It was Elvis night on "American Idol" on Tuesday, and the biggest upset was that Taylor Hicks did not take the opportunity to break out the rhinestones and the white jumpsuit.
Two of the four finalists, Hicks and Chris Daughtry, were probably thrilled with the trip to Graceland. It was the ultimate song style for Hicks, who will likely be singing a lot of Elvis songs if he loses and winds up on the wedding circuit in a couple of years. Daughtry's vocals are strong enough that he sailed through as well, and he was helped by avoiding the Bryan Adams debacle of a couple of weeks ago and picking two up-tempo songs.
The other two, however, entered the night at a disadvantage: Katharine McPhee for being a girl on Boy's Night, and Elliott Yamin for … well, being Elliott Yamin. As far as the judges were concerned, Yamin did a better job of overcoming his limitations, such as a general lack of rhythm onstage, and were this set up like "Ice Skating With Celebrities" he would be a lock to move on. But since the "Idol" judges have less power than Dorothy Hamill — and wow, that's not something Simon Cowell points out in his press releases — it's the audience that makes that decision.
That may save McPhee for another week. She wasn't great on the vocals, but she finished ahead of Yamin last week and only needed to stand her ground in order to advance. Besides, that teenage boy vote is not to be trifled with, and if the final three singers are all 20-something men, that giant sucking sound may be people changing the channel to see if "Deal or No Deal" is on NBC.
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Taylor Hicks, 29, Birmingham, Ala.: Hicks played this one like a politician. His first song was "Jailhouse Rock," which is exactly the type of song his fans were hoping for. It's goofy and manic, and so is he. Of course, Simon hated it, but it made the crowd happy.
Hicks' second song was "In the Ghetto." That did not allow him to run around the stage like his hair was on fire, but it did impress the judges. His fans may not have approved of the tamer choice, but Hicks knows that sometimes it's smart to pay lip service to what the judges say they want, since the alternative is to listen to them snipe about the same things each week. Grade: A- The judges, "Jailhouse Rock": "Wow. You are in your element now. That felt good, didn't it?" – Randy Jackson.The judges, "In the Ghetto": "That was a world apart for me from the first performance. You have just sang your way into the semifinals." – Simon Cowell Stay or go: Hicks is probably safe, although that act could get old any time now.
Chris Daughtry, 26, McLeansville, N.C.: Daughtry began by informing the world that he wears boxer briefs, which apparently is the top question on the mind of some fans and way too much information for everyone else. He made the perfect song choice by opening with "Suspicious Minds" — a great song that everyone's heard of but doesn't get a lot of radio airtime. Because of that, he got all the benefits of his strong vocals and Elvis' lyrics and melody without sounding like a cover act.
His second song, "A Little Less Conversation," wasn't quite as good. It won't make anyone forget about the King. Then again, it won't make anyone remember the version that Jon Peter Lewis sang in Season 3 either — except for "Idol" columnists who have those tidbits taking up valuable brain cells. Grade: A-The judges, "Suspicious Minds": "You forget how good that song is, until you hear Chris Daughtry sing it. See you in the finals." – Paula Abdul. The judges, "A Little Less Conversation": "I thought your first song was a lot stronger. Up until the end it was a flat performance. It just wasn't you." – Simon Cowell. Stay or go: Even a broken clock is right twice a day, and Paula may be right. Daughtry's likely safe.
Elliott Yamin, 27, Richmond, Va.: It's a testament to the judges' honesty that Yamin's feedback is so positive, because an album of his would be awfully hard to market. They loved him again this week despite the fact that his version of "I Can Dream" mainly served as a two-minute "let's check out the bird flu movie on ABC" break for a lot of people. Technically, the vocals may have been perfect. Practically, it was just dull.
His second song was "Trouble," a bluesy tune that didn't seem to suit his personality. He sang it well, though again not well enough to warrant the fawning attention from the judges. And it was a questionable call to pick two less-popular Elvis songs on a night where he needed to stand out.Grade: B The judges, "I Can Dream": "You laid it out. That was hot."– Randy JacksonThe judges, "Trouble": "I've got to hand it to you tonight. You came out fighting, you showed some personality. You know what? You deserve to go through to the next round..."– Simon Cowell Stay or go: … but of course, the unspoken end to the Simon quote was "but you probably won't." It has been a great run for Yamin, but it's at least a 50-50 chance that it ends on Wednesday night.
Katharine McPhee, 21, Los Angeles: McPhee can't be happy that it's Elvis night at the point in the competition when she's the only girl left. She could have tried to overcome that by exploring a new arrangement that, to quote a frequent Paula saying, "really made it her own." Instead, she opened with a medley of "Hound Dog" and "All Shook Up," which teetered on the fine line between fresh take and cruise-ship material. The fact that she dropped a lyric didn't help either.
Her second song was "Can't Help Falling in Love," which was solid but not spectacular. The vocals were fine, and she definitely has a stage presence, but it didn't stand out from the competition at all. If Elvis were alive, he wouldn't have been that impressed, although he might have tried to pick her up after the show. Grade: B-The judges, "Hound Dog/ All Shook Up": "It was really fun seeing you dance up there." – Paula Abdul The judges, "Can't Help Falling in Love": "Katharine, this hasn't been one of your best nights. I'm going to be honest with you. I wanted apple pie on its own, and I got apple pie and a gallon of cream on top." – Simon Cowell Stay or go: Personal pie preferences aside — and really, who doesn't like whipped cream on apple pie? — it will probably come down to how many strong supporters McPhee has. They'll need to burn up the phone lines to keep her around after a week where she didn't shine as brightly as she has in the past.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.