Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"Idol" Nears End With Penultimate Week. Are We Theeeeeere Yet?

It's around about this time every year on "American Idol" that the three contestants left standing often show signs of fatigue, both vocal and psychological, and/or performing stagnation. It's no wonder, given how many weeks they've been going full steam as others have dropped by the wayside, and the unlikelihood that any of them have any truly new tricks to pull out of their bag. But I think this is the first year that I, too, am finding myself feeling serious "Idol" fatigue - possibly because I'm almost unhealthily invested in one of the contestants and therefore much more closely monitoring the draining effects of the show.

Perhaps for the same reason, this is also the first year I'm finding myself increasingly frustrated with "AI"'s format, which has changed since the first season, and not for the better. What happened to the days when the performance nights at this stage of the competition were 90 minutes long, giving the contestants a little more room to do their two or three songs without chopping them down beyond recognition? And why at this point, when the top three have most likely taxed almost every vocal chord and used every ounce of reserve energy they possess, send them "home for a day," where they're expected to meet and greet, field crowds and perform several songs in addition to the three songs they have to learn, arrange, rehearse, record (for the studio versions), and perform for the next show and whatever awful group song and Ford pimpmercial are on for the results show? The strain was showing in all of the top three tonight - especially, I'm sorry to say, my personal favorite, David Cook, though he managed to impress me anyway.

But above all, why must the show be so damn scripted? This, I think, has gotten worse, both over the lifetime of the show and over the course of this particular season. Even without the Paula "I thought you sang twice!" debacle of a few weeks ago, TPTB's gunning for a double-D finale has gone from transparent to naked (as in avert-your-eyes-from-embarrassment naked). The judges are the most obvious sign of the show's agenda. In one corner, Randy Jackson for little David. In the other, Simon Cowell for big David. In no one's corner: Paula, whose main task tonight appears to have been to push poor Syesha off the "Idol" bus - with a helping hand from Simon. Almost equally obvious, to my mind, is that the TPTB have switched from David A to David C as their favored winner. I was never sure of this before, but the song choices tonight, together with the judges' feedback, confirmed it. This is the week that the top three each perform one song picked by one of the judges, one song picked by the producers, and one song of their own choice. Personally? I didn't like any of the song choices, including the contestants'. But the assignment of the judges' and producers' songs was certainly eyebrow-raising. Guess who got the best "showcase" songs? Guess who got the "auto-pilot" songs? Guess who got the most forgettable song of the night? Yep.

Under these inauspicious circumstances, the kids did as well as they could. There were some very good, even sublime moments. But there was also a whole lot of blah, a whole lot of BS from the judges, and too many wonky notes from my David. Sigh.


DAVID ARCHULETA went first, fourth, and seventh.

Paula's choice: Billy Joel, "And So it Goes."
David's choice: Chris Brown, "With You"
Producers' choice: Dan Fogelberg, "Longer"

I really like this kid's voice, and his tone rang as pure and true as always. His breathing sounded labored, however, and he's gone back to closing his eyes more than half the time. And the songs all sort of ran together, despite being very different songs. The Billy Joel sounded pretty, but was more of the same old, same old. "With You," his attempt at something more contemporary, didn't make him sound any cooler or hipper, and in terms of dance moves, say he's no Chris Brown would be an understatement. He did look like he was having a bit more fun, I'll give him that. But it didn't transfer over to me. Randy's one useful comment of the night pointed out the incongruity of hearing words like "my boo" out of little Archie's mouth. As if to compensate for that, the last song was a total snoozer, though that wasn't Archie's fault; indeed, the fact the producers chose that for him is what makes me think he has indeed been dethoned as the "chosen one" in favor of Cook.

SYESHA MERCADO went second, fifth, and eighth.

Randy's choice: Alicia Keys, "If I Ain't Got You"
Syesha's choice: Peggy Lee, "Fever"
Producers' choice: Gia Farrell, "Hit Me Up"

Vocally, much better than last week: more controlled, less pitchy, and less shrieky. But on her first song she went back to sounding like an understudy for Alicia Keys - solid, not distinctive - while on her second, her vampy theatrical schtick started to feel a little shopworn, or maybe just overworked. And what was with that chair act? Oddly, the song that may be her downfall was also the most forgettable of the three - that awful producers' choice. I'd never heard "Hit Me Up" before, and I don't care to hear it ever again, though I don't know if I'd even recognize it if I did. Drearily uninspired pap, probably unsalvageable, so probably not Syesha's fault that it was her weakest performance of the night (though still not bad). To complete the sandbagging, we have Paula - Paula! the nice judge! - basically telling her she isn't making the finale. I also laughed when Randy earlier, meaning to praise her, said something like "that's why you're here at #3!" Uh, yeah, Randy. Could you make it more obvious? Looks like Paula isn't the only one who reads ahead in the script.

Poor Syesha. As Jason Castro might have told you, the "Idol" bus stops for no man - or woman, either, no matter how beautiful or talented. You did look gorgeous tonight, girl.

DAVID COOK went third, sixth, and last.

Simon's choice: Roberta Flack, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" (originally written by someone else, I forget who)
David's choice: Switchfoot, "Dare You to Move"
Producers' choice: Aerosmith, "I Don't Wanna Miss a Thing" (written by Diane Warren), aka "that damn ARMAGEDDON song"

The "Face" song: another potential snoozer, which I give full credit to DC for making seem alive and current. While I wasn't quite as over the moon about it as Simon apparently was (now who's "smug," Simon?), after a slightly wavering start it smoothed out and became quite lyrically beautiful and emotionally engaging. Unfortunately, I think it took a lot out of him vocally, because his second song, already suffering from overchopping, was all over the place pitchwise, and got tonelessly shouty in the chorus. Fortunately. whether by sheer force of will or something else, he got it back together - just barely - for that damn "Armageddon" song. It's no coincidence, I'm sure, the producers gave him such a crowd-pleaser to end the show with, and although I didn't care for the arrangement, I admired the way he pushed through his obvious fatigue and gave it his all. It wasn't a barn-burner, but it was valiant and vocally solid...apart from the last note, which started out off-key and which he couldn't seem to sustain like I know he can.

I maintain that DC is musically light years ahead of the others and has long since earned his place in the finale. But vocally, he struggled a bit tonight, and Simon's pimping was pretty over the top. Paula, apart from her "see you in the finals!" (all the more obnoxious coming after her dismissal of Syesha), actually gave better comments than Simon, esp. w/r/t the unfortunate truncating of "Dare You to Move." These performances really need to be allowed more than a minute and a half apiece. Particularly for Cook, who approaches his more organically than the others.

BEST/WORST OF THE NIGHT: I actually think they all came out about the same overall, whatever the judges would like us to believe. Cook's "Face" song was the most artistically mature performance (surprise!) and probably the standout of the night, but it was, alas, balanced out by his subpar Switchfoot song. The other two were more consistent across the board, but less interesting.

GOING HOME: I think Syesha's number is up, at least if TPTB have anything to say about it (which, let's face it, they will).

Here's hoping the final two manage to get some quality REST time between now and next week. They've certainly earned it, and their performances will only be the better for it.


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