One member of the WhatNotToSing.com team finds nothing more inspirational when doing yardwork than the soothing sounds of Ted Nugent blaring from his deck speakers. He reports that, mysteriously, his neighbors sometimes find these backyard concertos to be less than uplifting. Thus illustrates one of the difficulties of the annual Idol Gives Back Inspirational Songs Week: Inspiration is in the ear of the beholder. Contestants are challenged to find a song that's meaningful to them and to the majority of viewers, vocally challenging, and not too trite or maudlin, so as to stay alive in the competition. Few things are more inspiring than a million-dollar recording contract, after all.
Michael Johns opened the show attempting to become just the sixth contestant from AI2 through AI7 to deliver three straight 5-star performances. (The other five: Clay Aiken, Trenyce, LaToya London, Bo Bice, and Melinda Doolittle, who make for rather inspirational company, although none actually went on to win American Idol so your inspiration may vary.) His straight-up cover of Aerosmith's classic Dream On drew mixed reviews from the judges and Web reviewers, many of whom wrote that they liked everything up to the part where Johns attempted to duplicate Steven Tyler's famous falsetto and scared their cat. Johns ended at a disappointing 48.
Perhaps attempting to inspire the just-eliminated Ramiele Malubay that her tradition of poor song choices would still go on, Syesha Mercado picked I Believe, the AI3 winner's song of Fantasia Barrino. Web reviewers rattled off scores of reasons why this was arguably the most ill-advised song selection of the season – among them, because LaKisha Jones tried it during last year's IGB episode and wound up getting raked over the coals. Even a very impressive glory note at the end couldn't overcome the Idolsphere's revulsion at being subjected to hearing this song for a fourth time in competition. Mercado received just a 34 rating (though on the bright side, she did outscore Jones by two points.)
At first, it seemed as though Jason Castro was astoundingly going to beat Mercado in the Bad Song Choice Derby. He selected Over The Rainbow, which had already produced two memorable 5-star performances on Idol...but hold on. Castro went with the Hawaiian folk arrangement by Aloha State legend Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, even accompanying himself on ukelele (which, we'd wager, was not one of the instruments the producers had in mind when they relaxed the rules this season.) The unusual performance drew one of the widest difference of opinions among reviewers ever: about three-quarters loved it, 10% were neutral, and the rest hated it with the fire of a thousand Hawaiian suns. It all averaged to a 78, tops on the night, but with a near-record standard deviation of 27.
Even when Kristy Lee Cook is ninety-nine years old, she'll still have irate American Idol fans chasing her across the Bingo Room of her assisted-living home, waving their canes angrily, for her desecration of Eight Days A Week. Since then, however, the Oregonian has made what one blogger termed an "oddly compelling" climb from "trainwreck to mess to mediocrity." And on this night, Cook reached uncharted territory for her: quality. Her cover of Martina McBride's difficult country ballad Anyway drew some of the most reluctant positive reviews we've ever encountered ("I hate myself for typing this, but that was really good.") With a 65, Cook joined Josh Gracin and John Stevens as the only three Idols to have delivered a 4-star performance after having produced a single-digit disaster – a feat that Amanda Overmyer fell just two points shy of duplicating last month.
Say someone had told you earlier in the day that one Cook would produce one of the night's top-three performances and the other would produce a twentysomething mess. Would you have responded, "So what else is new?" The novelty, in fact, was that Kristy Cook and David Cook seemingly switched bodies like they were the leads in some ghastly American Idol remake of Freaky Friday. Cook's rendition of the obscure Innocent, by Canadian alt-rockers Our Lady Peace, featured multiple register changes, a half-shouted chorus, and ended with him flashing a "Give Back" message he'd written on his palm. (Forumists on several sites suggested, truly inspiredly, that he should've flashed "Not Penny's Boat!" and thus sewn up the undying support of Lost fans forevermore.) The performance was dismissed as a "bit pompous" by Simon and usually with much harsher words by the Idolsphere, who saddled the front-running Cook with his first below-average rating of the competition, a 24.
Perhaps self-avowed Queen fan Carly Smithson truly feels that The Show Must Go On is inspirational to her. Queen fans throughout the Idolsphere, however, strongly begged to differ: Freddy Mercury, secretly dying of AIDS, wrote the bleak, defiant anthem as a farewell to his fans. Others who knew the song only because Paris Bennett sang it during AI5 felt that Smithson's version was inferior, and viewers who didn't know it at all generally disliked it for no particular reason. It added up to a 22, the episode's lowest-rated performance. Note that Smithson and D. Cook, neither of whom had fallen below 50 all season, didn't even make it to 50 combined on the night.
Every week is Inspirational Songs Week for teen heartthrob David Archuleta. This time around, he chose the sublime Angels by Robbie Williams, a hit single virtually everywhere in the world except in the U.S. (Actually, Jessica Simpson had a minor stateside hit with it in 2004.) As usual, Archuleta sang it strongly and received many glowing reviews across Idol Nation; equally as usual, a sizable number of reviewers wrote that until he proves he can sing any style of song on earth other than Inspirational Ballad, they're simply not impressed. Nonetheless, Archuleta earned a 69, good enough for second place on the night.
The anchor slot went to Brooke White, who sang You've Got A Friend and scored a season-low 40. We'd like to write more about it, but the Idolsphere pretty much dismissed the performance with a big, collective yawn. White, however, might want to ponder who...or what...her real friends are in the competition. Her four performances in which she's accompanied herself on an instrument have an average approval rating of 70; her four with vocals alone, 53.
Once again, the Idolsphere predicted two of the Bottom Three correctly: Mercado and Smithson. The third, in a mild surprise, was Johns, making his first B3 appearance. But that mild surprise was only a warm-up for the main act. In the first truly shocking elimination of Season Seven, the popular Australian was sent home...though not before being given a bit of false hope from Ryan. The longtime host reminded everyone that no one was dismissed during Season Six's Idol Gives Back Week and paused suspensefully before officially dismissing Johns. On his off-days, Ryan walks the streets of Los Angeles handing out exploding cigars to the panhandlers.
Inspirational Songs Week finished with a standard deviation of 22.6, the fourth-highest ever. The Idolsphere simply was not on the same page at all tonight, particularly on Castro's number (which we think might go down as the You Give Love A Bad Name of Season Seven – a true love-it-or-hate-it performance.) Just like most of America, the WNTS.com team was sharply divided on "Rainbow", though we all agree that Castro deserves major props for learning how to play the ukelele for a nationally-televised performance in under a week.
Johns's dismissal was both a jolt and a bit of a disappointment to us. A contestant who produces three 5-star performances in eight outings ought to be able to withstand a so-so performance from the dangerous leadoff spot. Still, perhaps the number that best explains his early departure wasn't 61.9, his average approval rating, but instead one made famous by another Michael J.: 23. That's the age of the newest song he performed in his eight outings: 1985's Don't You (Forget About Me). Yes, his first six choices were limited by theme, but even then he usually went with a by-the-book cover while competitors like D. Cook, Castro, and White were unearthing newer and more modern-sounding arrangements. The two most recent theme weeks offered more flexibility, yet Johns still chose a pair of mid-Seventies numbers. Couple this with his age and his penchant for sport jackets and ascots (several bloggers have been whimsically comparing him to Thurston Howell III), and we'd guess that the Aussie's appeal was concentrated among older viewers. But younger viewers are the ones who vote the most, or so the conventional wisdom goes. Say that the median voter's age is 21. Johns's eight songs were 33 years old on average. You do the math.
If there is one hard and fast rule for Idol song choices, it's this: never, ever, even if gunmen are holding you hostage in the red room, pick a commercial hit by a previous Idol. It's been tried four times – twice by Jones, once by Mercado, once fatally by Lisa Tucker – and the results have been uniformly disastrous. In a vacuum, it would be very difficult indeed to assert that K. Cook "outsang" Mercado by 30 points. But in reality (where, last we checked, American Idol is still contested), Cook made a smart song choice in the twin contexts of her capabilities and AI history, and Mercado didn't. Don't kid yourselves, folks: Idol is a TV game show above all. The trick is learning how to play the game.
Finally, there are few things more insufferable than analysts quoting themselves, but we hope you'll forgive us just this once. In our final pre-Semifinals editorial, we wrote:
If and when a favorite contestant delivers the sort of train wreck that should surely see him or her sent packing, can we all agree to watch House instead of spending two frantic hours power-dialing with Mighty Mouse Syndrome ("Here I come to save the day!")? Can we resist the temptation to vote for Bert only because "...he SO deserves not to go home before Ernie!!!", when neither Bert nor Ernie have any business seeing the inside of the Kodak Theater, and when such actions only run the risk that Kermit goes home unjustly?
Evidently, the answer to both questions was no. D. Cook's first major stumble caused an epidemic of Mighty Mouse Syndrome among his fans (many of whom, judging by their sigs and avatars, were Johns fans as well.) Meanwhile, many forumists admitted with varying degrees of remorse that they spent two hours hitting redial for Smithson and/or Mercado out of fear and outrage, because both had weak performances on a week in which K. Cook had the temerity to deliver a good one. All of this combined to send Michael The Frog home unjustly. It's not the first time it's happened and it won't be the last, but it never gets any less disappointing.