<em>American Idol</em> Top 3: David Vs David

The top three finalists onperformed last night amid the growing possibility that the inevitable David Archuleta crowning is not in fact so inevitable.
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Syesha Mercado really did overcome huge obstacles to make it to the final three. Despite looking terrific and delivering solid performances week after week, she was invariably pilloried by one or two or all three judges. Make fun of them if you want, but I usually agree with them -- or at least two out of three of them. Rarely do all three get it wrong and I don't think they've ever been so consistently wrong as they were with Syesha. The first week she got respect was when she sang Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" -- and that was only one week before she had to wave goodbye. But it was the right week for her to go because the two Davids have clearly been headed for a showdown. And as the show has emphasized, at least two weeks ago only one million votes separated the two of them. Where will the people voting for Syesha go? Archuleta or Cook? Both of them teared up at their homecomings this week, with Archuleta saying "gosh" a lot and Cook riding in a parade with his better looking brother. But is Cook savvy or what -- smoothing out the egotistical edge and getting all touchy-feely as the finals approach. Last week he gave a shout out to his mom and this week he honored his elderly music teacher. Who are you rooting for and who is gonna win? I'm rooting for Archuleta but I'm going to vote for whichever one of them does better on that particular night. I really do think it's up for grabs.

The top three finalists on Idol performed last night amid the growing possibility that the inevitable David Archuleta crowning is not in fact so inevitable. Last week, Ryan Seacrest said that the votes for the top three contestants were each within one million of the next. That meant even if Archuleta were #1, he was no more than about a million votes ahead of David Cook, who was no more than about a million votes ahead of Syesha Mercado. Then last night Ryan Seacrest dubbed it "the closest race this show has ever seen." They may be referring to the closeness in voting for the top 3. So if Syesha says goodbye tonight as expected -- amid huge but not as huge ratings as before and rumors of a meddling parent -- who will her votes go to? You have to think they might either fall away or go more often to David Cook. I know my brother -- who is as Middle America as it gets -- has grown bored with Archuleta, who may have played it too safe the last few weeks or more likely just revealed himself as one-note. Now that he's feeling a backlash, I'm rooting for him more than ever.

By the way, I'm in the South of France covering the Cannes Film Festival, but thanks to Slingbox and my friend Aaron I'm able to stay on top of Idol and talk with you about it, albeit without my usual reference library at my fingertips to fake deep pop culture knowledge. On to the show:

The intro in which Ryan defined each contestant summed up their personalities nicely: a high school student (David Archuleta just smiled goofily), an actress (Syesha made a goofy face, as in "who, me?") and a bartender (David Cook looked on with faux modesty, as if to say, dude, I'm a rocker).

DAVID ARCHULETA -- Paula Abdul chose his song, Billy Joel's "And So It Goes," which was an excellent choice that showed off his voice without making him seem too fuddy-duddy. The third single from Billy Joel's 1989 Storm Front album, it's a moody, mature ballad with a great melody and hit #37. It's hard to believe Joel doesn't feel the itch to turn out a pop song every once in a while, when he can deliver a gem like this. Archuleta began the tune a capella, which was a great choice and then slowly the strings came in. He only used a little of that Mariah Carey melisma (which is the inability to just sing a note without dancing around it for a moment or two), delivering most of the song in a straightforward manner. Towards the end he had a brief soulful moment, but it was restrained. I think David also made a good decision to ignore all the advice about not closing his eyes, licking his lips and so on -- better just to sing the way he's sung all his life and work on those tics later. Really, I thought this was just lovely and wondered for a moment, "Has he been holding back?" A terrific rebound after several fallow weeks. Randy, Paula and Simon all were positive, though Simon sounded a bit bored when he said, "It was very good."

SYESHA MERCADO -- Randy Jackson chose the #3 hit "If I Ain't Got You" from The Diary Of Alicia Keys. Syesha -- who I've had a crush on from the start -- looked absolutely stunning the entire night. She was very poised and in full Whitney mode. However, the arrangement was a little busy at first - especially the background vocals -- and she seemed a bit lost in the mix, until the chorus, which was great. Got stronger but then ended on a modest, quiet trill that didn't work great but didn't diminish from a solid performance. Randy praised her; indeed every judge praised the performance of the song they chose. But I disagree when he said that Alicia Keys was the sort of music she should record. Unless she can write the songs, she'll be just one more diva instead of the Broadway baby we know she's destined to be. Randy also said, tellingly, "That's why you're standing there as number three." Does he know something we don't about their standings? (I doubt it; just a slip of the tongue.) Paula also praised, as did Simon, who sounded surprised when he added, "You look gorgeous, by the way." Uh, she's looked great the entire series. Syesha is either letting her hair down or calculatingly de-emphasizing the Broadway and going more down-home -- she responded to Paula with, "Thank you, girl!" and later said she was just trying to "be meself," in a slangy sort of drawl. Is this the real Syesha or just a ploy to get more votes? Either answer appeals to me.

DAVID COOK -- Simon chose for Cook to sing Roberta Flack's "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," Made famous by Clint Eastwood -- who showcased the tune beautifully in his directorial debut Play Misty For Me -- Flack's version of the folk tune was at #1 for six weeks in 1972. Oh and by the way, what the heck? What a bizarre, left-field choice for Simon to make, who explained that he wanted to challenge the singers and get them out of their comfort zone so they would have to be creative. Gee thanks, I'm sure Cook was thinking. But it worked. Unlike his breakthrough reworking of Lionel Richie's "Hello," Cook didn't overhaul this tune. he sang it straight for a while, starting with an acoustic guitar while surrounded on stage by violins. Then he let the song build to a typical emo finale. Expected, but frankly done with this particular song it sounded striking. Except for a brief weak moment on a high note, Cook sounded great, especially when he dug into it towards the end. All three judges praised him, though Randy thought the song choice was wack and Simon said Round One went to Cook. I'd say it was a tie between him and Archuleta, with Syesha not so far behind.

DAVID ARCHULETA -- Interestingly, all three contestants had their weakest moments when making their own song choice. Just goes to show they don't really have a handle yet on what works for them. Archuleta chose Chris Brown's "With You." Nice try to make himself seem youthful and contemporary, but really it was a disaster. He was bouncing around on stage singing "I need you, boo" and sounding and looking utterly unconvincing. It was an Up With People version of R & B. He was quite lost and out of focus until the final seconds, where he ended ok, though not enough to rescue the performance. Randy was mixed, though bizarrely he insisted this is the sort of upbeat, youthful music Archuleta should record. Actually, the performance proved this is the last thing he should attempt. Paula was polite and Simon was negative, saying it was like watching "a chiwawa trying to be a tiger -- it's not really you." Exactly.

SYESHA MERCADO -- She chose to sing Peggy Lee's "Fever," a fun song, but one done on Idol before, so a bit boring from that perspective. Syesha made full use of a chair brought out on stage and acted her ass off. But I was kind of waiting the entire performance for her to start really singing it. Her short dress looked amazing and the singing was solid, but never really caught fire. I love standards and "Fever" has been recorded dozens of times (at least). You better make the most of it when you do one and she didn't come close to stamping her own personality on it -- Syesha was really just using the sexy vibe of the tune to add more personality to her image. Randy thought it was the wrong song but said she sang it amazingly well. Paula was mixed (ouch!) and Simon said she would regret the decision to sing it.

DAVID COOK -- He chose Switchfoot's "Dare You To Move" for its rock-ready melody and inspiring lyrics ("Today never happened before," which sounds like a line from an Idol finale tune, a la "This is my now!") Cook was rough and colorless at the beginning, but got stronger once the song picked up some steam. All three judges were negative, though not harshly so. Simon summed it up by saying all three had delivered just an ok middle round.

DAVID ARCHULETA -- The producers chose "Longer" by Dan Fogelberg, a solid choice for Archuleta that places him right where he belongs, in a Seventies, male, slightly wimpy singer-songwriter tradition a la Bread and Fogelberg, which is better than the inspiring, very wimpy Josh Groban field he'd been plowing. He's perched on a stool, with a button-down shirt untucked (though not, like me, because he's gained weight) and does it well. "Longer than there've been stars up in the heaven/ I've been in love with you." Archuleta throws caution to the wind and just opens and closes his eyes whenever he wants, rather than struggling against his instincts to keep them open like the last few weeks. And he ends well. Mothers and their daughters all sigh. All three judges praise him, though Simon hates the song and calls it gooey. Duh! It's supposed to be gooey. He predicts again that Archuleta will get through to the finals.

SYESHA MERCADO -- Ryan intro's her by making a joke about two middle-aged men and saying they should buy tickets to the Idol tour either alone or together depending on the situation (ha! ha! Gay people are funny!) until an audience member says, "That's Syesha's dad" and Ryan says he knows that and is just joking. Joking with Simon is one thing. Joking with an audience member, much less a contestant's parent is just odd. Happily, the two men just smile and ignore Ryan. The producers chose "Hit Me Up," a song from the Happy Feet soundtrack I don't even remember. Syesha looks young and sexy and does a fine job but the song is so anonymous that she kind of is too. Randy is mixed and Paula says "I don't know if it's good enough to get you into the finals" which is like having your own mother slap you and say you're not good enough to win. Simon slammed the song choice and said nothing she'd done that night had equalled her terrific rendition of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" from a week earlier. Very true.

DAVID COOK -- The producers chose for him Aerosmith's #1 hit from the Armageddon soundtrack "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing," a tune whose video I always found slightly creepy since Steven Tyler is singing a romantic ballad while we're seeing his daughter Liv. Still, it's a fine choice for Cook, who gives a solid performane as he builds to a rousing climax -- and then the producers of the show bizarrely and cruelly cut during the absolute finale of the song (we can hear Cook wailing away pretty decisively) to focus on the guitarist and then the violinists. Cook had about 90 seconds and I swear 20-30 of them were spent on the musicians. This has always been a peeve of mine. It's nice to give the musicians in an establishing shot or a brief glimpse, but they are not the story here. We need to see the singer. The final 30 seconds of this performance featured almost no Cook. It was a real injustice, especially since it makes it hard (for me at least) to judge him as fully as I'd like. All three judges praise him and Simon says Cook won the night.

THE TOP TWO -- I assume it will be the two Davids but Syesha did look amazing and Archuleta has definitely been feeling a backlash. Maybe Syesha could have an upset? I still predict Idol will be won by someone with the initials "D" and "A" but since they were within two million votes of each other last week, this is a real horserace. I'd say Archuleta gave the single best performance of the night while Cook was the most consistent and dealt with the curveball of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" very nicely. I think it'll be the two of them, but this could be the closest voting since Florida in 2000. Who are you rooting for? What was your favorite performance? And why do my posts get longer the fewer contestants there are?

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