One thing was clear after the latest "American Idol" eliminations: America is not that into Nina Simone.
During the first truly controversial week of the season — thanks to those Antonella Barba pictures spreading across the Internet (see "Sexy Pictures Won't Get Barba Booted From 'Idol' — But Wednesday Night's Song Could") — two of the four singers eliminated sang Simone's "Feeling Good." Another sang a jazz standard, and the fourth took on the Dixie Chicks and, well, we know how Middle America feels about them.
We caught up with the four castoffs to talk regrets, future plans and those racy photos.
After bowing out in the Hollywood round last year, the 25-year-old from Taunton, Massachusetts, made the final 20 this time around. Unfortunately, his rendition of "Fever" didn't spread like, say, last year's McPheever.
Q: Any theories on your elimination?
A: I just wasn't enough people's favorite, I guess. Or maybe because I got good comments, they just didn't pick up the phone and assumed I was safe. I don't know, sometimes it's just the luck of the draw.
Q: Do you think song choice played a part?
A: Absolutely. It's probably the key thing. But Melinda Doolittle sang an old jazz standard too and she did unbelievable. I always thought of myself as an R&B singer, but since they liked "Fly Me to the Moon" so much, I went back to the judges' suggestion.
Q: How did last year's Hollywood round impact your run this time?
A: Last year, I was just completely exhausted. I didn't get any sleep for a few days, and I was just defeated. I couldn't retain any information and was just totally spent. I had such a feeling of defeat and I didn't want to be remembered that way. I wanted to come back and show the world how good I could be. And that made this season all the more sweet.
Q: Some of the contestants this season have been snapping back at the judges, but not you.
A: I wanted to always maintain my honor. I had to bite my tongue a little bit. Last week Simon said I was charming [and this week he said Nick needed to show more charisma]. I think charisma and charming go hand in hand. But I just wanted to take my bow and not get into it with anyone.
After her rendition of the Dixie Chicks' Grammy-sweeping "Not Ready to Make Nice" got her eliminated, the 24-year-old singer/songwriter from West Hollywood, California, became the first "Idol" semifinalist in history to fully break down during her exit performance.
Q: It looked like that final performance was pretty tough for you.
A: I haven't seen it back yet and I'm a little nervous, but it was really hard. I kinda knew it was my time, so I mentally prepared myself and felt OK until I looked at someone who was crying and it just triggered. I couldn't hide it, so I just rolled with it. ... Now all of America has seen my cry.
Q: How can you become so close after just a few weeks, especially when the other girls are your competition?
A: Well, for one, you spend so much time together. And everybody's completely different, so it's like, "How good can you be?" It's not, "Can I be as good as Melinda?" We're completely different. So that allows you to bond with people.
Q: Were you worried about that Dixie Chicks song and how it could be polarizing?
A: I felt like I could just deliver that song and connect with it. I was using that emotion as me in the competition and not ready to make nice with the judges. There was nothing political about it whatsoever. But if I could do it over I would be more educated on song choice. I've never sang other people's stuff. I've always just sang my own songs. And it was kind of hard for me. The judges just dogged me on my song choices.
Q: Could you have sung your own material?
A: [Executive producer] Nigel [Lythgoe] told me I could sing whatever I wanted, so they would have let me. I was thinking of doing it next week, but I didn't have the chance.
Q: Were you ever nervous that private pictures of you might hit the Web?
A: No, I wasn't worried. It's unfortunate when that happens, but you have to keep going. I didn't really pay attention to the Internet or newspaper so I could stay focused, but I overheard people talking about it. Antonella's strong and doing just fine and she'll pull through.
After auditioning for "Idol" five seasons in a row, the 22-year-old from Santa Maria, California, finally made the semifinals, where he became a judge favorite. Voters, however, felt differently.
Q: How did you decide on "Feeling Good"?
A: Based on my first performance, I took the judges' constructive criticism and chose something different, and they liked it. I guess it was just coincidence [that Leslie Hunt sang the same song] because we didn't know. I love the song. It didn't go over with America, unfortunately, but I'm happy with it.
Q: Five times, that's pretty persistent.
A: "American Idol" for me has been such a perfect outlet for a struggling artist like myself. I've been trying this since I was 12, and when you get the door constantly [slammed] in your face, it hurts and it's hard. Then there's this show, which is perfect for the average underdog who is not getting a chance. I have no regrets. If I could try again, I would.
Q: Do you agree with the judges that you were one of the better singers?
A: This is a tough year. There's some big contenders. Based on what the judges said, I think I was up there with the better singers. But not only is it a singing competition, but it's a popularity contest.
Q: Were the guys talking about what happened with Antonella?
A: There's some sleazy people out there doing sleazy things and I feel bad for her, but she's beautiful and she's going to do well. But we tried to stay away from it.
The 24-year-old Chicago native also tackled "Feeling Good" and had similar results.
Q: Any theories?
A: I've thought about it, and maybe I'm just not that mainstream. I chose songs that aren't at the top of the charts. I don't know because I don't know the show that well. I just auditioned on a whim and ended up going really far.
Q: How many "Idol" shows had you seen?
A: I saw the episode where Kelly won. But I did some research when I got the call to go to L.A. and bought some CDs.
Q: Is there a hex on "Feeling Good"?
A: It got Alaina through in L.A. and I know other contestants have done the same song on the same night in other seasons, but maybe it's the curse of "Feeling Good." ... I did have an epiphany after watching myself back this week: I'm white. Nobody told me that.
Q: In your "Idol" bio, you mention your life was saved last year in Brazil. What happened?
A: I had an adverse reaction to the yellow fever vaccination and I basically shut down, my organs were failing and my brain was swelling. I was getting yellow fever times 30. I'm like the only person to survive that kind of thing. I don't remember any of it. But it pretty much changed my outlook on things, if you can imagine. Like, I don't know if I would have auditioned if I hadn't just been reminded that I'm mortal. It's easy to think you have all the time in the world. I realized I do have lupus and I don't have all the time in the world, so if I'm going to do something, I need to dive in. And why not "American Idol"?
Q: What did you think of the dedications?
A: Shooting that package, I couldn't even get out some of the words. I miss my grandpa a lot. So it kind of distracted me a little bit and added to the drama of the whole thing. I should have dedicated it to someone with no emotional ties.
Q: Was it hard to see Antonella get through?
A: There's certain hype that comes with her, and that's not really something I understand. It doesn't excite me that she has pictures like that. I mean, who doesn't? Whatever, get over it. But I knew getting into this that it wasn't just about singing.