We have to admit that we approached this week with trepidation. Country weeks on Idol have not always turned out well, and news that the song choices would be limited to Dolly Parton songs did little to improve our expectations. Of course, all we knew about Dolly was she had big hair and an even bigger chest.
We also knew that there would be one thing certain about the show itself: all of us at home would be treated to the spectacle of an even crabbier than usual Simon Cowell. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Simon understands country music about as well as we understand hormone-driven teenagers. Which, if it's not obvious, we don't.
It was something of a strange night for us. On average, the top 9 did quite well. There weren't any Alone or Eight Days a Week-level disasters, but at the same time there weren't any real standouts either. That's not to say there weren't good, high-quality performances. However, if the average performance level is fairly high - as it was this week - you have to be that much better to really stand out, but no one did so for us. To add to the strangeness factor, we saw very little new stuff from the contestants - style-wise, it seemed to be mostly rehashes.
Let's take down everyone in performance order. For once, Randy was right - Brooke's Jolene was an "a'ight" performance. It didn't deserve the flak it got from Simon, but we can attribute that to his overall crankiness on country-themed nights. Still, it was an average performance from Brooke, but we have higher expectations from her. Given her bad performance on Beatles week redux and a mixed verdict last week, a bottom three stint was not all that unexpected.
Next up, David Cook served up one of the better performances of the night. He adapted well to theme, picking a song and arrangement that stayed true to both the theme and his own background. If anything, the criticism should be aimed at... Simon. What he's forgotten is that you don't always take lyrics literally. Sparrows were a metaphor.
Ramiele sung better than she has in previous weeks, but that's not saying much. The theme just didn't suit her at all, and even if it was well sung it didn't feel natural at all. Compared to what we've seen from her it was good, but in the big picture it wasn't exceptional.
Jason's version of Travelin' Thru was better than what we've seen from him lately, but there was also nothing terribly novel in it either. He connected reasonably well with the song, but again in some spots the vocals were off. In one performance, Jason summarized himself. That's not a compliment.
Carly went somewhat against type and didn't try to overpower a song. We actually like this subtler side of Carly; with a voice as powerful as hers she can overdo things, as she did last week. The song showed off her power, without overdoing it and sounding like she was always shouting. This was one of the best performances of the night, and one of Carly's better ones in the past few weeks as well.
David Archuleta went right back to the ballads this week, with the usual good results. When he's on top form - as he was this week - David is as good as anyone else. David's vocals this week were impeccable. However, there was a "we've seen this before" element to this. This was the very definition of "safe". Like Jason, David summarized himself with one song. And it's not a complement here, either.
Like David, Kristy was right in the middle of her comfort zone. Good song choice, if, once again, safe. That said, it wasn't really all that good, either. Because it was her "wheelhouse", as Randy said, she stepped up her game. Unfortunately, so did everyone else. It was better than what we've heard from her before, but it would be a stretch to call it good. Fair would be the word we'd use.
In a night of predictable and safe performances, it couldn't get any worse than I Will Always Love You for Syesha. It would have been interesting if she had stayed with the slower, subtler arrangement, but keeping Syesha from her gratuitous glory notes is about as hard as making a drunk sailor spend his money wisely. (That might be a little unfair - for the sailor.) Reality check: Syesha, you are not Whitney Houston, American Idol is not won by holding a note longer than anyone else, and that song choice was indulgent with a capital I. We'd use even stronger language, but FORT is not Showtime and we're not Penn Jillette.
As for Michael Johns, a lot of comments have said this was the showstopper of the night. We give him credit: unlike most of the other contestants, this wasn't a rehash. That said, this was good, but not great. There may really be a gender gap at work here: the Idol audience is known to skew female, and if Kristy's song choice was pandering to patriotism, Michael's song choice was pandering to, well, more primal emotions. If you know what I'm talking about. For those of us not in the target audience, we could look at it more objectively. Good vocals, excellent presence, but not quite the exceptional song it's been made out elsewhere.
Means, not an end: One poster, brierpatch made what we thought was an interesting point about Brooke after this week's show. Here it is, in full:
This actually brings up a good point. The biggest rule change has been allowing contestants to use instruments. However, only three people have made significant use of it: Brooke, Jason, and David Cook.The main problem I had with Brooke last night was the guitar - she's adequate on the guitar, but not great. She doesn't look comfortable when she's playing the guitar like she does when she plays the piano, and seems to be thinking so hard about the chords that her vocals suffer a bit.
Simon used the busking word for Jason last week, and Brooke this week when they strummed the guitar while singing, and I'd agree with him. For Brooke the guitar seems like something to do with her hands rather than an integral part of the song backup. Brooke IS good at the piano, and she should play that on occasion, but pack up the guitar for the rest of the competition.
Let's step back for a moment to look at the bigger picture. Why don't more singers use instruments in their performances? The answer: by itself, singing on stage is not easy; adding an instrument makes things even harder. Even among professional musicians, the vast majority of solo acts or band frontmen don't play instruments for most of their songs, if they play at all.
So if instrument use while singing is that rare outside of Idol, why is it more common within it? It boils down to one of the traditional commands of Idol: diversity, diversity, diversity.
Traditionally, contestants have been told that to go far into the competition they needed to be able to "show diversity", i.e. be capable of singing different genres. That's something we'll talk about in detail next week. For now, though, what's important to know is that that rule has changed. You don't necessarily need to sing in multiple genres to succeed anymore.
If you're not singing in different genres, then it becomes more important - and difficult - not to give the same performance every week. This is where the instruments come in.
More than ever, it's the overall performance that is being judged. The actual singing is a key part, of course, but it's not the only part. It has to be a "convincing" performance. Song choice, vocal, visuals, emotional impact - they all have to be working in tandem.
That's where the instruments come in. Let's not kid ourselves: the instruments aren't being brought in because the band doesn't have a good guitarist, piano player, etcetera. What they do, however, is help set the mood for the performance.
The one person who does this the most is Brooke: when she wants a more "folk" sound, the guitar comes out. Jolene and You're So Vain both fit this mold. When she wants a more "serious" feel, the piano makes it's appearance: look at Let It Be and Every Breath You Take.
For David, it's less important, because he relies on his arrangements to do that, but the instruments seal the deal, presentation-wise. That's not to say he doesn't do it - Little Sparrow showed that perfectly. The arrangement had to suit the theme, and David could have done that without the guitar. However, the guitar helped set the mood of his song, and turned what could have been just a slightly above average song into a more complete, well-rounded performance.
As for Jason, he does it for a slightly different reason. His key to success is connecting emotionally with the audience at home. Wittingly or unwittingly, that's what he does with both his guitar and the arrangements: usually, his performances have the feel of someone singing to a small audience, not a concert hall seating thousands or millions watching at home.
So what advice can we give to the three people using instruments? David doesn't need any advice; he's using the guitar perfectly for his own strategy. Jason's problems go far beyond just his guitar usage, but that's for another day and column.
As for Brooke... well, her bottom three place this week really should be a wake-up call. We happened to like her last week, but most people didn't, and she has not really been at her best form for the past few weeks. As far as her instruments use are concerned, she needs to mix it up a little. You want some predictability on Idol, but Brooke is going a little too far. She might want to try faster, less serious songs with the piano and going the other way with the guitar. There's a reason we recommended something from the Vonda Shepard songbook for Brooke last week - she's proof you can go uptempo, and be less "serious", with a piano.
How much is too much?: All Idol fans have sat through the torture we call audition weeks, when we get treated to four hours of the judges, Ryan, and terrible singing. Idol Gives Back week, though, is shaping up to be another endurance test: thanks to IGB and the bloated results show, we're up for four and a half hours of viewing next week. Ouch. To make matters worse, we're getting the "inspirational songs" theme again; by himself David Archuleta will produce enough cheese to make the combined population of the United States, Canada, and Mexico all lactose intolerant. Double ouch.
However, in the finest tradition of optimists everywhere, let's make lemonade out of lemons. Because he result show has been pushed to Thursday, we have one more week to put this column together. Add to that the fact that we are now gainfully unemployed, and we find ourselves with plenty of free time. So, here's an offer: ask us anything Idol-related, and we will do our best to answer them. How do you get your questions in? Three ways. You can post a reply in this thread, drop us a PM, or you can send us an e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
So, if you or any of your friends have any questions that are Idol-related, and you want to see our take on it, send us a question. Please. If you do, we'll send you some Idol Guy swag. Uh, wait, we don't have any. We'll figure something out. Anyway: Send. Those. Questions!
The Idol Power Rankings: Brooke's bottom three stint is enough to drop her one spot, but there isn't much change in the rankings. David Cook is still far ahead of the rest of the field, but the rest of the field is now very close together.
1. David Cook (Last week: 1)
The oddsmakers have the wrong David as the frontrunner. So long as David Cook keeps up his steady stream of quality performances, he'll keep the top spot.
2. Carly Smithson (Last week: 3)
Carly seems to have shook off her bottom three stint a while back and is back to top form. Now she can turn her attention to building a fanbase and establishing herself artistically.
3. Brooke White (Last week: 2)
Brooke's been coasting lately, but the bottom three stint should wake both her and her fanbase up - and keep her safe for a while. A top four spot is still possible, but Brooke needs to up her game.
4. Michael Johns (Last week: 4)
The good: Queen wasn't a fluke. The bad: Everyone else has had a few weeks to start building large fanbases. Michael has some catching up to do, but it's not impossible.
5. David Archuleta (Last week: 5)
Like clockwork, David followed up his non-ballad song with a ballad this week. With only one exception, David's always alternated ballads and non-ballads. David has yet to convince us he's good enough to move up on the chart.
6. Jason Castro (Last week: 6)
Jason bounced back from Fragile, but he's still looks vulnerable. Vote-splitting with Brooke may come into play; Jason's margin of error is getting narrower by the week.
7. Syesha Mercado (Last week: 9)
Syesha reminded us this week that she is not Whitney, but managed not to turn it into a complete disaster. However, she is still on life support.
8. Kristy Lee Cook (Last week: 8 )
Kristy was okay this week, but not really good enough to overtake the real talent left. Still, if someone higher up makes a serious mistake, she's close enough that she might be able to survive. Maybe.
About damn time: The wonder about Ramiele isn't how she got booted; it's how she made it this far. Her best performance was back in the top 24. That might as well be ancient history.
Ramiele's secret was her ability to build a fanatical fanbase. She wasn't splitting votes with anyone else, she was likable, she (usually) wasn't the worst of the night - all these factors gave her a sizable fanbase her overall performance may not have fully deserved. On Idol, however, even a determined group of fanatics can only do so much in the face of so many successive bad performances.
The real question is where it all went horribly wrong for Ramiele. It wasn't the vocals; hers were actually pretty good, if untrained. So what did she do wrong? Simple: song choice, song choice, song choice. Hers ranged from the overambitious (Alone, Against All Odds) to the strange (I Should Have Known Better, Do I Ever Cross Your Mind).
Could Ramiele have done better? Maybe, but without knowing more behind-the-scenes information we can't be sure. Terrible as her choices were, with the limited selection available there may not have been any other alternatives. Better arrangements might have helped, but those would only have gone so far and required the musical intelligence and experience Ramiele didn't have.
And now, a new feature for our weekly articles. We introduce: the American Idol Bye-ku! (We claim no originality; the bye-ku was first invented by James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal for failed presidential candidates.) Each week, we say goodbye to the eliminated contestants in 17 syllables of poetry. Here is Ramiele's.
Shorter than Seacrest
Song choice? Terrible. Dreadful.
Malubay, bye bye.