It probably seemed like such a gift from the "American Idol" producers. After two weeks of singing Stevie Wonder and 1950s songs, the show finally let the remaining 10 finalists pick any song from the 21st century. No more looking through the song catalog trying to figure out which song from the oldies station sounds less dated. Just turn on MTV or VH1, find something you like, get an arrangement down, and go for it. Easy.
The problem is that this week the contestants weren't being compared to songs most viewers only hear at weddings and bar mitzvahs. It was a lot easier to judge the singers in comparison to what actually makes it onto the radio, and the sad fact is that if these 10 were as good as the performers who made the songs famous, they probably wouldn't need "American Idol" to secure a record deal in the first place.
It also meant the judges could be a lot more critical, and indeed they were. Most contestants got criticism or lukewarm praise, and even Positive Paula Abdul was a little crankier than normal. To show how bad it was, Chris Daughtry, who could do no wrong in the first two months of the competition, actually got a bit of negative feedback.
Lisa Tucker, 16, Anaheim, Calif.: It's the same drill every week for Tucker. She comes out, she sings a song pretty well, the judges criticize her, and she can't quite figure out why. They loved her at the auditions, they loved her in Hollywood, they loved her in the semifinals … and now, for whatever reason, they suddenly don't. This week she went with Kelly Clarkson's "Because of You," and it was the best vocal she's done since the finals began. But did the judges say "that's great, you're almost as good as a former 'Idol' winner right now?" Not quite, even if Clarkson's no longer such a friend of the program. Grade: BThe judges: "It's a tough choice to do something like that … when you take a song that's so popular, you've got to take a twist on the song and make it your own." – Paula Abdul. Stay or go: The judge's capriciousness should be a preview for the fickleness Tucker can expect from high-school boys when she gets voted off and becomes a normal student again. That may happen this week; she and Bucky Covington are in the most danger.
Kellie Pickler, 19, Albemarle, N.C.: To the surprise of nobody, Pickler picked a country song, "Suds in the Bucket" by Sara Evans. It was a mess the whole way, as Pickler had a hard time getting her tempo straight and never seemed to get into the performance. It probably won't matter. The judges criticized it, Pickler said "I'm sorry!" and the whole audience went "Awwwww." It's early enough in the competition where her likeability factor can overcome a subpar week or two. Grade: CThe judges: "The song wasn't exciting enough for your voice. I think maybe you're better than that." – Randy JacksonStay or go: It was one of the worst three vocals on the night, but Pickler's probably safe anyway. She's just so darned cute.
Ace Young, 25, Denver, Colo.: Young sang Train's "Drops of Jupiter" and it was another plain Jane performance. About the only drama was when he revealed — in tune with the lyrics — his own permanent scar on his chest. Paula asked where he got it, which drew concerned comments from the other judges, but as it turns out it's just an old basketball injury — nothing that could get the controversial "Idol" judge mired in another scandal for inappropriate dialogue with a male contestant. Grade: C+The judges: "Once again, completely the wrong song for you and you didn't sing it well." – Randy JacksonStay or go: Young just seems to like living dangerously. He was in the bottom three two weeks ago, avoided the dishonor last week, and may be heading back there again this time around.
Taylor Hicks, 29, Birmingham, Ala.: Give Hicks credit; he was one of the few finalists to try something new this week. The geriatric pop star hopeful sang "Trouble" by Ray LaMontagne, a song that forced him to stand and sing in a stationary position rather than racing across the stage like a maniac as he does every other week. The vocals were nice, but the effort it required to remain planted on the stage was telling; he sang the whole song looking like he was constipated.Grade: BThe judges: "I quite liked the song. I thought it was an excellent vocal. Only one slight problem is the styling – it's very Clay Aiken." – Simon Cowell. Stay or go: The new, sedate version of Taylor Hicks is probably safe for another week.
Mandisa, 29, Antioch, Tenn.: It was, as Simon criticized, an "indulgent" song choice for the one-named wonder. She sang a gospel tune, "Wanna Praise You" by Mary Mary, and while she sang it well, the image was definitely church choir rather than pop stardom. It won't cost her anything this week, but she probably doesn't want to make a habit of it. Grade: B-The judges: "All I know is there's a new religion, and 40 million people are now going to the church of Mandisa." – Paula Abdul.Stay or go: Unless everyone who votes is voting for Mandisa, Paula's comments (per usual) are a bit of a stretch. Still, she's an early favorite, and will be back next week.
Chris Daughtry, 26, McLeansville, N.C.: God bless Simon Cowell. A week after saluting Daughtry for never compromising, he criticized the show's designated rocker for … not compromising. Simon said that Chris should start changing things up, which isn't advice he's likely to take. But he did have a point; Creed's "What If" may be a little much for some of the viewing audience. Still, it's obvious the producers are hoping he sticks around. In an hour-long show that barely featured time for even the judge's comments, Ryan Seacrest gave Chris a two-minute interview to acknowledge that yes, the version of "Walk The Line" he sang last week was the "Live" version, and yes, that's one of his favorite bands. Take that, Internet critics! Grade: BThe judges: "I thought it was very indulgent. There's a line you can't cross. Creed would not be caught dead on this show. You can't keep doing this week after week." – Simon Cowell.
Stay or go: It was the first week where Daughtry may find himself on the wrong side of the demographic line, but he has enough fans that it won't matter. Plus, he's really good.
Katharine McPhee, 21, Los Angeles: If there's such a thing as a judge's pet, McPhee is rapidly earning that honor among the women — for two weeks in a row, she's been the darling of the trinity. All three judges like her version of "The Voice Within" by Christina Aguilera, despite the fact that while the vocals were strong, the overall performance wasn't all that extraordinary. Maybe they've caught the McPheever, which is rapidly gaining on "Pick Pickler" for the show's most overused contestant catchphrase. Grade: A-The judges: "It was almost — almost — as good as Christina's." – Simon CowellStay or go: McPhee doesn't have much to worry about.
Bucky Covington, 28, Rockingham, N.C. : Covington definitely picked the right song, going with Tim McGraw's "Real Good Man." It allowed him to dress the part of a country singer, and maximize his vocal attributes. The problem was the same issue Covington faces every week; his diction is terrible and he's very hard to understand. This performance was worse than usual, as the music seemed to drown him out.Grade: C-The judges: "Definitely the right kind of song for you. You're definitely at home in your country suit." – Randy Jackson. Stay or go: Covington may be heading home this week — it wasn't a great effort. He'll almost certainly at least find himself in the bottom three.
Paris Bennett, 17, Fayetteville, Ga.: Bennett sang "Work It Out" by Beyoncé, because she said it gave her a chance to look and act like a 17-year-old. It worked out as far as that went — she definitely looked and sounded a lot younger than she has in recent weeks. Of course, the problem is that by sounding younger, she allowed herself to be compared to Beyoncé, and she still has a ways to go to reach that level. But it was a nice performance anyway, and Bennett is one of the few likely to get a legitimate record deal somewhere regardless of how she fares in this competition. Grade: B+The judges: "That was fearless. It was the bomb" - Randy Jackson.Stay or go: Bennett is probably safe.
Elliott Yamin, 27, Richmond, Va.: In case it hasn't become obvious by now, the judges would REALLY REALLY like America to keep Yamin around despite the fact that he looks nothing close to what Hollywood would cast as an American Idol, is struggling to reveal a compelling personality, and dances like an awkward seventh-grader at the Teen Club Spring Fling. He sang Gavin DeGraw's "I Don't Want to Be," in a less rock ’n’ roll version of the one that Bo Bice performed so impressively last year. Yamin did well, but the judges' praises were a little over the top. Grade: B+ The judges: "I loved the arrangement, and I loved that you made it your own. You are one funky white boy." – Paula Abdul.Stay or go: All the intangibles are stacking up in Yamin's favor; he sang last, he sang well, and the judges loved him. It wouldn't be the shock of the century if he wound up in the bottom three anyway, but he's a good bet to be back next week.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.