It's schizoid final three night on "American Idol," when it's hard to figure out who's most determined to sabotage the finalists: Clive Davis, the judges or themselves. Two sensational performances in the middle surrounded by a lot of very iffy material. In order...
Elliott Yamin, "Open Arms": First of all, Clive, "Open Arms" is "a rock song" the same way "Man I Feel Like a Woman" is a country song. The choice does Elliott no favors, not just because Clay sang it back in the day, but because the verses invoke the worst aspects of his vibratto, and because he winds up shouting through the entire chorus. The person who goes first in this round has gone home every single year (you can look it up), and Elliott really needed to kick ass on at least two, if not all three numbers to overcome that curse, the Soul Patrol and the producers' obvious affection for Kat. Not a good start, and things didn't get much better for the guy.
Katharine McPhee, "I Believe I Can Fly": When I first heard the rumor that Clive picked this, I thought, "Why, Clive, why would you do this to Katharine and to me?" I thought for sure it was going to indulge all of Kat's worst instincts about belting her way into a range she can't handle, but for most of the song, she was on top of the music. I was pleasantly surprised. Then came that bizarre arrangement of the chorus, which was sung almost entirely by the backup singers (probably because Kat couldn't go that high), and then she started to get sharp on the big notes at the end. Still, she made passable lemonade out of a big honking lemon.
Taylor Hicks, "Dancing in the Dark": All of the "conversations" between Clive and the contestants felt fake, but this was the only one where you could practically spot the cue cards on the edge of the frame. I'm biased because of my love of Bruuuuuuuuce, but I could not get into this at all. Taylor has always had problems understanding the lyrics of songs (he thought "Levon" was about "family values"), and he was way too peppy for a song about a lonely guy in a dead-end life who just wants to go out and get laid. Plus, doing the finger holster gesture on the "this gun's for hire" line was unforgivable. Not a bad choice of Paula as the Courteney Cox stand-in, but one great big pile of meh overall.
Elliott Yamin, "What You Won't Do For Love": After Simon telling him to show more confidence after the first song, Elliott overdoes it, to the point where he needs a neon sign behind him reading, "Hey! See how comfortable I am! See! Can you look? You're not looking!" This song should be in his wheelhouse, but he gets drowned out by the band, and his voice loses the soulful tone it usually has on this kind of material. (It was back for the next song.) Strike two.
Katharine McPhee, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow": Now that, ladies and germs, was a Moment. Simple, intimate, emotional, no unnecessary embellishments, the a cappella opening... perfect in just about every way. So brilliant that it oughta catapult Kat into next week, despite iffy performances at the start and finish of the show. And if she does make it to the finals, her creepy stage mom needs to strap Kat into a chair, clip her eyelids open "Clockwork Orange"-style and force her to watch this performance over and over and over until she gets it into her thick, perfectly coiffed skull that this is the style that works for her, not all the runs and glory-noting.
Taylor Hicks, "You Are So Beautiful": Nearly as good at Katharine, except for that awful "woooooo!" bridge in the middle that completely broke the mood Taylor had created up until then. (And you'll note how abruptly he was able to shift gears back into Sad Taylor.) Where he struggled to connect with the Springsteen song, Taylor completely nailed the emotions of this one (aside, again, from the "wooooo!"). I loved how parts of it were almost whispered, and this is the first time he's managed to be interesting while standing still at the mic. More stuff like this and "Something" and less of the pointless dancing, please.
Elliott Yamin, "I Believe to My Soul": And now the tone of Elliott's voice is back, but I don't know that the song (or, at least, the arrangement) was interesting enough to allow him to show off the way he needed to. On the other hand, Simon's sincere goodbye to him may fire up the Yaminions (or whatever they're calling themselves) enough to push him past Kat. After Chris went home, I think I've given up on predictions.
Katharine McPhee, "I Ain't Got Nothing But the Blues": I liked the idea of this (upbeat and brassy after two ballads) and the beginning was quite good (other than too much smiling), but somewhere in the middle it turned into a complete mess: too many runs and that pain-inducing falsetto.
Taylor Hicks, "Try a Little Tenderness": Now, this should have been a home run for him, and it wasn't. There may never be a more perfect song for Taylor than this, with the quiet, emotional beginning and the completely manic ending. He got the first part right, but like Kat, went off the rails about halfway through (during that bizarre '70s guitar portion). I don't know if he was off the beat or just trying for some kind of weird syncopation, but he completely lost the flow of the song and the interplay with the horns, and it wound up not manic or passionate enough at the end. Really, it just made me want to pop in my "Committments" soundtrack to listen to Andrew Strong do it.
Should go home: Elliott. Nobody had a perfect night, but Katharine and Taylor were amazing on at least one song, and he never got above average on any of them.
Will go home: Again, I have no idea. I think the fervor of the Soul Patrol and the greatness of that middle song will carry Taylor through, but it's a toss-up between the other two. Are the Yaminions stirred to action by Simon's comment? Is Katharine so hated for not going home last week that she goes home when she doesn't deserve to? Does the song order hurt her?
Really, I don't know, but at this point, what I want is a Kat/Taylor final, because as they've shown in the past ("Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" and "Something") and as they showed tonight, they're capable of greatness. And Elliott hasn't really been great since "Moody's Mood for Love" in the semis.