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‘Idol’ wannabes rock judges with Queen tunes

Kellie Pickler is bold enough to sing a truncated ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’
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Seriously, enough is enough. Whoever decides the theme for "American Idol" needs to go on the Internet and download music from bands that have been popular within the last two decades.

Already this season, the show has featured Barry Manilow and Kenny Rogers. This week, the signature act was Queen, a band that not only offered the late, great Freddie Mercury as the lead singer, but also a catalog of songs with enough chord changes and vocal stretches to make for a night of challenging performances.

Watching and listening to the remaining members of Queen interact with the "Idol" finalists didn't do anything to ease those fears. The band looked as if they were wondering how they had arrived at a stage in their career where they were sharing the stage with a bunch of people whose first exposure to their music was in "Wayne's World." And now those same Queen newbies were trying to switch around the band's arrangements to make them easier to sing. Could the potential new fan exposure really be worth the risk that Kellie Pickler would butcher "Bohemian Rhapsody," or Taylor Hicks would have a seizure in the middle of "Crazy Little Thing called Love"?

Those factors made this week look like a potential trainwreck, but it was a surprisingly entertaining effort. The contestants and the judges each deserve credit for that. The eight remaining finalists did a nice job with their song selections (even if Hicks and Katharine McPhee were unsure enough that they changed their mind late in the week), and kept their composure — despite the stylists' decision to make everyone look like Queen by giving them eye shadow and glam rock outfits. Thankfully, the judges seemed to grade on a curve.

Everyone had pitch problems, because every song had a ton of chord changes that made it hard to keep up, but Randy and Paula mentioned the flaws briefly and then moved on. It was a rare act of kindness, since Mercury was one of the premier rock vocalists in history and none of the eight "Idol" finalists are close to meeting that standard.

Bucky Covington, 28, Rockingham, N.C. : Covington dealt with the "Queen" issue by taking "Fat Bottomed Girls" and countrifying it. It worked out as well as could be expected. He was still drowned out by the music, as he is every week, but he looked comfortable out there. He received praise from the two judges who would not have to help produce his album if he wins. Grade: B-The judges: "You stayed true to who you are, and you made 'Fat Bottomed Girls' a country song." – Paula Abdul. Stay or go: Who the heck knows? Covington's defied the odds thus far, and he sang pretty well. Maybe he can keep the magic going another week. But it doesn't help his chances that he was the first singer of the night and that most of the finalists sang well.

Ace Young, 25, Denver, Colo.:  Since the Queen catalog isn't full of songs suitable for Young to cover, he decided to go with "We Will Rock You" and throw himself on the mercy of the sports fans who chant the lyrics at hockey games. The effort was there, but his vocals were a hodgepodge of styles that made the whole thing sound like a mess. He began with a bit of a British accent, changed the arrangement in the middle, and appeared to stumble on some of the words. Though he closed with a flourish, it was far from his best effort. Grade: C-The judges: "It was 'We Will Rock You' gently. I really really really really hated that. I'm sorry." – Simon Cowell. Stay or go: Based on this week alone, Young is probably gone. But he clearly has a dedicated fan base, since he wasn't even among the bottom three last week. He'll need another dedicated effort from those supporters to stick around.

Kellie Pickler, 19, Albemarle, N.C.:  Pickler decided to go with her 90-second version of the legendary "Bohemian Rhapsody." Anyone out there rolling their eyes and cringing at the thought of her attempting that song would be at one with the judges, the studio audience and everyone who loves music. But she did a credible job, and surprisingly was better doing the rock finale than the opening ballad. It was the first time she's looked comfortable singing anything besides country. Oh, and add the expression "it looked bad on paper" to the list of modern sayings Pickler has supposedly never heard before. Grade: B+The judges: "When I first heard today you were gonna do that song, I was worried. But I think you worked it out. I was entertained." – Randy Jackson.Stay or go: Pickler hasn't been in the bottom three yet, and probably won't be this week either.

Chris Daughtry, 26, McLeansville, N.C.: Anyone who likes Daughtry's signature style of shouting into the microphone like he's at a dive bar with a burned-out microphone had to be happy with his performance.  Daughtry sang "Innuendo," a song that the band reportedly never performed live. It doesn't take a genius to realize that perhaps the reason for that is that the song isn't very good, but Daughtry did a nice job with it anyway. Considering he's the only one in the competition with anything resembling the persona needed to play arena rock, that's no surprise. Grade: AThe judges: "I just think it's a shame that you didn't decide to entertain the audience at home with one of the great Queen songs, because you could have had a moment tonight." – Simon Cowell. Stay or go: Daughtry should be safe.

Katharine McPhee, 21, Los Angeles: McPhee decided to change from "Don't Stop Me Now" to "Who Wants to Live Forever," a haunting ballad best known for being in "Highlander." The arrangement was strange at times, possibly due to some residual annoyance at having to tear up their work and start over so late in the week, but it was a great decision to go with the slower song. It allowed her to show off the power in her voice, which she did well enough to impress all three judges. Grade: A-The judges: "I love when I see an artist make a change to … change their mind. And you made the right decision." – Paula Abdul Stay or go: Much like in "Highlander," at the end of this "Idol" season there can be only one. McPhee is doing her best to be that winner. She sang well enough to survive, although the fact that she's been in the bottom two already is cause for concern.

Elliott Yamin, 27, Richmond, Va.: Here are some of the jobs Elliott Yamin has had: Fast-food worker, corporate employee and a DJ on the air between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. Does that make him a more sympathetic figure to vote for? After finishing with the second-fewest votes last week, he certainly hopes so. Yamin sang Queen's "Somebody to Love" well enough to earn increased support. He's the rare contestant who would benefit more from Paula's advice. His vocals are fine, but he still moves around onstage like a teenager afraid to look ridiculous — he won't move his feet unless the rotation of the earth forces him to. Grade: BThe judges: "All in all, I loved you man. I thought it was really really good."– Randy Jackson.Stay or go: Yamin is the hardest finalist to predict, because he sailed through the competition until he finished with the second-fewest number of votes last week. He should survive, but will probably be back in the bottom three again.

Talyor Hicks, 29, Birmingham, Ala.: Hicks joined McPhee in the ranks of contestants who annoyed all the musicians and background vocalists by changing his mind at the last minute. In his case, he went from "We Are the Champions" to "Crazy Little Thing Called Love." After two weeks of standing around like a statue onstage, he felt like he needed to be entertaining. Simon asked him if he was drunk, but the switch was a smart one; he's not going to win this by being conventional, but by being the best entertainer. And his performance was definitely the most entertaining of the night. Grade: A-The judges: "I don't know whether we should give you a record deal or a straitjacket." – Paula AbdulStay or go:  Hicks is safe. Crazy, but safe.

Paris Bennett, 17, Fayetteville, Ga.: Bennett sang "The Show Must Go On," one of Queen's signature songs as Freddie Mercury's health deteriorated. She did fine, although there's no getting around the fact that she's a teenager singing a style of music that's way outside her comfort zone. She'll be happier when the show goes back to featuring actual pop music themes instead of ’70s rock. Grade: B+The judges: "I found it all a little weird." – Simon Cowell.Stay or go:  Bennett was in the bottom three last week, and may wind up there again. But she's unlikely to be the one voted off.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.