More often than not, theme nights feature themes so frequently recycled, even the worst tree-hugging hippie would be satisfied. To mark the new set, however, our top 12 got a chance to open the Lennon-McCartney song book. Uh oh.
Most of the top 12 turned in respectable performances. The only real disaster was Kristy, whose country version of Eight Days a Week will be long remembered - for all the wrong reasons. (However, we're not sure she deserves all of the blame. More below.) We did have, however, four good performances that in themselves covered the spectrum pretty well. It wasn't a brilliant night, but it was by no means bad.
Let's get the train wreck out of the way first. Eight Days a Week will forever be recorded in the pages of Idol history as the worst performance of a Beatles song possible. However, is it really Kristy's fault? Let's consider. Her vocals, while not outstanding, weren't bad at all. They were typical Kristy - not good, but not bad. The real trouble was in the arrangement. It was terrible, no two ways about it. It was all cheesy, overdone, ridiculous tripe that was more at home in a Bugs Bunny cartoon than the Idol stage. Kristy isn't really responsible for that, is she? As far as arrangements are concerned, the buck stops with Rickey Minor. He's "Musical Director". That arrangement should never have left the rehearsals, plain and simple.
David Archuleta should be sending flowers to both Kristy and Rickey, because otherwise his lyric-flubbed version of We Can Work It Out would have been the most remembered "lowlight" of the week. He basically lost it this week. For his fans, it may not be a particularly good sign: many good contestants have off nights, but rarely do they descend to the level David did this week. If everything goes his way, he's brilliant. But if something goes wrong - forgotten lyrics, bad song choice, faulty arrangement - he goes to pieces.
Beyond those two, we have some performances that the best word to use would be... flawed. David Hernandez was the epitome of "trying too hard", even if he has a reasonably good voice. Syesha was forgettable, doing very little to make her stand out. Without the power notes we've heard from her before, Syesha is rather dull. As for Ramiele, she continues her "tradition" of lousy song choices. She's not as genre-locked as Kristy is, surely there was something better than this. It would have been intriguing to see Jason or Brooke do a version of In My Life, but Ramiele? No. No, no, hell no.
The next rung up would be "okay". We also have three people in that group this week. Jason did a reasonably good version of If I Fell, but the vocals were a little rough in places. He also needs to be careful not to box himself in too much. Michael delivered more of the what we expect from him: a good cover, extremely well done, but not much in the way of originality. Amanda found a good song to growl her way through this week, but just like Jason and Michael, we've seen this before.
Then we have four high-quality performances. Let's start with Brooke. It would have been easy to overdo Let It Be, but she didn't. Her vocals were spot on; she didn't put in unnecessary flourishes, and there was nary a bum note to be found. She did this while conveying the emotion of the song perfectly. Excellent. David Cook may not please rock purists, but on Idol that doesn't matter much. Another superb performance keeps him right on top of the pile. The same could be said for Carly; Simon finally liked her enough to compare her to Kelly Clarkson. That may well be a little premature, but right now her vocal form is as good as anyone else's.
And then we have the biggest surprise of the night. Chikezie. Who knew he could pull that off? Where was the guy who specialized in slow, cheesy ballads? He was as good as anyone else this week. The vocals were okay, the stage presence was there, and rarely has the Idol stage seen anyone perform with that kind of energy. Well done.
It looks good, but...: We have to say something about this new stage. We've got no idea how much it cost, but it does look brilliant. More importantly, it's more friendly to audience interaction than the old one ever was, with the new mosh pit. If the producers are smart, they've also widened the space between seats a little - in previous seasons, it was pretty obvious that contestants starting out in the audience tended to feel just a bit crowded.
But - there is always a but - we hope that the stage sounds as good as it looks. The one thing we're not sure about the new set is the band: it's very unusual, if not unheard of, to have the band up above the stage they way Idol did. At the very least, it's not how things are usually done. For a TV show, of course, this makes perfect sense: if you want something to be seen, put it out in full view. However, sound-wise that may or may not be a good idea. Certainly, Kristy's lack of coordination with the band makes us wonder. Given the well-established differences between how the Idols sound in person and on the TV screen, we could also expect a season full of even stranger than usual comments from Randy, Paula, and Simon. Oh, boy.
Here we go again: Sometimes we feel that even though Idol is a multi-million dollar enterprise it's run by people with IQs approximately their age. How else could we explain the news that, once again, the song choice is artificially limited? Our top 12 singers had a grand total of 25 songs to choose from. Let that number sink in. Now, to put it in terms that Simon, Nigel, and all the other Brits behind Idol would understand: are you taking the piss? Didn't you learn anything from the multitude of bad song choices just a few weeks ago? Are you all suffering from mad cow disease?
The Idol Power Rankings: We've already gone over how well the contestants did this week. However, Idol is not won or lost on the strength of one week alone. How go this week's power rankings?
Our top 4 remained unchanged. Most of the movement is in the lower rungs, thanks to David Archuleta's sudden vulnerability and Chikezie's surprise appearance. Keep this in mind, however: the bottom half is very close together. In any given week, anyone could go home.
1. David Cook (Last week: 1)
Another great performance keeps David in the top spot. He even got the "you could win this" speech from Simon, which is saying something. However, praise like that can be double-edged. Being perceived as an early frontrunner is something of a double-edged sword. Once you've been proclaimed as such, you're now expected to perform at a higher level than everyone else. Is David up to it?
2. Carly Smithson (Last week: 2)
That was fast. Last week, we said it was only a matter of time before Carly could win Simon over. Like David Cook, she got the frontrunner praise from Simon, this time in the form of a comparison to Kelly Clarkson. The question is now: can she build the deep and committed fanbase needed to run all the way to the finale?
3. Brooke White (Last week: 3)
Quite a few people wondered why we put Brooke ahead of Jason in last week's rankings. Well, this week showed us why: Jason is a slightly better vocalist, but Brooke makes up for it with her superior musical intelligence. Let It Be was a perfect demonstration of that. If she can keep making good song choices and not get screwed by a silly theme, she should still do well.
4. Jason Castro (Last week: 4)
Jason is brilliant at conveying the emotion of his songs, but he has to be careful. You can't do the same thing for 12 straight weeks and expect to win. He's good at what he does, but if Jason doesn't watch out he runs the risk of being called a one-trick pony. He's safe - for now, but long term there are problems.
5. Michael Johns (Last week: 6)
Michael goes up a spot largely because other people screwed up badly. Our verdict from last week is unchanged. He is the most polished contestant in this group, but he doesn't have the presence or personality to win. Right now, though, that's enough to bump him up a spot.
6. David Archuleta (Last week: 5)
His misstep this week did show him up a little. He has yet to convince us he's anything more than a supremely talented voice. His tweens will keep him in it for a while, but win it all? No.
7. Amanda Overmyer (Last week: 11)
Hey, what do you know? Amanda can sing after all. Hopefully, this means Carry On Wayward Son was just an exceptional bad off day. How far she goes depends on the theme and available song list. Still, for now, you could do worse. A lot worse.
8. Chikezie (Last week: 12)
What do you know? Chikezie could sing after all. Now, he needs to do something he hasn't so far: put together two good weeks in a row. Still, one performance can provide a well-needed shot in the arm for someone's confidence.
9. Syesha Mercado (Last week: 10)
What was that we were saying about Syesha being one-dimensional? Well, we have to say: we were right. Again. At the rate she's going, she'll be out of our lives sooner rather than later. Can she pull off a Chikezie-like recovery? Maybe, but we're not holding our breath. Still, a stint in the bottom three does wonders for exciting a fanbase.
10. Kristy Lee Cook (Last week: 7)
Last week, we compared Kristy to Kellie Pickler. This week, though, Kristy proved she's no Kellie: the Pickler was never in the bottom three in any week before getting eliminated. Still, she might not go home right away: the themes can only get better for her, and her fan base - what's left of it - will be energized, like Syesha's.
11. Ramiele Malubay (Last week: 9)
Ramiele's best song was in the first week. If that's not a sign of how much trouble she's in, we don't know what is. Her song choices have been so bad, she could probably make better choices by picking randomly from the approved song list. With the other fanbases energized by their bottom 3 stay, Ramiele's might take it easy. Barring major improvement, she's in the hot seat.
Don't blame the scandal: Losing David Hernandez this early was something of a surprise, and some are blaming it on his "sex scandal", if you can call it that. What do we think? Uh, maybe, but it was far from the only reason. Elliot Spitzer he isn't.
Mid-game boots - and you can consider the top 12 to be the start of the mid-game - are determined mostly by one thing: fanbases, fanbases, fanbases. How do you build one? There's no simple answer, but the one thing that can be said is David didn't. One key step is simple: distinguish yourself. You need to establish your "musical identity" early on. David didn't. For all her faults, you know what you're getting with Kristy Lee Cook: a country singer. Same could be said for most of the other contestants. David? You knew he had a good voice, but you never exactly knew what kind of singer he was.
That's not to say having an identity crisis is instantly fatal out of the gate. However, David chose a bad time to be bad. The fans of singers worse than him - Kristy, maybe Ramiele - got energized. They knew their favorite was in trouble, and voted like mad. If you have a good, established fanbase, you don't need to worry about that so much. David, however, didn't. Did the scandal make a difference? It's hard to say. It might have tipped a few votes away from him, but had he stood out more pre-top 12 he wouldn't have been in a position where that would have made a difference.