Quickly, quickly, we haven't much time! I'm Ryan Seacrest here's a lame April Fools' Day joke "This Is American Idol" (cue theme) welcome everyone meet our judges Randy ("dawg!") Paula ("hic") and Simon ("grunt") by the way Simon everybody hates you our guest mentor is living legend Dolly Parton who's written 3,000 songs sold nine digits' worth of albums and won every award on earth except a Nobel Prize – Hi Dolly! – okay enough chit-chat because we've got to squeeze nine intro clips performances and critiques into a one-hour time slot with the usual 300 commercials and of course we can't apportion our two prime-time hours this week into a 90 minute performance show and a 30 minute results show because that would make far too much sense so let's get started we gotta keep movin' it's live TV and the last thing we need is for that nutso chef with the meat cleaver whose show follows ours to come looking for us gosh I'm hyperventating and I think I'm about to pass out (falls over face-first, crowd applauds wildly)....
Brooke White and a few of her box-thumpin', fiddle-sawin' friends from the band were first out. A great many reviewers wrote that while White's vocals on Jolene were fine, she went all McPhee on the delivery by smiling inappropriately throughout the gut-wrenching plea of the lyrics. Perhaps she secretly wanted Jolene to steal her no-good man, reckoning that the little tramp would get exactly what she deserved? Hey, it's country music, people! At any rate, the singin' nanny earned a 51 rating.
So do you think David Cook reads any Idolsphere forums and blogs in his spare time? The Missouri rocker practically came on stage with a Web-generated checklist of Things To Do. A stylish new haircut, proving that he's not going bald...check. Acknowledging a few artists whose covers he'd previously adapted...check. Coming up with his own new, stripped-down arrangement for Little Sparrow...check. Singing a ballad and avoiding any alt-rock trappings for a night...check. Demonstrating a much wider vocal range than he'd previously shown...check. Yet another 4-star rating...check. A post-show trip to the hospital because his blood pressure spiked dangerously...wait, how'd that get on the list? Thankfully, Cook seemed to be fine by the next night.
Exceedingly few contestants receive a 5-star rating on their very first American Idol performance. April Fools! In fact, it's not that uncommon at all. Ramiele Malubay was the 21st Idol to do it from AI1 to AI7. She is, however, just the second who never returned to as many as 4-stars on a subsequent performance (Lisa Tucker was the other.) Her bouncy cover of Do I Ever Cross Your Mind earned one of Simon's patented "cruise ship" dismissals. ("Cruise ship", "Holiday Inn lounge", "theme park", "Portuguese cabaret" – collect 'em all, kids!) The performance left the Idolsphere seasick too, sending Malubay to her fourth straight 2-star rating.
Jason Castro chose one of Parton's most celebrated newer songs, the Oscar-nominated Travelin' Thru, and delivered it in a straight-up folk arrangement. Randy and Paula enjoyed it, Simon didn't, and the Idolsphere split the difference, awarding Castro a 53. Next, Carly Smithson's dream of becoming America's Next Top Model was dashed by Tyra Cowell, who ripped her unmercifully for her outfit and her lack of star presence. Simon's comments overshadowed the fact that Smithson's slowed-down arrangement of Here You Come Again worked out quite well with most Web reviewers, earning her a solid rating of 69 and keeping alive her secondary dream of becoming the next American Idol.
Coming into tonight, David Archuleta had performed three ballads to an average rating of 76, and three uptempo songs to an average rating of 46. Recognizing which side his bread is buttered on, and trying to get his front-runner train back on track, the teen crooner went with the gentle runs of Smoky Mountain Memories. Though the Idolsphere believed that he showed nothing new vocally, they also agreed that a repeat of what he's shown before is still pretty good. At 73, the two Davids tied for second place on the night.
Singing barefoot on Country Night is either an Idol tradition or a cliché, take your pick. Kristy Lee Cook and Syesha Mercado both kicked off their shoes for their performances. Cook chose Parton's autobiographical Coat Of Many Colors, singing it pleasantly and, as Simon put it, somewhat forgettably. Mercado, meanwhile, channeled her inner Sybil, singing the first half of I Will Always Love You in Parton's understated country arrangement and belting out the second half in full Whitney Houston mode. Simon, along with about half the Idolsphere, opined that she should have stuck with Dolly's version all the way through. Both ladies wound up comfortably in the 3-star range, earning 44 and 53, respectively.
Closing the show was Michael Johns, who admitted bashfully to Dolly Parton that the first concert he attended, at the age of seven, was one of hers. If Parton was embarrassed at being reminded of her age on national TV, she didn't let on. Many couples watching Johns's steamy cover of It's All Wrong But It's Alright had roughly this conversation afterwards:
He: Well, that was pretty good. I felt he strained a bit on a couple of high notes, and it seemed a little overwrought at times, but he captured the emotion of the song well. I'd rate it at about a 65.
She (fanning herself): Oh...my...God. I'm catching the next plane to L.A. You can have the kids and the house. Goodbye.
Indeed, the gender gap on "All Wrong" among Web reviewers was astronomical, and if only female fans were counted, it might have even reached the 90s. When the Mars and Venus contingents were combined, however, it ended at 82 – the highest of the night and just enough to give Johns his second straight 5-star honor, putting the Aussie firmly back in contention for the crown.
K. Cook made her regularly scheduled appearance in the Bottom Three the next night, whimsically bringing a "Kristy's Chair" label onstage with her. This time she was joined by Malubay and White, both making their first appearance in the danger zone. The ever-emotional White was the first one sent back to safety. Shortly thereafter, the shortest Idol was sent home. Naturally, this five minutes' worth of action was dragged out to fill a full hour, putting the producers one step closer to their own dream: no performance show at all, just a two-hour results show every week.
We honestly didn't care for the show very much. We thought the pacing was far too rushed, the performances were mostly good but nothing great, and Simon was in his annual irritating Country Night funk (more on this below.) The rest of the Idolsphere, however, basically told us, "We'll do the judging, and you do the tallying, OK?" Dolly Parton Night turned out to be the ninth-highest rated episode to date, with an average rating of just under 58 and eight of nine performances at 3-stars or better. In fact, it was the first country-themed show to come in above 51. So what do we know?
Not often do you see such a study in contrasts as the strategies of D. Cook and Mercado on this night. Because it's impossible to please everyone, and because familiarity breeds contempt, and because the weakest-link nature of American Idol foments an excess of negativity and cattiness among its fans, all contestants are on the receiving end of considerable criticism as the competition progresses. Cook decided to address all of his on one night and in one performance. It appeared to work out quite well for him, though for his sake we hope this was a one-time-only move. Every professional in the public eye will tell you that trying too hard to appease your critics is a losing strategy. Let the haters hate and the players elevate, as the rappers like to say.
Mercado seemed to be blazing the same trail for a while, but she abruptly shifted to the Whitney side of "IWALY." We agree wholeheartedly that this was a miscalculation on her part. The understated first half of the song was, in our opinion, her best of the competition thus far, and it still left her plenty of room for vocal improvisation and a memorable finish. This is not to say that the second half was bad by any stretch, only that it was nothing that Idol fans haven't heard before – more than two dozen times before, in fact. Someday, a female contestant with no shortage of self-confidence and self-restraint will do a complete Whitney Unplugged performance on Idol, and it'll bring down the house.
In other news: We thought Archuleta did very well indeed with "Memories", an excellent song choice. Still, unless and until The Kid can deliver a breakout performance on an uptempo number, we believe he deserves to finish no higher than fourth. Our opinions were split on the other contestants, except for Malubay – she wasn't terrible, but she clearly brought up the rear. Speaking of the diminutive dismissee, we're thinking of adding her to the dedication panel on our About Us page. Her voice is excellent, but her song choices throughout the past two months perfectly embodied the notion of "What Not To Sing."
Finally, Simon is the star of the show and the one judge whose opinion truly matters. He often takes heat for his brusque and coldhearted manner, but rarely for his competence...except on Country Night. Many weary forumists are proposing that the producers give him one week off every season with pay and bring in a guest judge in his stead, because the Englishman seems neither to understand nor appreciate the uniquely American institution of country music. We're not quite ready to side with these folks just yet, at least not until we know what guest judge they have in mind. The thought of having Randy and two Paulas on the panel even for one night is terrifying.