AmIdol: Top 4

Autonomy returns to the Idol stage, kind of, tonight, as we abandon the work of narrowing artists to widen the breadth of options. And can I say … thank God! It didn’t seem like it could get worse after Andrew Lloyd Webber week, but that didn’t stop the AI producers from trying by bringing Neil Diamond aboard one week ago.

Today, the theme turns to rock and roll, or rather the influence of rock and roll. The four remaining contestants had a large song book to choose from — the 500 songs the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame deemed the most influential. Now, clearly, this week gives David Cook a significant advantage. But it also places on him a big bulls-eye … he must be the best. Let’s just praise the lord that Our Lady Peace is sure not to crack the top 500.

Straight from the TMZ sources, here are the song choices, as everybody goes for two:

David Archuleta: “Stand by Me” by Ben E. King and “Love Me Tender” by Elvis Presley, cover by Norah Jones.

David Cook: “Baby O’Reilly” by the Who and “Hungry Like the Wolf” by Duran Duran

Jason Castro: “Mr. Tambourine Man” by Bob Dylan and “I Shot the Sheriff” by Bob Marley, cover by Eric Clapton.

Syesha: “Proud Mary” by Tina Turner and “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke

My thoughts on the song choices: well, you have to start with a joke about how Mr. Dreads is going with Marley. How many times has he smoked weed to that joint? How clever of me. Anyway, I actually think the Dylan song could be Castro’s chance at staying, or it will be VotefortheWorst.com. You know Syesha was thankful Tina Turner was on there. If any of you were on the fence concerning David Archuleta’s manhood, you got your answer tonight — Syesha isn’t the only female left in this competition. A Norah Jones cover? I swear this is my last season if he wins.

Long live the Cookster. Thoughts on the performances, as they happen, after the jump.

Bryan: Jon, is there a conceivable situation in which one of the Davids goes home tomorrow? I think the more likely would be Cook if he really messes up, given that it’s his week, but even that is a stretch. Actually, I sort of think the performances are insignificant tonight — I don’t see Jason lasting even if he nails Dylan.

Jon: There is no way in hell either David is heading home, especially with those song choices — and props to little David for his, although he probably only knows “Stand By Me” because of Sean Kingston’s “Beautiful Girls.” Tonight it’s between Syesha and Jason, and I think I’d give Syesha the edge because she’s the only female left in the competition. And for pure melody, her song choices dance circles around Jason’s — so he’ll really need to convince us that reggae and poetry still belong on the pop charts. Otherwise, he’ll end up tomorrow night like his titular sheriff.

David Cook — “Hungry like the Wolf” by Duran Duran

Bryan: The young people closest to the stage know this song best from the creepy deodorant commercial, but Duran Duran had to be pretty pumped to find some real pop culture relevance in Cook. This song was pretty straight-arrow for Cook; it’s right in his wheelhouse. He didn’t show anything new, but he didn’t really have to, because he showed that he just looks familiar up there. Randy is right, though — after doing well with Neil Diamond last week and showing some vocal chops, he really didn’t with this song. It’s what a rocker would sound like, though, and that counts for something.

Jon: A few years back, CBS had an Idol knock-off show called Rock Star, where contestants competed to front ’80s band INXS (whose lead singer, Michael Hutchins, had died many years earlier). To me, David’s “Hungry” felt like an audition to front the reunion tour of Duran Duran. We’ve seen this before from Idol, when Chris Daughtry was offered the lead slot for Fuel and wisely chose a solo career; back then, I thought he made the wrong choice. But after tonight’s “Hungry,” I feel like David might be making the wrong choice to go solo as opposed to fronting an established band. He needs to provide that spark, that vocal capacity that he flaunted with “Billie Jean” and “Always Be My Baby” come round two.

Syesha — “Proud Mary” by Tina Turner

Bryan: This just in – Syesha is hot. As the last female in the competition, her breasts truly separate her from the competition. If she didn’t know she was hot six weeks ago, she surely does now: “Proud Mary” was the sexiest performance — deliberately — in the history of American Idol. The interesting thing about her version of this song was that she did two different versions of the song, the first half was sultry, the second half was fun and fast while still showcasing her voice. Overall, she did really pretty damn good. She continues to be the one to improve all the time, and while I don’t think she is, she deserves to be a contender.

Jon: My first gripe with this performance: in her lead-in clip, Syesha alluded to the fact that “Proud Mary” has been covered hundreds of times — completely sidestepping the fact that Ike and Tina Turner did the original cover of a Creedence Clearwater Revival song. (I know this ain’t a music history show…but on Rock & Roll Hall of Fame night, isn’t anyone on the FOX staff keeping tabs?) My second gripe aligns with Simon’s: Syesha did a second-rate Tina Turner. We saw Tina do exactly that at this year’s Grammies: start slow and then transform into a hip-shaking, arm-wailing soul machine. And even at 60 something, she did it better than Syesha did tonight. That’s my only problem with Syesha week to week: she’s still aping the stars, whether she sings Whitney or Mariah or Tina or Whitney again. I still don’t know who the hell Syesha truly is; even during her best performance — Andrew Lloyd Weber week — she admitted that she was played a part on stage.

Jason Castro — “I Shot the Sheriff” by Bob Marley

Bryan: If anything was clear in Jason’s performance, it was that he loves this song and has sang it before. He’s never seemed so excited, so comfortable in his own shoes. Now, my gripe with the performance is that “I Shot the Sheriff” is just not a great song for Idol. It has a similar problem to Cook’s, but even more pronounced: it asks nothing vocally. Jason has sidestepped vocal songs for weeks now, and I think he’s pretty afraid to step out of his element. The bad news is that the Bob Dylan choice is very similar, so Jason doesn’t have much room to improve. Also of note: the background singers were HORRIBLE in this song, which will give the conspiracy theorists out there reason to gripe.

Jon: God was that bad, like horrible. Visually, Jason threw us a curveball by coming out with his guitar and then never playing it. Vocally, he opted not to sing the chorus and instead whispered over the majority of Marley’s already-minute lyrics. And even physically, he stood in an awkward position the entire performance — prompting Paula to compliment how he “played to the crowd.” (Keep in mind she’s on more drugs than Marley ever was.) If tonight is Jason’s Battle of Two Bobs (Dylan to come), then Marley lost big time.

David Archuleta — “Stand by Me” by Ben E. King

Bryan: You have to give the contestants credit, because I can’t remember a season where the contestants understood themselves better than this season. We’re through four, and everyone did something right in their wheelhouse. “Stand by Me” now seems like it was written for Archuleta, who is good at songs that are: 1) slow, 2) vocally sizable, 3) able to please the tweenies in the audience. Everything was going perfect in this song for David until the end, where he was very thrown off, and he missed the last note. But the first 80% of this song was technically perfect, as it usually is. If you want versatility in your artist, Archuleta is not your guy. In a singing competition, he probably is.

Jon: Every week, it seems to me like David Archuleta turns in a less-than-stellar performance and ends up praised by all three critics. This week, I can’t knock the kid for his take on “Stand By Me”: it was rather perfect. The arrangement — true to Ben E. King’s original — was simple, the vocals were stunning and even his ill-advised namecheck of Sean Kingston’s “Beautiful Girls” wasn’t enough to distract me from a nice little ending. “Stand By Me” might just be the song choice of the night: it’s a ’60s classic that seems to have reappeared in every decade since — at very least in the 1980s (in the beloved River Phoenix film of the same name) and last summer (with the aforementioned Kingston). It’s hard to hit that many generations with one song choice, and David A. pulled it off seemlessly.

David Cook — “Baby O’Reilly” by The Who

Bryan: David billed this as the more original of the two for him, and that’s obviously true. I like that he allowed himself that first verse to show us that he can sing with anyone in the competition, and then blew it out with the refrain. It’s a style he’s done before this season, and if I had to guess, it’s how his first album is going to sound. The arrangement was a bit strange, I’ll say, but vocally this is who David Cook is. Whether he wins this competition or not, and I’m starting to doubt that he’s going to, he will be a star. Simon can be eloquent when he wants to be, and “Welcome back, David” was just enough.

Jon: I’ll second Bryan on the weird arrangement — especially right at the end, when David juked a largely instrumental section of the song and awkwardly dove into a performance-clinching high note. But this was much, much better than “Hungry Like the Wolf.” David manipulated the soft/loud dynamic that his favorite grunge bands popularized in the early nineties; and, despite missing a few higher notes pretty badly, he showed us the entirety of his vocal range in all of two minutes. And I love the subtle (and entirely unintended) juxtaposition of him singing a song that lambasts teenagers — when we all know his final competitor will be tiny David A.

Syesha — “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke

Bryan: Syesha tells us that the Civil Rights Movement was a pivotal time in history. God, I learn something new from this show every week. She then, of course, compared the Civil Rights Movement to the top 4. This is another song tonight that is geared for the person singing it, but I just didn’t love it because the song is pretty boring. Syesha, as the last girl left, has to use those big vocals to her advantage, and Randy is right, she was trying a bit hard on this one. But Jon, I ask you, if your problem is always that she’s trying to be the big divas, how do you feel when she takes a non-diva song and diva-fies it?

Jon: This, to answer your question, is the Syesha I prefer. Like during Andrew Lloyd Weber week, even like last week with Neil Diamond, she shines when she doesn’t sing above herself. “Change” was refreshing, powerful and moving — and I’ll be damned if Syesha didn’t hit millions of voters by crying and then presenting a mild Civil Rights report within the span of two minutes. Hell, I was ready to donate money. But I still need to see Syesha sing something completely unexpected if she sticks around next week; something non-diva, non-R&B. Like how David stole the show during Mariah week. That said, I’m almost positive she’ll get that chance.

Jason — “Mr. Tambourine Man” by Bob Dylan

Bryan: Jason hit this one on the head in his lead-in: folk rock is what he does, and “Mr. Tambourine” is one of the big ones. But WOW. Has anyone guaranteed themselves to go home more in one week than this? He didn’t even forget a few lyrics, he forgot more than an entire line. Say what you want about this season, but you can’t say that we see anything but the live version. And, in real time, Jason fucked up, and from that moment on, I stopped listening. It doesn’t matter. Fuck up on BOB MARLEY and then forget the lyrics in your next song? Get out of here, Castro.

Jon: There’s one lyric I know above all others from “Mr. Tambourine Man”: “In the jingle jangle morning/I’ll come following you.” That’s the one that Jason botched. So he messed up not only in forgetting a lyric, but losing one of the most memorable lines from Bob Dylan’s entire career. And while I think Simon and Randy laid the hate on a little thick this week, Jason deserved every word of it. I just can’t wait to see which Bob bomb he decides to reprise when he goes home tomorrow night.

David Archuleta — “Love Me Tender” by Elvis Presley, cover by Norah Jones.

Bryan: I was dredding having to listen to this, because technically, it’s a total cop-out. It says a lot about David Archuleta as a performer that he couldn’t find anything in the rock and roll HOF songbook to use — he had to use a cover by someone more like him — Norah Jones — to make it work. Cop out. I also don’t think I can evaluate Archuleta fairly, because I truly don’t like him at all, and that feeling gets worse every week. It’s a joke he’s going to win while singing 2 fast songs in 4 months. But he is going to win, because even when he’s boring, he’s hitting all the notes.

Jon: In two weeks, David Archuleta will be in this competition’s finale. During that show, he’ll have to reprise a few of his best performances from weeks past — and I think both “Love Me Tender” and “Stand By Me” should be considered. Both were almost flawless, and he truly did stand out above the competition for once during this show. You have no idea how much I — like Bryan — hate admitting that.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Bryan: Does anything really need to be said after a night as obvious as this? Jason is going home, and the judges perpetuate the Archuleta train. There is very little drama left in this competition, because you’re a fool if you don’t know what direction it’s going.

Jon: Not only is Jason Castro gone tomorrow night — he’s effectively made a case against himself for countless record execs and music producers. I don’t know how you’d even come close to molding him into a pop superstar, unless he goes the Jack Johnson route — but keep in mind that Jack Johnson is a phenomenal songwriter, not anything close to Idol alum material. So I’d predicting that Jason will be the worst four-place finisher in Idol history, a spot previously held by Chris Daughtry.

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