To audition for American Idol, you need to be between 16 and 29 years old. That explains why we’ve had a past winner age 17 — Season 6’s Jordan Sparks — as well as one pushing thirty — Taylor Hicks from the year before. This season, the spread of ages across contestants is wide: the youngest by three years is David Archuleta, born in 1990; the oldest, by more than four years, is Michael Johns, who will turn 30 later this year. So FOX decided to turn tonight into “Birth Year” night, where each contestant will sing an anthem from his or her year of birth. To my knowledge, this is the first time that AmIdol has tried this theme — and if tonight’s song selections are any indication, it will be the last.
That said, the beauty of an open night like this one is that the theme doesn’t play into anyone’s strength. It’s not Bon Jovi night, for example, where David Cook would shine; nor is it Mariah Carey night (coming soon), where most of the remaining women will gain an edge over the men. So click below for a note-by-note recap of tonight’s talent, as well as final predictions for who’s screwed come Wednesday night.
Ramiele Malubay (1987): “Alone,” Heart
Should’ve Sang: “With or Without You,” U2
So the night starts out with what could have been a bang: Ramiele sings the biggest and ballsiest choice of the night, Heart’s “Alone.” Randy and Paula immediately alluded to Ramiele being sick, which is the most-used Idol euphemism for, umm, missing badly. Simon was more optimistic about Ramiele’s chances going forward, saying that the performance was more than enough to bring her through to next week. But considering that she not only performed first — the same position as last week’s axe victim, Amanda O. — and also turned in a mediocre rendition, I’m not so sure.
Jason Castro (1987): “Fragile,” Sting
Should’ve Sang: “Touch of Grey,” The Grateful Dead
Jason made one of the more interesting choices tonight, picking a song with very little discernable melody and singing it barely above a whisper. In doing so week after week, he’s making a case for himself as a performer as opposed to a singer. But as Simon has said year after year, this is a singing competition and nothing else. So at some point, Jason will have to make us trust his vocals as much as we do his street-corner performing chops. And a side note to Jason: if you’re gonna play the guitar, practice the guitar. You aren’t Chikezie on harmonica.
Syesha Mercado (1987): “If I Were Your Woman,” Stephanie Mills
Should’ve Sang: “If I Were Your Woman,” Stephanie Mills
Syesha looks good by comparison this week. The first performer of the night, Ramiele, attempted a huge buzz ballad and fell well short. Then Jason Castro muttered his way through a breathy Sting song. So Syesha’s vocals, regardless of their actual size, sound huge in the context of tonight’s first three performances. That’s not to take anything away from her; I actually think she did a fantastic job with a lesser-known song when she could have done mediocre with one of Whitney Houston’s major singles from 1987. She needed a week like this, particularly on a show with a history of voting off extremely talented black women far before they come to bloom. (Mandisa, anyone? Okay, better yet: Jen Hudson.)
Chikezie (1985): “If Only For One Night,” Luther Vandross
Should’ve Sang: “Dancing in the Street,” Mick Jagger/David Bowie
Unfortunately, Chikezie decided this week to sing something he loves as opposed to something he’s good at. Particularly in the context of tonight — when pretty much all of the ten performances can be classified as ballads — Chikezie had the chance to differentiate himself with something uptempo, which he’s proved the ability to do over the last two weeks. (I still stand by “Dancing in the Street” as the ultimate Chikezie choice.) Instead, he not only picks a ballad but goes so far as to pick tonight’s most forgettable ballad. I wouldn’t say he’s in trouble come tomorrow night, but he’ll be more than troubled when he looks back on the tapes of tonight’s performance.
Brooke White (1983): “Every Breath You Take,” The Police
Should’ve Sang: “Every Breath You Take,” The Police
Randy (and then Simon) made the right call on this one: Brooke was doing just fine until the band kicked in. Sure, she suffered through a tiny start-restart glitch at the top of her performance, but everything about her smoky vocals and her upper-octave piano playing was perfect. Then, when the string section joined the party, Brooke started hitting blue notes on the piano and missing the melody just enough to notice. And she devoted eight bars of her performance — a good twenty seconds out of ninety — to the song’s most boring section. So I guess she gets points for showing us her absolute best hand (at the start) and then her worst (at the end) within the same minute and a half. But otherwise, she might want to keep Ricky Minor sidelined as much as possible.
Michael Johns (1978): “Rock You/We Are the Champions,” Queen
Should’ve Sang: “We Are the Champions,” Queen
In lieu of just focusing on one side of Queen’s “We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions,” Michael took a shot at both — which is my only gripe with his performance. (“We Will Rock You” is more chant than song; it’s almost impossible to sound authentic while singing it.) But despite my criticism, Michael rocked through both “Rock You” and “Champions” without a hitch. He shied away from the highest segment of “Champions” (“We’ll keep on fighting…”), but you can’t fault the guy for ambition when he manages to cram the best parts of two songs into ninety seconds. Combine his strong performance with high praise from all three judges and he’s more than guaranteed a Top 9 spot.
Carly Smithson (1983): “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” Bonnie Tyler
Should’ve Sang: “Come on Eileen,” Dexy’s Midnight Runners
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Carly might be in trouble tomorrow night. Remember last week — when she rounded out the bottom three after a totally decent rendition of “Blackbird?” This week, she turns in a rather bland version of “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” makes a bad joke during the judge’s comments, and gets nailed for pitch and personality in turn by Randy and Simon. I don’t know what’s worse: that Carly — one of this season’s early frontrunners, if not its earliest — might be in hot water way before the Top 5, or that her swan song might be Bonnie friggin’ Tyler.
David Archuleta (1990): “You’re the Voice,” David Foster/Jeff Pescetto
Should’ve Sang: “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Sinead O’Connor
For the guy who I assume is pulling down the most popular votes per week, David Archuleta has made a whole slue of mistakes. Just two weeks ago, he forgot multiple lyrics to the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out.” Now, tonight, he not only chooses a virtually unknown song (by an Aussie popster?) but also starts out in a register far below where he’s comfortable. I’m with Simon here, who absolutely hated the performance and said he expected animated creatures to jut out mid-song. I don’t disagree; I think Archuleta chose the kind of lame, inspirational fluff that Idol contestants usually don’t have to sing until the final two weeks, when they perform the dreaded “first single.” But David holds the entirety of teeny bopper America in his palm right now, so he’s more than likely to stick around long enough to miss Prom.
Kristy Lee Cook (1984): “God Bless the USA,” Lee Greenwood
Should’ve Sang: “Time After Time,” Cyndi Lauper
Coming in to tonight, I thought this was the worst song choice of the night; turns out it was the best. (As Simon said: the “most clever choice in years.”) It’s almost impossible not to sound good with a song as emblematic as “God Bless,” and it’s almost unpatriotic to diss it as a judge. (In a weird turn of events, Simon and Randy liked it while Paula wasn’t so sure.) Kristy might just skate by another week, and she owes it all to picking a song that rivals the National Anthem for pure gusto. And while I’m not totally sold that it was a great lyric as opposed to a genius choice, I will compliment Kristy on her rapid transformation from the girl who sings country music to the girl who sings music for her country.
David Cook (1982): “Billie Jean,” Michael Jackson (as per Chris Cornell)
Should’ve Sang: “Eye of the Tiger,” Survivor
Bryan once commented how the Academy has a habit of awarding beautiful women who end up ugly onscreen (Charlize Theron in Monster, Marion Cotillard in La Vie). With David tonight, AmIdol shows its own tendency to award contestants for turning pop classics into almost unrecognizable acoustic dirges. I’m not as sold on Cook’s version of “Billie Jean” as Paula, Randy and Simon were — mostly because I’ve heard the Chris Cornell version before, so the shock of hearing it for the first time is far removed from me as a critic. But I will concede that David hit an absolutely brilliant high note during the chorus of the song, held it for what seemed like forever, and then raised it up to impress me even more. After tonight, he might be the new top David in this competition.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Tonight was an interesting night. The competition’s top male and female — Davy Archuleta and Carly Smithson — turned in less-than-decent performances: complete camp from the former and a performance that won’t sound good until last call from the latter. Meanwhile, this year’s beacons of hopelessness — Kristy Lee Cook and Michael Johns — made good with the kind of performances you hear five minutes before kickoff (“God Bless”) and then five minutes into the fourth quarter (“We Will Rock You”). That said, none of those four gave the night’s best or worst performances. The best goes to David Cook, for an anonymous rendering of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” And the worst goes to Chikezie, for an almost-too-familiar take on Luther Vandross’ “If Only For One Night.” Still, I can’t shy away from my theory that the first performer of the night suffers twofold if he or she isn’t memorable; for that reason, I think Ramiele might be sent packing tomorrow night. Joining her in the bottom three will be Carly Smithson and either Chikezie or Syesha; against my own desires, I’m leaning towards Syesha. But either way, all ten of these folks get to tour come summer…so that’s good, right?