This was Mariah Carey week for the "Idol" contestants, as the record-setting pop star served as the guest mentor. In a related news story, Carey has a new album out, and as the show has mentioned perhaps a million times in its seven-year history, she and Randy Jackson have worked together quite a bit over their careers.
"I say this is make-or-break for Randy's career tonight," Simon Cowell joked at the start of Tuesday's broadcast.
That would seem to be bad news not only for Randy, but also for the seven remaining finalists. "American Idol" contestants are almost always mocked when they try to sing Carey songs, since her vocal range is somewhere around five octaves and the typical "Idol" hopeful's is, well, not.
For the three men remaining, it had to be a particularly daunting task to find a Carey song that wouldn't make them sound ridiculous. But their efforts paid off handsomely. Because each came up with an arrangement that was unique, none sounded like a poor version of the original. The women, meanwhile, tended to struggle, and it wouldn't be a shock if three of the four remaining wind up among the lowest vote-getters this week.
As Simon said at the end of the evening, "The guys completely won the night."
This week's star was David Cook performing "Always Be My Baby." That's particularly impressive given what he has to deal with offstage, as his older brother reportedly is suffering from cancer and was scheduled to be in the audience this week, accompanied by nurses, to watch him perform. Cook didn't mention his brother, but he appeared more emotional than usual and the judges' comments brought him to tears.
Despite the challenges, Cook again managed to take an unexpected song and make it his own, even getting a standing ovation from Randy. "I think more than almost anyone on this show you're ready to make an album right now," he said.
Simon agreed. "It was like coming out of karaoke hell into a breath of fresh air. It was original, it was daring and it stood out. This is the sign of a great potential artist, someone who takes risks."
Until Cook's performance, it was David Archuleta who was the big hit as far as the judges were concerned. He started the show by singing "When You Believe," and as Simon said, he set the bar.
Randy agreed, and it put his mind at ease. "I was a little worried about tonight because of boys singing girls' songs and all that stuff … but if you can sing, you can sing anything and you can sing! That was the bomb!"
Jason Castro didn't get quite as much love, but he still managed a 66.7 percent approval rating for his version of "I Don't Want to Cry." Sung in the traditional Castro minimalist style, it had Randy dismissively comparing it to a "weird beach luau."
But Paula Abdul wanted to be invited to that party, saying, "I'd love to be at that luau, listening all the time." And Simon agreed, though it was more faint praise in the "making the song his own" style as opposed to commenting on the vocals themselves, which were just ordinary.
Not ladies' night The women struggled to do justice to the Mariah Carey canon. For two contestants, it was because the temptation to go with a traditional arrangement came up short to the original, while the two who tried something different had just limited success.
If this competition were like "Survivor," Kristy Lee Cook would be the best contestant ever. She has made a career over the past few weeks of floating under the radar, not doing much that is memorable but always performing just well enough to stick around.
She took what Mariah admitted was an obscure song in "Forever" and made it into something resembling a country song. Apart from Paula, who was her usual buoyant self, Cook got grudging praise from the judges. Randy said, "I didn't think that was amazing, but you definitely stepped it up towards the end," and Simon added, "You managed what you could. It just wasn't great."
Brooke White also tried something a little different after missing her sister's wedding to hang out with Mariah Carey and practice singing "Hero."
She performed it as a somber song — Paula charitably called it the "unplugged version" — in fitting with her vocal stylings. When she kept it simple, she sounded fine, but every time she tried to hit tough notes, she faltered. And the piano playing wasn't great either.
"Every ounce of you is totally authentic. It's who you are," Paula gushed.
But Simon was less enthused. "I don't think you had much choice but to do what you did. Having said that, it was a bit like ordering a hamburger and only getting the bun." As usual, the negativity left White teary eyed, and it's possible that she missed the wedding just to spend an extra few days hanging out with Ryan Seacrest and the rest of the "Idol" gang before being voted off.
Also in danger is Syesha Mercado, who as usual took on a difficult task in performing "Vanishing." Throughout the competition, Mercado has not been shy about picking difficult songs, and she hit the big notes at the end this week.
"I think once again technically it was very good indeed," Simon said. "That having said, at this stage of the competition I'm not sure I would choose a song that not many people know about. It was a risk." Those kinds of risks have left her in trouble in recent weeks, and she may once again find herself among the bottom three.
Carly Smithson may be the most talented vocalist among the women, but it's still been weeks since she's put together a commanding performance onstage, and she's rarely looked like she's having fun out there. Singing "Without You," she did a much better job of looking happy to be singing, but the judges dinged her for not trusting herself enough. Simon thought she was overthinking everything, and Randy wanted her to be more confident in her lower ranges.
Paula, however, was a fan. "I liked that you showed some vocal restraint in the chorus, and then kind of swelled," she said. "You made it your own." On a night when her entire gender struggled, that praise was as good as any of the women could hope to get.