Spoilers for tonight's Beatles-themed "American Idol" coming up just as soon as I find out how easily I can retract this morning's column...
Boy, a lot to talk about with this one, huh? In aggregate, maybe the best "Idol" performance show in quite some time -- and certainly with this huge number of contestants -- with several really memorable performances. But there were also a few duds, and a few outright disasters -- one of them including the guy I just annointed as a mortal lock to win the thing.
Before getting into the song-by-song thing, I'll say this: for all of Nigel's boasting about what a coup it was to get the Lennon/McCartney catalog (which ignores the fact that at least one other Lennon/McCartney song, "Here, There and Everywhere," was sung by Clay in season two), Beatles songs aren't really singers' songs -- at least, not in the way we usually associate with "Idol." Paul was the only one of the four with above-average range, and so the songs depend either on harmonies (the early stuff) or on the band, or on the feeling that the performer brings to the song. So to impress in the "Idol" venue, the contestants either needed to find some kind of emotional hook, or they needed to change things up significantly. The best performances of the night did one of those two things.
Syesha Mercado, "Got To Get You Into My Life": Nigel told EW that the contestants got a list of only 25 Beatles songs to choose from, so I can't complain too much about song choice, but this wasn't a good call by Syesha. Her strength is her power, and there's nowhere for her to force in the belty notes, and so what we get is a very monotonous, somewhat pageant-y, competent but forgettable rendition. She wasn't the worst of the night, but she's in trouble, I think.
Chikezie, "She's A Woman": I could pick nits with the vocals (he began to sound strained late in the song), but I dug the arrangement way too much to care. Just a very smart reinterpretation of the song. Had he kept it on the Soggy Bottom Boys tip the whole way, I still would have enjoyed it, but once Chikezie's voice dropped down into its normal register and the band kicked in, I had an enormous smile on my face throughout. Chikezie! Who the hell knew he had this in him? The Roger Daltrey-esque stuttering alone might inspire me to vote for him if I actually voted. He's still cannon fodder, but the kind I'd like to see stick around for a while.
Ramiele Malubay, "In My Life": Like Syesha, competent but dull. It's a very beautiful song, but a lot of that comes from the original arrangement (the "Idol" band's version sounded very lounge act circa 1978) and from the wistfulness in John Lennon's voice that Ramiele couldn't quite find. I appreciate that she has a strong voice but doesn't feel the need to glory note her way through more subtle songs, but she brought nothing interesting to the table.
Jason Castro, "If I Fell": Not as good as some of the performances to follow -- very Sensitive Dreadlock Man, and often verging on goofball -- but pleasant, and the vocals were quite pretty in spots. His fanbase is going to eat that one up.
Carly Smithson, "Come Together": Automatically gets points for not making the "Hold you in his armchair" lyric mistake that everybody makes (particularly in light of what would happen at the end of the show), and was vastly more confident than we've seen previously. Her semi-finals performances, while showcasing a good vocal instrument, featured practically Albert Brooks-ian levels of flop sweat, as if you could see Carly overthinking every note and worrying that she's going to blow her second and final chance at this. Whatever nerves she had before were gone, and even though her "changing it up" was essentially the Aerosmith version, she knows what she's doing on stage, particularly in the way she brought things down after the power notes for "Over me." Very, very nice.
David Cook, "Eleanor Rigby": So if Cook could make a heinous song like "Hello" sound so good, what can he do with one of the best songs Paul McCartney ever wrote? I could do without the smirking on such a melancholy track -- Cook can't help but seem overly pleased with himself at all times -- but beyond that, I thought this was a terrific update of the song, a way to make it sound like a modern rock tune without in any way undermining its original intent. I just wish he had more than the usual 90 seconds so he could have worked in a second chorus at the very top of the song.
(Paula, meanwhile, has gotten the "Let's downplay the awesome might of Archuleta" memo with her "There's more than one horse in this race" comment.)
Brooke White, "Let It Be": Remember what I said above about either changing it up or finding an emotional hook? Brooke, as you would expect her to do, takes the latter route, doing a very simple version of the song and working herself into tears doing so. Wonderful. I still worry about her on some of the other themes, but this was just as much in her wheelhouse as the Carly Simon and Carole King songs she's done earlier in the season.
David Hernandez, "I Saw Her Standing There": Oh, and I was feeling so good about the show after those three performances (four, really, as Castro wasn't bad), and then David has to go and spoil the party. Again, I don't want to get on these people too much given the 25 song list, but the guy has taken a college course on The Beatles and this is the song he chooses? The one that's so simplistic that Tiffany covered it? Chikezie before him and Amanda after him show that it's possible to find an interesting approach to the group's more primitive tunes, but David's approach is to throw a lot of things at the wall and see what sticks: starting on the riser behind the judges, running around (and losing his breath doing so), throwing in runs, etc. No. Just no. (And, again, how does a guy who took a college course on the band mess up the lyrics? It's "way beyond compare," not "far beyond compare.") The first out-and-out mess of the evening.
Amanda Overmyer, "You Can't Do That": I know some people worried that this theme would kill Amanda, but keep in mind that the bands that influenced The Beatles' early stuff are the same kind of raunchy, honky-tonk R&B groups that influence whatever the hell it is Amanda does when she's on stage. Even when rebounding from the "Wayward Son" disaster with last week's Joan Jett number, Amanda kinda looked like she wanted to go home, but here she's enjoying herself, scatting and throwing in "Oh, Child"s and generally seeming not like a run of the mill bar band singer, but someone not out of place on this stage, on this show. That is why I still wanted her around even after the Kansas massacre.
Michael Johns, "Across the Universe": Like Brooke, he's obviously touched to be singing this song (which he implied in the clip package has personal meaning for him), and he shows greater passion and control of his instrument than he did in any of his lazy semi-finals performances. That said, I'm sort of in the middle between Pauler and the male judges on this one: I liked the emotion and sincerity, but I also think he's capable of being more memorable than this (albeit not by getting all glory note-y the way Randy obviously wants him to be). He still has a few more weeks before the obvious cannon fodder is gone to turn things around, but he has yet to kick ass the way he seemed so capable of in Hollywood week.
Kristy Lee Cook, "Eight Days a Week": Paula, shockingly cogent on this one, nailed it: it was like Kristy Lee heard all of Simon's pleading for her to be more country and chose the most literal translation of that, with the fiddles and the ripped jeans and the sparkly top and the yodeling and the twang in her voice that was never really there before tonight. It was like a parody of a Kellie Pickler performance. And, once again, I have no idea about the 13 songs that were available but weren't chosen, but The Beatles did a lot of songs that were either straight country or easily capable of being countrified, and this wasn't one of them -- at least, not that way.
David Archuleta, "We Can Work It Out": Ye gods! From the most inevitable winner in the show's history to complete catastrophe in the space of 90 seconds. It was almost like the producers had heard all the comments about how everybody else was competing for second, pulled young David aside and told him to screw up as many lyrics as possible. When it happened the first time, I winced almost as much as David did, but for it to happen three times? You want to talk about flop sweat, rabbits in headlights, etc. -- that was David by the end of that performance. In previous weeks, he seemed like he'd been training his entire life for a moment like this; here, he looked like he would give up everything to be anywhere but on that stage, botching the words and bouncing around awkwardly to the Stevie version of the song.
Best of the night: I'm almost tempted to make it a four-way tie between Chikezie, Carly, David Cook and Brooke. Gun to my head, I guess I take Chikezie just for the surprise factor of it, but I dug all four a lot.
Worst of the night: Davids Hernandez and Archuleta were pretty terrible, as was Kristy Lee.
In trouble: As always, it's better on "Idol" to be bad than to be mediocre. If you're mediocre, people forget to vote for you; if you're bad, your fans mobilize to save you. Keeping that in mind -- as well as the previously-unstoppable Archuleta juggernaut fanbase -- I'd say Syesha and Ramiele have just as much to worry about as Hernandez and Kristy Lee, if not more. One of those four is going home, and if you ask me to pick which one, I'd say Syesha. Going first in a two-hour show and being dull doing it can be the kiss of death.
What did everybody else think?