Thursday, February 27, 2014

'American Idol' Recap: Top 13 Take On 'This Is Me' Theme

Adam Graham/MTV

Photo: FilmMagic
"American Idol's" Top 13 took on the theme "This Is Me" on Wednesday, singing that one special song that defines them as a person and an artist. In past years, that theme may have yielded wall-to-wall ballads, but this year's lively bunch chose fresh and invigorating songs.

Here's how Season 13's Top 13 fared in their first true test for audiences.

Nerves Rule
In many ways, it's a whole new "Idol" this year, and that is also being reflected in what seems like the least-polished group of "Idols" to hit the stage in the show's history. Wednesday's show saw more than a handful of wobbly performances, from performers who seem physically uncomfortable onstage or who let their nerves get the best of them.

Wild child contestant Malaya Watson has bundles of energy, but couldn't channel them in the right way during her performance of Bruno Mars' "Runaway Baby." Jessica Meuse, who has performed for years at clubs, was stiff as a board while taking on Shinedown's "The Crow and the Butterfly." And Sam Woolf looked like he'd just seen a ghost while performing Matchbox Twenty's "Unwell." In a sense, though, Woolf found a perfect song for the theme week, as "Unwell" described his performance better than any of the judges were able to.

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Baseball Caps Everywhere
Either "Idols" weren't allowed to wear baseball caps in the past or this group of finalists is embracing them in a whole new way, but this is the most baseball-capped bunch in "Idol" history.

Three contestants — Ben Briley, C.J. Harris and MK Nobilette — wore caps on Wednesday's show, and they seem to be fashion fixtures for all three. For Briley, the cap may have been a good luck charm; his sped-up, ticking timebomb version of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" was the night's most energetic, assured performance.

Harris and Nobilette weren't quite as good; Harris was better than his bland performance of Darius Rucker's bland "Radio," and the backwards-ballcapped Nobilette was strong on Allen Stone's "Satisfaction," but she may have alienated some with her song choice, which was the most obscure of any in the Top 13.

Alex Preston Stands Out
Alex Preston is perhaps the most interesting contestant "Idol" has found in years, a music savant who seems real and genuine and not at all like a made-to-order "Idol" contestant. That's what makes him an early front-runner in this year's competition.

With a look that's as endearingly awkward as Clay Aiken's early appearances on camera, Preston feels like he stumbled onto the show from some other parallel universe. But his performances have been graceful so far: Last week he sang a touching version of Damien Rice's "Volcano," and on Wednesday, he turned Jason Mraz's "A Beautiful Mess" into the night's most simple, effective song. Harry Connick Jr. dinged him for singing out of tune, the night's most common complaint, but Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban were both drawn in by the intimacy of his performance.

For the girls, both Majesty Rose and Jena Irene are early go-getters. Rose showed she has cool taste and an abundance of style by taking on Janelle Monae's "Tightrope," and Irene flexed her pipes with a strong, vocally rich rendition of Coldplay's "The Scientist."

O'Connor Stumbles
Kristen O'Connor, who barely skated into the competition last week as a Wild Card, hit a stumbling block Wednesday with her all-over-the-place version of Kelly Clarkson's "Beautiful Disaster," which turned out to be an apt description of her performance. (She's beautiful, the song was a disaster.)

Dexter Roberts could also be in trouble — he seems to be playing an extremely similar deck of cards as Ben Briley, except Briley is doing it better. Roberts' take on Chris Young's "Aw Naw" could have been seen in any Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill in America on Wednesday night.

New Voting Systems In Place
"Idol" introduced a handful of new voting features on Wednesday. For starters, contestants will keep the same dial-in number all season long, rather than switching numbers every week. Instead of opening phone lines at the end of the show, the lines are now open at the beginning of the telecast, giving fans more time to flood the phone lines, and arguably making the show even more of a straightforward popularity contest than a merit-based one. Phone lines stay open longer now, until 10 a.m. PT the next day, and there's also a new Google-based voting system in place.

Also, if you stand on your front porch and start shouting the name of your favorite contestant, "Idol" will probably count your vote that way as well.

We'll see how the new voting affects the contestants when one singer is voted off on Thursday's show. In addition, last year's "Idol" winner Candice Glover — whose album debuted at No. 14 this week with 19,000 first week sales, the lowest tally for an "Idol" winner to date — performs on the show, as does U.K. singer/songwriter Jake Bugg.

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