One way to treat undesirable compulsive behaviors is through aversion therapy. This can take many forms, but broadly speaking, the subject is conditioned to associate negative consequences to a particular action. This might be as innocuous as a young child becoming sick of a particular food because he eats nothing else for months on end (e.g., one of our senior editors cannot stand to eat eggs or American cheese sandwiches to this day), to more controversial techniques such as using painful electric shocks to treat addictions. At the risk of having the American Psychiatric Association boycott our website, we at WhatNotToSing.com are all in favor of electroshock therapy for American Idol contestants, especially if we get to administer the shocks. "Let's see, I think I'll sing a Celine Dion song this week..." (*Zzzap!*) "Ouch!...uh, maybe I'll try Aerosmith instead..." (*Zzzap!*) "Yow!!...okay, how about I Believe?..." (*Zzzap-Zap-Zap-Zap-ZZZZZZAP!!!*) "AAAAIIIIEEEEEEEEE!!!..."
After years of futile attempts to steer contestants away from big-voiced, highly stylized artists, the producers decided to apply their own form of aversion therapy. The AI7 Final Seven were actually compelled to choose songs from the perilous musical catalog of Mariah Carey, in the hope that their sun-bleached bones would serve as a warning to future contestants. Or maybe it was just a case of, "If you can't beat them, join them." In any case, the fabled Long Island diva graciously served as guest mentor, advising the Idols on how best to sing her melisma-saturated R&B songs, and she even brought her pet lapdog along for the day. No, we don't mean Randy.
First out was David Archuleta, who bravely confronted the twin demons of Carey and Whitney Houston by singing their Oscar-winning duet, When You Believe. This is not unlike challenging Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield to a two-on-one boxing match, but the young crooner held his ground reasonably well. He earned generally positive feedback from the judges and a 55 rating from the Idolsphere, though some bloggers wondered with growing annoyance if he could pull an inspirational ballad out of even Marilyn Manson's catalog if he had to.
Next, Carly Smithson drew universal praise, joy and adulation from Web reviewers across the country. For her singing? Nah – her unusually deep-keyed cover of Harry Nilsson's classic Without You (last performed on Idol by one K. Clarkson) drew her second straight 2-star rating, a 39. Many people found her vocals to be strong but her delivery to be too mechanical. However, her long-sleeved dress was all the rage.
No doubt that when she heard this week's theme, Syesha Mercado believed that she'd died and gone to heaven. The Florida D.I.T. (Diva-In-Training) chose one of Carey's lesser-known numbers, Vanishing, accompanied only by the band's pianist and three background singers. As with several of her recent performances, the Idolsphere generally had positive things to say about the first, understated, half of the song, but were bitterly divided on the run-filled finish. Mercado garnered a 42 approval rating with a very high standard deviation of 26.
Brooke White chose Carey's signature song, Hero, and handled the piano-playing duties herself. Many forumists found her vocals to be uncharacteristically ragged, particularly towards the end. White more than doubled the rating that Season Five semifinalist Heather Cox received for "Hero", but that still only left her with a season-low 29. Neither Smithson, Mercado, nor White had delivered back-to-back performances under 50 before, until all three did so tonight.
Move over, Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray, because up next were a pair of home-Cooked arrangements. First, Kristy Lee Cook put a gentle country spin on Forever, blessedly avoiding the hoedown excesses of Eight Days A Week. She drew modestly favorable reviews from the judges and the Idolsphere, to the tune of a 52 rating. Bookmakers in Las Vegas and London are still calculating how many millions you would've won if you'd waged $10 a month ago that Cook would be the highest-rated female contestant two weeks in a row. Then, David Cook turned Always Be My Baby into an alternative-progressive power ballad complete with full orchestra. All three judges loved it, as did most (but definitely not all) viewers across the Idolverse; some wrote that his vocals fell short of the standards he set on Hello and Eleanor Rigby. He enjoyed an evening-high 73 approval rating, though one suspects the only audience feedback the tearful Cook cared a whit about was the broad smile on his gravely ill brother's face.
Closing the show for the first time was Jason Castro, performing I Don't Wanna Cry in a Latin-folk arrangement and using an alternative melody that Carey herself suggested to him. Randy wasn't happy with the changes, calling it something he'd expect to hear at a luau (a novel addition to the familiar "theme park" / "karaoke bar" / "cabaret" venues), but Paula and Simon both disagreed, with Simon proclaiming "the guys completely won the night." Web reviewers by and large concurred with his assessment: Castro's 59 meant that Idol Nation's top three ratings of the evening went to the men.
The results show was highlighted by an outstanding live performance by Elliott Yamin, which concluded with a touching palm message to his recently departed mother. And, oh yeah, Carey sang, too. Afterwards, Ryan Seacrest came onstage and announced that he would divide the contestants in two groups of three and (*ZZZZZZZZAAAPPPPPP!!!!!*) Oops, so sorry Ryan – we didn't realize we had the machine plugged into the high-voltage outlet. Your hair should grow back soon. At any rate, after another tiresome rerun of the Top Seven Pick-The-Bottom-Three game (Archuleta wisely declined), the B3 were announced to be K. Cook, Mercado, and White. And in a delicious bit of irony, the rapidly-improving Cook was the contestant surprisingly zapped by the voters.
Mariah Carey Night ended with virtually a dead-average approval rating of 49.9, with many reviewers relieved that it wasn't the train wreck that they expected. The standard deviation of Web opinions, however, was astronomical: at 23.3, it was only one-tenth of a point short of the all-time record for an episode. The vastly different styles of the remaining contestants, plus the love-or-hate nature of Carey's songs, made a wide consensus impossible. As for our personal opinions on the show, let's just say that after an hour of listening to Mariah Carey covers we were ready to turn those electrodes on ourselves.
Mercado's performance was the most interesting from our analysts' perch, and it's a terrific example of how a contestant's history often plays into their later performance ratings. As one of our senior editors points out, "Vanishing" is a song that's supposed to be sung with an excess of runs and glory notes. In that context, Mercado covered it about as well as anyone could. Yet, she barely made it into the 3-star range. Why? Because throughout the competition, she'd sung most of her songs in that same style, whether they were written that way or not. Thus, when she reached the last few bars tonight, many listeners (including most of the WNTS.com staff, we admit) reflexively muttered, "Oh great, here she goes again." We believe Mercado's golden opportunity was lost on Dolly Parton Night, when she abruptly switched to the Whitney finish of I Will Always Love You. Had she stuck with Parton's original style, it might have established to listeners that she had a sense of artistic restraint, thus allowing fine "diva" performances like "Vanishing" to be appreciated on their own merits. As it is, Mercado wound up with the best-sung 42 in recent memory.
We never thought we'd write that we were saddened to see K. Cook go, but there you have it. Her semifinals were marred by exasperatingly bad song choices, and her two Beatles performances are best forgotten by any means necessary, including electroshock therapy. Since then, however, Cook had made a slow, steady climb. She finished her run with four performances of 3-stars or better including a very fine 65 for Anyway. The early negatives she acquired meant she could never win AI7, but her late redemption is sure to open doors for her in Nashville, where we suspect she'll do quite well.
It looks more and more like the Finale will be David vs. David. We still believe Archuleta is a remarkably gifted singer for his age, but neither do we see him picking up many new fans from week to week. Sooner or later, he'll need to attempt another uptempo number to win. He seems to have something of a theatrical style, so perhaps Andrew Lloyd Webber Week will offer him the right breakout opportunity. (One famous song from Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat seems both obvious and ideal.) Despite her recent stumbles, we'll predict that only Smithson can stop the Cook-Archuleta Express, though to do so she too desperately needs to find a breakout song, pronto.
Two interesting statistical notes: K. Cook became just the fourth finalist ever to be eliminated in a single-song week on a performance that rated above 50, joining Jennifer Hudson (72), Bucky Covington (51), and Phil Stacey (79). There have been a handful of 5-star elimination performances over the years (Clay Aiken's Bridge Over Troubled Water being a notable one), but all came in multiple-song weeks. Meanwhile, D. Cook broke the record for the highest rated performance by a male contestant singing a song associated exclusively with a female artist or artists. Anthony Fedorov held it previously for I Surrender, at a modest 64.
Finally, if the producers would kindly let us into the theater a couple hours early next week, we're sure we can double if not triple the show's slightly-sagging TV ratings. Imagine this: a contestant finishes his or her performance and the judges launch into their usual trite ramblings ("It was pitchy, dawg", "You look beautiful", "Reminded me of something I'd see on a cruise ship") when all of a sudden: three enormous (*ZZZZZAPP!*)s. America might never stop cheering.