With just one week to go until the “American Idol” season finale, Ryan Seacrest made it clear that it’s anybody’s competition to win. Each contestant was reportedly within a million votes of each other a week ago, so it wouldn’t take much to make a difference.
The judges gave everyone both compliments and criticism Tuesday night, but by the end of the hour it was clear who they were hoping for. They’ve talked about a David Archuleta-David Cook final for weeks, and if Syesha Mercado crashes the party, it won’t be because Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell tried to sway the jury on her behalf.
Each contestant sang three songs, one they chose, one chosen by the judges, and one the producers chose. Not surprisingly, the judges liked their picks the best and the contestants’ picks the worst. But Mercado got the worst of the feedback, with even Paula gently questioning the song she chose for herself and the one the producers picked for her.
Both Archuleta and Cook got kinder commentary from the peanut gallery, which could prove instrumental in a race this close. If nothing else, Randy told both Davids that they could sing the phone book, so if Verizon or AT&T have anything to say about it, they’ll be the final two.
In case viewers hadn’t made up their minds, Ryan had the storylines all ready when Tuesday’s episode began. “A high school student, an actress and a bartender” he called the trio. But a more accurate labeling at this point would reflect the strengths that have gotten them this far, and each proved true to form this week.
David Cook isn’t a threat to cover himself with ink and front a death metal band, nor does he come across as a future trasher of hotel rooms. But in “Idol” parlance, he’s a rock star, and he used his time onstage wisely this week to keep his momentum going.
Simon made him sing “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” by Roberta Flack. He followed that up with “Dare You to Move” by Switchfoot, and the producers picked “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” by Aerosmith to close the show. All three allowed Cook to do what he does best — sing an unpredictable song conventionally for 30 seconds or so, and then perform the time-honored “Idol” cliché by making it his own.
Not surprisingly, Simon was his biggest fan. “This may sound a little bit biased, but I thought it was one of your best performances,” he said after the Roberta Flack number. “This is what makes you brilliant, because you take risks and are original.” He echoed that at show’s end after Cook’s Aerosmith cover, saying, “One of these great songs of all time, and I have to tell you, David Cook wins the night.”
Even though nobody was crazy about his song selection on the Switchfoot number, Cook got the biggest raves of the night. He’s the finalist most ready to both record a hit single and perform it onstage, and he probably sealed his spot in the finals here.
David Archuleta has been the judges’ favorite all season, and every week he gets raves for the quality of his voice. He’s not a great stage presence, and his ever-present smile is the extent of his effective engagement with the audience most nights. But he can hit the notes he has to, and he’s shown the power to sing both ballads and rock songs.
It wasn’t a great week for him as far as song selection goes. Paula told Archuleta to sing Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes,” and though the song sounded fine, the audience had no idea what to do with it — even the girls at the front of the stage didn’t wave their arms back and forth. Paula loved it anyway, calling it, “A pure and stunning performance. Tonight I felt you were a storyteller.”
“With You” by Chris Brown was neither pure nor stunning, and Archuleta would have been better off picking another ballad or something else more in his wheelhouse. Simon called it “a little bit like a Chihuahua trying to be a tiger, insomuch as it’s not really you.”
The producers’ pick was “Longer” by Dan Fogelberg, which apparently brings back bad childhood memories for the judges, because all three hated the pick. But they also gave him credit for singing it well, and given that Archuleta hasn’t been in danger of being voted off all season, that trio of performances is probably good enough to keep him around.
Syesha Mercado’s voice isn’t as technically proficient as either of the Davids, but she’s the most comfortable moving around onstage. All three of her songs showed off her abilities as an entertainer, but the judges were more concerned about her voice than her moves.
Of course, she got good reviews for “If I Ain’t Got You” by Alicia Keys because Randy picked it. He even offered the vote of confidence, justifying the choice by saying, “I know that she’s young, hot, unbelievably talented, in charge … and I think this is the kind of record she could make and be successful with.” He didn’t skimp on the praise afterward either. “You did an amazing job on it. I’m so happy that you are peaking at the right time in this competition.”
But for her choice, she picked “Fever” by Peggy Lee and many, many, many others. It was a great pick to audition for a nightclub, and she even managed to use a chair as a prop without looking like she was working in a strip club. However, it’s not the most challenging vocal in the world, and it’s a song that’s hard to make work as a signature performance because so many people have covered it.
The producers didn’t do her any favors either when they picked “Hit Me Up,” by Gia Farrell, from “Happy Feet.” It was supposed to challenge her, but instead it just allowed her to use her strength as a performer without extending her voice. Even Paula had something negative to say, noting that “as much as I liked it, I don’t know if it was the type of song that defines you as an artist …. I don’t know that it will be enough to get into the finals of ‘American Idol.’”
Mercado has dodged more eliminations than any finalist in “Idol” history, so she’s no stranger to danger. The judges all seemed to think she’d be the unlucky singer sent home this week, and if the voters pick the singer they’d be most likely to download on iTunes, they’re probably right. If it comes down to who they’d rather see onstage, she still has a fighting chance at making the finale.