Spoilers for "American Idol" coming up just as soon as I buy some condiments...
I feel like I should start this one off with a big disclaimer. There are few assignments in my professional life I've ever dreaded more than sitting through an entire hour of Mariah Carey covers. I respond to Carey music the same way I imagine a dad in the mid-'50s responded to rock 'n roll: all the songs sound the same to me, all the songs sound like noise, and all of them represent the ruination of popular music as I know it. The emphasis on vocal runs, the power notes solely for the sake of them, etc... Mariah may be vocally gifted, but in her oeuvre you can find nearly everything that sets my teeth on edge with pop music in general and "American Idol" in particular.
That said, the night wasn't quite as agonizing as I feared, if only because there was one performance I actually liked (David Cook). The rest ranged from competent but annoying and dull (Archie, Kristy Lee) to safe and forgettable (Brooke), with only a few splashes of the anticipated horror (Carly, Syesha).
Still, my overwhelming hatred of the catalog being used made it hard to concentrate too closely on the performances. I mean, I think Kristy Lee was passable, but that may just be because my mind was replaying Manning-to-Tyree as a defense mechanism at the time. I can't guarantee that I have anything insightful to say about anybody here, but I'll give it a try.
David Archuleta, "When You Believe": It's the part he was born to play, baby! Earnest balladry, sprinkled with references to faith and prayer, eyes closed for nearly all of it as David focused on both the notes and the inspirational meaning of the lyrics -- it's the same performance he gives every week, more or less. Wake me when he's won the title.
Carly Smithson, "Without You": As you would expect, Carly and Syesha are the only two contestants on the night to try to tackle the Mariah-ness of their songs head on. Carly's problem is two-fold: first, while I admire the restraint of the first half of the song, the 90-second window isn't long enough for the slow build to the notes she really wants to sing; and second, she continues to look like she just took a football in the groin(*) whenever she hits said notes.
((*) "Barney's movie had heart, but 'Football in the Groin' had a football in the groin.")
Syesha Mercado, "Vanishing": And here was the performance where I wanted to jab an ice pick into my brain, repeatedly. I think Syesha showed off relatively impressive power and range -- not quite top of the "Idol" diva heap (Tamyra, La Toya, Melinda), but on that second level (Vonzell, Trenyce) -- but she did it in the service of an arrangement that seemed to be nothing but vocal runs. Have I mentioned how much I hate frakking runs?
Brooke White, "Hero": A part of me wishes Brooke had been a shocking boot around top 10 or top 9, because the longer her tenure lasts, the more I want to go back and reassess the earlier performances I liked so much. Was her magnificent near-breakdown during "Let It Be" just the sign of a performer tapping into the power of a classic ballad, or was it just the sign of someone who will cry at a deodorant commercial? Was her stripped-down "Love Is A Battlefield" the mark of a skilled musician who (like David Cook) understood how to adapt an unlikely song to her strengths, or that of a nervous performer trying desperately to hide all of her weaknesses? I love the raspy tone of Brooke's voice, and if they put her in a studio with some good songwriters, I might actually consider buying a song or three, but she's just a one-octave nervous wreck at this point.
Kristy Lee Cook, "Forever": Again, I can not remember a single thing about this performance, save that, at the time, it seemed like another example of the gradual resurgence for our resident horse-selling, cage-fighting android. After seeming like cannon fodder forever, I would not at all be surprised to see her as the last woman standing, maybe even in the final 3 with the two Davids.
David Cook, "Always Be My Baby": Like Blake last year, David has a very strong producing instinct. He understands what's going to work with his style, and how to adapt any song from any theme to fit that. Unlike Blake, he's got a killer voice. His style isn't exactly my taste, veering too far towards the Nickelback/Daughtry end of the alt-rock spectrum, but he feels like one of the most radio-ready contestants the show's ever had. You could release this -- or his "Hello," or "Billie Jean" -- right now with almost no tweaking from what he did on stage. (There was a bum note near the end, but that's something you can solve with a few takes in the studio.) For 90 seconds there, I didn't hate the music of Mariah. That takes a lot.
Jason Castro, "I Don't Want to Cry": Jason and Brooke have been paired throughout the contest as our "singer-songwriters" (though I have no idea if either one can write a song, even one as awful as "Flying Without Wings"). Tonight, both tried to escape the Mariah trap by doing stripped-down, unchallenging arrangements, but only Jason really succeeded, finding a way to seem confident and in control even as he was singing within a four or five-note range throughout.
Best of the night: David Cook. No question. Too good for this show, really.
In danger: Carly's a lock for the bottom three, and this could be the week her luck finally runs out. I expect Syesha to join her. What I'm damned curious to see is whether the ol' Archuleta Inevitability is so mighty as to overcome the season-long curse of the lead-off spot. By going first, by giving the same performance he always gives, and by getting good but not great praise from the judges, could Archie wind up on the seal tomorrow night, just long enough for Seacrest to admonish us about the importance of voting for our favorites? I don't expect him to be there, but if ever there was a week for it to happen, this seems like it.
What did everybody else think?