The theme this week was the 80s, and all the embarrassments of that notable decade. Even the producers chimed in, bringing back Blake Lewis for a performance that could be considered embarrassing. Now, did the contestants join in this orgy of things we'd rather not remember?
Thankfully, it wasn't. We were spared the strange song choices of the top 20, although it was replaced by traces of over-ambition. Overall, though, both performance nights were quite enjoyable. It's a welcome change from the two previous weeks, where one gender brought their A game, but the other sung about as well as the New York Knicks play basketball.
There were plenty of standout performances on the guy's side of the equation. To be fair, just about everyone (except Luke and Danny) were acceptable, and many of those were quite good.
The prize for top performance of the night has to go to David Cook. If someone ever made up an Idol wiki, David Cook would be in the "make a song your own" category. It was a thoroughly complete performance. You could not ask for anything more from David; he definitely took his music up to the next level. Well done.
The other real highlight for the guys was Jason Castro. We asked, all the way back in the top 24, if Jason could sing without the guitar. Last week left us convinced, but this time he left few doubters. Jason doesn't have the big vocals to match up with the very best, but he makes up for it with good control and an uncanny ability to convey the emotions of the song, as he did with Hallelujah.
Michael Johns, David Archuleta, and David Hernandez all turned in fairly good performances in their own right. Michael is highly experienced, and it definitely shows. His performances have the most "professional" feel, and he has the kind of experience to turn anything into something worth listening too. David Archuleta came down a bit from Imagine, but the singing was spot on. As for David Hernandez, it was something of an odd song choice - Celine Dion - but it worked fairly well. The reason they're below David and Jason, however, is that none of them really took chances and raised their game the way the two did. "Safe" would be a fair adjective to use, particularly for Michael and David Archuleta.
We had five good performances, but it all couldn't be good. Chikezie was good last week, but went right back to the dairy product this time around. To his credit, it was decently sung, but overall it was a good time to fetch a snack or relieve yourself. It's close to a miracle that he sneaked into the top twelve.
Our two laggards were also the two evictees. Thank you, America! Luke and Danny were, by far, the worst singers in the competition. Luke had non-existent range, and only his good looks kept him in. The same thing happened to Danny, although his "good looks" were of a different flavor. His outstanding display of Yuletide cheer (check Youtube for what we mean) didn't help either. Neither will be missed.
Call for the divas: If we never heard another Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey on Idol, we'd be a happy man. However, that's about as likely as Paula becoming completely sober. Even then, however, the spate of diva songs on Wednesday left us all cringing in horror.
Of course, the night did have its share of good performances. Two were clearly above the rest of the field: Brooke did exactly what David Cook did the night before: take a seemingly unsuited song choice, turn it into something that does suit you, and sound good while doing it. Carrie Underwood tried to do it the straight "power" way, and came out with mixed results (at best). Brooke avoided that minefield, and let her control and unique style do the work. Brilliant.
As for Carly, she has far and away the best vocals of the girls by far. She turned in the second best song of the night. Again, we disagree with Simon - we thought that she connected with her song very well. Lots of people may not like her, but Carly will be around for the foreseeable future, and is finally living up to the hype that came in with her.
Amanda needed a good performance to get to the top 12, and she delivered. She found a song she could use that growl of hers, and she can command the stage fairly well to boot. It wasn't going to win her worst critics over, but compared to anything she's pulled off before it was far better.
After that, we have a range of performances that were just okay. Not really bad, but not good either. Song choice was, as ever, critical: most of these made bad choices. Asia'h did well to pick an uptempo song, but picking a Whitney Houston song? Uh, no. Syesha can only do one thing well - hit the power notes, but the rest of the song made her sound very ordinary. Ramiele picked another big powerful female diva to do this week, and it backfired. (We're convinced that Ramiele did not do the 80s original of Against All Odds; she did the 2000 cover by Mariah Carey.) Kristy was, well, Kristy. She's never really bad, but she's never really good either.
Last, unfortunately, was Kady. The song just didn't suit her at all, and even then it wasn't all that well sung. She hit the power notes fine, but like Syesha she was very ordinary when she wasn't doing that. The best word that could describe it was medicore.
The Idol Power Rankings: Let's try to do something new starting from now on. Every week, we'll rank the Idols in terms of how fat they'll go. Take note that artistic merit isn't the big determining factor here; it's primarily how far these people will go before getting sent home. If you've read any Power Rankings for football, the format should be pretty familiar. Be warned, though: this list has quite a few surprises in it. If you disagree with us, feel free to let us know with your impassioned thoughts. Let's go.
1. David Cook
Some may be surprised we have him this high. He hasn't enjoyed the promotion that others like Carly, Michael, and David Archuleta have. So why do we have him ranked so highly?
First of all, not getting pimped may work out well for him, because he doesn't have the weight of expectations on him. He is clearly the best rocker in this group, and a good rocker can get very far. Just ask Chris Daughtry. Two more things help David here: he's got more crossover potential than Chris ever had, and allowing instruments into performances helps him too.
2. Carly Smithson
Simon's right with her. She can sing the phonebook and sound good. While we here are more positive about her "connecting with the song" than Simon is, there are probably enough people who feel that way that it could be a problem for her. Still, her vocals and stage presence are really a cut above the rest of the field. Winning over people like Simon is probably a question of when, not if.
3. Brooke White
Up to now, Idol has not had any singers like Brooke go very far. She doesn't have the big voice that, historically, you needed to advance in this competition. Still, the new instruments rule will help her. The historical lack of success of singers similar to her style will probably energize her fan base significantly. They will want her to prove that you don't need to have a diva voice to win. She'll go further than a lot of people think.
4. Jason Castro
Most of what we said about Brooke applies to Jason, as well. The big difference is, however, experience and flexibility: Brooke has more of it than Jason has. If vote-splitting its ugly head, Jason will lose out to Brooke as things stand. For now, though, they should both have plenty of support to move forward.
5. David Archuleta
Yes, despite all the proclamations of his talent, and the claims of many posters that the Idol Powers-That-Be have made him their Chosen One, we put him about the middle of the list. Yes, we're running against the forces of Conventional Wisdom, but humor us for a moment here.
David has a brilliant voice. In terms of natural talent, he's probably the best in the top 12. What he does at the age of 16 is brilliant. However, that exactly is his biggest problem - he's 16. Just because Jordin won last year doesn't mean all the disadvantages of being relatively young on Idol suddenly went away. The biggest problem there is that younger singers usually don't have a firm musical identity; they haven't figured out who they are musically yet. David could go the route he took with Imagine and Another Day in Paradise, but we doubt it. Simon was right about the "gloomy" song comment. Until then, David Archuleta will be a brilliant singer, but as an artist he needs work.
6. Michael Johns
The one word we'd use to describe his performances are professional. His singing skills are excellent, his stage presence is good, and his song selection is respectable. So why do we have him this low?
The trouble with Michael is that he has the vibe of a band frontman, a good frontman, even, but not a successful solo act. Unfortunately, American Idol is looking for just that. We have a disconnect here. The second problem is even more fundamental: what kind of artist is he, really? He's performed good covers, but what kind of singer is he? What can we expect from a Michael Johns CD? We still don't know.
7. Kristy Lee Cook
We're sure that Kristy's high ranking here will have people howling in agony. Why do we have her ranked so highly?
For all the flack we give her, Kristy is never really the worst of the night - a situation that hasn't changed with the guys and girls competing together. More to the point, however, she's the only country singer left in this competition. Much as it is in vogue with certain circles to disrespect both country music in general and country music voters in particular, their power cannot be doubted. They can push someone who would barely make the tour, if that, into a mid-place finish. Kellie Pickler and Phil Stacey both finished sixth, largely due to country voters. Kristy will probably be no different.
8. David Hernandez
Here's another surprisingly low ranking of someone with a good voice. His problem is similar to David Archuleta's: he's a good singer, but so far he has not really established his artistic sense. Yes, he's got a great voice. Pre-top 12, that's good enough - but not post top-12. David has all the makings of an early surprising boot. It can happen. Just ask Mandisa and Nadia Turner.
9. Ramiele Malubay
The problem with Ramiele is she's consistently inconsistent. When she's on, she can sing as well as anyone. She's got good vocals, that's not in doubt. For two weeks running, though, she's made dumb song choices. She can get better, but it may be too late for it to matter.
10. Syesha Mercado
There's a reason Syesha's been called everything from Screamesha to Syscreecha around the Idol punditocracy. Up to now, all she's proven is that she can hit power notes reasonably well. Unfortunately, she adds those glory notes when they're not really needed for the song, and when she's not belting out she's downright ordinary. You can't go far if you're that one-dimensional.
Unfortunately, doing anything else, she ranges from the ordinary to the bad. There's a market for that kind of voice, but it's not that large. She will probably make the tour, but only just.
11. Amanda Overmyer
Amanda is possibly the ultimate niche contestant Idol has ever seen. Even in the rock genre, there are only so many songs that suit that raspy, growling voice of hers. When it works, it's brilliant. When it doesn't... well, we'd rather listen to nails on chalkboard. She's that bad.
She has a small fanbase that kept her in through two disastrous weeks. However, with the rock vote going over to the guys, particularly David Cook, her lifespan on the show is limited.
No one really expects Chikezie to go very far. It's a near miracle he made it over Danny Noriega and his horde of tween supporters. He's wildly inconsistent at best, and downright terrible and cheesy at worst. He's not really top 12 material.
On the waiver wire: Keeping up with the last segment's sports theme, what can we say about the four contestants who the folks at home decided to waive and send back to the couch?
There's not much to say about the exits of Luke and Danny. Both were more interesting as personalities than as actual singers. Danny's recent moment of Youtube fame didn't exactly help his cause. It may be harsh to say, but we'll say it anyway: they won't be missed.
For the girls, however, they will definitely be missed. We said last week that whoever was the weaker in each of the Asia'h/Syesha and Kady/Kristy pairs would be at risk, and we were proven right. Asia'h made the worst possible song choice possible - she didn't have the vocals to do Whitney, and with Syesha doing a better job of hitting the power with another Whitney song she came out way below second-rate. Kady, meanwhile, is a better vocalist than most people think or realize, but never learned to put it all together. There's a lot of potential in her, but a lot of work had to be done to bring it out. Idol is not the best place to learn such things. With more experience and consistency, Kady would have been a real long-term threat.
Not just for management: The mantra "work smarter, not harder" is a favorite of time management "experts". Whether or not it's true there or not is up for debate, but one thing's for sure: it applies in the Idol world, too.
Because it is the last week before the finals and the "big stage", there are few weeks in the Idol calendar where there's more stress than the top 16. Naturally, the contestants want to do their best - but, in their desire to do their best, they frequently reach for songs that are beyond their abilities. The spirit is willing, but the vocal cords are weak.
This really ties in to what we said last week - most, if not all, of those who go really far on the show have a good idea of their musical identity and abilities. Blake Lewis's appearance on the results show was forgettable from a musical point of view, but it was a perfect opportunity for us pundits.
As we said multiple times last season, Blake really didn't have the vocal tools to compete with the rest of the finalists. To his credit, Blake knew that perfectly well and adjusted what he did all season. He could never hope to compete with Jordin, Melinda, or Lakisha when it came to singing, so he turned each and every show into a performance, which was what he did best. It may not have been resulted in the best singing, but as a strategy, it was brilliant.
The temptation for an inexperienced singer is to think, "I need to impress this time, so I should pick the biggest song I can get cleared." The songs that get picked are the ones with the runs, glory notes, all the things that impress some viewers. Not all, but some.
This wouldn't be such a bad thing - if the singer in question can pull off the song. However, more often than not the contestants can't. The question in their minds should be "can I pull this off?"; instead it's "how hard can it be?" As it turns out... very.
Just take a look at the artist choices for this week and cringe. Whitney Houston - three times. Celine Dion. Mariah Carey. Freddie Mercury. If that's not an ambitious group of artists to pick, we don't know what is. If you are that good, if your power and control is that good, then it's brilliant. Unfortunately, that's rarely the case. It's hard to come out the winner from such a comparison, because you're not playing to your strengths.
In contrast, look at David Cook at Brooke White. Neither is the most powerful singer in their gender - David Archuleta's got that for the guys, and Carly has that for the girls. So they looked at their own strengths, and picked songs and arrangements to suit. Just looking at the song titles, one would think they were both asking to be sent home, but nothing could be further from the truth. They made the songs their own and played to their strengths. Well done to both of them.
So what's the lesson for future contestants? It's easy to think that power runs and glory notes equal success. Sometimes it does. But that is, at best, a chancy route. Much better to pick a song and arrangement that plays to your strengths - not Whitney's, not Celine's, not Mariah's. Sing smarter, not sing harder!