There's a part of us that would like to know if the Idol top 7 was as terrified by Mariah Carey week was we were. Mariah Carey has traditionally been given a wide berth by Idol contestants. The only person to sing a Mariah Carey song in the finals was Kelly Clarkson. The two other attempts to do so took place in the semis. Kelly was the only person to be advanced to the next round by voters; the two others either got a second chance by wildcard or were eliminated that week. (Open Arms does not count, as traditionally it has been more closely associated with Journey than Mariah on Idol.)
Of course, Carey-itis isn't completely without basis. The trouble with her songs is that more than most songs, they're built around the strengths and weaknesses of the original artist. Mariah Carey songs are more demonstrations of her range and power than proper music; other singers can only go so far with them. The songs aren't good enough to survive a good rearrangement, and doing it up front is sure to result in tough comparisons - especially from Randy "I worked with the fantastic Mariah Carey" Jackson.
That said... it wasn't as bad as we thought it would be. We'll try to hold off on the "bad song choice" commentary this week, since in normal circumstances this top 7 had as much business singing Mariah Carey as a pyromaniac had inside a fireworks store. Most of the performances we'd classify as only okay, but because it could have been so much worse we'll take it and breathe a sigh of relief.
Best of the night was David Cook. The theme itself was as difficult as any for David, but even then he upped the danger factor with Always Be My Baby. However, we give him credit: it worked very well. As we said last week, David Cook is the best example of the new Idol, and he proved it by taking a song as remote from his own comfort zone as possible and reworking it into something that fit him superbly. It wasn't his best performance, but blame that on what he had to work with. All in all, a superb performance.
While David was safely ahead of the rest, there were quite a few performances that sounded good to us. Kristy had to prove that last week was not a fluke, and she mostly did. The most noteworthy thing about Forever is it's probably the least countrified song Kristy's done in a while, and that's mostly due to her voice (which Kristy can't do anything about). This was a very pleasant surprise, to be honest The worst thing that can be said is that her voice sounded strained at times when reaching for the power, but otherwise it was excellent. Unlike some of the others this week, she actually managed to connect with the song emotionally. For the second week in a row, Kristy was the best of the girls. Who knew that was even possible?
Jason's approach to Mariah was somewhat predictable, but fairly well done. It won't win over new fans, but give Jason credit: he did make the song his own. Take that for all it's worth: good emotional connection, but vocals that aren't anywhere as good as the rest of the field. All things considered, we liked it - not great, but pretty good.
As for the rest of the field, the word we'd use is "decent". To their credit, they avoided producing any obvious trainwrecks; however we're not exactly looking for these videos on Youtube for a replay.
Regular readers may recall that we half-seriously suggested When You Believe a few weeks ago - but for Syesha, not David Archuleta. As far as a David A. ballad goes, this wasn't impressive. His ending was rough, and the rest of the song was the same old Archuleta we've seen before. When You Believe has an "epic" feel to it, and it just didn't work. The only really "new" thing here is the wardrobe, and to be honest it looked strange. Randy is completely wrong: David can sing, but he can't sing everything. This was not as good as the judges said it was.
If Carly was hurt by not being vulnerable, Brooke was at the opposite extreme. Brooke went beyond "vulnerable" territory and looked (and sounded) completely nervous. Singing with her mouth so close to the microphone was not the smartest idea either. Brooke is good enough that so long as she doesn't stray too far from her roots she usually sounds okay, but she was barely in that territory this week. The basic concept was sound, but she executed it poorly. She needs a good kick up the rear to wake her up; if one bottom three appearance won't do that a second one might do the trick.
The one person in this competition who has the power to take on a Mariah song at full tilt is Carly, and she gave it her best shot with Without You. Our take on it is mixed, to say the least. On pure technicals alone, it was good; Carly hit the power notes without sounding like she was shouting, and the rest of the song was quite respectable. However, emotionally, it just didn't have the impact the original has. Why? There was no sense of vulnerability or sadness in her performance; and to pull this song off you need to express either of those things. Brilliant vocal, but the impact just was not there.
Apparently Syesha did not get our memo a while back that winning Idol is not about the ability to hold notes and/or syllables for the longest time possible. We thoroughly disliked this performance; all we heard was a series of loud screeching noises. Syesha is barely pretending to be a well-rounded musician; her act is all about the glory note. There is precious little else to her act, and while that may well win plaudits from the judges, it won't from this corner.
All in all, it was something of a ho-hum night, but it wasn't the worst of the season. Considering the theme, that's probably as much as we viewers could get away with this week.
All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again: Long-time readers will note that many times, we point out that something that happened in a particular week has parallels in previous seasons. Of late, we've noticed striking parallels between this season and what has come to be one of the best-regarded seasons: Season Five.
First similarity: at the top end, they both had very talented and diverse contestants. Season Five had the top four of Taylor/Katharine/Elliott/Chris; as talented and diverse a mix of contestants you'll find in any season. This season is similarly diverse; the remaining six contestants are all quite different from each other and have all had good, well-regarded performances. The one area where this season does not stack up as well is consistency; the Season Five foursome (with the exception of Katharine) were generally quite good at producing consistently above-average songs., something that has largely eluded our current group (excepting David Cook, and even he had Innocent).
The other similarity might come from the status of the eventual "winner", and the respective levels of post-show success. One reason for Taylor's lack of success was because the other finalists in his season received levels of promotion that were unusual for their eventual placings. Even the Idol machine has limited resources, and some of the time and effort that went into the other contestants would have gone to the winner in other circumstances. The same thing is probably going to happen this season, though for a different reason - in all likelihood TPTB will be happy with the winner of this season, unlike Season Five.
Let's break down what this means for most of the field, particularly post-Idol. David Cook is still better off winning than not winning, but on the other hand it's not essential for him either. Anyone with a brain can recognize the potential gold mine in David; win or not he'll be signed and probably have a new album out this time next year. There's no downside to winning, however, so David should still try to win, even if it's only icing on the cake. Being an Idol winner in itself may not be worth as much as it used to, but it still helps.
David Archuleta is in a similar situation. It's no secret that the Idol PTB are chasing the teen/tween market that's sold millions courtesy of Miley Cyrus. Our inner music critic has something to say about that genre in particular (nothing positive), but that's for another day. He, too, will have his album out, though we're much more skeptical about his long-term success.
The two people who need to win to have a good shot at a music career are Carly and Syesha. Neither are sure bets to succeed. To have any realistic chance, they need the title. Carly actually has a chance if David the Younger falters, but we can't say the same for Syesha. Failing that, both might not even get signed post-show.
Their futures on the show may not be all that bright, but Jason and Brooke are slightly better off. Both actually have a decent shot of being signed post-Idol, though expectations there will be far more limited. They're both unique and talented enough that with the right material, they could do surprisingly well. The ideal here would be Kellie Pickler - Small Town Girl has sold about 750,000 copies last we checked. If Kellie Pickler could do that... it's not unreasonable to think that other contestants just as unique and even more talented can sell decently as well. Maybe not the platinum-level success that the two Davids are capable of, but success at any rate.
The Idol Power Rankings: David Cook's successful navigation of Mariah Carey week keeps him atop this week's charts. It's a long way down to the next group of four - Brooke, Carly, Jason, and David Archuleta. Not much separates those four. They're all capable of doing brilliantly, but of late they've been putting out some woeful performances. Kristy's exit leaves Syesha all alone at the bottom of the rankings, with little sign of improvement.
1. David Cook (Last week: 1)
David Cook's biggest problems may well be the themes, not the rest of the field. However, if a rocker can handle Mariah Carey so deftly, then Andrew Lloyd Webber and Neil Diamond shouldn't be much of a problem.
2. David Archuleta (Last week: 3)
We're not his biggest fans, but as things stand David Archuleta should make it to the finale. He should not rest easy, however: the rest of the field has not been at there best of late; a resurgence could easily create trouble for him.
3. Jason Castro (Last week: 4)
The good: except for Fragile Jason has delivered a string of solid-to-good performances since the top 12. The bad: up against much stronger vocals, Jason really needs to deliver an unquestioned showstopper to have a chance of getting into the finale. Over The Rainbow was too much of a hate-it-or-love-it song. In short, Jason needs a second Hallelujah.
4. Carly Smithson (Last week: 5)
Enough voters liked Without You to keep Carly out of the woods this week. However, her long-term prognosis is still bleak. She has brilliant vocals, but so far has not really delivered much of an emotional impact with them. It may be too late for her to figure out how.
5. Brooke White (Last week: 2)
Brooke's future is on a knife edge. She's capable of being very good, but she's been on something of a month-long slump. It's a classic case of shape up or ship out: a good performance now will go a long way; but anything else will get her sent home.
6. Syesha Mercado (Last week: 7)
If we're looking for a singer capable of breaking a glass with her voice, Syesha just might be the person we're looking for. But for singing we'd actually listen to... no.
We sentence you to: We're tempted to find the nearest airlock and toss whoever came up with the current themes out of it. Mariah Carey, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Neil Diamond may well be the worst one-two-three combination of themes in recent Idol history. We've laid out why we didn't like this theme, so let's move on to the rest. ALW week is a dismal theme in its own right; it's even more limited than Mariah's material, and for what it's worth it was meant to be recorded and performed on its own merits. In Broadway, the song is subordinate to the show; how is this going to result in good music? Neil Diamond... before our time, frankly. We don't know what to expect, but we're not holding our breath.
Out of town before sundown: Kristy's been on the receiving end of the most fire from Idol pundits of all this season's contestants, including quite a few comparisons to the unmissed Sanjaya Malakar. However, she was definitely on the upswing, and based on this episode alone she probably didn't deserve to go home.
Analyzing Kristy's exit has to be done in two steps. Kristy's survival up to the point where she started getting better is an intriguing point of analysis by itself. The other half is how come she left when she was on the upswing; you can argue that she was even in the better half this week. The answer to both questions is the same: the strength of her fan base.
Early on, Kristy had a strong fan base because she was the only country singer left. Being the only singer in a genre is no guarantee of success, but it doesn't hurt either. Once in the finals, the strength of that base was tested quickly with Beatles week, and managed to keep Kristy safe, but not out of the bottom three.
However, God Bless the USA kicked four okay-to-good performances which, considering her early form, was an achievement. It should have helped her, but it didn't: instead she went out practically at her peak. Why could the same fanbase that kept her through Eight Days a Week not help her out after Forever?
The answer lies in the mentality of the Idol voting audience. Fundamentally, voters are more open in the early stages of the show: the semi-finals and the earliest shows of the finals. Beyond that, the fan bases have mostly hardened and it's that much harder to win new fans over. For Kristy, this was a problem: her performances during the formative period were dreadful; and for many voters her "trademark" songs were during the Beatles weeks. She didn't get enough credit for what she's done lately, because the power voters had made up their minds, and she wasn't good enough to win over that many independent voters not affiliated with any particular contestant.
Fundamentally, she handicapped herself because she left such a bad early impression. Even when she did get better, it wasn't nearly enough to offset the earlier damage. She did win over some new voters - enough to keep her in a few weeks, but not enough to save her. This was probably as far as she could have gone - she was up against six other contestants who had mostly established their bases early on. It was a big hurdle to overcome - too big, as it turned out.
To close things out, it's our bye-ku.
Look! A country girl!
Bad at the start, got better
But not quite enough