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'American Idol' recap: The Top 13 show us who they are

The "American Idol" top 13 took the stage live on Wednesday night to perform songs suited to the theme "This is me." They were instructed to select a song that "truly defines them as an artist and as a person," Ryan Seacrest told us.

Some of the contestants did that better than others -- just as only some of them managed to stammer out five facts about themselves in a scant 20 seconds when they were ambushed, while doing things like eating their lunch or brushing their teeth, by the "Idol" camera crew. (Who knew arachnophobia was so common?)

But before we address the performances, I have one burning question to pose to the "Idol" gods: Are we really going to have to listen to Randy Jackson's meaningless blabbing before every performance all season long? I really, deeply, truly, so desperately hope not. But if we do, yo, please, get the dawg some writers. There are only so many times we can listen to him spew the same empty phrase.

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Boiling Jackson's thoughts down to their essence has highlighted that there is absolutely nothing --  essential or otherwise -- to them.

Jackson seems to have replaced his old standbys -- "in it to win it," "that's the way you do it," "pitchy," "yo, check it out," "for me, it was just OK" and the like -- with a new go-to phrase "sell it to the public," which he used in at least three out of his 13 handful-of-seconds-long critiques.

Kristen O'Connor, Jackson said, piping up from his little box in the lower-right corner, really had to "sell that emotion to the judges and the public." Alex Preston, meanwhile, had to "open his eyes and sell that to the judges and public." And Sam Woolf? Jackson cautioned that he really had "to sell that emotion and his belief in it to the public."

I'm pretty sure we could do without all those cuts to Jackson issuing satisfied nods following the performances as well. Apparently, he was buying whatever the contestants were selling.

And the performances, what of them?

Dexter Roberts continued to showcase his good old country boy persona with Chris Young's "Aw Naw." It was exactly as you would expect, exactly like everything we've heard from Roberts so far: perfectly serviceable, middle-of-the-road country. Keith Urban called it an "excellent cover version of that song," but said he had to "figure out how to make it a Dexter Roberts performance." Jennifer Lopez said he had to find a way to "give us a wow performance" and "take it to the next level."

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Bruno Mars' "Runaway Baby" got away from Malaya Watson. She was all over the stage, but at points, she barely seemed to be singing the song. Given that, the judges were especially kind. Lopez acknowledged that it wasn't her best vocal performance, but still gave her an "A-plus" for performance and stage command. She and Harry Connick Jr. agreed that Watson was still "a contender." Connick attributed the sub-par performance to nerves.

O'Connor's take on Kelly Clarkson's "Beautiful Disaster" was neither beautiful, nor a complete disaster. (Discuss!) Instead it was just forgettable. Connick noted that O'Connor had been out of tune, but Urban thought she'd shown great range, control and dynamics. Lopez took the opportunity to tell all the contestants to stop thinking so much, but also to start thinking about "what you know more than what you're afraid might happen." Huh?

Ben Briley tackled Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" -- energetically and at a rather brisk pace -- because it is the song he always uses to set a tone at his gigs and "American Idol," he said, "is a gig." Urban thought he'd shown "real artistry" but cautioned that he shouldn't get so carried away trying to entertain the audience that he comes off as kitschy. Lopez and Connick liked the speeded up tempo. Connick called it "unquestionably the best performance of the night," though of course the night was still young, and told Briley that the fact that he had "picked a song that hearkens back to an earlier time in our country's music" made him "gain respect" for him.

C.J. Harris continued his practice of looking sweet but sounding slightly off on Darius Rucker's "Radio," a song he has loved since first hearing it on the radio. Lopez called it "a lot of fun," but Connick longed to hear the "cry" in Harris' voice. Urban thought it was a good song choice and had allowed Harris to showcase a different side of his vocal style. 

M.K. Nobilette also showcased a different side of herself, tackling Allen Stone's "Satisfaction," a song, she noted, that was "not a ballad." Connick was a little distracted by the fact that Nobilette was wearing makeup. "I'm so used to seeing you with no makeup on," he said, adding that she was "so beautiful both ways." He and Urban complimented Nobilette on her artistic growth and increasing confidence. Lopez said she'd loved Nobilette's delivery and thought she was "awesome."

Majesty Rose upped the ante with Janelle Monae's "Tightrope," bringing to the song an adorable energy and working the stage like a shimmering star. Urban called the song choice "killer." Lopez agreed, saying it showed off Rose's "individuality" and style and that she'd loved watching "the different ways that the rhythm hits your body." Connick declared the performance to have been "terrific."

Jena Irene showed off her pipes and ability to connect emotionally with an audience, tackling Coldplay's "The Scientist." Yes, Randy, she sold it to the public -- and to the judges. Lopez called it a "tough song" to sing, and said she'd been worried at first, but then was impressed by the singer's "powerhouse" vocals. Connick admired the way Irene made "interesting choices on a pre-existing melody." And Urban channeled Sheryl Sandberg and complimented Irene on the way she "leaned in" to the performance as it went along, advising all the contestants to "lean in."

Alex Preston performed Jason Mraz's "A Beautiful Mess" -- beautifully, I thought. It was one of my favorite performances of the night -- maybe one of my favorite "Idol" performances ever. Preston not only displayed his musicality, but captivated me with the litheness of his vocal tone and texture. At one point, at the end of a line, I got a hit of Leonard Cohen. There were moments of grit and of pure sweetness. His shy delivery seemed to me to be disarmingly honest, believable in a way that seems especially rare this season. Connick, stunningly, didn't seem to like it, telling Preston he'd sung out of tune and lost him by being "really, really introspective." Urban and Lopez, mercifully, disagreed. He said he'd felt pulled into the performance; she said she felt "caught up in the emotion and the mood."

The judges reached more of a consensus on Jessica Meuse's solid performance of Shinedown's "The Crow and the Butterfly," which Urban called a "very bold but cool song choice" that showed off her voice's "dark, haunting quality," "edge" and "rasp." Lopez got "goosies everywhere" and called it her "favorite vocal performance of the night so far," though she did wish Meuse would let her "body relax just a little bit" when she performed. "Nice job," Connick said.

Emily Piriz scored another of the evening's best performances with Pink's "Glitter in the Air," in which she combined a soft, airy vulnerability with some socko power notes. Lopez said she'd done right by one of her favorite artists, "beautifully" delivering "emotion," "pitch" and "dynamics" on a "tough song." Connick said it was "really great," and that Piriz had both sung and conveyed the emotions well on what was "not an easy song to sing." Urban called it one of his "favorites of the night," but cautioned Piriz that she had to keep a balance between "yin and yang," whatever he meant by that.

The relatively strong performances continued with Woolf, who tackled Matchbox 20's "Unwell." The judges gave him measured praise. "I thought it was good. I didn't think it was great," Connick said. "I thought it was nice." Urban called Woolf's style "captivating." Lopez said the singer was like "a quiet storm" but urged him to loosen up a little bit.

The night's final slot went to Caleb Johnson, who turned in an explosive, full-on rock take on Rival Sons' "Pressure and Time" and gave his mike stand its usual workout. Johnson's vocals matched his energy, and the production values amped things up to 11 – with geysers of steam shooting up behind him to cap things off.  "Dude, killer," Urban gushed, cautioning, however, that Johnson still had to find his "twist" to make his "retro" rocker shtick seem fresh. Lopez said she could picture Johnson on his tour bus "wreaking havoc," surrounded by girls, and said he had "the goods to back it up." Connick said it was "great to hear some rock 'n' roll on 'Idol,'" and told Johnson that, if Rival Sons ever lost its lead singer and needed a new one "you have that gig."

So who's likely to head home this week? I'll predict Kristen O'Connor, though C.J. Harris and Malaya Watson could also be in danger. What do you predict?


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