Normally, the top 3 episode makes for the most compelling night of the year for Idol fans. Above-average singing, the tension of "who's going to end up in the finale?" - what's not to like? Unfortunately, much like the season as a whole, the episode mostly sputtered to the end. It wasn't bad, not by any means, but for an episode this late in the game we where underwhelmed.
The winner of the night was David Cook - no great surprises there. The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face was not exactly in his comfort zone, but he's proven his ability to handle that problem during Mariah Carey and Andrew Lloyd Webber weeks. One thing for sure: it kept DC's hordes of fangirls very, very, happy.
If only the rest of his songs were that good. We appreciate the motives behind Dare You To Move, but the song never got anywhere. Shockingly, Paula made a lot of sense. The song really did suffer from the cuts needed to get it down to 90 seconds, but that was something DC should have anticipated. We're told this wasn't his original pick, and perhaps that also caused problems with this performance. As for his producer's choice, well... none of them did the final three any favors, but DC got the best of the worst. Overall, the performance was decent - but nothing more. The arrangement didn't help him in any way. The start was far from impressive, but it got better towards the end.
Like David Cook, Syesha had one top-notch song on Tuesday night. Fever was no verbal masterpiece, but Syesha really is a brilliant performer. The one thing she has over both Davids is her ability to "act" through a song. The overall package was extremely compelling and entertaining. We get where Paula and Simon were coming from, but what Syesha did was primarily play to her strengths. We didn't have a big issue with the song choice.
However, both Randy and the producers conspired to each throw Syesha an anvil when she needed a life jacket. If I Ain't Got You was quite well sung, but that was about it. "Well sung" is not going to cut it in the top 3 show. At this stage, what is expected is not just good vocals, but the ability to "make a song your own". Syesha came nowhere close.
That was nothing, however, compared to the poison pill that was Hit Me Up. Syesha could be excused if she wanted to hit some after hearing about this pick. Whether it's about penguins or "hitting up" people on MySpace, the song was an exceptionally ridiculous choice. It was another performance-over-vocals song, but it didn't work nearly as well as Fever did. We're sure Syesha did the best with the song, but there was only so much to be done. Really now, a song about MySpace and/or penguins? Come on!
As for David Archuleta, like the two others he managed one top-notch song of the night. We'll give David this: when you strip away all the talent show tricks - the oversinging, the arm waving, etcetera - he does have a remarkably pure voice. Paula's pick - along with a relatively minimalistic arrangement - brought that voice front and center. Well done.
However, David then proceeded to prove his inability to do anything other than a slow ballad with an awkward version of With You. Only his squealing fangirls and Randy loved it, and try as we might we can't hear what they heard. His range was non-existent, the "dancing" was awkward, and David could hardly have picked a song that suited him less. At any stage of the show, this would have been bad - but at the top 3? Absolutely terrible.
Dan Fogelberg's Longer was another poorly chosen song that did David no favors. Like Syesha, David did what he could with the song, but Simon was absolutely spot on. This was an overly sappy, emotionally overwrought (and not in a good way), dreary, and tedious song choice. What on earth were they thinking - or were they even doing that at all?
Overall, the top 3 episode was something of a disappointment. The top 3 has been a fertile ground for showstoppers before, which this week lacked. Season Five gave us Over The Rainbow. Season Four gave us In A Dream. No showstoppers, and not even half of the songs could be considered, without qualifications, good? Mediocrity ruled the night, as it has too many times this season. The producer's picks, in particular, were downright disastrous; it was almost enough for us to wish someone had instead dragged Clive Davis out of his cryogenic chamber. Almost.
On the other side of the coin: Last week, we talked about how old the songs our would-be Idols usually are, and what it means. Let's turn to another age-related problem that's been brought front and center: the age of the contestants themselves. Specifically, it's our latest suggestion: raise the minimum age limit for Idol to 18, instead of 16.
The "inspiration" for this comes from some news from behind the vaunted Idol curtain. We're sure you already know, but to recap: apparently, last week David Archuleta added a line from another song to one of his performances last week. Supposedly, this was done at the direction of his father, Jeff. Unfortunately, TPTB did not have the necessary clearances for the added line - something that cost the show a fair amount of money, and led to Jeff being booted from all backstage activities.
David is hardly the first minor contestant to be on the show. Neither is this the first time the question of age has come up - Season Three was famously dominated by youth. Last year, Jordin Sparks became the youngest winner of Idol at the tender age of 17 years, 5 months, and one day. (If David Archuleta wins, he will become the youngest winner - at 17 years, 4 months, and 23 days.)
However, this may well be the first season where an overbearing parent has landed himself in the news wires for all the wrong reasons. As far as we can remember, the whole situation with Jeff Archuleta is unparalleled. Never has a family member been this involved, and the same can probably be said for Idol actually excluding someone.
Let's take a step back, however. How old have Idol contestants, particularly those who did well, been in the past? Consider this list of finalists, and other notable alumni. Age is measured at the date of their respective season finales in all cases.
Kelly Clarkson: 20 years, 4 months, 11 days
Justin Guarini: 23 years, 10 months, 7 days
Ruben Studdard: 24 years, 8 months, 9 days
Clay Aiken: 24 years, 5 months, 21 days
Fantasia Barrino: 19 years, 10 months, 26 days
Diana DeGarmo: 16 years, 11 months, 10 days
Carrie Underwood: 22 years, 2 months, 15 days
Bo Bice: 29 years, 6 months, 24 days
Taylor Hicks: 29 years, 7 months, 17 days
Katharine McPhee: 22 years, 1 month, 29 days
Chris Daughtry: 27 years, 4 months, 28 days
Jordin Sparks: 17 years, 5 months, 1 day
Blake Lewis: 25 years, 10 months, 2 days
Historically, Idol has been the domain of the early to mid-20s contestant. There's good reason for this, of course: from both a commercial and artistic perspective, the 20s are something of a sweet spot: young enough to be new and interesting, yet not so young as to be thought of as still a kid. Some songs just do not sound right, or credible, in the hands of a teenager.
Keep in mind, too, that there are many complications with putting a teenager on a show like Idol. For the benefit of the argument, set aside the fact that the typical week for a contestant is already as busy as anyone can imagine, even for an adult. It's not nearly an ideal environment for a teenager. Set aside, too, the enormous backstage complications of having minors around. Jeff Archuleta may well be the worst stage dad so far, but he won't be the last. To be honest, far too many times having minors face the rigors of Idol has never seemed right to us, and in fact feels vaguely exploitative.
Fundamentally, what we viewers at home want from the auditions are pretty simple: we want to see an audition process that sends a broad mix of talented singers, from multiple genres, to Hollywood. There will always be a few deluded lunatics and famewhores that make for an entertaining sideshow, but that's just what they are - a sideshow. And that's something that really bothers us: we don't think that bringing in singers that young helps the competition at all.
Our basic problem is that more than other singers, younger singers tend to be very "incomplete". They're all well and good at hitting the notes and the runs - many of them have been through the talent/talk show circuit - but they lack the nuances that separate a good singer from a good musician. It's a tiny nuance, but an important one. David Archuleta is something of an extreme case, but it's true that many of them are incapable of expressing the emotion of a song. (In general, this is one reason we're very wary of all the young singing "sensations" that make the rounds of Oprah, Ellen, all the other syndicated talk shows.)
In addition, if these younger singers are really that good at 16... guess what - they'll be as good, if not better, at 18 or later. While age is no guarantee of the ability to sing with emotion (ask Carly), but it surely doesn't hurt. As we said: some songs just aren't credible in the hands of a teenager. Also, the real musical world is so far separated from the realm of talent shows that what works in the latter will utterly fail in the former. Singing is not like modeling where there are compelling advantages to youth that won't be there later on.
While the Idol Powers That Be might not understand or particularly care about artistic merit or other such unmeasurable factors, here's one in a language they will understand: money. The trouble with far too many teen stars is that their careers last about as long as they stay a teenager - which isn't very long. Some can, but it's not a frequent occurrence. It's more likely that a teen star can milk the hell out of their career for a few years, but suddenly fade into obscurity after a while. What's wrong with this picture? One word: recurring revenue.
It's possible to make a lot of money in the short-term, but the real money that can be made in the music industry is in the long term. Even if someone's sales aren't quite what they used to be, there's still plenty of money to be made elsewhere. If anything, the real profits nowadays are to be made in the long-term - royalties, touring, merchandise, etc. That's not to say that a young singer can find success and keep it as an adult, but that's far from certain.
As far as we're concerned, there is no good rationale for keeping minors on the show. In no way are they "better" than their older counterparts. There are complications bringing them on the show in the first place. Yes, we had a teen winner last year, and a teen finalist this year. But guess what - Jordin, all spin to the contrary, has been at best an okay success, while David Archuleta's bankability is uncertain. Is there any good reason not to raise the age limit to 18?
Pick your poison: The little pissing contest between Simon and Randy over Syesha's pick got us to wondering. Is there any appreciable pattern in the judge's picks for the top 3? If you're a top 3 Idol finalist, what can you expect from Randy/Paula/Simon? We went all the way back to Season Three - where, as far as we can tell, the judges began making individual picks and not collective ones, as they did in Season Two.
Randy has a fairly simple pattern. In the past four seasons, he has given out a slow ballad-type song three times. Twice, too, he gave songs that were unmistakably aiming for the big voice he's so fond of, both in and out of the show. He gave Melinda Doolittle a Whitney Houston song; similarly he handed Diana DeGarmo Celine Dion. Even when faced with the complete opposite of the Big Voiced Singer, Taylor Hicks, Randy gave him a slow song that was as close to his preferred style as Taylor could pull off. As if he was balancing things out, Randy gave Carrie Underwood a song in exactly the opposite mold - a fast-paced Shania Twain song. We chalk that one up to the general lack of understanding of country music among the judges.
Next, Simon. His picks can be described, to be blunt, as risky. They can also be somewhat out of left field - Roberta Flack for David Cook? Judy Garland or Eva Cassidy for Katharine McPhee? As for the ultimate result, when they work, they work very well. Both Fantasia's Fool in Love and Katharine McPhee's Over the Rainbow could be considered one of the best songs of their respective nights. On the other hand, when they don't work, they're mediocre at best. A classic example would be his pick for Jordin Sparks last year - Wishing On A Star, while decently sung, wasn't much else.
Paula's picks are something of a mystery. There's no pattern the way there is with the other judges. Her picks aren't meant to challenge the way Simon's are, nor are they as genre-specific as Randy's. To us, though, it seems like she picks her songs the same way she judges: the songs she picks are what she thinks would suit the would-be Idols, but what she thinks and reality aren't always the same. She means well, we think, but history is stacked against her. Of the four picks she's done in previous years, no one has delivered a clear showstopper - the best that can be said is "okay", but more often "what the heck was that?" (See: Bo Bice, and Satisfaction.) David Archuleta's success with And So It Goes is the exception, not the rule.
So, all things considered, which is the best, both for us at home and the Idols? The loser is clear: Paula. This year notwithstanding, her record is not stellar. She means well, but she can be misguided at times. As for Randy and Simon... it's a tossup. Randy's choices can usually be described as safe, but not exceptional. Simon offers the possibility of great success, but also the possibility of mediocrity. Either way... it's a tough call.
How did she get this far?: Pundits all over the Internet have been predicting the boot of Syesha for a fairly long time, only to be wrong for multiple weeks in a row. If anyone had told us at the start of the season that Syesha would reach the top 3, our reaction would have been: "you're kidding, right? That's impossible."
So just how did Syesha get this far? A healthy dose of it involved luck: other contestants who, in normal circumstances, would have done better than Syesha faltered, for one reason or another. We've gone over the reasons for those exits so we won't rehash them all, but suffice to say they left the door open for Syesha to sneak in.
None of this would have meant anything if Syesha couldn't sing very well. By far, her biggest problem was her tendency to oversing songs and reach for the glory notes too much. Syesha has a beautiful singing voice, but not what she thinks she has: if she could just lean off the power notes just a bit, she'd be fantastic.
To be fair, in the past few weeks Syesha has been singing fairly well - well enough that she wasn't the worst of any night, all the way back to the top 24. That kind of "consistency" - or, at least, the ability to avoid trainwrecks - helps. In addition, vote splitting hasn't been a problem for her in a long time. Those two factors meant that despite lacking the strong initial fanbase the rest enjoyed, she was able to pick up enough freelance votes to stay safe. However, her margin of error was always razor-thin - one bad performance and she would have gone home. Consider that the last time Syesha was not in a bottom group during the Top 9 week - Dolly Parton week. That was more than a month ago - an eternity on this show.
Was there anything Syesha could have done differently to last any longer? Probably not. She did well - very well, in fact - to get as far as she did. Ultimately, she got in the way of two immensely powerful juggernauts that couldn't be stopped. There's a striking parallel to Season Four, where another female singer from the Sunshine State (Vonzell Solomon) ran into two forces of nature. There was nothing Vonzell could do then, and nothing Syesha could have done now. Just like Season Four, we're going to get the duel that's been in the making almost all season long.
The bye-ku for the week goes like this:
She's a diva wannabe
Try Broadway instead
Too close to call: Last year, we predicted that Jordin would win even before a single note had been sung in the finale. Had we been in business for Season Five, we would have done the same for Taylor. This year, however... no. We're not going to make a prediction, because it really is too close to call.
Usually, one can predict who'll win the finale by looking at both their recent performances and trying to gauge the strength of their fanbases. A good metric of measuring the latter is by counting the number of appearances in the bottom group. All three of the past runners-up made at least one appearance there - and none of three past winners were ever in danger. (The only person never to be put in a bottom group, make it to the finale, and not win? Clay Aiken.)
This time, however, neither of the Davids has been in danger. One person never in danger is frequent, but two is unprecedented. We honestly have no idea whose fanbase is stronger. We think that Cook enjoys a broader fanbase than Archuleta, but we can't underestimate the sheer power of a hormone-driven tween fanbase. We have no idea how it will turn out.