondie. She wants to take the song and transform it into something more rock. David is telling her to make sure the cameras know she’s enjoying herself. Well, Jess seemed more animated than she has in most of her performances. She even walked around the judges’ table and sorta flirted with Keith Urban for a millisecond. She also took David’s notes and smiled at the camera. But don’t you just wish she’d cut loose like Jena and Caleb when they take the stage? If ever a song called for it, that one did. Why not strut around the judges’ table? Oh, well, here’s the good news: As usual, Jess sounded very good, once again proving she’s one of the best singers left standing. Grade: B
7. Sam Woolf: Interesting song choice. He’s going to sing “Time after Time” by Cyndi Lauper. This has been done a lot on singing shows. He’s going to do it on guitar, surrounded by adoring girls. Come on, Idol. This is ridiculous. I don’t see anyone else getting this treatment. I nearly fell asleep during the opening verse. Alex found his groove when he hit the chorus. Then he tried to do too much with the ending. The song just didn’t flow. As for not looking at the young ladies who surrounded him, perhaps Sam was too embarrassed by the clear favoritism Idol is showing him. I haven’t seen any of the other Idols — male or female — get this type of staging. He’ll get a penalty for that. Grade: C–
8. C.J. Harris and Malaya Watson: They’ll sing “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me” by Aretha Franklin and George Michael. Oh, no. Malaya is not having a good night. And this isn’t the music C.J. should be singing. Jennifer says they were “adorable together.” Harry calls it “regional theater,” but says it was fun. That might be the best you can say about it. Grade: C–
9. Alex Preston: Alex wants to create a performance everyone remembers singing “Every Breath You Take” by Sting. He, too, gets some excellent pointers from David Cook. Pretty convinced already that he should replace Randy Jackson as the full-time Idol mentor. I really liked the opening of this song. There was a section in the middle where I wasn’t all that thrilled with the arrangement, but he came back to a soft ending. Like with Jena, I give him lots of credit for taking that many liberties with a classic song. And, like Jena, he mostly made it work, perhaps even delivering just a touch better than she did on her solo. Harry liked what he did with the song , but suggests the coffee-house style is going to catch up with him after a while. Jennifer says he lost the soul of the song. Grade: A–
10. Jess Meuse and Dexter Roberts: What did they do to get saddled with this turkey — “Islands in the Stream?” Dexter sounded horrible on the first verse. Jess is trying to do her best. And they eventually came together and turned in a decent version of the song. The harmonies on the end were really nice. Hated the song. Give them credit for doing that well with it. Grade: C+
11. C.J. Harris: Another interesting song choice. He’s going to sing “Free Fallin'” by Tom Petty. A potentially good song for C.J., if he can stay on key. Wow, it’s like C.J.’s voice just freezes up when he hits the Idol stage. I think he’s missing more notes than he’s hitting. No amount of grit in a guy’s voice is going to disguise that. The chorus isn’t bad, but that’s because the background singers are holding the tune while C.J. gets to freelance and emote. He did deliver a sorta nice, tender ending. The crowd apparently liked it much more than I did. Jennifer says it started a little shaky. Talk about an understatement. Harry likes the connection he makes with the audience. Grade: C–
12. Caleb Johnson: He’ll sing “Faithfully” by Journey. Here comes the ballad Harry has been clamoring for. Dang. And Caleb pulled it off. Honest, when he started singing, I sorta wished David Cook was because I think he has a great voice. By the time Caleb hit the chorus, I learned a new appreciation for Caleb’s voice. He just delivered stellar vocal, and the chorus still gave him the opportunity to show off his huge voice. He gets an enthusiastic response from the crowd. And he gets lots of deserved love from the judges. He sang well, he sold what he sang, he delivered the performance of the night. Grade: A