Midway through the AI5 Final Three episode, at the behest of one Simon Cowell, Katharine McPhee sat on the American Idol stage and delivered a memorable, vocally pure rendition of Over The Rainbow. The Idolsphere loved it almost as much as Simon did (though they were perhaps a bit less smug about it), to the tune of a 91 approval rating. Here at WhatNotToSing.com, we arbitrarily term any performance that scores in the 90s a "showstopper," and this is not an easy title to earn. Fewer than 3% reach that high standard.
Since that night, four other performances (two by Melinda Doolittle, one by LaKisha Jones, and David Archuleta's Imagine) had reached 90 or better. Curiously, however, all four took place during the semifinal rounds. No one had turned the trick in a Finals episode since McPhee's triumph two years earlier. Call it the Great Finals Showstopper Slump: entering this week's Year You Were Born episode, the drought had reached 125 consecutive performances and counting.
Speaking of statistics: according to www.song-database.com, 388 different songs hit the Billboard Hot 100 during 1987, the birth year of Ramiele Malubay. At least 386 of them would have made a better song choice than the one she actually picked: Alone. The Idolsphere took approximately four seconds to decide that she wasn't as good of a singer as Ann Wilson and another two seconds to rule out Carrie Underwood, too...which, of course, are the only two things that can possibly happen if you lose your mind and choose that song. In fact, Malubay wasn't even as good of a singer as Ramiele Malubay normally is, owing to a nasty cold. (This may or may not be the most talented group of female finalists ever, but they're unquestionably the sickest.) At 24, it was the lowest-rated performance of the night and yet another new career low for the rapidly-fading Floridian. Oh well, it could still have been worse: she might've chosen that 388th song: George Michael's "I Want Your Sex."
Jason Castro was next, returning to his acoustic guitar with Sting's Fragile and even throwing in a verse in Spanish (which, unlike French, he actually speaks.) His vocals were clean though sometimes quite soft; in places it was difficult to hear him above the background singers. The judges' reviews were mixed and the Idolsphere's were even mixeder, to coin a term. East and Central time zone reviewers immediately after the show awarded him almost a 50, but the West Coast and overnight raters put it under 30. It all averaged out to a peculiar 38.
Having already covered Me And Mr. Jones and Saving All My Love For You, Syesha Mercado finally completed her Mistress Pride Trilogy via Gladys Knight's If I Were Your Woman. Most Web reviewers considered it her best performance of the season, coming in at a solid 70, though many married female bloggers and forumists made it clear that Mercado was never receiving a dinner invitation to their homes.
In a defiant pre-performance chat with Ryan about song selection, Chikezie said that despite his recent excellent reviews on uptempo songs, he was going to "follow his heart" and do a ballad this week. Across Idol Nation, as if watching a formulaic horror movie, viewers screamed at their TVs, "Don't go in there!" Too late: the soft-spoken airport worker entered the haunted house of doom by choosing Luther Vandross's If Only For One Night. Most reviewers felt he sang it decently, but not very memorably. Chikezie never did hear the judges' opinions, however, as immediately after his performance he was attacked viciously and dragged offstage by Jason Voorhees and Freddie Kruger.
Brooke White was next, and the manner in which she began her song won her universal acclaim across the Idolsphere. Namely, she screwed up royally. Seated at the piano, she began singing Every Breath You Take in the wrong key, realized it two notes in, stopped, took a breath, and started over correctly. The band joined in about halfway through, though Simon and Randy both expressed the opinion that White would have been better served by leaving them on the sidelines. That was about the only complaint she heard on her way to a 64 and a return to the 4-star level, with many people writing that they admired her professionalism after the false start.
No one needed a big-time performance more than erstwhile favorite Michael Johns, who'd been largely stuck in neutral since Light My Fire and his Hollywood triumph on Bohemian Rhapsody. Reasoning perhaps that if one Queen song had worked well for him, two might even be better, he went with one of rock's classic double features: We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions. Merely by singing the first half better than Ace Young did (not a terribly difficult hurdle to clear), he earned some goodwill among reviewers, and his vocals on "Champions" were widely considered his strongest of the competition. With an 81, Johns earned his second 5-star rating from the Idolsphere.
Next, Carly Smithson's mother explained that her daughter's first name came from her happening to hear a Carly Simon song on her way to the maternity ward. Luckily for everyone involved, Kajagoogoo wasn't playing at that moment.* Smithson's vocals on Total Eclipse Of The Heart drew hearty praise from Paula, but Simon and Randy both felt the performance, while decent, lacked that little something extra. Many reviewers weren't terribly enamored with the shouty final note, awarding Smithson a 54 - her sixth straight above-average rating, but at the same time her lowest of the season.
* Keep reading – Ed.
Remember David Archuleta? The shy Utah teenager was once considered the prohibitive favorite to be the next American Idol. Now, he typically sings during a commercial break so as to keep the show running on schedule. In all seriousness, even Archuleta surely knows that his inevitable coronation looks more and more, er, evitable each week. For his birth year number, he sang the obscure You're The Voice by Australia's John Farnham, known to Americans if at all as a theme song of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The judges were far more impressed with Archuleta's vocals than his song choice: yet another message piece which Simon termed "ghastly" and "reminiscent of a theme park," capped by a veiled but pointed suggestion that Archuleta should choose his own songs moving forward. We stay out of family disputes here at WNTS.com, but we're sure most of our readers know exactly what that's all about. Web reviewers gave the performance a so-so 45 rating.
Mom, apple pie, and the American flag: three of the main ingredients of country music. Kristy Lee Cook's intro clip featured her mother prominently, and Cook took care of the flag part by choosing God Bless The U.S.A. and singing it surprisingly well (country yodels technically don't count as being off-pitch.) She was rewarded with easily her most positive reviews yet from the judges. The song choice triggered a firestorm of debate on boards and blogs across the Idolsphere, which smolders on even as we type this, but the combatants paused long enough to award Cook a 43 – not great, but her highest thus far. If you want pie as well, go see Mrs. Smith.
So did you laugh at the Kajagoogoo gag a couple paragraphs earlier? Yeah, so did we when we first read it. See, we lifted the joke directly from this week's episode summary by MotherSister, one of the great Idol journalists at FansOfRealityTV.com. No doubt a couple of our readers recognized it and were appalled to see us not give her the credit she deserved. Ah, but we temporarily omitted it so as to underscore an important point: Proper attribution is more than just a courtesy among artists, writers, and musicians, it's a responsibility. Which brings us to our final performance summary of the night....
David Cook's super-double-secret strategy for becoming the next American Idol is now apparent to all. He starts with familiar pop songs, locates unusual and innovative rock arrangements by top artists, and then sings the heck out of them every Tuesday night. This time around, the song was Michael Jackson's Billie Jean, the anguished-ballad arrangement was by Soundgarden's Chris Cornell, and the vocals and presentation were spectacular. One particular moment towards the end stands out: Cook held a high power note for nearly six seconds, then transitioned seamlessly to an even higher held note. Somewhere in a darkened L.A. studio, the audience is probably still cheering their heads off. The judges were unreserved in their praise, and the Idolsphere determined that the Great Finals Showstopper Slump had finally been snapped at 134. With a 93, Billie Jean entered the Top 10 rated performances in our database. And, there would be no arrangement-source controversy on this night: Although a few viewers didn't catch it, Ryan clearly credited Cornell when introducing the song; Cornell returned the favor the next day by phoning Cook with his congratulations. Proper attribution triumphs again.
The consensus among forumists was that the Bottom Three would be Castro, Chikezie, and Malubay, and as usual they got two out of three correct. Malubay's plummeting approval ratings still haven't broken her enormous fanbase; Mercado surprisingly took her place in the danger zone. A few minutes later, it was announced that Chikezie's unfortunate choice of a ballad had killed his Idol dream, just as many expected. At that very moment, however, Jason Voorhees and Freddie Kruger attacked Ryan Seacrest viciously and dragged him offstage. All's well that ends well.
After the previous week's debacle, American Idol needed this show, and especially D. Cook's water-cooler moment, in the worst way. At a 55.1 average rating (thanks primarily to the absence of any train wrecks), the episode didn't miss by much of making into the all-time Top 10. It also greatly reduced the grumbling from the online peanut gallery about the quality of S7 in general, though that might turn out to be only a one-week hiatus. Country Week is next, and that's typically one of the lowest-rated nights of every season.
We rather enjoyed Castro's performance (yes, we're from the East Coast), though we agree with Simon that he needs to step it up if he wants to remain in this ever-toughening game. By the way, this wasn't the first time we'd encountered the unusual split-coast disparity this season. Danny Noriega's performances followed much the same pattern, except in reverse. We thought Chikezie sang quite well too, but like most people, we weren't the least bit surprised to see him sent home. This is not a year in which a contestant can let his guard down for even one night.
When Randy and Simon suggested to White that she should've ditched the band, our entire team scoffed. We assumed they'd been sipping from Paula's Coke cup. But when we rewatched the performance afterwards, each of us concluded independently that, uh...well, as you know, critiquing music is a purely subjective endeavor and, er...we thought perhaps it was just barely possible...oh, all right! Randy and Simon were right and we were wrong. Happy?
Again, we do not point out this sort of stuff to stir up trouble, but if no one else across the Idolsphere wants to mention it, we feel obligated not to let it slide. Smithson had a significant lyrics malfunciton during her performance. "Total Eclipse's" most famous line is "We're living in a powder keg and giving off sparks," not "You're livin' like a power keg giving off sparks." What the heck is a "power keg" anyway? A beer barrel with an electric tap? And why is it sparking - didn't the electrician hook it up properly? Well, Smithson is a barmaid so perhaps she knows something we don't.
Last but not least: many AI forums went haywire over the issue of K. Cook's song choice, with some deeply offended at what they saw was a cheap, cynical ploy for votes and others deeply offended that anyone would take offense to hearing a popular patriotic song on Idol. The debate frequently deteriorated into a partisan, red state/blue state, politically-charged street brawl. If you think we're wading into that fever swamp here, you're nuts. However, limiting ourselves solely to the song choice issue (and noting in advance that we are on record as not being Cook's biggest fans, and also that one of our founders and his wife, herself a frequent contributor to Project WNTS, are Canadians), we see it this way:
Every semifinalist enters the main competition with two primary goals: winning, and launching a successful career as a recording artist. Ask any contestant off the record and she'll likely tell you the latter is far more important to her than the former. Nonetheless, while one still has a realistic chance of winning, it makes sense to choose songs that aren't controversial or polarizing. The largest single bloc of Idol voters (by far) are what we term "freelancers." They cast their ballots based on the night's performances and are not beholden to any particular fanbase. Alienating a substantial percentage of this group forever is not in a contending contestant's best interests. (Again, we are not going within the proverbial ten-foot pole of discussing whether or not God Bless The USA should be considered an "alienating" Idol song at all.)
The game changes, however, when a contestant drops out of realistic contention for the crown. In that case, a smart Idol will change her focus to week-to-week survival (because every nationally-televised performance translates to additional prominence and income down the line) and to building and strengthening her fanbase (because they're the people who'll ultimately determine whether or not she makes it in the music industry.) In that context, it would be senseless to forego an ideal song choice because it might alienate viewers who already hate her, who are unlikely ever to cast a vote for her, who'll never purchase any of her albums, and who'll attend one of her concerts only if sentenced to do so by a judge as part of a community service arrangement. No, we're not fans of Cook, but we'll give the young lady her due: hers was the smartest, most inspired, and (as Mr. Spock might put it) most eminently logical song choice in the history of American Idol. We only wish more contestants (*cough* Ramiele Malubay *cough* David Archuleta) would use their heads half as well when choosing their own songs.