"American Idol" went "Back To The 80s" for their covers this week in the second run at eliminating someone from the Top 8 remaining finalists. You know the 80s, the decade of big hair, leg warmers, hair metal, New Wave, Reaganomics, the Exxon Valdez disasster, the Challenger tragedy, and the assimilation of personal computers into average homes. It's a decade remembered fondly for its excess and self-indulgence, the very factors that prompted the austerity and gloom backlash that highlighted the 90s' run-up to the end of the millenium and the possible ending of the world (by a returning religious messiah or a cascading crash of computer systems worldwide via the Y2K problem). But most of all, the music was great, mostly up-beat and fun. The Top 8 finalists tried to capture the spirit of the 80s on Wednesday night's performance show and, for the most part, succeeded. But in the attempt, viewers learned several things.
Season 7 winner David Cook guest mentored and -- who knew? -- he's excellent at constructive criticism. In fact, throughout the show, the finalists continued to praise and thank him for his insights. He was an excellent choice for the 80s music mentor because, as Lyndsey Parker at Yahoo Music noted in her April 9 recap, Cook remains the "master" of 80s remakes on "Idol," not to mention the only finalist to ever cover Duran Duran. She also pointed out Randy Jackson's absence from mentoring, especially considering that he is constantly referring to his days of working with the epitome of 80s pop rock, the band Journey.
Other things learned: Malaya Watson is neither a Chaka Kahn or an Aretha Franklin. And Sam Woolf, who was trying to battle back from receiving the least number of votes last week, was certainly no Cyndi Lauper. With that being said and given that bit of information, it shouldn't be difficult to deduce that these two serial bottom dwellers will again find themselves seated on the Silver Stools of Uncertainty during the Top 8 results show on Thursday night.
But enough of the bad news for now. On to the good stuff...
Jena Irene got dealt the death spot. First up, the current frontrunner (according to professional oddsmakers) chose Joan Jett's "I Love Rock and Roll." Did she deliver? Did she ever. With a little jazzy piano intro, she vocally sauntered up to a driving bass and chorded arrangement that barely resembled the original -- and it didn't matter. It was that good. She set the bar extremely high for the night, and in the end, only a couple other finalists got up there with her.
Sad to say, one of those wasn't Dexter Roberts, who performed second. He chose a song that was perhaps a perfect choice, if only he had executed the lyrics as well as the band played behind him (and he acknowledged the lead guitarist at song's end). Not that he forgot the words. He did not. He just skipped a few as he went along, making some of the song appear somewhat disjointed.
The third performance of the night was the night's first duet: Alex Preston and Sam Woolf. They took on Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney's "The Girl Is Mine." Alex took Michael's part and Sam took Paul's. And instead of the tune being a karaoke trainwreck, it was actually quite good. It was a little subdued (no attitude; guys, even as soft as it is, the song's attitudinal).
The third solo performer was Malaya Watson, who decided Chaka Kahn would be her next hurdle. Unfortunately, she's no Chaka Kahn and trying to hit those big, full notes on "Through The Fire" just wasn't happening -- regardless of the judges' feedback. Oh, they were nice, even Judge Harry (the Harsh) Connick Jr., who told her that she seemed to be thinking ahead and sacrificed the lead up to the big moment. For Harry, that's nice.
The second duet of the night followed. Jena Irene and Caleb Johnson were paired up for Bryan Adams and Tina Turner's rocker "It's Only Love." The two belted it out, looking every bit like two of the contestants on "The Voice" during the "Battle Rounds." They had fun with it and sounded good doing it. Maybe the viewers will get more from the duo in the coming weeks?
Jessica Meuse, who paired up with Caleb last week, was the night's fourth act. She chose Blondie's "Call Me" and simply nailed it -- well, vocally. But she seemed restrained, casually walking around. No attitude. Even Judge Jennifer Lopez told her that she had to be the girl that owned the song, with emphasis on the "me" when she said "Call me." The judge was correct.
The producers were doing their best to save Sam Woolf from elimination for a second straight week, allowing him to sing (fifth) amid the crowd, adoring young girls all around. But young Sam only had eyes for the camera during his rendition of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time." He did a good job for the most part, but the chorus (although it started off strong) always weakened as Sam went up to meet his back-up vocalists, his voice thinning out when he needed more power. But the worst part? Sam still has absolutely no showmanship. None. Nada.
C. J. Harris and Malaya Watson were the night's third duet, performing Aretha Franklin and George Michael's "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)." Again, viewers -- and listeners -- couldn't help but note that young Malaya is no Aretha Franklin (but who is? The woman was voted the No. 1 vocalist of all time by Rolling Stone). Of course, C. J. is no George Michael, either. Still, the performance was fun to watch, even if it lacked in artistry. Call it karaoke and on to the next act...
The one thing that sets Alex Preston apart from the rest of the guys on "American Idol" is his fearless arrangements. He completely deconstructed The Police's "Every Breath You Take," making it more of a lovelorn ballad than a sinister stalker tune. Jennifer Lopez said he took the "soul" out of the song with the arrangement, but Harry Connick Jr. said he liked the direction Alex took. America must have liked it as well, because Alex's version of the classic tune made the iTunes Hot 100 Songs list following the performance.
Dexter Roberts and Jessica Meuse then waded into the night's last duet, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers' "Islands In The Stream." They harmonized well, breathing life into the tired Barry Gibb-penned song. The judges seemed to like it, so there is that.
The seventh singer of the evening was C. J. Harris. He tackled Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'." His slightly off-beat arrangement had a definite country feel to it, but he started off somewhat shaky, like he was having trouble singing. Judge Jennifer told him that he had a voice that draws people in and he was able to do that by song's end.
Caleb Johnson pulled the pimp spot among the Top 8, singing in the last and next-to-last spot for the third consecutive week. (Since spots are assigned at random, he's definitely getting more than his fair share of fortunate randomness.) Singing Journey's "Faithfully," Caleb finally went where Harry Connick has wanted him to go all season -- to his softer side. And he nailed it. In fact, the song was the best of both worlds, because he not only got to show a bit of vulnerability, he also got to wail. Judge Keith Urban even held up his cell phone with a photo of a lit lighter, the iconic audience salute. Yes, it was that good.
(A note about Judge Keith Urban: Throughout the critiques, he was consistent in prompting the finalists to let loose, let themselves go. You can tell by Keith's singing along, swaying, head-banging, fist-pumping, and chair dancing that he loves music and gets into the performances.)
So who is going home on the Top 8 results show? Well, hopefully the producers will send only one finalist home (traditionally, after a Save, they send two), and, given the strength of the night's performances, the three that should be in the bottom are Malaya Watson, Sam Woolf, and C. J. Harris.
In the end, the battle for last should be between Sam and Malaya, with Malaya headed home simply on the merit of her second Top 8 performance. Sam will undoubtedly get at least a slight sympathy bump from being eliminated last week, which should be enough to get him into the Top 7.
Regardless, there will be no "Save" from the "Idol" judges from here on out. It's get the votes or go home.
"American Idol" will reveal the Top 7 on Thursday's results show, beginning at 9 p.m. (EST) on Fox Television.