Usually, the semi-finals is my favorite Idol show of the year, as this is when the final three contestants really turn things up in order to ensure themselves a spot in the finals. This is the night when many contestants hit their high point, creating that "signature" moment for themselves that will be etched in Idol history. Remember Katharine McPhee's gorgeous version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow?" Semi-finals. Melinda Doolittle finally hitting her stride with a cover of Tina Turner's "Nutbush City Limits?" Ditto. Taylor Hicks ripping up "Try a Little Tenderness" when Paula picked it for him in the Judges' Choice round? If you've been saving up a song that's gonna blow the doors off the place, this is the night to unleash it.
This year? Not so much.
Syesha Mercado, David Cook, and David Archuleta all looked positively exhausted last night, and each one phoned in at least one of the three songs they were required to perform. Some might argue that well, how could they not, after a week that had them making whirlwind trips back to their hometowns, doing a shitload of local press while they were there, and then having to learn and/or re-arrange three songs on top of that? Everyone's voice was fried to a degree, most notably David Cook, who in my opinion turned out some of his weakest performances of the season. But this is the semi-finals, kids. The most important moment of your young careers. You'd better have something ready.
As I mentioned before, each contestant had to sing three songs this week-- one chosen by the judges, one chosen by the American Idol producers, and one of their own choice.
David Archuleta "And So it Goes" Paula Abdul made this selection for Boy Wonder, who chose a very spare, largely string arrangement to back him up on the Billy Joel classic. To his credit, Archuleta handled the tricky, difficult melody almost effortlessly, though it wasn't exactly the most forward-thinking choice of song for an emerging young pop artist. I thought Randy Jackon's assessment was right on-- that it would have been cool to see Archuleta do it at the piano, accompanying himself. A predictably solid effort from Archuleta.
Syesha Mercado "If I Ain't Got You" Syesha certainly dressed the part of a superstar diva in a gold floor length beaded gown for this performance. I was really surprised how well she handled the song. This is not an easy track and it's so readily identifiable with Alicia Keys-- the main problem with Randy Jackson's song choice for her. It gave Mercado a serious handicap going into her first minute forty-five onstage that night. Just getting through it with a couple of nice runs and melodic adjustments was a formidable feat, but it just didn't sizzle enough onstage to give her much help in overcoming her underdog status at this final stage the competition.
David Cook "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" Simon Cowell chose this for Cook, wanting something"different" for him as well as to give him the opportunity to re-arrange it, not to mention seeing how he'd handle such a challenging melody. The result was...meh. Cook's voice was exhausted enough, but this song drew even more attention to that fact, showing off every crack in his armor. It built to a nice conclusion but the verse was very pitchy. Cowell's choice was a bit of an odd one for Cook, or really any rocker that doesn't have the crystalline voice of a Freddie Mercury. I'd rather have heard something that enhances that throaty growl in his throat than something that unfortunately showed off its limitations.
David Archuleta "With You" "16 year old girls who like John Mayer will like this song."-- Pauly.
Boy Wonder went a younger, more modern R&B route with this song, and though it was pretty damn awkward hearing him sing lyrics like "my boo", Archuleta (and/or Stage Daddy) actually made a brilliant choice for himself. This kind of clean, sickeningly marketable radio-friendly pop that makes all the little girls scream is exactly the shit he's gonna make when he wins Idol and this was our sneak preview. Does this mean I enjoyed his performance? Not at all. This kind of shit makes me want to stick bamboo shoots up my fingernails while waterboarding a kitten. As Simon Cowell said "It was a little bit like a chihuahua trying to be a tiger." Well... yeah. This poor little Mormon twinkie is getting all this female attention and the fact that he feels nothing must be weirding him out!
Syesha Mercado "Fever" This may go down as one of the most brain-dead song choices in Idol history. I mean, how many smarter, less played-out songs are out there if Syesha wanted to do a more jazzy number? Does it show off her voice? No. Does it tell me what kind of record she's going to make ? Not really. Was it contemporary at all? Not in the least. This was too stagey, too cruise ship, too late-night-lounge at a fading Vegas hotel. This song bleeds "cabaret." And we all know how bad it is to be called "cabaret" on American Idol. And not only was she called "cabaret," but Simon called it "lame cabaret."
"I think you'll come to regret this" said Cowell, in his closing remarks. No shit.
David Cook "Dare You to Move" Cook picked a song by the San Diego band Switchfoot, which, evidently 5 people in the audience had heard of. It was an OK alt-rock song with a decent hook and Cook's treatment of it provided a fair forecast for what his record will sound like. Again, though, the theme emerging for Cook tonight is to be the wear and tear that is becoming really apparent in his voice. Pitchy and scratchy again.
David Archuleta "Longer" Snoooooooozefest! What is this, some awful wedding from 1983? On Boy Wonder's return to ballad-land, even he seemed to be phoning it in. I mean seriously, the producers picked this? WTF?
Syesha Mercado "Hit Me Up" What the fuck is this song? It has no melody... it keeps changing tempos... I'm getting a headache... Seriously, a Beyonce/Rhianna kind of thing isn't gonna work on her. With this song not working for her, that makes two out of three totally busto performances from Syesha this week. It looks like Ms. Mercado's ship has sailed. She hit her high point last week with "A Change is Gonna Come" and didn't even come close to hitting that mark again this week. Syesha needed a big-time surprise in order to keep herself in contention and have any hope of overcoming the Davids in the vote. Instead, she'll have to settle for this season's bronze medal. And hopefully, a Broadway show.
David Cook "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" This song always makes me think of one of cinematic history's true low points-- the animal crackers scene with Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler in Armageddon. So again, not any sort of personal favorite here. I thought the arrangement was a little contrived and overblown, but after Syesha's bomb-a-rama night, it was certainly enough to get him into the finals. Oh and look, it's Diane Warren in the audience... ya think that might have been why they picked it?
Contestants whom Dial Idol is definitively predicting to be in the finals: David Cook, David Archuleta.
Latest American Idol Alumni to release an album: Season 6 sixth-place finisher Phil Stacey.
Current Bodog odds on the remaining contestants:
David Cook 5-12
David Archuleta 19-10
Syesha Mercado 50-1
Odds of me freerolling on my bet with Otis by tonight at 10 p.m. PDT: Spectacular.