American Idol Top 30 Performances of All Time: No. 14, Jena Irene, “Can’t Help Falling In Love”

At least she didn't spell it Jeenaa.

At least she didn’t spell it Jeenaa.


(EDITOR’S NOTE: So I thought this version was different and original. Fast forward a few months later, I’m putting my kid to bed, put on the lullabye station on Pandora – she calls it her “nice music” – and BOOM, some independent artist recorded it prior. Not changing a thing because this was still an amazing performance.)

It’s not easy being a contestant on American Idol today.

After 13 years, we’ve seen a lot. The show has evolved from a singing show to one that’s based more on all-around musical performance and in that time, we’ve heard just about every great song ever written covered in auditions, Hollywood Week or on the live shows.

That’s why originality goes so far when you’re competing. The ability to do something no one has done before – and do it well – helps you stand out from the crowd and shows your potential as an artist. It draws in fans and while J-Lo commented that the hip-hop acoustic cover is getting played out, her act hasn’t changed the last 15 years so what the fuck does she know? The ability to take one style of music, change it to a style that fits you and make it sound not assy is not easy to do.

Season 13 instruments were welcomed back with open arms, a great move because Season 12 was one we’d rather forget.

We saw the return of the WGWGs, but we’re starting to see a new trend – GWP. That’s Girls With Pianos.

One GWP didn’t use her P nearly enough, but when she did it was magic.

Geena Gina Jena Irene wasn’t in the Top 10 after Hollywood Week, but she was chosen for one of the coveted “Wild Card” spots. She made it, was nearly sent home in the early weeks and then all of a sudden caught fire.

Her performance in the Top 8 of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” – which was stunningly beautiful and original – gave her momentum to earn the label of a “darkhorse candidate” – and the first person in the country say she had a shot at winning was yours truly – but it wasn’t her best performance.

No, the 17-year old JBAS saved her best for the end of the season and her version of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love” is the No. 14 Best Performance in American Idol history.

THE SITUATION: The road to the Top 4 was a windy one for Jena Irene. She was out, then in, then looked headed for an early exit, then a darkhorse candidate, then a potential winner?

The Top 4 looked fairly simple; Alex Preston was going to win and Caleb Johnson, Jessica Meuse and Jena Irene were all playing for second (this was before Alex melted down in the final two weeks; between poor song choices – his and the ones picked for him – and un-Alex-like performances, it was a collapse we haven’t seen on the show).

Jena had an edge on Jessica, who had run out of favor with the judges and producers; but fans were big on Caleb and Alex, so young Jena needed a performance that would be original and noteworthy. It was clear she needed to play her piano, which she had done well in a few performances.

With her last song of the night, she came up with the song that nearly won her the season.

THE HIGHLIGHTS: Like any performance where the contestant plays an instrument, the key is balance. You don’t want your playing to overpower the singing. Sure, the show isn’t the singing show it once was, but you can’t just sit there and play a solo. People came for the voice.

Jena balances her playing and singing beautifully. It isn’t about one or the other; it’s about both coming together for the perfect performance.

As in any performance on the list, her start to the song is incredibly. She has a sultry sound; her voice is deeper than a lot of female performers and it’s absolutely perfect for an Elvis song, especially this one.

She slows the tempo of the song, which is great but had you watched the season it made you wonder if she was going to change that. Jena had done a terrific slowed version of Radiohead’s “Creep,” only to pick up the pace and turn a potentially legendary performance into one that was just a minor highlight of the season.

She didn’t do it this time.

Instead, she lets her vocals carry the song. She’s so effective changing her tone; she’s soft and tender for most of the performance, but she gets just perfectly loud at the right moments. She’s so good, in fact, J-Lo looks to Keith Urban on her right and, just as the cameras are on her, mouths “fuck” as Jena nails a note.

There are few bars sung on Idol better than Jena’s from the 1:45 mark to 1:55. It’s just perfect.

It was the best performance of the season and it wasn’t close.

WHY IT’S HERE: While Caleb won the title, Jena won the show.

Her performance was the best of the season and for me, that’s more telling than who actually wins. If this girl doesn’t become a mega-star, I’m going to be surprised.

My one and only issue with the performance is the timing of it. If you’re familiar with Idol, the most important week of the season is the Top 3. Whoever wins that week wins the show. If Jena busts this out one week later, she wins the show. Hands down.

To be fair, she wasn’t afforded that option. Had she not performed the hell out of the song, there was a chance she was going home. The race was that close.

So if you take the overall performance and add how important it was to her standing on the show, there’s no doubt she belongs at least this high on the list.

And once we let this performance age, it could move up even higher in the next couple of years.

PREVIOUSLY: No. 15, Casey James, “Jealous Guy”

NEXT UP: One song, two dudes, too tough to choose

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