'American Idol' recap: The Top 5 do America's bidding

Each contestant sang two songs suggested by fans from all over the country

America told the Top 5 what to sing on "American Idol" this week. Each contestant sang two songs suggested by fans from all over the country. Some of the selections were better than others, eliciting a couple of knockout performances, a few solid ones and a handful that were somewhat underwhelming. Overall, though, America did a pretty good job.

All the contestants were mentored, quite helpfully, by Jason Mraz, the musical hero of one contestant in particular: Alex Preston. Preston was also surprised at the top of the show by the appearance of his "celebrity crush," Zooey Deschanel. Sam Woolf got to meet his crush, too: Ariana Grande ran out to hand Woolf a mic before he took the stage to sing his first song; then she retired to the "lounge" beside the stage, making the shy Woolf even more nervous. (Austin Mahone also showed up, backstage, to pose for DIY viewer selfies with Ryan Seacrest.)

As Grande looked on, judge Keith Urban told blush-prone Woolf he'd gone as red as the Coke logo on the screen behind him when she'd appeared. "Very endearing," Urban said, chuckling. Poor Sam.

Urban also seemed tickled by the two group performances. He stood and applauded after Woolf, Preston and Jena Irene sang American Authors' "Best Day of My Life," and said Caleb Johnson and Jessica Meuse had "killed" the Rolling Stones' "Beast of Burden," though, in fact, Meuse had looked tremendously uncomfortable throughout the duet.

And then there were the solo performances:

Preston kicked things off solidly, if not soaringly, with the Neighbourhood's "Sweater Weather." Urban and Jennifer Lopez were complimentary but said they wished Preston had pushed himself more and made it a little more exciting. Harry Connick Jr. gave Preston "an A-plus for remembering all those words" and told him he could hear him singing a similar song on a record or the radio. Preston, Connick said, had provided a "strong opening to the show." 

The judges were even more excited by Preston's second solo song, A Great Big World's exquisitely understated "Say Something." Urban gave him a standing ovation and offered a "huge thank you to everyone in America who suggested that song," calling it a "perfect marriage of song and artist" and "absolutely beautiful." Connick declared it to have been "the performance of the night," speaking with admiration about the "powerful" way Preston had struggled "with the emotion of the song" and not given in to it. Lopez added that Preston had "looked amazing" and that his vocals had taken the performance to "another level."

Caleb Johnson got off to a shaky start with America's first pick for him, Aerosmith's "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," though he did manage to hit some impressive notes by the end. Lopez said it had been a "challenging song" for Johnson but thought he'd done a "beautiful job," especially at the end, when she "got goosies." Connick suggested that Johnson focus on the audience in the room rather than on the camera. Urban said Johnson should let his emotions, not his vocal skills and range, propel his performances. Backstage, Johnson noted he'd had some "pitch issues."

No one had any quibbles, however, with Johnson's second performance: He capped the night with Whitesnake's "Still of the Night," bringing Lopez and Urban to their feet, rock-concert-style, mid-performance. "Awesome. Dude, that was killer," Urban gushed, joking that Johnson "brought a tear" to his eye when he tackled such "tender ballads." "That's what we call 'bringing down the house,' " Lopez said over the roar of the crowd, adding that she especially loved the way the band performed with Johnson. "They know they have a real lead singer up there, and they go for it with you." Connick said Johnson could not have sung "that song any better than that" and congratulated him on a "fantastic job."

Tackling Christina Perri's "Human," Meuse showed remarkable growth in embodying the song, conveying the emotions behind it and looking comfortable onstage. Connick complimented her on her willingness to take advice and work hard to improve and, while he perceived "pitch issues," said he could tell she'd "really focused on the meaning of the song," which was "the most important thing." Urban especially liked the way Meuse's voice had broken partway through, calling it "the most human bit" and urging her not to let the moments of "fragility" go "because they're very real." Lopez said Meuse had tapped "into the emotion of the song," at one point getting "lost" in it and giving the audience a "great dramatic moment." Those moments, Lopez said, were "magic."

The magic didn't quite happen for Meuse on her second song, Lana Del Rey's "Summertime Sadness." Though her flowing red dress and flash of leg tattoo captured attention at the start, she couldn't quite shake that dull look she often gets behind her eyes. Connick, though, called the song a "natural fit" for Meuse's voice. Urban agreed that the tune's "David Lynch mysticism" suited Meuse's tone and range but said she still needed to "emotionally and dramatically lean in" to her performances more. Lopez said the song started beautifully -- with the pose in profile creating a beautiful picture and the "darkness" that came in with her vocals -- but then the performance hadn't quite gone anywhere, leaving her a "tiny bit cold." "Again," Lopez stressed, "it's about you finding a little bit more in your body" to connect with the song.

Of all the contestants, Woolf probably had the most disappointing evening. Before taking the stage to sing Ed Sheeran's "Sing," he vowed to "go out and get funky for America," cracking himself up at the idea. But he looked less amused when the judges gave their critiques. Urban called it a "tough song," not Woolf's "wheelhouse," though he thought Woolf had done the best he could. Lopez found him to be more relaxed and comfortable, saying it "was actually good." Connick liked that Woolf had done something "totally different" but thought he'd laid back too much on the vocals, "diffusing" the funk.

Woolf's second song, "How to Save a Life," by the Fray, was a bit dull, but Lopez felt it got better toward the end, giving her the "second goosies of the night." Connick thought it had been a "perfect song choice" but griped about pitch and dynamic issues, urging Woolf to "experiment with different aspects" of his voice.  Urban agreed with both of the other judges. Though the beginning had been a "bit shaky," he said, Woolf ultimately "started to own the song" and had him by the end.

Hoping to "rise to the top" by showing she "genuinely feels comfortable on this stage," Irene tackled Young the Giant's "My Body" with intensity and command. Urban gave her a standing ovation. Lopez said she sounded "really good," as always, and was starting to create a signature style that was "exciting to watch." Connick admired the way Irene was able to "actually move to the beat," look like she was "having fun" and "use the stage in a way that is not choreographed." It really "felt like a performance," he said. Urban called Irene a "lean-in performer." "Even if you don't know where you are or what you're doing, you just keep leaning in," he said, adding that her piano and songwriting skills upped her appeal even further.

Irene's second performance, singing Amy Winehouse's "Valerie," didn't go over quite as well. Urban didn't love the arrangement, though he thought Irene's vocals were strong. Lopez said that, while Irene always killed it, the song seemed too old for her. Connick said it was "right in the middle," neither the best nor the worst, but wondered how Jena, who had dropped her last name ahead of the live shows, would like to be known as a singer going forward. The answer: JENA -- in caps, no last name. Now you know.

I think Woolf may finally go home this week, with Meuse keeping him company in the bottom two, despite the fact that she had a pretty good night. What's your prediction?


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