The first week on the big stage, the first time "American Idol" ever had the rights to the Lennon/McCartney songbook, went just great. It was one of the most buzzworthy "Idol" nights in recent memory, filled with terrific performances. I even had some of my friends who are dead set against "Idol" and all it stands for watching clips like Chikezie's "She's a Woman" and Brooke White's "Let It Be" on YouTube and agreeing that I'm not a total moron for watching "Idol" every week, although I might still be for enjoying it so much.
Then the producers had to go and sabotage a good thing they had going by calling for a second Beatles theme night, only a week after the first. What could they possibly have been expecting? The temptation for those who had good receptions for their first-week Beatles tunes to repeat themselves was great -- Chikezie lost a ton of his luster by going back to the bluegrass-fusion well for a lame "I've Just Seen a Face," and Jason Castro's "Michelle" overtaxed the goodwill his last few charming-but-imperfect outings earned. White looked and sounded cloying on "Here Comes the Sun" (the only George Harrison tune "expanding" the theme to Beatles as opposed to Lennon-McCartney added) and Amanda Overmyer continued with her master plan to make every song she sings sound like "Another Piece of My Heart" while grinding "Back in the U.S.S.R." into dust. David Cook and Carly Smithson weren't bad but they had nothing new to offer. As for the group that was lousy in the first week, Kristy Lee Cook and Syesha Mercado won partial redemption, as did David Archuleta -- but one has to ask, especially given how boring the whole evening was as a whole, why did they get second chances? Is this whole thing being set up just to make sure Archuleta wins? Hasn't the fact that Jordin Sparks' recording career was over before it ever even began impressed anybody in the "Idol" braintrust?
Amanda Overmyer Overmyer impressed me a few times in the semifinals with her raw power and distinctly non-mainstream "Idol" vocal style, but the Beatle two-fer exposed her like no one else in the field. Amanda can do one thing and one thing only. She had to speed up "You Can't Do That" to get it into her comfort zone and likewise she delivered "Back in the U.S.S.R." utterly free of any subtext. She picked the song based on its sound, not its message, and the result was an unpleasant miscalculation. I suppose it could have been worse... she could have worn a little furry hat and waved a hammer-and-sickle flag around on the "Idol" stage. Only that would have been hilarious and better than what she did do, which was to further reveal herself as the least musical performer remaining alive while continuing to display questionable taste in fashion and hair. The fact that her "U.S.S.R." while poor-chosen was one of the less boring outings of the evening will likely sustain her for another week, but her days must be numbered. She can't keep finding songs week after week that allow her to do her one trick. She'll go down soon and she'll go down hard. 7
Kristy Lee Cook Poor Cook could be excused for being completely befuddled at this point as to what exactly it is that the judges want from her; they told her to go country, she did, and then they excoriated her for it. After further re-viewings I don't think that Kristy's "Eight Days a Week" from last Tuesday was all that bad. Had the arrangement been slowed down just a tad and the effort to impose line-dancing rhythms kept a little bit less club-to-the-head obvious, it might have even worked. For Beatle Week 2 Kristy Lee moved "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" into a bit of a generic elevator-music space but at the very least she simply sang the song as opposed to trying to impose her will on it. That's about the most you can ask of Cook, whose musical knowledge is pretty shallow and whose self-awareness is very near nil. She didn't even hint at touching on the song's rich subtext but at the same time she didn't butcher a fairly indelible melody any either. She also looked pretty hot, which can't hurt. I don't think she really deserves to have gotten as far as she has... but at the same time, she doesn't really deserve to get sent home this week, either. She showed progress while a lot of others haven't. 7
David Archuleta Archuleta's hype machine is so superpowerful that the only thing he needed to do to "win" the week was not forget any lyrics, which he managed. "The Long and Winding Road" is one of the blandest, cheesiest Beatles songs in existence -- in other words, right up David's alley -- and he gave another wholesome, earnest, technically proficient performance that was so dull it made me itch. I officially dislike David so much now that even when he's good he ends up annoying me. He is going to the final two no matter what I or anybody else says. That's obnoxious, and the judges aren't helping matters any by drooling over his every move. It would make for better TV if they consciously tried to undermine his confidence, because it would be hilarious and entertaining if each week from here on out featured David screwing up like he did "We Can Work It Out" and then continuing to be a top vote-getter to everyone's mounting frustration. Instead the bar has been set so low for Little David that all he has to do is put his pants facing the right way and the producers will bear him on soft pillows all the way to the Season 8 crown. No one will buy his record! Do you hear me? No one will buy his record! (By the way: Blake Lewis's Audio Day Dream is tremendously listenable, if the lyrics are a bit trite. It's the best non-Clarkson post-"Idol" record I've yet heard, and Lewis had way more to do with writing it than Clarkson did any of her hits. That performance Lewis did on an elimination show a few weeks back was sadly of the worst song on the record, which his label in its infinite wisdom has chosen as the next single.) 8
Michael Johns Johns has been hanging around for what seems like a month now based on the fact that he's better looking than most and not as blatantly awful as many. He tempted fate with a rushed, messy attempt to cut "A Day in the Life" down to less than two minutes, which was so disruptive to the song that even the changes that Johns didn't flub sounded wrong. He made some revisons to the order of the lyrics, too, which was foolish given how well most know the song, and there was one high note that completely cracked on Michael. I don't think that the bell will toll for him yet -- he's the best-looking guy left in the field by a rather wide margin -- but very soon the stockpile of more obvious candidates for elimination is going to be gone and there's no way Michael outlasts David Cook, Jason Castro, and the invincible David Archuleta. 6
Brooke White White looked desperately uncomfortable and a little ridiculous in a flouncy yellow dress for "Here Comes the Sun," one of those classic too-obvious "Idol" tripwires. White showed a real musical and personal connection to "Let It Be" last week and this was by contrast so bubblegum that she herself seemed embarrassed. White has either sat or played an instrument for her most of her performances thus far and she looked ill-prepared to stand at the mic undefended; her sad and out-of-time little hip shakes told the whole story. I'm always drawn to support the causes of singers who don't fit the classic "Idol" champion profile but it's going to be increasingly hard to construct an argument for White as the big winner. Her musicality isn't in question but her stage presence is, particularly when a contestant with a similar vibe -- Jason Castro -- has managed to transmit the same air of authenticity while adapting to the performance aspects of Idolhood with greater aplomb. Also, White may be religiously prohibited from making greater use of her largely-dormant sex appeal. For now, her watery eyes and sniffles should win enough sympathy to move her on for another week. 7
David Cook Cook's "Daytripper" was a good example of why the Beatles double-dip was a terrible decision -- it would have been pretty cool, except Cook did more or less the same thing with "Eleanor Rigby" last week. He did throw a vocoder in, which is never bad -- vocoders are always awesome. And the rocked-up arrangement sounded pretty good... if pretty similar to what Cook did to "Rigby." As opposed to that song, "Daytripper" doesn't really boast a melody that particularly challenges a singer. Cook is becoming a favorite and he knows it, but he has to be careful about getting into a rut and peaking too early. His commercial context is obvious, but you can blow your whole "Idol" run if you run out of surprises. (Unless of course you're David Archuleta, whose extreme predictability seems to be his principal selling point.) Another very good vocal for Cook, it's worth mentioning -- it's hard to believe at one point I considered him one of the weakest pure singers in the whole final 24. 8
Carly Smithson Another solid vocal from the most professional singer among the women's field, but putting "Blackbird" into a diva-esque arrangement showed questionable taste. As the judges might say, I have little doubt in Smithson's abilities as a singer, but I still struggle to see what she might be like as an artist. She has a disconnect between her tattooed looks and her middle-of-the-road tastes in arrangements and song choices. She looks confident with the singing parts on stage but confused as to what to do with that confidence -- her moves are odd and tentative and when she tries to put her own stamp on a song, as she did by stripping out the acoustic guitar and going with more of a string-laden "Blackbird," she doesn't do enough to define herself. She ought to have been able to really light that song on fire with her skills but it just sort of laid there, even when she was doing her best to show the full capabilities of her vocals. Her dress was terribly unflattering, too. I think she's the best female singer left but I highly doubt that she will be the last woman to get sent home. 8
Jason Castro Unlike David Archuleta, I'm glad Jason has enough of a fanbase in reserve that he can probably withstand a few bad evenings. Every time he puts his guitar down he's taking a risk, although the goofy, young-seeming Jason of this week was definitely a new side of the guy. Not the best side. He looked and sounded amateurish singing "Michelle," although I did appreciate his efforts to pronounce the French bits correctly rather than just muddling through phonetically as McCartney did back in the day. He looked to be wearing a too-tight golf shirt and I felt a little uncomfortable watching him grin and blush his way through what was clearly a clumsy song choice. I still can't believe the dreadlocked Castro had two shots to pick a peacenik late-60's John Lennon song and went with creamy early McCartney tunes twice in a row. [It has since been correctly pointed out to me by an astute commenter that "If I Fell" is indeed early Lennon. Nice catch.] Interesting "Idol" technical note -- you could hear Jason breathing very loudly on his microphone several times during his song. You know why that is? Because for soft-voiced guys like Jason, the "Idol" sound guys jack the level up very high so that the singers won't be drowned out by the muscular backing band. You could almost hear Brooke White's pulse during her stripped-down "Love Is a Battlefield" a few weeks back. 7
Syesha Mercado Syesha was forgettable doing "Got to Get You into My Life" the first time around, and she was the one contestant to benefit most from the second chance -- she picked "Yesterday," an all-or-nothing choice if there ever was one, and she pulled it off. Again, the good outing kind of loses its luster due to the double-dip (why didn't she do "Yesterday" first?) but Syesha sounded lovely and looked gorgeous with straightened hair. When in doubt of a theme it's best to let the band stick to something resembling the original, familiar arrrangement and try and put the personal touch in one's vocal. That's what Syesha failed to do last time and succeeded in doing this time out. There was the simple acoustic guitar backing, and there was Syesha elbowing Carly and Ramiele out of the way and announcing herself as one of the biggest voices still campaigning for "Idol" glory. Very nice... but again, why didn't she just do this the first time? Stupid repeat theme. 9
Chikezie A lot, if not all of the momentum Chikezie seized last time around with his bold, giddy "She's a Woman" was lost by trying to pull the exact same surprise off a week later. Rather than starting bluegrass and going into rock-soul Chikezie tried to do it the other way round with his "I've Just Seen a Face" but it didn't work for a number of reasons. His inept harmonica playing was clueless to the degree of arrogance. The forced way he ramrodded the tune back into bluegrass territory reeked of desperation. He also didn't sing the song nearly as well as he did "She's a Woman," with his random bursts of falsetto and runs coming from a far less logical place this time out. Although the kind of scrubbed-soul arrangement in which the tune began wasn't entirely successful, Chikezie would have been better off sticking to it than trying to change horses in midstream for the second week in a row. What's more, the rhythmically spare "She's a Woman" lent itself to the bluegrass feel while "I've Just Seen a Face" is more of a folk-rock tune; it was clunky and clueless trying to get lightning to strike the same exact way twice in a week. But the very fact that Chikezie tried to do it twice is evidence of just how brilliant a move his initial Beatles-week feint was; even with the misstep last night it ought to carry him through this time. 7
Ramiele Malubay What happened? Ramiele has such a great voice, better than anyone else on the show this year. She's a genuine anonymous American kid and not someone like Carly Smithson or Robbie Carrico who's already had a failed record deal in their past. She and not the witless David Archuleta ought to be the favorite in the clubhouse of this year's "Idol" cast. But Malubay just has no common sense whatsoever. Everything about her "I Should Have Known Better" screamed catastrophe -- a bouncy, elementary melody for the one real Whitney/Celine-type in the whole field, a hideous outfit with an atrocious-looking hat thrown on top for bad measure, old-fashioned lyrics sung with no nuance or personal connection. The whole thing didn't work at all, and I think given that Malubay has never picked a song that really showed the full bloom of her vocal power, this could be curtains for her right here. It's hard to work up any sympathy for her given that she's had a ton of chances. It's possible to win "Idol" without knowing a lot about music, but it's probably impossible to win with no knowledge, and clearly that is the hurdle Malubay has to clear. Says here she's made it as far as her raw talent will carry her. Having not learned a single thing during the entire process, she totally deserves to get the boot. Remember, this is a slightly more important cut than usual, because the last 10 contestants get to go on the big contrived package tour this summer. Would anyone who's been watching the show up to this point bemoan the loss of an opportunity to see Ramiele at the expense of somebody like Amanda or Kristy Lee or Michael Johns? I highly doubt it, and that's why I think she's deader than disco. 6
As I just told you, I like Ramiele Malubay to go home tonight. The 12-sided die likes Syesha Mercado. Could happen, she was in the bottom three last time... although I think both Mercado and Kristy Lee Cook have earned a longer look with their performances this week.