Comin' to America...n Idol: Neil Diamond! Speed dating version!
Over on the "American Idol" forums at Television Without Pity, a site that's the equivalent of crack for analytically minded television viewers, there's a lively conspiracy-minded discussion thread called "The Grassy Knoll" (the term has something to do with the JFK assassination, I believe) that turns on the premise that "American Idol" is completely rigged by the producers. The idea is that each season the producers designate a favorite to win, "The Chosen One" (aka TCO), and do their damnedest to push TCO and to manipulate the public into voting for him/her and to weed out the competitors in an order that makes for maximum drama (read: ratings and media buzz!). Have you ever noticed that disclaimer that flashes on the screen at the very end of the show? Probably not, but in a nutshell, it basically says that the producers have every right to do what they want with the show, votes or no votes. According to the "knollers," this year's TCO initially seemed to be David Archuleta, but the TPTB have also been putting a strong second-half push behind David Cook such that he has become either "TCRU" (the chosen runner-up) or, just possibly, the new TCO. (Some knollers even believe that Cook was TCO all along, with Archuleta acting merely as a decoy.)
Until tonight, I was partly on the knoll to the extent that I can see the producers clearly have their favorites every year and have shown it in their favoritism, from the editing of the clips of the contestants that get aired (making some look better or smarter or goofier or more conceited than others) to such subtle but powerful factors as styling, lighting, and even performance order. Hardcore knollers, however, have gone so far as to opine that the manipulation extends to coaching the judges in advance how to critique the contestants, and possibly even lying about the actual voting results to achieve the outcome they want. I've always been a little skeptical that the show is that canned. However, after Paula's weird flub tonight with respect to Jason Castro, I'm not sure. Either she was high as a kite (not unlikely: she was especially incoherent, even for her, throughout the night), or she accidentally read preordained comments for a second performance that hadn't happened yet. Or both. You could see how flummoxed Seacrest was, and the incident would have been hilarious if it hadn't also been rather disturbing in its implications. As for the other judges, their comments - especially Randy's - telegraphed extreme pimping of both Davids for a David-David finale, and extreme railroading of Jason, to the point that even though I'm a Cookhead and not a Castrophile, I got irritated. Way to show show much of this show is scripted, TPTB!
But tonight was supposed to be about Neil Diamond, right? I guess. I don't think that aspect of it was at all well managed, either. We didn't get to see much of Neil, who seemed like a nice, courtly gentleman but totally softballed all the contestants in his comments, and the performances - particularly the first round - felt way too short. Maybe his songs don't lend themselves to such ruthless cutting; regardless, the whole thing felt very rushed and discombobulated, and I think the performances suffered as a result. Moreover, ALL THE CONTESTANTS HAD SERIOUS PITCH ISSUES. Yes, every single one of them, and being a rather pitch-sensitive listener, I found it kind of painful. A couple managed to transcend this. Others did not.
Ok, the rundown:
JASON CASTRO got a raw deal tonight, more so than he deserved. TPTB either really, REALLY want him gone or are trying reverse psychology to motivate his fans to vote. Setting that aside, I thought his first song, "Forever in Blue Jeans," started out well - he sounded surprisingly good in his lower register, and less breathy than usual - but about midway through I got bored. Even though it was only a minute and a half long. That may be more the song than him, though I can't help thinking a better performer would have been able to sell it. As for his second song, "September Morn," it sounded lounge-y and amateurish, and much more out of tune. Maybe at that point he figured TPTB are going to get him booted whatever it takes, so why even bother anymore? Can't say I blame him if so.
DAVID COOK proved once again he's by far the smartest and most mature contestant left in the game, wisely choosing lesser known and stylistically contrasting ND songs. I was happy to see a return of the guitar - both electric and acoustic! - though less happy at the emo-ish hair and terrible wardrobe choices. The first number, "I'm Alive," was so short it almost didn't register, but I liked how he brought the grit to his voice without going out of tune. Then came the love ballad-y "All I Really Need Is You," which on first viewing sounded so "pitchy" to me that I winced the whole way through it and then winced further through the judges' fulsome praise. But afterwards I watched it again. And again. And again. And I now think this may be one of my favorite DC performances to date, off-key notes and bad hair and all. He went from the raspy edge of "I'm Alive" to a melting wistfulness, and put his soul into the song without turning it into a total sapfest. "AIRNIY" was in my opinion better than "Always Be My Baby," better than "Music of the Night," and at least as good as "Little Sparrow," though YMMV. As for his pitch issues, they make me think of a quote by the wife of the famous pianist Artur Rubinstein: that she would need a basket to catch all of the wrong notes from each of his performances. The point is that the wrong notes didn't matter, because his artistry transcended them. Presumptuous as it may be to compare David Cook to Rubinstein, I have a similar feeling about him. His performances are never technically perfect, but they more than make up for it in musical and emotional expressiveness.
BROOKE WHITE pulled it together - somewhat - after last week's near meltdown, and still managed to deliver an absolutely meh-tastic pair of performances. She looked like she was strenuously trying to "have fun" with "I'm a Believer," and only succeeded in scaring me a little with her forced cheeriness. She was more comfortable with "I Am, I Said" - being at the piano may have helped - yet for the umpteenth time, I got nuthin' emotionally from her. She was smiling again, when for pete's sake, this is a song about deep loneliness! First "Jolene," now this...She's the exact opposite of David Cook: where he puts soul (and perhaps a little too much angst) into formerly upbeat songs, she doesn't seem to know the meaning of either soul or angst, and shows not a trace of it in her singing. And she still squeaks when she jumps more than four notes. (Also, honey, I know Neil told you to change the lyrics, but I'm willing to bet you the sandwich you desperately need to eat that the rents in LA are not lower than those in Arizona.)
DAVID ARCHULETA, after a brief flirtation with "Cook-ing" his song last week, went back to Archieland, predictably chose the two most sung, most known, most obvious songs in the ND canon, and poured Archie syrup all over them. Dear boy, as a Red Sox fan I must tell you that you do not sing "Sweet Caroline" that way. Ever. And it's just disturbing hearing the words "touching me, touching you" coming from your mouth, since you still look all of twelve years old. As for "Coming to America," the smooth glaze was less obviously incongruous. However, the glaze also cracked (literally: maybe DaArch hasn't hit puberty yet after all). There were definitely more pitch problems than usual, which detracts from his appeal more than it does the other contestants'. Still, I'm sure the iffy notes will put hardly a dent in his fan base. Loved Simon's snark on the song choice - totally reminiscent of his double-edged compliment to Kristy Lee Cook for picking "God Bless the U.S.A."
SYESHA MERCADO gets no respect, other than the very pointed hints from the judges that she should hie herself to Broadway, stat. She looked lovely and, aside from occasional pitch issues, sang well tonight. She always does; it's putting a distinctive mark on the song that's the problem. I find her more appealing when she goes uptempo - she put a little R&Bish groove into her second song, "Thank the Lord for the Nighttime," which I quite enjoyed. By contrast, the first song, "Hello Again," did nothing for me, mainly because she spent so much of it showing off her high notes, which, as I've mentioned before, are the least interesting part of her vocals. They're not bad; they're just generic. She needs songs with more swing and bounce. I hope she gets a chance at them, because in this final five, she's slowly becoming my second favorite, though a very distant one. I still don't like her personality (she doesn't seem very bright, at least the way she presents herself on the show), but I do think that she's got far more skills and polish than at least two of her remaining competitors.
BEST OF THE NIGHT: While, it was a weird night as I said, hands down, my favorite, David Cook.
WORST: On balance, Brooke was worse than Jason - by a hair. Jason at least shows a smidgen more personality and emotion when he sings.
BOTTOM 2: Syesha has had fanbase problems, but Dial Idol is showing her at the top, even above David Cook. Maybe she inherited a lot of Carly's fans. So I say Jason and Brooke, which is as it should be.
GOING HOME: Please let it be Brooke. I've officially given up on her ever wowing me.