American Idol: Jena Irene steals the show with a Radiohead performance

American Idol recap: There may be seven contestants vying for the title of American Idol but Jena Irene comes out on top on Wednesday night with her rousing performance of "Creep," by Radiohead.

Mario Anzuoni / REUTERS
Contestant Jena Irene poses at the party for the finalists of American Idol XIII in West Hollywood, California February 20, 2014.

This week, American Idol introduced a new theme called, "Competitor's Picks," and asked Randy Jackson to explain to viewers and the contestants what that meant.(See, he is actually working for his paycheck!)

Unfortunately, the actual meaning of "Competitor's Picks," is far less interesting than what most people would assume by its title. Randy explained that this was not about sabotage and contestants weren't really assigning each other songs; instead, each contestant contributed a recommendation for all of the other contestants, thereby creating a song book for that contestant to choose from. Huh - what a democratic process, and by democratic we mean boring. Not that the world needs more reality TV shows that cultivate the worst in people but American Idol could benefit from a little grit and though pitting Mariah Carey and Nikki Minaj against one another last season backfired, the show still hasn't recognized that it is the reality of the contestants' experiences (rather than the judges' antics) that is the fertile soil for entertainment.

Instead, American Idol opts to fall back on its tired old routine of "5 Things You Don't Know About the Contestants," which seems like a poor stand-in for really getting to know the performers. Why do we have to get to know the contestants in a manner more suitable for speed dating when most of us have committed to spending a season with these individuals? How can we be expected to stay loyal as viewers when Idol strips the show of any true intimacy?

Of course, getting to really know the contestants can be a double-edged sword since it would mean extra air time for all contestants, even those that you would prefer not to invest additional time in.

Caleb Johnson: So Wednesday night we learned that Caleb is a tennis fanatic, snores loudly, is scared of the dark and spiders, and is a horror and cult movie fan. But after his performance of Alex Preston's recommendation of, "Family Tree," by Kings of Leon, we also learned that our suspicions that Caleb might be a one-trick pony were probably accurate and that the judges think he can do no wrong. Caleb's vocals were fine but were somewhat overshadowed by the band's guitar player, who really seemed to be the star of that performance. This is the time in the season where the judges have identified their favorites and Caleb is clearly one of them. The interesting thing about favoritism is that it is often rooted in perception as opposed to reality, a great example of that was Keith Urban calling Caleb "dynamic," after another loud, rock performance. B-

Jessica Meuse: And in order for there to be favorites, there must also be underdogs, a role Jessica has been cultivating all-season. Jessica's package taught us that she has eight tattoos, seven of which she designed, her favorite animal is the wolf, she was rejected by a school of music, chased by a pony and not only believes in aliens but also that she may have been abducted. (Perhaps the aliens absconded with her likability?)  Jessica chose Sam Woolf's recommendation of "Gunpowder and Lead," by Miranda Lambert. She looked great and seemed more comfortable than ever but the judges disagreed. Harry Connick Jr., in a very raspy voice, advised Jessica to work on her rhythm and Keith claimed there was a dissipation of energy throughout the performance and encouraged her to get centered, serious, and to commit to the lyrics. B

We are then treated to a surprise (read: random) visit by pop singer Demi Lovato, who just wrapped up the US portion her tour and is obviously having singing competition withdrawals since leaving "The X Factor." After a brief moment on stage with Ryan Seacrest she's delegated to the Randy Jackson area of the stage.

Alex Preston and Sam Woolf then performed a duet of, "Let Her Go," by Passenger. Performing on a stage designed to mirror the living room where the two originally collaborated on this version of the song, Alex and Sam reminded viewers what sets them apart from many of the other contestants: namely their subtle, understated talent. Alex was more comfortable with Sam than he's ever been in a duet with a girl and sounded incredible and Sam's rich, mellow voice didn't disappoint. Unfortunately, none of the judges (including Demi) agreed. B+

C.J. Harris: C.J. (who I'm starting to think may be the person who stole Jessica's likability since he has way more than any one person should) informed us that he likes watching Sponge Bob on rainy days, loves grilling, taking pictures, is a neat freak, and would love to do stand-up comedy. C.J. liked Caleb's choice of "Gravity," by Jon Mayer. It was a good performance and C.J. managed to stay in key for most of it but Keith hit the nail on the head when he said he wished there was more of a crescendo and Jennifer Lopez agreed, advising C.J. to start looking for moments to lift the crowd. Both Harry and Jennifer agreed that it was his best performance to date. B

Dexter Roberts: In Dexter's segment we learned that Dexter is an adrenaline junkie, wants to skydive, loves strawberries and listening to crickets, has ridden in a rodeo and that his first plane ride was so harrowing he's still afraid of flying – an interesting juxtaposition since he is an adrenaline junkie who wants to throw himself out of a plane. Dexter picked C.J.'s suggestion of "Muckalee Creek Water," by Luke Bryan. It was a perfectly decent performance but once again it was what someone not quite as PC as myself, would call another Redneck Anthem. It was nothing short of confounding to hear Jennifer say that Dexter showed us a different side. Keith warned against over-singing when the melody isn't there and Harry requested, as he's done week after week, that Dexter do something original with his song choices. B-

After a little sexual objectification of Jennifer by Ryan – no episode is complete without it lately – we got to watch Caleb use a question from Twitter as an excuse to grandstand and do an impromptu duet with Ryan.

It was then Caleb and Jena's turn for their duet of, "Gimme Shelter," by The Rolling Stones. The duet was great as were Jena's bangs. Her shorts? Not so much. Somehow shorts just don't work when the inseam is lower than the actual short length. The judges loved it and Demi Lovato was jealous that Jena wants to sing with Hayley Williams from Paramore and not with her. B+

Alex Preston: The five facts Alex shared were his love of gardening, cooking, freestyle skiing, dermatology, and the fact that he was once a linebacker. Alex selected Dexter's choice of "A Team," by Ed Sheeran and it was fantastic as usual. Harry indicated that it was his favorite performance of the night and expressed admiration for Alex's commitment to the power of a quiet performance and Keith loves the artistic little signatures that Alex always includes. A

Sam Woolf: Sam shared that he likes to climb roofs, is not good at sports, that the first song he wrote was on the piano, even though he only knew three chords, that he likes to play practical jokes on his grandparents to keep them young, and that he used to skateboard. Sam elected to sing Jessica's choice of, "Sail Away," by David Gray. It was not Sam's best performance and the song did not seem genuine coming from him. Sam sang the song as though it were a mellow beach song and failed convey the urgency and desperation of the lyrics. Harry felt that Sam is progressing but didn't feel the song choice did him any favors because it isn't well known. The judges all applauded Sam for trying to connect but at this point, Sam really needs to be trying less and doing more. C

Jessica, C.J., and Dexter joined up to form their mini trio called, "Alabama Power," and chose to sing "Compass" by Lady Antebellum. It was a lukewarm performance, lacking any excitement or oomph. Harry said it was out of tune, flat, and there were no sparks. Demi liked Jessica's voice and thought the individual performances were good but that as a trio the harmonies were off. D

Jena Irene: Jena's five facts: she wrote her first song when her 6th grade boyfriend broke up with her after dating for 24 hours, peed her pants the first time she performed on stage with her band at 12, loves make-up and took ballet, and would like to get a tattoo of a skull that reads "We're all the Same Underneath," when she turns 18. Caleb chose Radiohead's, "Creep," for Jena and thankfully Jena was up to the challenge. In what was probably the first real moment of the season, Jena delivered a moving, transcendent performance and stole the show. The judges didn't have much time left to add their two cents, but promised they'd continue to gush next week because Jena would be in this for the long haul.


Of our remaining Seven Dwarfs, next week we're predicting it will be Sam Woolf and Dexter Roberts in the bottom two, leaving C.J. to squeak by another week. 

And in the interest of sharing, five things you may not know about your American Idol blogger: I have three jobs – I am a Project Manager in IT, a freelance writer, and started my own baking business a year ago, I live in a 200-year old house in Salem, Mass., a city best known for the witch trials, I am a vegetarian, I'm obsessed with 19th-century English Literature, and sometimes going into bookstores gives me anxiety because I know I'll never be able to read them all in my lifetime. There, don't you feel so much more connected now? 

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