After a nearly year-long process that winnowed 75,000 people down to just two, the first night of the American Idol finale turned out to be an evenly matched competition. Going first: Jena Irene, the 17-year-old from Farmington Hills, Mich., who’s the first female wild-card contestant to make the Top Two. Closing the show: Caleb Johnson, a rock belter who tried out for Idol twice before this year.
Ryan Seacrest billed the battle as “The Wild Card vs. the Wild Child” in front of 7,000 people at Los Angeles’ Nokia Live.
The show broke down into three rounds. In the first, Idol creator Simon Fuller picked tunes for each contestant. In the second, they each reprised favorite performances from past weeks. Finally, they each performed the song that would become their “winner’s single.” And the one who wins, Seacrest announced, will release a debut album on Aug. 12, before the end of the summer tour. (Note: Idol made a similar promise last year, then didn’t actually put out winner Candice Glover’s album until February of this year.)
Jena won the coin toss and chose to go first. Here’s how it went from there:
Jena Irene, Dog Days Are Over (Florence + the Machine).
The Florence + the Machine tune gives Jena the chance to showcase everything she has learned during the season. After strutting past the line of drummers, she works the entire edge of the stage and shows little to no effect on her vocal control. Later, she hits her knees for dramatic emphasis. She’s off to a strong start.
“The way that you owned that stage is so good,” Keith Urban says. “That’s the sign of a real pro.” He notes some adrenaline-related issues with breath control, but he’s impressed. Jennifer Lopez adds, “I could feel the heebies-jeebies coming out. It’s fine.” Halfway through, she could feel Jena loosen up and get comfortable. Harry Connick Jr. praises her internal rhythm and the way she performed. Grade: A-