Not long ago, the mere thought of Beatles songs being desecrated on American Idol would've sent millions of music lovers worldwide into septic shock. But today, thanks to rapid-response paramedical units plus advances in modern antibiotics, most of these victims can be saved and go on to lead normal lives. With their tort liability thus reduced, and with the Most Talented Top 12 Ever™ at the ready, Idol's producers decided to splurge. They opened their wallets and purchased the rights to the Lennon-McCartney songbook to kick off the AI7 Finals.
Except that they didn't open them all that wide. From arguably the greatest pop music catalog ever written, just 25 songs were made available to the contestants. That's like taking a food connoisseur to the finest restaurant in Paris and then allowing him to order only from the salad menu. But the reason for the producers' tightfistedness soon became clear: most of their cash reserves this winter seem to have gone to purchasing a used stage from E.L.O.
Christening the mothership was Syesha Mercado, who performed the Earth Wind And Fire arrangement of Got To Get You Into My Life. Web reviewers noticed some early pitch and tempo problems (did the new stage have sound monitor issues?) before she found the groove. The good news for Mercado is that she earned the highest approval rating for an EWF song on Idol to date; the bad news is that it was still only a 38. Next, Chikezie borrowed an argyle vest from Blake Lewis, a frenetic choreography from Danny Noriega, and a bluegrass/blues-rock arrangement from a Buckwheat Zydeco-ZZ Top jam session. Tossing in his own strong vocals, his entertaining She's A Woman left even Simon smiling and earned Chikeze his first 5-star approval rating, an 81. At least three dozen reviewers wrote about this the same two words: "Who knew?"
Ever-emotional Ramiele Malubay was next, singing In My Life and dedicating it to her Idol friends who'd already been voted off the show. As many people noted, at this rate she might be joining them shortly. Her steadily plummeting ratings since her 5-star triumph on Opening Week: 53, 42, and tonight a 33 for "Life", sung sweetly but dismissed as "boring" by Simon and many Web reviewers. Next, Jason Castro brought back his trusty guitar and stool for If I Fall. Paula loved it, but Randy and Simon were merely lukewarm, with the latter likening it to a college dorm jam. Idol Nation's opinion fell somewhere in between, awarding Castro a respectable 57.
It's hard to say whether the Idolsphere is warming up to Carly Smithson personally, but if her vocals keep following their currently trajectory, her Q-rating isn't going to matter. Smithson's cover of Come Together, sung in a key John Lennon would've needed life-altering surgery to reach and with a distinctly modern rock arrangement, took the Irishwoman to 5-stars (81) for the first time. Next, David Cook elected to leave his electric guitar backstage for his post-grunge take on Eleanor Rigby. Probably a wise move, since the guitar's voltage draw, added to that of the incredible light show from the new stage, might've brought down the entire L.A. power grid. Cook himself brought down the house on the chorus, carrying the Missouri bartender to his second straight 5-star rating and the night's third 81.
The pressure was now squarely on barefoot Brooke White, who'd be ramping down the crowd after those two intense numbers with a ballad. She succeeded: her no-frills piano rendition of Let It Be, at 84, was the night's highest-rated performance, the third in a row to hit 5-stars (tying an Idol / WNTS.com record), and the fourth overall to reach 80 or above (tying another record). As it turned out, David Hernandez also put in for "Let It Be", but lost a fateful coin flip to White. He settled for I Saw Her Standing There, aiming for something of a Sinatra/Kelly On The Town vibe. Even though the vocals were by and large found passable, many bloggers and forumists found the delivery hammy and oddly lacking in fire. Hernandez ended with his first below-average approval rating of the competition, a disappointing 26.
Joplin-growling a Beatles song in a Grace Slick getup? You Can't Do That! Well, Amanda Overmyer can, going deep into the Fab Four's catalog to pull out a suitable blues-rock song for her style. The Idolsphere agreed with Simon that she wasn't as good as the previous week and that many of the lyrics were too slurred, but the Hog-riding nurse's approval rating still squeaked in above 50 (with, as usual, the highest standard deviation of the night.) Next, Michael Johns took on the challenging Across The Universe and once again checked in with a good vocal and a solid delivery, falling just one point short of a fourth star. Still, Johns's fans across the Idolverse were beginning to worry openly: in this exceptionally strong field, how long would merely "good" and "solid" keep him alive?
Ladies and gentlemen, fasten your seat belts. We're about to enter the regularly scheduled Train Wreck segment of our show....
After weeks of prodding by the judges to "go country", Kristy Lee Cook decided to try to make up for lost time. She threw virtually everything in Nashville and Branson that wasn't nailed down into Eight Days A Week. The result: a double-timed, backbeat-driven, fiddle-laden, hoedown arrangement that appalled four generations of Beatles' fans. To make matters worse, Cook sounded to be a beat or two behind the music throughout the performance. Perhaps there were indeed issues with the stage monitors, or perhaps the band just wanted that desperately to be finished with it. Cook's 5 rating ultimately marked the season low, and it easily claimed a spot in the WNTS.com Bottom 40.
Finally, front-running David Archuleta, singing in the anchor slot, chose Stevie Wonder's arrangement of the pop favorite We Can Out. What's that? We left out a couple of words? So did Archuleta. In a meltdown that few Idol viewers will ever forget, the teen heartthrob suffered a two-minute-long lyrics malfunction of epic proportions. Web reviewers counted two obvious forgotten lines early, a probable third late, and a bizarre bridge in which he appeared to wait for the backup singers to go first to remind him what to sing. That Archuleta still managed an 18 rating is a reflection of his enormous popularity plus how well he sang the handful of lines he did remember. Still, his many online fans and detractors finally had something to agree upon: the ultimate winner of Season Seven was no longer a foregone conclusion.
The results show began with a Beatles Group Sing, prompting an emergency session of the United Nations General Assembly to debate whether or not to charge the producers with crimes against humanity. Mercado, Hernandez and K. Cook were announced as the Bottom 3, and in a mild surprise, Hernandez was sent home. From underneath beds and behind couches worldwide, Beatles fans hesitantly emerged. Was their nightmare finally over? To their horror, they heard Ryan announce that this week's show had been so popular that the Final 11 theme would also be Lennon & McCartney songs. Medic!
All joking aside, the Idols did a much better job with the Fab Four's music than we expected. (We were among those initially hiding behind our couches.) We found nine of the 12 performances to be at least acceptable, and most were really quite good. Besides the two train wrecks, we weren't particularly fond of Malubay's latest uninspired song choice, particularly since this time she didn't bring the vocals either. Three weeks ago we'd have made her no worse than 3-to-1 to reach the Finale; now we're not even sure she deserves to go on tour.
Chikezie left us with ear-to-ear grins, but we fully expected Simon to rip it unmercifully. If Mr. Cowell has one Paula-sized flaw as a judge, it's his usual stick-in-the-mud attitude to novelty songs and campy performances. Had Simon panned it, we doubt it would've scored as many as 4-stars; such is his almost Rasputin-like influence over the Idolsphere. Perhaps he's finally mellowing.
Amazingly, K. Cook's approval rating could have been much worse. Several respected music critics and roundtable panelists on the Web gave her good marks for her vocals, even while excoriating the arrangement. Take those opinions out of the dataset and this would've scored a 3, making it the second-lowest-rated Idol performance of all time. As for Archuleta, we have a lot of sympathy for the kid, because every stage performer's worst nightmare is to blank out in front of a huge audience. That said, an 18 approval rating?? Good grief! We'd have put a decimal point between the 1 and the 8.
Finally, the introduction of instruments and the presence of so many strong musicians in the AI7 field have greatly altered the show's dynamics. The Idolsphere is no longer much satisfied with superior karaoke singing. Reviewers are now demanding musical intelligence, artistic interpretation, and excellent presentation to award high marks...and yes, good singing, too. Two contestants who might be suffering by this sea change are Mercado and Johns. The latter in particular turned in a quite underrated vocal on "Across The Universe." In previous seasons, those two would've surely been considered among the front-runners. This year, both desperately need to hit a home run in the next couple of weeks just to stay alive.