updated 02/27/2014 AT 2:00 AM ET
•originally published 02/27/2014 AT 6:50 AM ET
American Idol’s Top 13 debuted Wednesday, choosing songs that expressed who they are as artists and people.
And, overall, the girls did a better job of that, according to the judges, with Emily Piriz, 18, singing Pink’s “Glitter in the Air,” and earning unabashed praise from tough, oft-booed Harry Connick Jr. who said simply, “I’m proud of you.”
“That was big for Harry!” Jennifer Lopez laughed, with Urban immediately adding, “I was waiting for the ‘but.’ ”
Jessica Meuse, 23, offered up a hauntingly beautiful version of “The Crow and the Butterfly,” a performance that Lopez called her “favorite vocal performance of the night,” saying that it gave her “goosies.”
Majesty Rose, 21, sang the bouncy “Tightrope,” which Keith Urban called a “killer song choice.”
The boys also earned some props, with country crooner Ben Briley, 24, giving what Connick said early on was the “best performance of the night” with “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash. But Urban said the quick pace of the song made it a bit kitschy.
And Alex Preston, 20, who gave a simple, introspective performance of “Beautiful Mess” by Jason Mraz polarized the judges.
Connick said Preston’s performance was “so inward I didn’t really feel what you were trying to sing about,” while Urban and Lopez were both caught up in the mood he created. “It pulled me into you,” said Urban.
Country singer Dexter “I’m Fun” Roberts, 22, showed that side of himself, singing “Aw Naw,” a performance Urban called an “excellent cover version,” adding that Roberts needed to figure out how to make a song his own.
Malaya Watson, 16, sang an up-tempo “Runaway Baby” by Bruno Mars, and the judges felt the teen’s nerves got the best of her.
“You command that stage,” said Lopez, “but it wasn’t your best vocal it went off the rails at the end.”
Kristen O’Connor, 24, paid tribute to Idol’s first idol, Kelly Clarkson singing “Beautiful Disaster.”
While Connick told O’Connor she was a “really strong pop singer,” he also noted that she sang out of tune, which Lopez attributed again to nerves saying, “Stop thinking show what you know more than what you’re afraid might happen.”
C.J. Harris, 22, who chose “Radio” by Darius Rucker, divided the judges with his song choice.
“You have this kind of cry in your voice [that I didn’t hear with that],” said Connick, while Urban disagreed saying, “It was a side of you we haven’t heard.”
MK Nobilette, 20, grooved to a soulful “Satisfaction” rather than singing a ballad.
“I loved it,” said Lopez. “Really smart to show a different side of you You are awesome.”
High school senior Jena Irene sang Coldplay’s “The Scientist” and her unique take earned kudos.
“You are a powerhouse singer which makes me really angry,” joked Lopez.
Rocker Caleb Johnson, 22, sang the modern rock song “Pressure and Time,” but it still felt a bit too “retro” for Urban.
“You’re so ready for the rock star life,” laughed Lopez. “You have the goods to back it up.”
Sam Woolf, 17, played guitar and sang “Unwell,” which Connick called “nice,” and Urban described as “slow,” while Lopez told Woolf, “You have to come alive you’re like a little deer in the headlights.”
How did America vote? Find out Thursday night (8 p.m. ET) on Fox.