The theme for this week's American Idol performances was wide open: members of the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame. Each finalist performed two songs, from virtually any artist, any style.
FOX Broadcasting, 2008
Resident rocker David Cook started the night with Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf," a song he admitted didn't initially appeal to him. Dressed in a leather jacket with black and gray patterned T-shirt, he delivered a rock version of it, but he almost seemed to be walking through it, despite attempts to relate to the audience. I will say that his version was hotter than the original (to borrow a term from Randy), but nothing extraordinary.
Judge Randy Jackson called the song an OK choice and said it was a solid performance but "just OK for you." Nice judge Paula Abdul said the song left her "with a big appetite" (which I think was a compliment) and commented that she'd enjoyed watching him develop over the course of the season. Tough judge Simon Cowell said it was good but a little bit copycat. He predicted, however, it would be good enough to get him through.
Next, actress/singer Syesha Mercado performed "Proud Mary," which she seemed to think was originally a Tina Turner song, when actually it was Credence Clearwater Revival. Syesha, though, was channeling the Tina Turner version, down to wearing a short little gold dress. She wisely took some liberties with the opening, but once she got into the second half, she was almost atonal, just shouting it. As always, when she draws comparisons to some of the greatest singers, she showed she couldn't live up. It reminded me of an off-Broadway performance of What's Love Got to Do With It?
Randy said it was the third week where she was in the zone and that she's "showing the heat." He called it "very nice." Paula said she looked like a star and that she's a beautiful woman with a magnetic voice and presence. Simon called it a bad, shrieky version. He called it a bad impersonation of Tina Turner, to which she replied that she was just trying to have fun. He remarked, "I didn't."
Clearly tired of playing the game, Jason Castro chose Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff," just because he loves it. In a jean jacket with cream river driver shirt and dark jeans, he didn't start playing guitar until the chorus, taking great liberties with the melody. While he seemed more comfortable than he has for weeks, he got into trouble by trying to turn a reggae song into a pop song.
Randy said that it was really karaoke and just OK, nothing special. Paula said she'd never seen him perform more to the audience, but she wasn't crazy about it. She complimented him, though, because "you're so real; your artistry shines through." Simon said it was utterly atrocious. He criticized Jason for messing with the chorus, saying that is "a song you do not touch." He said it was like a first-round audition massacre, and he didn't know what Jason was thinking. Jason's reply: "Bob Marley!"
In a black T-shirt with a white doves pattern, David Archuleta performed the Ben E. King hit, "Stand By Me." This was a really smart choice, because the song suited his vocal range and his style extremely well. He delivered solid vocals over drums and a few background singers. After starting out sticking to the original melody, he embellished it with some runs in the middle, rewarded with female screams from the audience.
Randy said at least there was one guy tonight who was trying to win the whole thing. He added, "It was hot." Paula said that he's way beyond his years and she admires him for paying attention to the comments he receives and using them to improve. Simon, first, said that he could have whistled and it would have been better than Jason's performance. He called it a good choice, though he thought he'd struggled a little at the end. He declared it the best so far.
For his second song, David Cook chose a classic from one of the best-loved rock groups, performing The Who's "Baba O'Riley." He started out accompanied by only some keyboards and a beat on the drumsticks, for a very pared down, unplugged version. Then, he transitioned into the meat of the song with a beautiful use of his upper register as he pushed into the chorus, at the same time, picking up with his electric guitar. Wearing a dark pinstripe suit that was evocative of The Who's mod days, he was the only one up to that point who seemed like he could be performing at his own Hall of Fame induction.
Randy said this was the David Cook he'd grown to love, the resident rocker dude. He counseled him to "just be you, because you were great." Paula said that she wanted more David Cook and said she was really humbled to be in his presence. Simon simply said, "Welcome back, David Cook."
When I heard that Syesha was doing the Sam Cook song "A Change is Going to Come" for her second number, after introducing it as an anthem of the civil rights movement, I certainly didn't expect her to come out in an old-fashioned gold evening gown and perform it like a contestant on Star Search. Despite her vocal flourishes, it was a passionless performance. What's more, she had a weak opening and was flat on the big notes. She failed to infuse it with the bluesy urgency of the original, and she didn't bring anything new to it that could save the performance.
Randy said that he didn't love it as much, that he didn't like the arrangement. He said she was trying for things that weren't there. Continuing, he said it felt disconnected. Paula gave her a standing ovation, which made Syesha cry. She said that she'd orchestrated her vocals beautifully and called it a superstar performance. She said, "Welcome to your dream." Simon said that he had to be fair, and he was going to agree with Paula. Not to be deterred, Randy added that he got that completely, utterly wrong. It remains to be seen which judge America will side with.
Perhaps after relaxing a little too much backstage between numbers, Jason did the Bob Dylan song "Mr. Tambourine Man." In a black shirt with his hair pulled back, he sat on a stool playing his guitar. It was the same-old, same-old coffeehouse performance, and then he forgot the lyrics. Frankly, Jason's heart hasn't been in it for weeks, and I think he'd be relieved if he's the next to go.
Randy said that Jason's just not in the zone tonight. Paula said, "It is what it is." She said he "didn't blow us away" but "you blow me away." Simon advised Jason to pack his suitcase.
In the money spot, David Archuleta tackled the Elvis tune, "Love Me Tender," wearing a gray-button down shirt and sitting on a stool. His version was a pop ballad, accompanied by piano, and his vocal performance was simply masterful. Of course, anyone would sound great after Jason.
Randy called it another great performance and labeled it the "hot vocals of the night." Paula said it was one of her favorite performances from him. Simon said that tonight he didn't just beat the competition; he crushed the competition.
Kudos tonight to David Archuleta and David Cook.
By all rights, Jason should be the one to go home tonight, but everyone knows that he's got a fan base who have pulled him out of the fire before. Over the past few weeks, though, Syesha's fan base has no doubt grown as she gets more comfortable on-stage. The question is, will she be able to compete with Jason's fans, who might be motivated to try to keep him in the game?
The Davids should be safe, but as Ryan reminded us, this is the week where we've seen surprise eliminations before, when acknowledged front-runners were perceived as safe and therefore didn't get as much support as those seen to be in danger. Hopefully, America has learned its lesson and voted for those who truly deserve to stay in the competition.
With a large catalogue to choose from, song choice matters.