Tuesday, March 25, 2008

American Idol Top 10 Perform:
Birthday Bliss

Well, aren't we pleasantly red in the face! We laughed and made jokes all season every time Ryan Seacrest intoned the words that this was the most talented group of contestants EVAH, because they seemed just like every other group of contestants EVAH. But we must sheepishly admit that there wasn't a bad performance on last night's show, on which each of the Top 10 sang a song chosen from the year of his or her birth.

Sure, there were stronger performances and weaker performances, but not a true clunker among them. Not even from perpetually awful Kristy Lee Cook, whose savvy choice of an über patriotic song will not only keep her from being eliminated (once again), but, we predict, also keep her out of the Bottom 3. Dang, she even sang it well and showed some emotion for a change. Obviously someone has taught this girl how to play the game since last week. Not that we're crazy about the ploy. It's certainly not the reason she should stay in the contest. But it's a tactic Kristy Lee has used before. Take a look at the video for the title song "Devoted" from her independently released CD. It plays off the same patriotic principle. But what does it also say about her that a Confederate flag is prominantly featured on a back wall (about 50 seconds in), a detail that was digitally erased from the "official" video on the Web site selling her CD? Patriotic or racist? Or nothing at all? You be the judge.

Starting off the evening was probably not the optimum position for Ramiele Malubay to find herself in, partially because the viewing audience tends to forget you after 90 minutes and partially because it was one of those weaker performances last night. Not that Ramiele wasn't trying hard to counter the negative reviews she's received ever since her stunning rendition of Dusty Springfield's "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" on Week 1 gave her front-runner status. Since that time she's been in a downward spiral. Last night she probably was trying too hard with Heart's "Alone." Because Carly Smithson sang it earlier (and better) this season, and because everyone still has Carrie Underwood's amazing version burned into their brains, it was a poor song choice. She was pitchy throughout and by the end of the song her power vocals turned into screaming. She might have done better with Whitney's Houston's "Didn't We Almost Have It All," a song title that might sadly prove prophetic for her tonight when she'll almost certainly land in the Bottom 3 and possibly get eliminated.

Randy Jackson, who seemed to be cranky about most of the performances Tuesday night, said the it wasn't the right song and was a little too big for Ramiele. He also noted that it was a little pitchy and all over the place. Paula Abdul revealed that Ramiele was having trouble with her voice this week, saying, "I'm really glad America's heard you sing and how big your voice is. People don't know you barely have a voice right now ... I give you a tremendous amount of credit ... for doing what you did because you're really sick." She added that she hoped Ramiele would stay in the competition because "you're a very big talent in a little small package." Surprisingly, Simon Cowell said, "I didn't think it was as bad as Randy said," and that the first part of the song was OK. "In the middle it all got a bit shrieky and shouty (we agree). He predicted that, "After what you sang last week, which I thought was appalling and you managed to survive, then you're gonna get through on that performance. No question about it." He could be right.

Watch video of Ramiele Malubay singing "Alone":

Also giving a lackluster performance and deserving Bottom 3 status was Jason Castro, who chose to accompany himself on acoustic guitar for Sting's "Fragile." Although not terrible, the whole thing was so casual and forgettable that it reminded us of sitting in a coffee house chatting with friends while someone played guitar and sang in the background. And that's what it was -- background noise. We were bored. Castro can coast by on his cute looks, dreds, baby blues and stoner affect for only so long. Sooner or later he'll have to produce another winner like his "Hallelujah," or he'll find himself gone.

Randy said the song was one of his favorites and a good choice, but that Jason didn't do anything different with it vocally. "I'm still waiting to see that jump-out vocal performance," Jackson said. Paula told Castro he was staying true to who he was, but "I don't think we saw anything different that makes us go 'Wow, Jason did something different.' " Simon told Jason that he's had two bad weeks and needs to start taking the competition a bit more seriously. "That was the equivalent of someone busking outside the subway station," he said, adding, "The way that you played the guitar on the track was clumsy. Everything about it was too laid back, too much in your own world ... you're not gonna win if you keep doing that week after week."

Watch video of Jason Castro singing "Fragile":

Syesha Mercado upped her game last week with a poignant version of "Yesterday," and tried to keep the ball rolling with the Stephanie Mills version of "If I Were Your Woman." Compared to the first two performers, the vocals seemed spot-on and stunning, including the money notes, although there was nothing about the performance overall that got us excited. And that is Syesha's main challenge. She has this great instrument, comes across warmly in videos, but, like Kady Malloy, usually fails to connect emotionally with the audience. For us, she is reminiscent of LaToya London from Season 3. But the performance was probably strong enough to keep her safe from Bottom 3 status.

Randy said, "I think this is the best I've ever heard you sing ... the best you've ever sounded," excitedly adding, "I think it was stellar, I think it was unbelievable, I'm shocked, I'm loving it, yes! Yes! We've got another competitor in the competition ... Blazing hot!" Uh, but did you like it, Randy? Paula said, "This is going to be the moment that everyone remembers where Syesha flipped it and became the dark horse who's going to sail on through. You were fantastic ... It was brilliant." Um, but did you like it, Paula? Simon said, "It was definitely the best so far," but tempered it with, "I think there is a limit on your vocal and I think that song stretched it." Frankly, we did't think the performance was quite as memorable as Randy and Paula did. Strong, yes, but not an "Idol" moment. That came for two other performers later in the evening.

Watch video of Syesha Mercado singing "If I Were Your Woman":

Poor Chikezie. He's had two strong weeks. Now, when he tried to flip the music back to his real comfort zone, R&B crooning, he got a bit trashed by the judges and very trashed by the DialIdol.com voters. He did a lovely, touching rendition of Luther Vandross' "If Only for One Night," and played to the mosh-pit girls like a pro, but apparently America would rather see him turn "I've Just Seen a Face" into a country song than listen to him croon to their hearts and souls. Personally, we think Chikezie was born to do this type of music. But we seem to be in a majority of one. He'll no doubt fall into the Bottom 3 and is in serious danger of hearing another R&B crooner, Ruben Studdard, sing him home with the series' exit song.

Randy said the performance was very old school and that he didn't love it. It wasn't hip and cool and wasn't the vibe he loves. "It was just alright for me." Paula disagreed, saying it was a good throwback and that she thought Chikezie did a great job and did amazing with the texture of his vocals. "You're a really great singer," she said. Simon said, "I think you sang it well. Having said that, I thought the performance actually was very cheesy."

Watch video of Chikezie singing "If Only for One Night":

Next up was Brooke White, perhaps the most telegenic contestant the show has ever had. Last week, she stumbled badly with "Here Comes the Sun," dressed like a banana. This week, she returned to her strength, accompanying herself on piano and employing her stunningly clear vocals on The Police's "Every Breath You Take," a creepy stalker-ish song. We like her Carly Simon-ish (one more "ish" and we'll turn into Danny Noriega) voice and the performance was strong, down to her restart after she hit a bad note at the beginning of the song. In fact, this misstep endeared her to the judges even more. (Wow, who knew it could be good to be bad?) And, unlike Jason Castro, when Brooke performs acoustically, it sounds more like a fine concert performance than a coffee-house affair. Still, there is something about Brooke that we don't buy 100%. She plays the "Idol" game so well, and seems so sincere, that it almost plays fake to us. But we just can't quite put a finger on it.

Randy thought the front part of the song was pretty good and liked that Brooke restarted it when she realized the first note was wrong. But he didn't like the band coming in or the arrangement during the middle of the song. "I was waiting for something else different to happen. I almost would have loved it if you would have just stayed without the band and made it more interesting on your own. It was just okay for me." Paula said, "I enjoyed this performance so much more than last week's," and called Brooke consistent. Simon said, "I totally agree with Randy, which is if you'd have just stayed you on the piano that actually would have sounded much more cool. The minute it picked up tempo and the band joined in it made it very old-fashioned," adding, "But, better than last week."

Watch video of Brooke White singing "Every Breath You Take":

Because Michael Johns had told EW.com at the Top 12 party that he couldn't wait for this theme week and, in answer to another question, that he couldn't wait to sing another Queen song, this time with the band, we did a little research, put 2+2 together and correctly predicted in advance to our household that he would sing "We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions," the only Queen song that made the Billboard 100 the year Michaels was born, 1978. And this week was worth the wait. For Johns, it was his defining moment on the series. What he'd fail to deliver previously onstage -- getting and holding the audience in the palm of his hand -- he accomplished brilliantly last night. It's a great anthem song that people relate to anyway, and although pitchy in spots, he sang it strongly and with great command. The applause was thunderous and neverending. One of those "moments" when Randy tries to critique but has to wait for the applause to die down.

Randy said, "Finally, you believe in yourself and you use that big old voice you got ... That was the best performance, for me, since you've been on this show." Paula added, "For any time that any one of us have every said you haven't found your right song, well we can shut our mouths on this one. This is your ... shining moment and I'm so proud of you ... It was fantastic." And for Simon, "This is the first time with you I saw star potential, because you just got it right ... You look like a front person, you were confident, you performed well. For me, it was the only memorable performance of the night so far." Ah, but more was to come.

Watch video of Michael Johns singing "We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions":

As most of our readers know, we are also a fan of Carly Smithson, love the tone of her voice and will go out and buy her sophomore CD unheard. We know we'll like it. Unlike others, we have no problem looking past the tattoos and her oddly shaped mouth and teeth to get to her true asset. We were excited to see that she was going to sing Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart," another favoite of ours. And we weren't disappointed. She did a beautiful job, accompanied by the "Idol" backup singers, on the song. We loved everything except the final overdramatic, overplayed on-her-knees note, which actually ruined an otherwise wonderful performance. The judges, however, didn't agree with us.

Randy said, "I didn't love it. I liked it ... I didn't like the note at the end (agreed!), it went a little sharp (and overdramatic!). I think that wasn't quite the right song for you, it was just okay for me." Paula told her, "What I so admire about you is you probably can take every song I'm not crazy about ... and make me go buy it. I loved what you did at the end (ugh!) because that's showing me that you're ... willing to go and stretch yourself into areas that you haven't shown us." For Simon, "Something didn't quite work, and I think it was because you were so tense and almost uptight during the performance that I didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I was going to." He added, "I think parts of the song you sang very well, but ... something didn't quite work there ... I think you've got to just lighten up a little bit." We sensed no tension at all from Carly during the performance and did't quite get what Simon meant.

Watch video of Carly Smithson singing "Total Eclipse of the Heart":

If DialIdol is accurate, David Archuleta deservedly got knocked off of his No. 1 perch in the rankings for the first time for his rendition of Australian John Farnham's "You're the Voice." It was a decidely strange choice and one we're sure David didn't make for himself. We smell a rat here, either his father, or perhaps even the producers, as this was a song that David Foster has also recorded, and we'd bet our bottom dollar that Foster is salivating to add Archuleta to his stable of singers. Archuleta sang the up-tempo tune OK, but as Simon so correctly pointed out, it sounded like something you'd hear being sung at Disney World. And there definitely was no connection with the audience on this one. It's also noteworthy that even though others are using earpieces during the competition, it sticks out like a sore thumb on Archuleta, to the point of distracting attention away from his singing.

Randy said it was a strange song choice but proved that David can sing whatever he wanted. "It was still very nice. I don't know the song, but very nice." Paula, gushing over the kid whose head she'd like to pluck off and squeeze, said, "I think all of us were kind of trying to figure that out ... David you can sing the phone book and we'd fall in love with it." Simon, much more in tune with our feeling, said, "I'm going to be honest with you, and this is not going to make me very popular, I actually didn't like the performance at all. I thought it was actually reminiscent of a theme park performance ... It's one of those ghastly songs you sing when you've got like animated creatures with you and everyone joins in together. That's what it reminds me of. I don't think that is you at all, and I'd be amazed if you chose the song yourself because it's not you." Amen, brother.

Watch video of David Archuleta singing "You're the Voice":

The surprise of the evening was Kristy Lee Cook, not because the performance was great (though it was certainly decent and much better than her previous efforts), but because her song choice guaranteed her another week in the competition. When we saw the spoiler that said she would be singing Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA," we groaned. We groaned because we could already envision the flapping American flag on the screen behind her and, surprise! there it was as soon as she started. She also exhibited a passion for the first time as she sang. Why all she needed were the Bush twins backing her up on the vocals. It was sickening and brilliant all at once. Although Kristy Lee did prove that she can be a decent singer with the right song. So far, it's been limited to "Amazing Grace" and this one. But if she makes it to country week, she could shine.

Randy called it a great song choice and said that other than some little pitchy spots in the middle he thought it was a very nice performance. Paula called it a very poignant and respectful song and a very good choice, but added, "I've seen better performances from you (when?!!!), but your voice is sounding much stronger. Watch the pitch problems, but you're growing." Simon cannily said what we were all thinking, "You're best performance by a mile, I think. That was the most clever song choice I have heard in years ... Overall, a good performance and that's going to keep you in the competition."

Watch video of Kristy Lee Cook singing "God Bless the USA":

Up to this point, we were feeling a bit badly for Michael Johns, thinking that he had had his moment and it hadn't rated the "pimp" spot. That was until David Cook took the stage. This guy never fails to keep amazing us. His take on the Chris Cornell version of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" was brilliant. Sadly for Cornell, a lot better than his. When we saw the spoilers, we listened to the Cornell version and thought that it was funereal and even depressing. Whether it was the shortened length, the arrangement, Cook's voice or a combination of the three, David transformed it into something truly magical. It will definitely make the record books as one of the show's truly inspired "moments." Right up there with Clay's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and Fantasia's "Summertime." Who ever thought Cook could outdo his version of Lionel Richie's "Hello"? We can't wait to hear what's coming next, and literally can't wait to hear the full studio version of "Billie Jean."

Randy told David, "I think you're probably the most original, the most bold contestant we've ever had ... You might be the one to win the whole lot ... Molten hot." Paula, giving Cook a standing O, said "I'm blown away. I can't sit down. I've got to tell you how smart you are, how brave you are and how willing you are to stretch the boundaries. And you do it right to the edge without going over. I think you're brilliant and I think you can [win]." We held our breath until Simon said, "David, that was brave. It could have either been insane or amazing, and I have to tell you, it was amazing." Yea! Right on!

Watch video of the AMAZING David Cook singing "Billie Jean":

Top 3 2: David Cook, David Cook, David Cook, Michael Johns

Bottom 3: Ramiele Malubay, Jason Castro, Chikezie

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