Last night the top 10 American Idol finalists got to choose a song from the year they were born. This allowed them a wide range of selections, and as in previous weeks, some chose more wisely than others.
FOX Broadcasting, 2008
Big-voiced Ramiele Malubay started off the night with the Heart song "Alone," wearing high-waisted shorts, a gray and cream striped top, boots and dog tags. At first this seemed like a good song for her, since it allowed her to start out sweet and then gain power. But at parts she was drowned out by the backup singers, and the ending was off key.
Judge Randy Jackson noted that she's under the weather but added that it's too big of a song for her and that she was pitchy. Nice judge Paula Abdul said that she was glad America had already heard how big her voice was, and that she gave her credit for doing what she did while she was sick. Tough judge Simon Cowell said that the first part was OK but the middle was "shouty." He said that it was better than last week, adding that this should mean she'll make it through.
Next up, folksy Jason Castro tackled the Sting song, "Fragile." When he first came out on stage, I had to do a double-take, because his tan pants blended in so much with his skin tone I thought he wasn't wearing any! Fortunately, his dark denim shirt was easier to see. He performed seated once more with his guitar, and while this song was more upbeat than his other recent outings, it was very breathy. He's got good tone, but if he sticks around, he's got to work on his phrasing so that he doesn't trail off at the end of every line.
Randy called the song a good choice and said he liked the Spanish touch of the arrangement. Overall, he called it "pleasant." Paula praised him for being "true to who you are." She said it was a beautiful song but she didn't see anything new. She warned him against the danger of playing it safe. Simon said it was his second bad week and that it's time to start taking this more seriously (to which Jason replied that yes, maybe he should practice more!). He said it reminded him of someone busking in a subway station and that it was too laid back.
Syesha Mercado performed the Gladys Knight song "If I Were Your Woman," wearing a champagne-colored top with dark jeans. This torch song felt very safe to me, very predictable, much like her outfit. While her vocals were strong, I don't know if this performance will be remembered. Still, she showed she has skills.
Randy said that it was the best he's ever heard her sing. He called it stellar and unbelievable. Paula said that she'd just become a dark horse to win and complimented both her upper and lower register and pitch-perfect tone. Simon said it was definitely the best of the evening but that he didn't think the end was as good as Randy thought. He felt she'd stretched the limit of her vocals.
For the last couple weeks, Chikezie kept us guessing, but tonight, he returned to the Chikezie of earlier weeks, turning out a soulless and uneven version of the Luther Vandross song, "If Only for One Night." He slid into his notes in the beginning, only drawing attention to his limited vocal ability. The truth is, he just can't match the focused power of someone like Luther. He looked good, though, in a light blue button-down shirt with a crown pattern and a distress gray pinstriped blazer.
Randy said that, while Syesha had taken an older song and updated it, "this was old school" and he "didn't love it." He said it "wasn't hip and cool." Paula disagreed, saying that he's a throwback but "a good throwback." She liked the textures of his vocals. Simon said that he sang it well but the performance was cheesy, complete with him putting his hand into the audience. He said that he was just singing it for himself and that he has to show originality and personality.
Seated at the piano, Brooke White had a false start as she began the Police song, "Every Breath You Take." Overall, her beginning was shaky, and towards the middle of the song, she began to rush the tempo. She also hit a couple of off notes on the piano. I found the performance to be a bit twangy and, as far as I was concerned, it was the worst I've seen of her. As if in response to last week, when she was teased for wearing bright yellow to sing, "Here Comes the Sun," she wore a simple black top.
Randy said he thought it was good that she'd started over when she realized she had a problem but said he didn't like the arrangement, especially when the band joined in at the bridge. He thought it was "just OK." Paula said that she enjoyed it much more than last week. Simon said that if she'd stayed simply on piano for the entire piece, it would have been "more cool." He thought it was good enough to keep her in but that she's got to do better in the future.
Determined to prove he deserved his place in the top 10, Michael Johns delivered a kick-ass version of Queen's "We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions," in a black T-shirt and gray vest. He took control of the stage, trading in his dance-hop for more confident strides, and the hint of vibrato on his pitch-perfect performance made him a serious contender for the first time in weeks.
Randy said that he showed he finally believes in himself and "used your big old voice." He said it was the best he'd done since he'd been on the show. Paula said that "this was your shining moment" and added he'd found the right song. She called it fantastic. Simon said this was the first time he'd seen star potential in Michael and added, "You just got it right." He said that he'd looked like a front person and had shown confidence, performing well.
Wearing a frumpy black minidress she might have pulled out of her grandmother's closet, Carly Smithson performed one of the cheesiest '80s songs ever, Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart." The opening was not fabulous, although she got into it during the middle, but she exchanged Bonnie Tyler's raspy vocals for something Simon would call "shouty," trying to embellish it with runs that simply didn't add anything.
Randy said he liked it but didn't love it and noted that she was sharp at the end. Paula said that Carly has the ability to take songs that "I'm not crazy about and make me a believer." She added that "You can do no wrong." Simon said that something about it didn't quite work and noted that she was very tense during her performance. He advised her to lighten up.
Everybody's favorite prodigy, David Archuleta, stuck to his trend of message music, choosing the John Farnham song, "You're the Voice," which was covered by David Foster in 1990, the year Archie was born. He wore a patterned T-shirt with a gray leather jacket and delivered an upbeat performance, including impressive handling of the key change. Why, then, did he pick such a relatively obscure song? Something about it reminded me of Up With People. If he doesn't win American Idol, maybe he can be the male version of Hannah Montana.
Randy called it a strange song choice but said, "You've got mad skills." Paula teased, "You couldn't have picked an American song?" (Farnham is an Australian artist.) But she added that he could sing the phone book and she'd love it. Simon said that he sang well in parts but he didn't like the performance, which he found reminiscent of a theme park performance with animated creatures. He said it's "not you at all."
Just to ensure her voting bloc would keep her around, country girl Kristy Lee Cook chose the Lee Greenwood tune, "God Bless the USA." She started on a stool, wearing jeans with a kimono, her hair pulled back with two twists for a very '70s look. As the song kicked in during the chorus, she stood up, though her arm still hung limply by her side. Unlike Archie before her, she had trouble with the key change, and while it's her best performance to date, if she stays in, she has the band, and Lee Greenwood, to thank for it. Oh, and the stage crew, who helped her out with red, white and blue lighting and an American flag waving in the monitors. Talk about pandering.
Randy said he loves the song but found it pitchy in the middle. Paula called it a poignant, respectful song and said her voice is sounding stronger. Simon called it her best performance by a mile and called it the "most clever song choice I've heard in years."
In the final performance of the evening, David Cook revisited Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," turning it into a stripped-down rock ballad, standing at center stage with a microphone, wearing a simple black shirt with jeans. This time it actually seemed as if he was listening to the lyrics, dropping his characteristic smirk. I love this song, and I loved his version of it, perhaps because it was so different from the original. He's definitely won me over.
Randy called him "the most original contestant we've ever had" and said "you might be the one to win." Paula praised him for being smart and brave and willing to stretch the boundaries. She called the performance brilliant. Simon agreed that it was brave. He said that when he heard about the song choice he thought it could have been insane or amazing, and that it was amazing.
Kudos to David Cook, Michael Johns and David Archuleta. Jason Castro and Brooke White will probably also find themselves safe.
For the bottom three, I'm guessing Chikezie and Ramiele Malubay, joined by Carly Smithson (unless America rejects the blatant politicking and sends Kristy Lee Cook, as well). As for who goes home, the most likely candidates appear to be either Chikezie or Ramiele, whose performances the past two weeks have failed to live up to their earlier promise.
Taking a risk can truly pay off.