Songs from the year you were born is something of a staple as far as Idol themes go. It's been done twice before, in Season 4 and in Season 5 (as part of a two-theme week). The results have generally, been, by Idol standards, above average - so how did Tuesday night go?
Let's just say it went as a pleasant surprise. Only one major disaster (and the producers, bless them, got that out of the way first), plenty of above-average performances, and an outstanding, season-defining effort from David Cook.
Disaster first: Ramiele. Ugh. Alone is a song best left, well, alone. As Gina Glocksen (and anyone else watching last year) learned, anyone doing Alone is inevitably compared to Carrie Underwood. Crashing into a brick wall, repeatedly, at high speed, would have done Ramiele more good than that comparison. Even on its own, though, it wasn't good. In parts, it almost seemed like Ramiele wanted to displace Syesha as the season's Designated Shouter.
After that, we have a couple of performances that ranged from fair to almost good, but lacked the flair to put them over into "good" territory. First to fall into this category was Jason Castro. The trouble with this was simple: the performance felt like old hat, like we've seen it all before. The Spanish bit in the middle did Jason no favors either. It wasn't really bad by any means, it just wasn't terribly interesting.
High-energy Chikezie took a seat this week, to be replaced by R&B Chikezie. Even then, though, the singing was as good as we've seen from Chikezie all season long. The problem is Chikezie, when he goes the R&B route, can't grab people's attention the way he does with his high-energy numbers. On vocals alone, he was in the top half of the night; on the overall impact, however, he was less impressive.
Last week we slammed David Archuleta fairly hard, and as if on cue he decided not to do a ballad. Is David or his dad reading this? Anyway, David only succeeded in proving our point: David is very ordinary when he's not doing ballads. He still tends to rely on glory notes and runs even when they're not fully called for. Simon was pretty accurate (if somewhat exaggerating things) with his critique; the word we'd use was... awkward. It didn't feel natural in any way.
We're not American, so Kristy's song choice didn't affect us on that level. This was probably her best finals performance... which isn't saying much, but it is something. She's right back to her form in the semifinals: she's never the worst of the night, but she is pretty close. The song choice probably helped her get some votes the singing didn't really deserve. Call it what you want - cynical, brilliant, etcetera - but the one thing that can't be doubted is it worked.
Carly is really in the Twilight Zone - better than fair, but not quite good enough to be good, either. First of all, her vocals were nowhere as sharp as we've seen from her before. She didn't sound quite in control of her power, to the point that she sounded like she was shouting in some parts. Carly usually has better control than that; it's possible that her bottom three stint last week shook her confidence a bit. Still, we disagree with Randy - this was a good song choice for her; she has exactly the kind of big, powerful voice the song needs. Chalk it up to nerves and worry over her bottom three appearance last week.
Then we have three good-quality performances. Not quite showstoppers, but fairly close. Syesha is shaping up to be the best of the non-frontrunners, even if she doesn't have much chance of cracking the top six. Randy was right; this was the best performance we've seen from her. She still has a tendency to overdo the power notes, but she doesn't sound anywhere as screechy as she did in the past. Well done.
We'll dissent from the rest of the Idol punditocracy when it comes to Brooke. A lot of people are saying she should not have brought the band in for the second half of the song. We disagree - for strategic reasons. If she had stayed with just the piano for the entire song, it would have been very similar to Let It Be style-wise. You don't want to be boxed in like that. As we said last week, Brooke needed to figure out how to do uptempo songs well - and that second half was the best we've seen her go uptempo. She's in the process of rounding out her musical arsenal. Brooke lost a little this week to try and win the whole war. Even then, though, we liked this one a lot. An impressive way of bouncing back from last week.
The last single-person medley we remember was Katharine McPhee butchering Elvis back in Season Five, so we were a little skeptical of how Michael Johns would do. We'll give him credit: his Queen medley was very good. For the first time since this season, he gave a performance that made us actually pay attention and say "Wow", instead of just nodding and saying "that was alright." Good vocals, excellent stage presence - that was as good as any Queen performance on the Idol stage.
Last, but definitely not the least, was David Cook. His version of Billie Jean was not only the moment of the night, it was the performance of the season to date. It had everything you could ask for in a performance: song choice, arrangement, vocals, emotional connection, stage presence - everything was excellent. It will take some top-notch singing, and luck, for anyone to match what David did this week. It's a bit early to say so, but we'll say it: David made his case this week for being at least in the final four, if not the finale.
The exception, not the rule: With the rest of the punditocracy waking up to what we've been saying for a while - that David Cook is a legitimate frontrunner - an old argument has suddenly surfaced, with David's name attached to it. The argument, in effect, is this: that he doesn't need to win; all he does is place well. A sub-argument is that, in fact, winning would be bad for David, because rock music would never welcome an Idol winner.
Let's take this down in two parts. First: "David doesn't need to win: look at Chris Daughtry." The trouble is Chris Daughtry was the beneficiary of unique circumstances that make him an exception to the rule. Two words: Taylor Hicks. In no other season have the Idol PTB been less pleased with their winner. Chris (and, to a lesser extent, Kat and Elliott) both benefited from that fact. Besides Chris, one is hard-pressed to find a non-winner who did better than their season's eventual winner. Chris was the product of such unique circumstances that you can't use him as an example and extrapolate out to other cases.
Second: "Rock will never accept an Idol winner." That may be true of some parts of the rock genre, but as a genre "rock" is now so wide that doesn't matter much. David Cook, if he wins, will have an audience. Some will reject him for his Idol heritage, but enough won't. To hammer home the point, let's do this thought exercise: rewind back about three years and replace "rock" with "country". Carrie may now be the toast of Nashville, but keep this in mind: her Idol single, Inside Your Heaven, was not a success on the country charts. On the pop charts, it was, but not in country. It took a good album that was legitimately country to win Nashville over.
If David Cook wins, and produces a quality rock album, he'll find his success. Unfortunately, given the Idol track record when it comes to debut albums, that's easier said than done.
Stop the arm-waving: We don't always agree with Simon, but on this one topic we can agree. Can someone please stop with the silly arm-waving? In this EW interview, Simon's already spoken out against the arm-wavers. We agree. It makes for bad TV - personally, we find it distracting from the singers when someone's arms are moving through the whole width of the screen.
If they're not going to stop the arm-waving, can they at least wave in the same direction? More than once we've seen half of the audience moving one way, the other half another. Check out Brooke's performance for the evidence. If that isn't distracting - both to us and the singers themselves - we don't know what is.
Just for the heck of it: Everyone agrees that song choice is vital on Idol. Still, though, aren't there times when you think "I wonder how they'd do with (insert name of song)?" If you don't, well, it's just proof that we think too much about Idol. But, anyway, here are our picks for "Songs That Would Be Interesting To Hear" from some of the Top 10. Note, of course, that we offer no assurances these would be good song choices. Nor are we actually saying the remaining contestants should actually use these song choices. But they'd be interesting, at the very least. (Thanks should go to bbnbama, who pointed us in the right direction for some of these picks when we ran out of ideas.)
1. Brooke White: Searchin' My Soul. If the title isn't familiar to you, here's a hint: the song became famous on Ally McBeal. Brooke hasn't fully figured out how to do uptempo material yet, but something from Vonda Shepard might do the trick - and, at the very least, it would be interesting to hear.
2. Carly Smithson: Tell Him. Idol pundits love to make fun of Celine Dion, but the one sure thing is she has a powerful voice. Carly, at top form, might be able to pull Celine off. Certainly, she's got the power to do so. Her best shot might be this relatively unknown duet with Barbra Streisand.
3. Chikezie: Play That Funky Music. Longtime viewers may remember that Taylor Hicks did this song back in Season 5. Say what you will, but Taylor and Chikezie are two of the most high-energy performers to ever make it on the Idol stage. A duet would occur at roughly the same time that Paula achieves full sobriety, but wouldn't that be an interesting two minutes of television?
4. Jason Castro: Hey There Delilah. Something like this Plain White T's song would be right in Jason's zone. The challenge for Jason would be to take a relatively recent song (it was #1 on the iTunes music store for most of July 2007) and make it his own. It would be an interesting test of not just his vocals and emotional connection, but his all-around performing ability.
5. Ramiele Malubay - Put Your Records On. Ramiele needs to learn that trying to go for power notes as her bread and butter is a mistake, not with Carly and Syesha in the mix. She needs to change gears and do something less vocally ambitious like this Corinne Bailey Rae song. Still, there is one caveat: Corinne Bailey Rae has only been done once on Idol - by Antonella Barba. It was also Antonella's last song.
6. David Cook - Big Yellow Taxi. The original is by Joni Mitchell, but the more interesting version would be the Counting Crows one. It's not nearly as "edgy" as most rockers on Idol like, but it would be interesting to hear David's take on this. Bonus question: who does the Vanessa Carlton backing vocals?
7. Michael Johns - Accidentally in Love. Once again, we reach into the Counting Crows songbook for this song, which also appears on the Shrek 2 soundtrack. Why this song? So far, all of Michael's song choices have tended towards the serious. We'd like to see how Michael can do with a less serious one.
8. Kristy Lee Cook - Can't Fight The Moonlight. Like our pick for Michael Johns, this one also comes from a movie soundtrack - 2000's Coyote Ugly. Why? First, it should suit Kristy reasonably well - the original was by LeAnn Rimes, so it's not far off her comfort zone. Secondly, we've noticed that since her Eight Days a Week fiasco Kristy's facial expressions make her look either sleepy or bored. That won't work here. Would it be a trainwreck? Probably, but it would be an interesting one.
9. Syesha Mercado - When You Believe. The Unholy Trinity of singing divas, as far as Idol pundits are concerned, are Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, and Whitney Houston. Having already hit Celine with Carly's pick, let's give Syesha this two-divas-for-the-price-of-one-special. Yep, it's the 1998 duet between Whitney and Mariah (also, coincidentally, off a movie soundtrack.) If she can do this song well without resorting to screaming, then the "Screamesha" tag might have a chance of stopping.
10. David Archuleta - Come Fly With Me. Depending on your age, you might be more familiar with the 1958 Frank Sinatra original or the 2003 Michael Bublé cover. Genre-wise, while it isn't exactly in David's favored area, it's not as far off as We Can Work It Out or You're The Voice. The challenge is very similar to Jason's: can he take a song strongly identified with not one, but two good singers and make it his own?
The Idol Power Rankings: Not an awful lot changed in the order of the Power Rankings, but here's something that the order doesn't reveal. The gaps between the contestants are both shrinking and increasing. What do we mean? Our top two picks are starting to pull away from the rest of the field, while the midfield is getting bunched up. The laggards, meanwhile, stay right in the cellar and show no clear signs of life. Remember: this chart is not about artistic merit; it's all about whether they're likely to go far or not.
1. David Cook (Last week: 1)
The only bad part of being so good so early in the competition is he'll be under even more pressure than normal to do well in the later stages than usual, to show he "hasn't peaked early". That's the only possible fly in the ointment for David.
2. Brooke White (Last week: 2)
As we said earlier, Brooke now appears to be at least on the way to solving her uptempo song problem. If she does, and with all the attention and hype focused on the rest of the field, Brooke could fly under the radar and make it all the way into the finale.
3. Carly Smithson (Last week: 3)
She's still in third, but don't let the placing fool you. David and Brooke are pulling away, and Carly did not look on form this week. She needs to take it up another notch - but can she?
4. Michael Johns (Last week: 6)
Finally, Michael lived up to all the hype around him and turned in an excellent performance. However, his climb up the chart was also helped by the stumbles of those on top. How will Michael handle country week? He has to prove his Queen medley was not a flash in the pan.
5. David Archuleta (Last week: 5)
We know ballads and a fanbase of hormone-driven teens will get David far. Can it make him an Idol winner? We have our doubts. All this week told us is: he hasn't showed the kind of improvement that others have.
6. Jason Castro (Last week: 4)
Jason's chances of getting very far are looking, well, fragile. He has been boxed in, style-wise - each Jason Castro performance is sounding eerily similar to the last one. This is not a recipe for winning over new voters - as his bottom three placing indicates.
7. Ramiele Malubay (Last week: 9)
Her promotion has nothing to do with her singing. It's all about her fanbase - if they could keep her out of the bottom three even with the disaster that was Alone, one has to respect their combined voting power.
8. Kristy Lee Cook (Last week: 10)
Once Kristy managed to return to her country roots, she managed to escape the bottom three. Even better for her: she can stay right in her comfort zone for another week. She's probably safe next week, but beyond that her prospects are still bleak.
9. Syesha Mercado (Last week: 7)
If it were just performances we grade on, Syesha would be far higher. However, her two stints in the bottom three are not reassuring. If that was what a "breakout moment" gets, what will an average (or worse) song get?
The Many Faces of Chikezie: From a pure technical perspective, this was Chikezie's best week, but also his last. That's not supposed to happen, but it did. So why did it happen?
Chikezie's exit comes down to two things: inconsistency, and, again, an unclear musical identity. Chikezie could never decide whether he was High-Energy Chikezie or R&B Chikezie. High-Energy Chikezie was just an average singer, but an excellent performer. R&B Chikezie turned out to be an above-average singer, but bored people at home. That's not to say he couldn't do both. Taylor Hicks proved you can go both fast and slow, and still go far. However, Chikezie he had to be damn sure he was equally at home with either style. He just wasn't.
The ultimate result was Chikezie could never build the fanbase you need to get far on Idol. He couldn't get a genre-based fanbase, nor was he good enough to win over uncommitted voters. With a weak fanbase, he was in trouble with just an okay performance. Weaker singers had stronger fanbases; Ramiele's might be as fanatical as the Sanjaya fans ever were, and Kristy strengthened hers by going back to her country roots and a shrewd song choice.
The ultimate takeaway from Chikezie's exit? It's not enough to be a good singer, which Chikezie was (at least, at the very end). Intangibles - charisma, likability, the "X factor", they all count too. Chikezie didn't have the whole package, which is why he left despite a good performance.