American Idol: Top 5

The seventh season of American Idol — praised back in January and still today as the most talented crop of Idol vocalists yet — has also been plagued by the show’s lowest ratings to date. Granted, low ratings for Idol means anything under 30 million viewers. But there still has to be a scapegoat for the best singers also being the franchise’s least watched.

And call me crazy, but I’d point to this year’s musical themes. Tonight, for example, we’ll be treated to two rounds of Neil Diamond from each contestant, in lieu of countless better artist choices. (That includes Madonna, who drops Hard Candy today and could have guested like Mariah did to plug E=MC2 two weeks ago).

Diamond — who’s just as much a punchline as he is a prolific songwriter — will stop by to give advice to our final five for what’s sure to be another interesting night. Below are song choices, after the jump are comments and predictions.

Brooke White: “I Am…I Said” and “I’m A Believer”
Jason Castro: “Forever in Blue Jeans” and “September Morn”
David Archuleta: “Sweet Caroline” and “America”
Syesha Mercado: “Thank the Lord for the Night Time” and “Hello Again”
David Cook: “I’m Alive” and “All I Really Need Is You”

JASON CASTRO : “Forever In Blue Jeans”
Last week, Jason Castro sang a sappy love song sans guitar. This week, he comes back acoustic — and on top of that, his first song choice is a perfect allusion to his spirit. “Forever” is about simplicity, and the sandal-wearing, dreadlock-rocking Castro is more than exemplary of exactly that. And while Jason is neither the best singer nor performer left in this competition — he actually might be weakest in both of those categories — he’ll stay high and dry if the weekly themes allow him to exploit his blue-eyed, beachside brand of soul.

DAVID COOK : “I’m Alive”
I’m going to end up ranting about tonight’s show, most likely because Idol execs decided to give each competitor two minute-long songs instead of one lengthy performance. I would have rather seen the latter, and David Cook shows why: his take on “I’m Alive,” while good and everything, was over in two seconds — meaning that Cook himself couldn’t work in a show-stopping high note or even any guitar gymnastics. That said, he made Neil Diamond the performer proud, while these other chumps are trying their best to make Neil Diamond the songwriter proud.

BROOKE WHITE: “I’m A Believer”
Like Castro, Brooke White is also reeling off of her worst week in this competition. And if “I’m A Believer” is any indication, she didn’t quite learn her lesson. Everything about the performance was off: Brooke started way below her comfortable register and stayed there the entire time; she turned a pop classic — and tonight’s most recognizable song — into an awkward country workout; and all the while she was rocking an outfit too lesbian for Lilith Fair. Last week, Simon explained that Brooke avoided the bottom two by looking “human.” And while we’d love an Idol winner who seems down to earth, we also want one who we’re convinced can sing better than us. Brooke needs to make a more convincing argument for point #2.

DAVID ARCHULETA: “Sweet Caroline”
When Neil Diamond first released “Sweet Caroline,” it was a pretty love song about a girl. Decades later, no one can deny what it’s become: a big bar classic, perfect to be played right after last call. With that in mind, Archuleta is the worst choice to sing the song. He’s all about innocence, inspiration and camp, and all three of those things combined to revert “Sweet Caroline” back into its original form: flaccid, forgettable and far from anthemic. He didn’t even sing the “oh-oh-ohs.”

At this point, it seems like Syesha lives in the bottom three each results show. So she’ll need to pull off a miracle tonight to stay in the competition, and I don’t think “Hello Again” even came close. Sure, she looked and sounded good, but at the end of it all I thought to myself: hey, I would have rather heard Neil Diamond sing that song. So she better bring down the house with “Thank the Lord for the Night Time,” or else it’ll be goodnight for her come tomorrow.

MIDSHOW NOTE: Paula is so…fucked up. She was told to rate the contestants after round one and commenced a criticism of “both” of Jason Castro’s songs — while at the time he had only sang one. So either her comments are scripted or her best friends are prescriptions. I’m guessing, well…both. Thoughts on round two to come.

JASON CASTRO: “September Morn”
There’s always something a little off about Jason Castro, and I think I might have figured out what it is: he doesn’t try to adapt his performances into anything that would work on modern radio. His two best weeks — “Hallelujah” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” both covers — came when he sang songs already reworked for radio play, and now he’s stuck in a rut of turning in week after week of uninspired material. All three judges, Paula included, were disappointed by Castro tonight, and he was far less charming or likeable than usual. This could be his swan song.

DAVID COOK: All I Really Need Is You
Paula said it best: “I feel like I’m already looking at the American Idol.” In round one, David’s just-good “I’m Alive” was the best of the bunch. In round two, he brings the fire with “All I Really Need” — and let’s be honest, we’re kidding ourselves if we think the majority of American will even remember the first half of tonight’s show. (Paula sure won’t.) So Cook is smart in a couple of ways: firstly, he reworked an unknown Neil Diamond song for the 21st century; secondly, he pocketed his better performance for his second go-round. I feel like I’m looking at this year’s Idol too.

First, it was chilling how much Brooke sounded like Stevie Nicks on the first third of that song. And it was impressive how much better she did than on “I’m A Believer.” Still, “I Am” wasn’t great: it was pitchy when she went into her upper register, rushed at the end and messy around the transitions. But doing better than in round one earned her enough praise that she just might skid by into the final four.

Looking at tonight’s song selections, I thought David Archuleta had it wrapped up with his song picks alone — “Sweet Caroline” and “America” are perhaps the two most recognizable Neil Diamond tracks outside of “Cherry, Cherry,” but he really didn’t deliver on either one. “Sweet Caroline,” as previously mentioned, was amateurish. And “America” was absolute camp, complete with Davy’s voice cracking and him warbling around multiple lower-register runs. How all three judges praised him remains a mystery to me — but notice that Simon complimented only the song choice, saying nothing nice about David’s vocals. At this point, I’m convinced that our judges are being coached to prime a Cook vs. Archuleta finale — thereby prompting higher ratings and countless inevitable The Battle of Two Davids headlines. But little David just wasn’t good tonight, and that’s a fact.

SYESHA MERCADO: “Thank the Lord for the Night Time”
There’s something to be said about how attractive Syesha is. This week, she let her hair down and donned two gorgeous dresses in just as many songs, and I was distracted enough to downplay her severe pitch problems throughout this performance. In the judge’s comments, Randy pigeonholed Syesha once again for the Broadway stage, Paula made no sense and Simon repeated that she’s a great actress who sings well. And then he predicted she’d go home, which more or less guarantees that she’ll go home. Unforunate, I’ll miss those dresses.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Simon called tonight the “strangest show we’ve ever had.” I can’t disagree, and I contend that watching the end-of-the-show ten-second reminder clips would have been just as beneficial as watching the entire hour. In sixty minutes, we got ten rushed performances from our final five, only one or two of which I still remember. Paula misjudged her judging comments, Randy went goo-goo-ga-ga over Baby Archuleta, and Simon more or less made up America’s mind by saying that Syesha might be in hot water. So she’s my pick for tomorrow’s axe victim, though Brooke White and Jason Castro (especially Castro) deserve to be ousted instead.


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