Choosing to avoid the problem they ran into last year, when American Idol producers chose not to eliminate anyone on the big charity night, they separated the competition night from tonight's "Idol Gives Back."
Singing inspirational songs, the top eight were clearly showing signs of fatigue from preparing three shows. Not only did they have competition night Tuesday, but they'll be performing on both "Idol Gives Back" tonight and on the results show Thursday.
First to take the stage was Michael Johns, performing the Aerosmith classic, "Dream On" in a white short-sleeved button-down shirt, vest and paisley cravat with dark pants. He began a little rough but grew stronger as he went, finishing up with a nice rocker falsetto.
Judge Randy Jackson said that this was a pretty good song choice but he had pitch problems and summarized, "It was just all right." Nice judge Paula Abdul said it was the perfect song for him and that he sounds as good as he looks. She added, strangely, that due to the high notes he hit, her Chihuahuas could join him on-stage. Tough judge Simon Cowell called it a very good performance but said he doesn't like it when Michael "does an impersonation of a rock star." He called it "a little wannabe-ish."
I had a bad feeling as soon as I heard Syesha Mercado had selected "I Believe" by previous American Idol singer Fantasia. I felt she was setting herself up for a harsh comparison, and that proved to be the case. Standing in the middle of the stage in a black and white striped top, black blazer and white pants, her rendition lacked the power of the original. She tried to make up for it by adding some runs, but I honestly think that Diana DeGarmo, the runner-up that season, sang it better than this.
Randy said that she'd taken on another tiger. He said that Fantasia has a special connection that he didn't find with Syesha. He called it "just OK." Paula said that not many people can take on songs like this. She said that she'd made it her own and called it "one of your most shining nights." Simon said that technically, she sang it very well but it lacked the big wave of emotion he got when Fantasia sang it.
Jason Castro also chose to do a song that a previous Idol finalist had performed to great acclaim, that being Katharine McPhee. He did "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" but wisely chose a different arrangement, accompanying himself with a ukulele. He wore a white V-neck with a cardigan and brown pants that looked a little feminine to me. His performance was sort of sweet, beginning with almost a whisper at the beginning. When he reached for falsetto in the middle, though, he reminded me a little of Tiny Tim singing "Tiptoe Through the Tulips."
Randy declared that Jason Castro is back and "that was blazing, molten hot." Paula said that he has a definitive sound and called it the perfect song. Simon said that the first time he heard that version, he wasn't sure. The second time, he'd loved it, and the third time, he thought it was fantastic. I guess he was referring to having heard Jason rehearse the song, because we in the audience only got to hear it once.
Sticking to her comfort zone, country girl Kristy Lee Cook performed the Martina McBride song "Anyway," wearing a gold sequined top with white pants. In the beginning, she suffered from pitch problems whenever she tried to imitate Martina's lilting vocals. She also had trouble with her lower register and towards the middle, it became downright painful. But I guess it's time to admit that someone in America loves her, and even if she looks like she hasn't washed her hair for two days and gives a passionless, off-key performance, her fans will vote for her.
Randy noted that there were pitch problems but said he loved it. Paula said that she'd outdid herself and that this was her best so far. Simon said that this had been her chance to show who she is as an artist and that it was very good, indeed. He also said that tonight she looks like a star (maybe a star who'd been on the road without access to a shower?). He also complimented her for appealing to her audience.
Rocker David Cook diverted from his usual style to perform the Our Lady Peace song "Innocent." While I've warmed up to him in recent weeks, this was a mess. When it started off, his voice was really pitchy, and it sounded like he was eating the microphone. Then he struggled to regain control by shouting it. By the end, he'd found the pocket, but by then, he'd lost me. He went for a sort of '80s look, with a white military style jacket festooned with buttons over a black shirt. He really looked scruffy. Maybe he'd been on the road with Kristy Lee Cook.
Randy said that he's a huge fan but this was not one of his strongest weeks and he'd fallen short. Paula said that he's the whole package and said, "You've got it all." Simon said he didn't like it and called it a "teensy weensy bit pompous." He said this was his weakest performance in the last two weeks.
Carly Smithson tackled the Queen song "The Show Must Go On." I have to say, I'm not sure that's really an inspirational song. But at any rate, her version of it was less than inspirational, to be sure. Wearing a teal and black striped tank top with dark jeans and a gold belt, she pulled a lot of angry faces as she faltered on almost every high note she reached for. While the beginning was fairly mediocre, the middle simply fell apart.
Randy said that she'd started good and then got pitchy, but she ended OK. He added that it was "a big tiger to take on." Paula said that "your voice is pretty perfect." She said that Carly, however, didn't feel engaged. Simon said that she looked good but it was an unusual choice of song and she'd oversung it to the point of losing control. He said that, in many ways, it was an angry performance and that she might be in trouble.
Accompanying himself on the piano, David Archuleta performed the Robbie Williams song "Angels." At the beginning he was a little off (perhaps thrown off by the challenge of playing and singing?), but he got stronger towards the middle and his vocals were soaring by the end. He wore a cream patterned button-down shirt with light khaki pants, and while he might have looked like a piano student at a recital, his performance was as strong as any headliner's.
Randy said he really liked the runs at the end and called it his hottest moment of the whole season. Paula simply called it fantastic. Simon called it the best song choice of the night. He said it's one of the best pop songs but not David's best vocal, as it was nasally in the beginning but better at the end.
Finishing off the night, Brooke White performed the song "You've Got a Friend," first educating the public that it was originally a Carole King song and that she'd found that album inspirational. Which just proves that I was right about Brooke's influences. Wearing a shapeless rose shift with rust-colored flowers that could have come from her grandmother's closet, she started a bit weak but then found her comfort zone. Sometimes, her arm gestures seemed forced, but if you closed your eyes and listened, it was a very nice performance. Not spectacular, mind you, but nice.
Randy said that it wasn't her best but that it was OK. Paula revealed that the song was one of her favorites growing up and that it was the perfect close to the evening. She said, "I love you," to which Brooke replied, "I love you, too." Simon said that it was like a pleasant walk in the park. He said it was nice and concluded, "Was it original? No. Pleasant? Yes."
Kudos to David Archuleta and Michael Johns, with a nod to Brooke White and Jason Castro.
The weakest performances of the evening were actually David Cook and Carly Smithson, but I predict David's fans will save him. While the judges praised Kristy Lee Cook, I think her fans will recognize that her performance was a pale imitation of Martina McBride's original, thus putting her in danger. Carly Smithson and Syesha Mercado are likely to find themselves in the bottom three, possibly accompanied by Brooke White. Carly Smithson, though, is the one who's most likely to be watching her good-bye montage at the end of Thursday's show.
The lyrics of a song alone do not make a performance inspirational.