There are only two weeks left in this breakneck season of "American Idol." Tonight, we whittle the Top 7 down to a Top 5. The themes were the year the contestant was born, and the songs of Prince, as each of them sang twice.
It's an oddly structured season, and one made necessary by ABC's cautious approach to reviving the former behemoth so shortly after Fox pulled the plug. However, the revival has proved enough of a hit for ABC to renew it for a second season, with all four of the principals signing on again. My hope is that the success of this first season will encourage them to stretch the season out at least a little bit.
The point of this show, as they've said over and over again, is to find a bona fide star. Getting a little more time with them during the season will help allow that to happen. And "Idol 2.0" really needs to do that if it wants to differentiate itself from "The Voice," which is more about making compelling TV than finding the next singing superstar.
Of course, they're surely enjoying their superstar judges, and particularly the headline-making antics of Katy Perry. This week, she continued her one-sided love affair with Cade Foehner -- one she shares with her mother, apparently -- awkwardly gushing over him while she fanned herself, rather than offering critique. We get it. He's hot. But how did he sound?
Fair warning, since I'm safe at home, I'm probably going to be a little harsher than my colleagues Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan. But I might be nicer, too. Maybe. With two rounds of singing tonight, I'm going to rank them in each individual category and then average those rankings to come up with my overall results.
[Video will be added as it becomes available.]
Michael J. Woodard
Michael J. Woodard (20) "I Would Die for You," "Purple Rain"
I'm surprised I didn't like this more than I would, but then I realized we've not really seen Michael command an uptempo song. He should have settled into the pocket of the verses, but he instead floated vocally above them. He never looked comfortable and he even sounded like he was struggling a bit to manage his breaths throughout the number. This was the first time so far in the competition that Michael left me a little underwhelmed. He even missed the note on more than one occasion.
Catie Turner (18) "Manic Monday," The Bangles
Oh no! Catie committed an "Idol" disaster when she absolutely blew the first two lines of the song. But rather than ad lib or sing something-anything!, Catie stood there in stunned silence. And then it took her half the song to recover. It was a very rough performance. I know Catie is liked by the viewers, but she missed notes at the end as well, proving the early misfire really rattled her. The judges tried to assuage her anxiety after that early misfire, and I feel very confident that her fans won't care nearly as much as Catie clearly does.
Cade Foehner (21) "Jungle Love," The Time
A classic 1980s R&B funk jam interpreted through Cade Foehner's guitar and gravelly voice. It certainly created an unexpected result, though not one that moved me or excited me as much as I would have liked. I think he played it a little too safe with the arrangement, as well as the musical accompaniment. The backing music sounded almost exactly like The Time's take on it, which didn't sit right with Cade's heavy guitar riffs and overall style. "I don't know what is coming over me," Katy Perry said, fanning herself. "I could be your babysitter!"
The cynic in me noticed that Jurnee took out the braids and went with a softer look. Trying to cater to America's apparent tastes this season? Either way, she looked absolutely stunning and her confidence in flirting with the band during that performance really showed how polished she is as a performer. There were a few spots where she tried a little too hard to strain for a note, but this was a confident and bold way to kick off the show. She's got a solid voice, but she also has all of those other pop star qualities that could land her a deal no matter what happens here.
Caleb Lee Hutchinson
Caleb Lee Hutchinson (18) "When Doves Cry," "Purple Rain"
I didn't completely buy Caleb's conviction on the opening lines of the song, but he quickly settled into an absolutely mesmerizing country take on one of Prince's most iconic songs. He barely touched the arrangement, but he strummed his guitar and gave it country music accompaniment to create a whole new take that is radio-ready right now. I loved that Caleb let the song tell him when to push himself vocally, which only happened once, and otherwise was confident to just sit in the pocket and sell the performance.
What a brilliant way for Maddie to tiptoe into Prince's catalogue. The Sinead O'Connor version of this Prince-penned classic is haunting and beautiful in a way that Madde was able to lean into and sound absolutely fantastic on. I actually grew a little frustrated that she stretched to try and hit a few bigger notes in the middle, because the power in the song is the message and the passion of the delivery. O'Connor never hit big notes, and Maddie didn't need to, either. Nevertheless, I absolutely applaud her for that performance. Maddie is the real deal and she is really coming into her confidence on this show.
Gabby Barrett (17) "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore?," Prince
Gabby showed how to take a classic song and filter it through her own musical style and vision. Gabby is a country superstar in the making, and she absolutely turned this Prince jam into a country jam, complete with classic country angst and relationship frustration. On top of that, Gabby was in fine vocal form. She really is making a case to win this whole competition, and more importantly, go on to have a stellar career in music after. Usually, the "Idol power note," as I've dubbed it, drives me crazy, but Gabby earned that one and it capped off a beautiful performance flawlessly.
Michael J. Woodard (20) "My Heart Will Go On," "Titanic" (1997)
First of all, how has Michael Woodard never seen "Titanic" and yet he's going to tackle Celine Dion's masterpiece from it. He expects to sell the emotion of the song without seeing its inspiration? As the song started, I found myself disconnected from his vocal. He was going through the motions of the song without making me feel anything. What Michael did was give us a technically sound performance that was emotionally hollow. So it was impressive in places, but it left us feeling empty and if you come out of this song feeling empty, something has gone horribly wrong. I think his motivation here was to impress us with his big voice rather than intimately connect with the power of the song. Michael has not had a great night. He's so much better than this!
Catie Turner (18) "Oops!... I Did It Again," Britney Spears (2000)
I'll be honest, I really didn't think Catie was going to be able to project the sultriness of this track, but she came out and absolutely slayed it. She also turned it into a kind of sexy, big band, so she was able to be alluring while maintaining her innocence. I saw nuance and layers to her voice that we've not even seen yet. Catie is the real deal when it comes to singers, and you almost forget that completely when she goofs out as she did upon meeting Nick Jonas. Her voice lost its way a lot toward the end of the song, slipping uncomfortably out of key, but that start was divine.
Caleb Lee Hutchinson
Caleb Lee Hutchinson (18) "Amazed," Lonestar (1999)
There is such depth to the relaxed quality of Caleb's voice, he draws you in almost instantly when he starts to sing, and he doesn't even have to push it yet. Many singers struggle with the more tender side of their voice, but Caleb is as much in the pocket of his abilities there as he is when he projects and belts out those big notes. He just has a natural talent that is absolutely infectious. On this song, he felt more comfortable on the gentler verses than when he tried to have his big vocal moment. That part came off a little weak, but I can't fault the overall quality of his performance. The kid was born to do this.
Cade Foehner (21) "Who Will Save Your Soul," Jewel (1995)
Nick Jonas encouraged him to not just arrange a pop ballad into his signature style, but actually connect to it so he can project the emotion of the lyrics. I'm not sure he was totally successful in that challenge, but he absolutely came up with a cool interpretation of the song, building to a typical rock ballad jam in the middle. His voice was rough in the start as he hung onto that low register, but the overall performance left me feeling a little flat. I've seen him better than this. That said, I could see that exact take being a hit in heavy metal rotation.
Maddie Poppe (20) "If It Makes You Happy," Sheryl Crow (1996)
Maddie wasn't as polished on her second song of the night as she was on her first, but she still sounded great on the chorus. I was a little surprised that she lacked in the singer-songwriter verse portions of the song, as she's a folk singer by nature and storytelling is at the heart of good folk music. I wasn't as enamored with this performance, but I still think she's one of the most talented and versatile performers on the show.
Jurnee (18) "Back at One," Bryan McKnight (1999)
Jurnee has a special connection to the song because it is her parents' wedding song. Nick Jonas asked her to make selective choices with her vocal runs and other affectations. It can overwhelm a song and leave an audience irritated. She went a little too big through the chorus, but her voice was on point throughout. She sounded so pure and clean throughout. I didn't like the way she repeated the word "time" three times at the end to just hit big notes, but I'm just a jaded critic. Maybe her audience eats that up.
Gabby Barrett (17) "I Hope You Dance," Lee Ann Womack (2000)
That may not have been Gabby's strongest vocal thus far in the competition, but it was one of her best interpretations of a lyric. Nick Jonas told her to dig deeper and tell the story. "Lean into it," he told her, and she totally did. She sold the message of the song, and like Carrie Underwood before her, Middle America is absolutely going to embrace her country music career when this show ends.
Well apparently, there is no need to pull out the calculator, because I had Catie Turner and Michael J. Woodard in my Bottom Two for both rounds. That said, both of them have strong followings at home, so it's doubtful America is going to echo what I saw.
Based on what we've seen thus far, the remaining five contestants (Gabby, Cade, Caleb, Jurnee, and Maddie) feel the most polished and ready to step into a bona fide career in music. Catie and Michael are great as well, but I think Michael might be better suited for Broadway, while Catie should be working on the Disney Channel.
Honestly, this Top 7 is very talented from top to bottom, so my decision was based more on who had a rough night and didn't recover as well perhaps as someone else.
The actual results were so tight that Ryan Seacrest didn't even have them in hand when the show returned from its last commercial break. Finally, he got the deets and quickly motioned Caleb through, followed by Maddie, Cade, Gabby and a very shocked Michael. Honestly, I thought Michael had a bad night, but before this he was one of the strongest and most versatile performers we had, so I can't be too mad about this.
Jurnee has been on America's bubble since the beginning, and Catie's massive misfire this week couldn't be surmounted. But this is such a talented roster of contestants, neither should feel too broken up about it. They get to go on the tour and a career after the show remains a real possibility.
Next week, "American Idol" airs live from coast-to-coast as it shifts to one night a week, Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC. It's all over May 21!