It was Inspirational Song night (and I thought EVERY night on Idol was Inspirational Song night). A lot of very savvy song choices, some major stumbles from front-runners (by which I mean the people whose initials aren't D and A, since we're talking front-runners for second place) and my girl Syesha is in trouble. The theme for the judges: connection.
MICHAEL JOHNS -- Sang Aerosmith's "Dream On." After coming alive on Dolly Parton week with a bluesy rocker that showed loads of personality, Johns came right back down to earth. I thought "Dream On" was a very smart choice since I assumed the night would be filled with sappy ballads. This one would surely stand out -- even if it never struck me as terribly inspirational. Yeah they're singing "Dream on/ Dream until your dreams come true" but it always sounded more manic and desperate than hopeful. Mind you, it was Aerosmith's first Top 10 hit so it didn't take long for their dreams to come true, did it? So Johns was sporting the suddenly fashionable ascot and delivering a solid, professional, but unoriginal xerox of the original. Plus he's back to his rock star posing. Smooth, but not fresh like last week. What looked like a breakthrough may very well have been a peak. Randy was negative, Paula insisted, "You sound as good as you look" which is simply not possible (especially when the camera is circling around and showing him from behind -- it is nice to admire an Idol contestant who is clearly an adult so you don't feel like a perv) and Simon nailed it when he said Johns was doing an "impersonation of a rock star." Still, it sounded lively enough.
SYESHA MERCADO -- Sang "I Believe" by Fantasia. Ugh. I've had a soft spot for Syesha from the start but I hate it when contestants pick songs sung by previous winners. Even worse, Syesha chose one of the horrid finale ballads that are insidiously "inspirational." After weeks of the judges being unduly harsh on her, Syesha gives them a reason to be tough by sounding rough on the high notes, shout-y towards the finale and dutifully hitting a big note at the end in pure robotic, Idol fashion. She looks great, at least. Ryan is negative, Paula says something nice and Simon isn't nearly as harsh as I expected by pretending that technically she sang it well. Maybe he didn't bother because he knows she's done. Fatally, Syesha makes the mistake of arguing with the judges. It can be frustrating when Simon says something silly like complaining that her song choices are identified with big stars like Whitney Houston and Fantasia. Well, surely 98% of the songs ALL the contestants choose are going to be identified with legends like Aerosmith and Judy Garland and so on. Should they choose obscure songs? Nonetheless, she is in big trouble.
JASON CASTRO -- Sang "Over The Rainbow" in the version made famous by Hawaii's Israel Kamakawiwo'ole aka Brudda Iz. (Jason might have found it online but I heard it first in the Adam Sandler movie 50 First Dates (believe me, that was by far the highlight of the movie). Has anyone on Idol made more smart use of a thin, unremarkable voice than Castro? I don't think so, especially since his genial nature doesn't even make you mind that he isn't a very good singer. Great choice of this particular version (the Judy Garland version is way, way beyond him, of course). But sitting on stage drumming a ukelele? Foolproof. (George Harrison used to travel with two ukeleles just in case he bumped into someone and wanted to jam -- surely they'd want to play a ukelele too, right?) All three judges give in to his charm, as do I. At ths rate, he'll make it to the final four. NOTE: By the way, because Iz has it wrong on You Tube, everyone else -- including iTunes, Entertainment Weekly, the Washington Post and Billboard -- refers to this song as "Somewhere Over The Rainbow." Nope, the Oscar-winning tune by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg and first hit single for Judy Garland is simply called "Over The Rainbow."
KRISTY LEE COOK -- Sang "Anyway" by Martina McBride. Before the show began, I predicted to friends that this would be her week to finally say goodbye. What do I know? Truly, I think the belief in a fanbase is over-emphasized. Yes, every act has some hardcore fans but the important vote (just like in Presidential elections) is the swing vote and they really do react viscerally to each week's performance. Given that, Cook should be fine since she gave her best performance yet. Mind you, that's only because she's lowered the bar so much that if she gets through a tune without falling apart we're pleasantly surprised. And she doesn't really bring any originality to the ballad. But it's in her comfort zone and she handles the quiet passages with solid confidence, even if her voice fades at the end of a few lines. No personality, but solid. And she looked smashing. Keep the messy hair, Cook.
DAVID LEE COOK -- Sang "Innocent" by Our Lady Peace, which is David's favorite band. That alone shows questionable taste (favorite over the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Green Day, Nirvana, Led Zeppelin and so on? Really?) The white, Eighties-looking jacket (which Randy inexplicably defended) showed even more questionable taste. And truly of all the performances this was the biggest train wreck by far. I hadn't been a fan of David's but he had me at "Hello" (the Lionel Richie song he butched up). He's been very consistent and true to himself. But his poser past came to haunt him here. His singing was extremely rocky from start to finish, sounding weak on the verses, lost on the chorus and generally breathless and out of tune. Playing to the judges is always a bad idea and then the outrageously self-important act of writing "Give back" on his palm and holding it up to the camera in a mock modest pose at the end was hopelessly pretentious. I'm sure Simon burst out laughing when he saw it on the monitor but after Paula mentioned it during the critique he judiciously said it was a nice gesture. No, it was an embarrassing gesture. Randy and Simon piled on, though Paula was typically enthusiastic.
CARLY SMITHSON -- Sang "The Show Must Go On," a so-so track from Queen's last album (released in 1991, the year Freddie Mercury died of AIDS). Even in the UK, which worships Queen, the track only hit #16. While not quite as disastrous as David Cook's performance, Smithson to my mind also hits a low point. Again, I've never been a big fan but she had shown some life and here she just seems...anonymous. Her trills and runs always sound squeaky and uninspired to me and never more so than here. The only time it sounds okay is when the backup choir joins in on the chorus. The judges are all pretty mixed (even Paula) and Simon is right when he said it seemed angry rather than inspiring. Then, even though she looked the same as she did every other week (rocker chick with sleeveless top showing off her tattoo), Simon insisted that this week she looks great. Then he ends by saying she could be in "a bit of trouble."
DAVID ARCHULETA -- Sang the Robbie Williams gem "Angels." My jaw dropped when Archuleta insisted he had trouble picking a song this week. Isn't "inspirational" in his wheelhouse? He again shows great savvy by picking a tune that is not well-known in the US but so strong melodically he has a chance to be both fresh and yet score big. The producers certainly don't take any chances. When they cut to commercial before showing his performance, we see Archuleta surrounded a pack of swooning girls. Then they bring out the smoke machine and end his performance with a loving close-up (expect lots of jokes about his teeth and the inside of David's mouth; no cavities!). With all that, he doesn't quite nail it. Playing the piano is great for him (especially when you can enjoy his reflection on the piano's surface, getting two Davids for the price of one) but he looked a little tentative. His singing was not so confident on the low notes in the verse, though I don't think he should have started in a higher key. I just think his voice has to mature so he can really nail this quiet tune. He ended pretty strongly and overall it was solid. But the tune really is indestructible and it should have been a revelation instead of just nice. The song only hit #53 in the US, but it was a career-defining hit around the world for Williams. Simon isn't terribly concerned with artistry but he knows a massive hit single when he hears one and has always loved this tune so he compliments Archuleta for his song choice even though it's an identical pick to John Farmham's "You're The Voice" -- a massive worldwide hit new to most people in the US. But all three judges give a pass to Archuleta.
BROOKE WHITE -- Sang Carole King's "You've Got A Friend," an album track from King's legendary debut in 1971 and a Grammy-winning hit that same year for James Taylor. (Tapestry is one of the true greats and comes out in a new CD special edition on April 22; if you don't own it, you should). If White stays in, she should just work her way through this entire album since it's where she lives. Her dress is fun and her vocals are fine, but it's another xerox (a la Michael Johns) of the King original. There's not a spark of personality. That combined with her overwhelming earnestness and tendency to cry is simply not playing well. Now surely she's only human and reacting to the moment and on a personal level this is perhaps mean to say. (How dare you feel emotional!) Nonetheless, however genuine her emotions are, seeing them played out the same way again and again is tiresome. The judges are all nonplussed (Paula rather confusingly says, "You're definitive") but they don't drop the hammer either, the way they might. "Original? No," says Simon succinctly. "Pleasant? Yes." Exactly.
THE GREAT HIGHLIGHT REEL DEBATE -- We've been having a back and forth in the comments section about the highlight clips and I confidently expressed my opinion repeatedly: they might make a backup copy from the rehearsals, but surely the audience isn't there for rehearsals (wouldn't we get instant online postings about the songs they were gonna do, along with reviews before the live show even aired?) and really there's no need anyway except for maybe the final performance of the night to use rehearsal footage unless for a technical snafu. I was wrong. You were right, Observantmom. The highlight reel this week showed audience members clapping along to Jason Castro when they didn't do that during the live performance, it showed David Cook using his hand to encourage the audience to sing along when he didn't during the live performance and I'm pretty sure the Brooke White clip was from a rehearsal as well -- a rehearsal where an audience was clearly involved.
THE BOTTOM THREE -- Well, the three worst performances this week, in my opinion, were David Cook, Carly Smithson and Syesha Mercado. The two most boring performances were Michael Johns and Brooke White. Johns has the burden of going first when fewer people are watching and I'll deduct points from Brooke for her personality hurting her. I'll go against my gut and say Cook has enough goodwill to survive one week's stumble. Though an all girl bottom three seems unlikely, I'll say Brooke White and Syesha Mercado and Carly Smithson in the bottom three with Syesha and Brooke in the bottom two and Syesha going home. I hope I'm wrong.
Who do you think is going home? And who was your favorite?