Jena Irene and Alex Preston delivered sublime performances in Top 3 Week on American Idol, but producer Per Blankens made front-runner Caleb Johnson’s bruised vocal chords the lead story, unfortunately. Regrettably, the judges gave Caleb a pass despite his butchering of the poignant INXS ballad, “Never Tear Us Apart” and a forgettable “Demons” by Imagine Dragons. Perhaps Caleb wouldn’t have lost his voice if he didn’t throw out gratuitous glory notes whenever the camera was on him.
Masterclass Lady, for whom I wrote this blog article, has made the strong stand that she will not cover Caleb’s performances due to his thoughtless “retard” retort to his fans and ensuing heartless apology. However, I must take this moment to rue the similarly heartless performance of “Never Tear Us Apart.” This single from the Australian band’s 1987 album, Kick, is an intimate first-person ballad, which lead singer Michael Hutchence delivered with such conviction that he made every girl or boy believe he was singing only for them, especially on the powerful line: “I … I was standing. You were there.” (Granted, I have a personal connection to the song that only a girl remembering her eighteenth birthday with her first real boyfriend could … but I digress.) I could produce a note-by-note rant about Caleb’s artistic choices, but suffice to say that his lackadaisical approach to the song was marked by his recumbent pose in his “throne” was filled with as much ennui as True Blood’s Eric Northman watching submissive humans dance at Fangtasia. “Entitled ennui” sums up Caleb’s attitude towards his newfound fame and is what turns me off. To the powers that be, is this persona you want carrying the Idol torch?
“Pompeii” by Bastille
Alex, your passion was evident in this up-tempo song that you delivered with conviction. You are always thoughtful and careful with your song lyrics, and contrary to Bastille’s original, I heard every word in the staccato line, “How am I going to be an optimist about this?” I felt the urgency in your voice that this important thematic line imports. You also made subtle, but important, artistic flourishes in the melodic line that gave gravitas to this anthem about humans’ self-importance and subsequent insignificance in the face of natural disaster. As usual, your use of a lilting, but controlled falsetto is so effective because you add authentic emotion to the lyric, especially in “the ru-bble of our sins.” You used the consonant “r” to springboard into the vowel, letting it fly in a way that showed the last optimistic breath of the doomed residents of Pompeii. Then, after a slight hesitation, you used the plosive syllable (“-bble”) to embody the volcanic eruption which sealed their fate. This is just one small example of how you encapsulate the tone and meaning of a song in just two syllables.
You also upped your stage game. I love the way you snatched the microphone off its stand after your impressive percussion interlude. It showed me another level of earnestness I was sure you had, but hadn’t yet seen. You owned the stage! I could see your back-up percussionists smiling and nodding during your percussion solo. They felt it, and we felt it.
I was sorry that your microphone cut out when you moved to your drum because that would’ve been a memorable transition. As an artist who must create his own moments on stage, do not let your eyes or body belie it when these snafus happen (as they will). I saw your eyes shift in a querying “What just happened?” This brought me out of the moment, but if you stay engaged, we will too. One other critique: I would have liked you to sustain the last note longer. If you are going to do a downward scale to a fade, support it. Keep it in your control rather than letting it peter out.
Alex, you are always genuine in performances. I feel, rather than figure out, your message. Especially after watching video of your hometown performances, which were of “real length,” I know you will be able to thrill your audiences with vocals, guitar solos, and interactions with your band. I’m giving you a B+, Alex, only because the performance wasn’t seamless. As your judge Harry Connick, Jr. pointed out, a couple more days of rehearsal would have ironed out these details. You will rock this on the Idol tour if you choose to do it. And I hope you do. B+
“Stay” by Rihanna, feat. Mikky Ekko
Alex, this performance was SUBLIME. I love this song whenever I hear it on the radio. Now it will only pale in comparison to yours. My favorite moment was when you did a descending minor scale at end of the first “Round and around and around we go.” It gave the song even more longing and sadness than Rihanna’s version. Your vibrato in the sustained “Sta-a-a-ay” added the necessary fragility. Your second to last “Stay” soared in an ascending sequential scale that was in perfect contrast to your closing descending scale ending on a seventh minor chord. I did not want this to end. And yes, I got goosies, just like Jennifer did. And they stayed the whole way through. There was nothing wrong with this performance. The back-up vocals and string quartet perfectly complemented you. Although the production cut you off, I saw you turning to give them well-deserved credit. You are the consummate artist, Alex. I can’t wait for your first album. For me, this was an A+.
“Story of My Life” by One Direction
I’m so glad the Granite State chose “Story of My Life” to reprise. I loved your performance of this pop song the first time. Between your live hometown performance and last nights, you’ve proved your consistency as well. This song comes to you with a danceable forward-moving beat that you embody. You set the groove instead of letting it push you along. You gentle a song like Robert Redford whispers to a horse.
I started to sense a little bit of fatigue in your voice, but you do a good job of preserving your instrument. Many guitar players make odd faces as they play, especially when doing lead licks. Be sure not to let that same intensity creep into the muscles that drive your vocal instrument. It’s an oxymoron, I know, to carry emotional intensity and muscular relaxation in the same moment, but I’m sure if you review Masterclass Lady’s articles, she’ll have specific, actionable advice. As an aside, I love your guitar playing and missed the guitar prelude from your Top 10 performance, but perhaps the Idol production was pushing you for time. The subway video treatment was distracting, especially in the medium camera shots that made it look like you were in front of a green screen. Stand up for your sensibilities not just in musical choices, but production choices, too!
You own this song, Alex. A-
“Titanium” by David Guetta, feat. Sia
This was a powerful song to open with. My favorite part of your performance was your echoing of the sliding beat on the word “glass” (Stone-hard as bulletproof glass). In addition to the demanding vocals of this popular dance song, your production complicated matters, but you overcame them! I can’t imagine feeling grounded enough to sing from a place of power whilst tethered to the top of a shaky moving podium. And, you had to open a stubborn clip to get loose and walk down the stairs. I haven’t seen a strap before on those moving stage props, but perhaps it is because you are a minor still. Kudos to you for manhandling these obstacles. You still let your voice soar during this driving song that crescendos from start to finish. I’m not a vocal professor like Masterclass Lady, but I can see that you have learned some good habits in your training thus far and your voice shows it. It has character and depth, just like you.
Jena, you command the stage like an old pro. You know how to hold the gaze of the camera and the audience, whether you are sitting at the piano, standing singing. In the little time you’ve had to absorb these techniques, methinks you are simply a natural entertainer. By itself, that won’t do, but you also have the authentic connection to your audience. Even if you slide a wee bit into a flat note, you never let it throw you off. You have pluck and tenacity.
Be careful of your voice, Jena. You mentioned that you were all battling some illness. I could hear a strain in your voice, and while the beat and the electronic wizardry vie for top billing, you might have served yourself better by stripping down the a portion of the arrangement, switching into your head voice or falsetto. Blending the two interpretations would have allowed you to craft a song more your own. Did you see Angie Miller and the great Adam Lambert perform a stripped down version of Titanium? I would love to hear more of your head voice to contrast with your powerful chest voice. It would provide nuance to your performances. I know it is there as we heard it in your “Unbreakable Me.”
All in all, this was a strong number, Jena. With some tweaks to the arrangement and smoothing out the production, this could be a show stopper. B+
“Heart Attack” by Demi Lovato
Wow! This is a difficult song to sing live, and you killed it. After re-listening to Demi Lovato’s original I am all the more impressed. In the studio, artists have the liberty of retakes and digital editing, but you showed you have the chops to punch out such obstacles live while maintaining your connection to your band, the live audience, and the camera. No subtle feat, my dear!
The thematic content of this song is perfect for a girl like you. Girls must stay strong and not depend on some boy, but yet we still fall in love, which means sharing fragile parts of ourselves. It’s a conflict, isn’t it? You were spot on in portraying this character. You played the strong woman by commanding the stage and your voice, but the abridged version of this song didn’t allow you to delve into the angst involved in revealing your brittle side. Demi does this in a middle eighth that uses acoustic guitar to contrast with the tough, electronic driving tone that dominates the song. You tried to do that in the beginning, but it wasn’t quite as effective. This is more a function of the amount of time you have to develop the lyrics and the music. Like a character, a song needs an emotional arc and some songs end too early. This was one of those.
I hope you will continue to work on your lower range because you are too soft. It is difficult to make out the lyrics. Often the soft parts have very important lyrics the audience needs to complete the meaning of a song. Don’t neglect them! Masterclass Lady has offered suggestions to many Idol singers on how to support their lower range and diction. Don’t be afraid to read them and seek out more help from your vocal coaches. You have a long summer of touring and need to preserve your voice with attention to technique. B-
“Creep” by Radiohead
I loved this song the first time you performed it, and I loved it this time, too. I am constantly amazed at the maturity of your
artistic choices and ability to connect with the lyrics. It’s rare to find a teenager who has both enough empathy to connect with the lyrics and enough poise to convey the meaning. You have a willingness to bare your soul to the audience in order to share the fears and desires that define our human condition. You have also shown this ability in your own songwriting. I hope we see “Unbreakable Me” in the Finale! There was nothing wrong with this performance. In fact, it is everything that is right with American Idol. A+