The NFL likes to promote the idea of parity, where one team can beat any other on any given Sunday. Well, parity hit the Idol stage hard this week. Last week, we were pleasantly surprised that the top 12 pulled off the Lennon-McCartney songbook fairly well; it turned out that Beatles on Idol 2 was, like most sequels, not as good as the original.
Normally, we like to rank all the performances from the good to the bad, but with the relatively even field this week we'll skip that. Let's just go over it in chronological order.
Amanda was handicapped by a band that was a bit too loud, but maybe we folks at home should be thankful for that. She doesn't have the vocals to just "rock out" any song; and Back in the USSR was not all that suited for her voice. She's a good performer - her stage presence is pretty good - which is really the only thing that kept this number watchable.
As for Kristy, anything would have been an improvement from last week. Still, you have to wonder if the experience affected her mentally. You've Got To Hide Your Love Away was the most lifeless, please-send-me-home performance we've seen in a while.
David Archuleta bounced back from his performance last week with yet another highly stylized song along the lines of his earlier Imagine. Was The Long And Winding Road that good? No. We didn't feel David connected as well with this song as with Imagine. On its own, however, it was a good performance. The song choice was good, and the vocals were the usual top-notch quality. This was enough to give him the performance crown for the guys tonight. It's hard to feel excited, though, because this wasn't exactly something we haven't seen before.
Michael Johns's favorite moment was his Bohemian Rhapsody performance - which was just as well, because that was better than his version of A Day In The Life. With Michael, it's never about the quality of the singing. That's pretty good, even if his range is a little limited. However, as before, the performance did nothing to make Michael stand out in the crowd. Michael is something like a German sports car: he gets you musically from point A to point B in style and in speed, but there's no feeling of risk, or excitement, or... anything, really.
We can sort of see where Brooke was going with Here Comes The Sun. She doesn't want to be boxed in style-wise, so she decided to mix it up a little with an uptempo song. As strategy, it wasn't bad - but the execution was flawed, to say the least. Given the limited list they could probably pick from, this was not the right week to mix it up. It's a close call whether this was her worst performance or Happy Together.
If Brooke was at the more experimental end of the spectrum, David Cook was at the ain't-broke-don't-fix-it end. This didn't really break the mold in any way - yes, he brought out the voice box, but that was about it. The whole package just gave off the feel of trying too hard and being unnatural.
Carly easily had the best performance of the night. It wasn't as impressive an overall performance as Come Together, but vocally it was actually better. Carly can hit the power with the best of them - we've known that since Day 1 - but she showed us a different side vocally. When she wants to be controlled and subtle she's not bad at it either. The song choice was not ideal, but all in all it was the best of the night.
Jason's bread and butter on Idol is connecting emotionally with his songs. If he can't do that, he can't rely on his vocals alone to carry him. So what happened? Just as last week we learned what happens to David Archuleta when things go wrong, this week it was Jason's turn. What he does is to do this strange sort of pained smile. It's Jason's equivalent of the Manning Face. It's like he's thinking, "what am I doing singing this song?", but he can't exactly show that annoyance and disgust live on the Idol stage.
Syesha was a pleasant surprise in a night of disappointments. Gratuitous glory notes aside, this was actually a good performance. She won't be mistaken for a "control" singer like Brooke any time soon, but it was okay. By the standards of the night, that was more than what we expected.
In a night of strange performances, Chikezie's version of I've Just Seen A Face took the cake. Or should that be versions? It was almost like having two performances in one - which is not all that good a thing. It wasn't really poorly done, but the reaction this left was "huh?"
Finally, we have Ramiele. This, too, was strange in its own way. Ramiele was probably trying to break the "I can only sing slow ballads" stereotype. Like Brooke, however, it didn't work all that well. It's hard to pinpoint where exactly this didn't work; maybe it was the hat or the arrangement (which, to us, sounded like a half-baked uptempo arrangement), but either way... not good. On the flip side, Ramiele's vocals were reasonably good. Not outstanding, but more confidence-inspiring than last week's show. Time may be running out for her, however.
Theme song of the night: Sometimes, the Idol gods work in strange and mysterious ways. Really, Ramiele's choice of I Should Have Known Better was the theme song of the night. The Idol Powers-That-Be should have known better than to, in effect, do the same theme twice in a row. Yes, they weren't technically the same, but they might as well have been.
There's actually a pretty good reason why the same theme two weeks in a row is a bad idea. The pressure to improve every week is significant. With a well-received first week, the temptation with a "familiar" theme is to either switch up styles (hello, Ms. White!) or do what is essentially a rehash (hiya, Mr. Cook.) On the other hand, with an unfamiliar theme, smart contestants will change things up enough to make things interesting but still follow the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid.
The Left Hand Not Knowing What The Right Is Doing Department: Maybe somebody can check back how many times our judges have said how vast the Lennon-McCartney and/or Beatles songbook is, but we know Randy said so at least once this week. Uh, reality check, Mr. Jackson. They don't have the whole songbook at their disposal; what they do have is a far more limited selection. Either Randy is clueless, or thinks we're all naive sheeple who don't know the truth. Neither is all that comfortable a thought.
Frontrunner? What frontrunner?: We'll get to the details of the weekly Power Rankings later on, but first let's tackle one thing. Why have we not granted David Archuleta the top spot in our rankings? Mention this season to Idol pundits and they will all generally agree that David is a frontrunner this season. As a rough indicator, look at the number of pages Google brings up:
1. "David Archuleta" frontrunner - 37,100 pages
2. "David Cook" frontrunner - 18,100 pages
3. "Carly Smithson" frontrunner - 4,250 pages
4. "Brooke White" frontrunner - 3,860 pages
Based on the numbers, and what we're reading from the rest of the Idol pundit community, we are practically alone in not giving David this status. It's a big, big tide of Conventional Wisdom we're swimming against.
Our basic trouble with David is this. You might be tired of us harping on "musical identity" practically every week, but we have to. We think is that important. Out of all the singers to make it into the finale, there are only two good cases of not having a musical identity (Justin Guarini and Diana DeGarmo), but given the circumstances of their respective seasons, they can be considered as exceptions to the rule.
We've seen some steps of David moving towards establishing his musical identity, but what we do see is not completely encouraging. Imagine, Another Day In Paradise, now The Long and Winding Road - see the similarities? As done by David, all powerful ballads with something of a throwback feel. He's had exactly one good performance that didn't fit this description, and that was back in the top 24 - which might as well be ancient history.
Now, let's step back a moment. Teenage singer, best at power ballads, talented as heck but no clear musical identity. Where have we seen this before? Oh right, last year! This was from last year's Top 4 Idol Guy column:
What does this almost year-old description of Jordin Sparks have to do with David? The same contradictions that existed with her are in the making for David - if anything, it's worse, because youth is a much bigger part of David's package than Jordin's. It might not be a problem within Idol - his fanbase might put him in the finale, might even make him win - but post-Idol it will be.Another problem we have with her is this curious disconnect between her singing and non-singing personas. Like most teenagers, she has this bubbly, energetic personality. Yet when she goes out to sing, she's at her best with the slower, older songs. ... What happens to her when it's time to start recording the album? With most Idol contestants, we know what they're going to sound like when they cut an album. ... It'll be interesting to see what the end result will be.
You can bet TPTB do not want a repetition of Season Six, particularly on the commercial side. A David Archuleta win would practically be asking for it. His ability to sell records post-Idol is, to us, questionable. It's quite likely that TPTB know this perfectly well, too.
One could ask, then, why is David getting "pimped" fairly heavily? David is undoubtedly talented and is a reasonably interesting personality to boot. He's also got a well-established fanbase that will be catered to - they'll buy the singles on iTunes, go out and see the Idol tour, etcetera. As a business, it makes perfect sense.
Down the road, however, the pimpage is going to stop. TPTB do not want a repetition of the Jordin Sparks fiasco. Yes, he's talented, but the overall package just isn't enough. Something... strange is bound to happen. It could be a lousy theme, or songs that mysteriously don't clear, harsh words from Simon... you get the idea.
One more thing. People assume that he has a tween fanbase just because of his age and appearance. We're not convinced of that. Is this really the sort of image that fangirls will swoon over? We admit the behavior of hormone-driven fangirls is not really something we claim expertise in, but we have a hard time imagining people swooning over David.
Will David go far? Yes; no one is doubting that. But is he the far-and-away frontrunner, the way Mainstream Media and the punditocracy love to say he is? No. Not by any means. Besides, somebody should ask Melinda Doolittle how much good the "frontrunner" tag did for her.
Here, have some salt: We were a little surprised to see Carly in the bottom three. However, we should take her supposed "placing" with a huge grain of salt. Why?
Last year, if you may recall, we had sources that claimed the "bottom 3" wasn't always the actual bottom 3 in the votes, going so far as to provide the actual vote order. If that was the case last season, it's quite possible that the same thing is going on this time.
Assuming for the moment that manipulation of the bottom three is going on, the question becomes: why? Here's our theory. Let us know if we need to start wearing tinfoil.
Maybe Carly is not doing as well in the groupings as TPTB want - she could be, say, right in the middle, when they'd prefer her to be in the upper third. A contestant in the bottom three who isn't eliminated is actually at something of an advantage: their fans, knowing that their favorite is in danger, goes off to vote with increased vigor. So, wanting to boost Carly, they decide to put her in the "bottom three".
On the other hand, Carly might well be in the bottom three legitimately. Drawing conclusions from the punditocracy and expanding that to the Idol voting class generally is something that may or may not work, so all disclaimers apply. Within the punditocracy, however, there are lots of commenters who recognize Carly's talent, but just haven't warmed up to her so far.
For Carly it's a no-lose scenario in the short term, but more worrying over the long run. Her fanbase will be energized now, but the fact that it had to be boosted is something that might hurt her chances. She should keep this in mind. The last Idol winner to end up in a bottom three or two scenario along the way: Fantasia Barrino. The last three winners from Carrie Underwood onwards have never been in danger of going home.
The Idol Power Rankings: We're fond of saying American Idol is not won or lost in a week, and this week is a perfect example of that. A couple of shakeups here and there, but the overall picture remains the same. Syesha is the big gainer, with an above-average performance and low expectations promoting her a few spots. Carly's bottom three stint drags her down a bit, but she's still firmly in the top half of the group.
1. David Cook (Last week: 1)
His performance this week may not have won him any new fans, but it probably didn't cost him any either. In the absence of any strong challenges from anyone else, we still like his chances.
2. Brooke White (Last week: 3)
Yes, despite an off week Brooke moves up a place. However, that has more to do with Carly's stumbles than anything she did. She needs to figure out how to do uptempo songs properly eventually, however.
3. Carly Smithson (Last week: 2)
As we said above, the "bottom 3" stint is worrying for Carly. We asked last week if Carly could build a "deep and committed fanbase". The answer, so far, is she hasn't. Vocally, she's talented enough that she should make it pretty far but Carly is all of a sudden looking vulnerable.
4. Jason Castro (Last week: 4)
The only people who loved his song this week were probably people named Michelle. Still, he did enough to keep his place. A Hallelujah-level performance would have moved him up, however.
5. David Archuleta (Last week: 6)
He recovered well from his flub last week. Longer term, though... well, just scroll up.
6. Michael Johns (Last week: 5)
Yet another well-sung cover... with zero personal input from Michael. If he really wants to prove he didn't peak in Hollywood, then he should show us. So far, in his five chances... he hasn't.
7. Syesha Mercado (Last week: 9)
With a top half of the finalists being pretty much entrenched in their spots, Syesha is the best of the rest - for now. We're not sure there's really any more room for improvement, however.
8. Chikezie (Last week: 8 )
Even though he had a strange number this week, Chikezie is an okay singer - which is better than you can say for some of the rest of the field.
9. Ramiele Malubay (Last week: 11)
The good: she has a strong fanbase that bailed her out again this week. The bad: she still can't pick a song to save her life.
10. Kristy Lee Cook (Last week: 10)
There's one consolation for Kristy. There's only one way to go: up.
Just like the USSR: Maybe singing about a country that's been dead for the better part of two decades wasn't such the best idea, because just like the Soviet Union Amanda ended up in the trash bin.
For Amanda, her success was always reliant on song choice. When she found a song that used her gravelly, growling voice she could shine. Otherwise, though, she was bad. Ultimately, though, her appeal was limited to a small niche that could only take her so far - she had limited crossover appeal, at best. To be honest, we're a little surprised that she was on the verge of making the tour. Then again, with the likes of Kristy still in it, maybe she should have.