American Idol: Malaya Watson and Jena Irene steal the show

American Idol recap: Jena Irene and Malaya Watson outshone the other American Idol contestants Wednesday night. The theme: 'Back to the Start."

REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
The energetic American Idol contestant Malaya Watson performed 'Ain't No Way' by Aretha Franlin on Wednesday night.

Did anyone else groan when American Idol host Ryan Seacrest announced the theme of Wednesday night's show: "Back to the Start?"

Contestants would sing the songs from their original auditions. A retrospective that would show us how far these artists have come.

Really? Now we're part of the Way, Way Back Club? Can we really be nostalgic for those formative weeks, such a long time ago when those American Idol contestants were mere neophytes, hesitantly tiptoeing out onto the Hollywood stage? Are we going back to those cringe-worthy auditions of last summer or the halcyon days of January when stardom was merely a gleam in their eyes?

How imaginative.

But it turns out, the American Idol producers were on to something. At least, when it comes to the youngest performers. 

Malaya Watson and Jena Irene stole the night.

A brief video package described how her dad, a musician, raised Malaya on music in the family's basement studio. "Studio daycare," she quipped. And we were treated to a clip of 15-year old Malaya - seemly the embodiment of perpetual fidget – auditioning in Detroit with Aretha Franklin's "Ain't No Way."

Then, the American Idol version of Malaya stepped onto the stage and blew everyone away with a "goosies" performance. It was a testament to how much an emerging, young talent can be polished and coached into a star. Gone were the over-the-top screeching belts, gone were the uncontrolled jigs and arm flapping. She slowly built the song with precision, power, and emotion.

She brought judge Keith Urban to his feet. "Malaya on fiya," said the Aussie. He and Jennifer Lopez both complimented Malaya on her control. And JLo gushed that Malaya was "blossoming into a star right before our eyes."

Harry Connick Jr. praised her performance but reiterated his advice from last week that to milk everything she could out of her vocal runs, she should spend more time with the band so that her runs were in sync with the underlying chords.

Malaya was excellent. But Jena Irene's performance was the best of the night.

She took Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" and turned it into a jazz torch song. A complete makeover of a well-known hit. She slowed it down, made some subtle and beautiful changes, and flawlessly took it to a crescendo with her powerful voice. This was a masterpiece coming from an increasingly confident 17-year old discovering just what she can do. Jena is a case study of an artist emerging from the Idol process.

Keith gave her a standing ovation, telling her that she made the song her own. "Incredibly bold and I loved every second of it."

Harry said he's grown to appreciate the "really cool idiosyncracies" of her voice.

Jennifer sagely advised:  "Every week, you should blow everyone away and win this." To which Keith wryly remarked, "Genius. Let me write that down."

Beyond Malaya and Jena, the other highlights of Wednesday night were the unjudged duets. For the first time this season, the Idol contestants sang together in pairs. And for the most part, it worked really well.

Jena and Alex Preston sang "Just Give Me a Reason," by Pink and Nate Reuss. They looked like a bit of an odd couple, but musically it worked. The pair had great control. Jena was completely comfortable, but Alex seemed a little awkward gazing into her eyes.

Jessica Meuse and Caleb Johnson took on the roles of Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty in "Stop Draggin My Heart Around." These two powerful singers were a good match for each other and there were brief moments of chemistry between them before Jessica appeared to turn away from Caleb to perform simply for the audience. 

Malaya and Sam Woolf sang "Lucky" by Colbie Caillet and Jason Mraz. This was another good pairing, with Malaya providing some melodic nuance. It was understandably a little awkward physically, as these teens didn't appear comfortable getting too close on stage. 

Finally, the country boys Dexter Roberts and C. J. Harris tackled the Darius Rucker hit "Alright." And that described the performance: just alright. C.J. continued to struggle with his pitch and Dexter carried the performance. This was the weakest duet of the night.

Who are the likely Bottom Three this week?

C.J. Harris. His reprise of "Soulshine" by the Allman Brothers Band went well Wednesday night, his best performance in weeks. But he's looking like the weak link.

Caleb Johnson. He rocked out with Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools." We've seen this act many times now. As Harry indicated, there was nothing new here. "We know you're big and loud ...but I would love it if you did something that wasn't so loud – once."

Jessica Meuse. She opened the show with an original song, "Blue Eyed Lies." The judges praised her but she still struggled to connect emotionally.

Check back Friday to see if this writer's powers of prognostication can match Jodi Bradbury's Idol perspicacity.  And don't worry, Jodi will return next week to her regularly scheduled duties.

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