‘American Idol’ Recap: David Archuleta Is The One To Beat, But David Hernandez Arrives

Guys faltered with '70s theme; some still need to learn not to sass judges.

Jim Cantiello, MTV News’ very own “American Idol” Yoda and personal friend of yours truly, is on assignment for the next two weeks and has graciously asked me to fill in his prodigious shoes. But no need to worry, folks, he’ll still be delivering his brilliant and unprecedented “Idol” and “Project Runway” 60-second recaps later this week, and he’ll be back manning these written “Idol” recaps faster than Taylor Hicks got dropped from his record label! Oh, wait. …

So on with the show … or maybe not. It was the second week of these live showcases and we were still straddled with mediocre-at-best performances by a group of guys I once stated was one of the more talented so far. I was mostly wrong.

Keeping up with the themes — which usually don’t happen until the group is whittled down to the top 12 — this week’s subject du jour was ’70s classics. (One can only surmise that next week’s subject will be, uh, let me think … ’80s classics?!) Tuesday night, I couldn’t help but wonder just how many Stevie Wonder songs would be botched. Mercifully, none. I called for a moratorium of all things Stevie long ago, only to be beaten over the head with bad renditions over and over again, season after season. So far, so good.

As Ryan Seacrest name-checked the top 10 fellas, the biggest screams were for future “Idol” winner (just my guess, folks) 17-year-old David Archuleta, from all the naive, if-they-only-knew tweens situated in the audience. (Head here for an article about Archuleta’s chances .) He hadn’t even sung a single note yet, proving that the PR cogs at Idolwood are keeping the wheels spinning efficiently. In his defense, David has by far the biggest Idol fanbase on the Internet now, as his ArchAngels (as they’re called) have been overpowering various “Idol” message boards since his very first audition. So call him the Zac Efron of the season. Or the lost Jonas brother.

It’s always frustratingly funny to hear Randy spew that “Idol” is first and foremost a singing competition. And he did so again Tuesday night for the umpteenth time. I’m not sure if he’s just delusional, or if he’s reading the Oprah’s Book Club hopeful “Better Living Through Denial,” because anyone with an IQ of Jasmine Trias knows that “AI” is the world’s biggest, most spectacular popularity contest. Sure, there’s a modicum of talent involved, and each season begets at least one great potential star (maybe two), but it hasn’t been about the singing since way back in season one (the absolute worst season for talent) and briefly, in season three, with Fantasia, Jennifer and LaToya making up the Great Triumvirate (check out our “American Idol” video timeline for high- and lowlights from previous seasons!). But I digress — the evening did have three or so fond memories.

Michael Johns
Song: Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way”
Verdict: Honey, he can go my way … but only if he sings better

Coasting on his sex appeal since day one, this Michael Hutchence wannabe struggled with his upper register and seemed confused about the melody. That said, Fleetwood Mac were second only to the Mamas and the Papas when it came to perfect, intricate, shimmering male/female vocal harmonies, something this arrangement sorely lacked, and something that the backup singers couldn’t muster, as reliable as they usually are. Not to mention, Michael Johns is no Lindsey Buckingham — heck, he ain’t even Stevie Nicks. He’ll sail through, of course; his fanbase is tremendous. Unfortunately, though, all we are left with is a good karaoke singer whose physical attributes outweigh his vocal finesse. But, boy, what physical attributes they are. How soon before the CW snatches him up? I mean, can’t you just see his face on this poster?

Jason Castro
Song: Andy Gibb’s “I Just Want to Be Your Everything”
Verdict: The question is, will his fanbase want to be his after that performance?

While it was interesting for John Travolta look-alike Castro to choose this song — which the Bee Gees wrote for their less talented brother, Andy — the weird bossa nova arrangement couldn’t hide Castro’s awkwardness or his flimsy guitar skills. He should’ve chosen a song from “Grease” or “Saturday Night Fever” to better highlight the Travolta look. He might not like the nonmusical parts of “Idol,” like he stated in his pre-performance clip, but if he wants to be in it for the long haul, he’ll need to gain some confidence. Ditching the guitar, stirring it up a bit and choosing a less-Gibb-identified song would be the first steps away from, as Simon so astutely stated, “schmaltzy.”

Luke Menard
Song: Queen’s “Killer Queen”
Verdict: As dead as Freddie Mercury

Menard contradicted himself with this performance. After telling us that members of world-traveled a cappella group Chapter 6 must be pitch-perfect, you’d think he’d back it up with something more than a mush-mouthed version of a great classic-rock tune. It was an ambitious if foolish choice. Part of the song’s charm is the lyrics, but they were rendered undecipherable. His falsetto — while not as ear-blood-inducing as Ace Young’s — was nonetheless weak, in a song that requires a more burly register. It could have been a lot worse, but I swear I heard the plaintive wails of Freddie Mercury bellowing from the grave.

Robbie Carrico
Song: Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded”
Verdict: Left me “cold as ice”

First, get out of the dirty bathwater, kid, and wash your hair. You look like a homeless man who rummaged the garbage bins behind Hot Topic. You don’t have to try so hard to prove that you’re rock and roll (albeit as cliché and true a rocker as Bret Michaels). Second, I can almost sympathize when the judges lecture you about “authenticity,” with nary a mention to any other phony aspirant in this year’s contest. But trying to pull off that appalling rendition of a lame Foreigner song was the bandana that broke the wannabe’s back. Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, Foreigner were a welfare Bad Company, but Lou Gramm’s pipes were ear-shattering. While no one should expect rock-star vocals from anyone in this “amateur” competition, your ex-girlfriend Britney couldn’t have sung this song worse with a gun to (or pair of panties on) her head.

Danny Noriega
Song: The Carpenters’ “Superstar”
Verdict: He did say he’d be coming back this way again, maybe

Ruben Studdard channeled Luther Vandross when he performed this song in season two, but I was thankful that resident diva Noriega chose the Carpenters‘ route. Not because theirs is a better version (oh, Lord, it ain’t), but because Noriega’s supple tones are better suited for a more sedate rendition. And he kinda pulled it off. But Randy nailed it precisely — as Danny sang, I couldn’t help but think that he was performing instead of merely performing. He needn’t try so hard. Vote for the Worst support notwithstanding, Danny does have one of the better voices this year. He’s shaky on the bottom notes, but overall it was better than I expected. I’m not sure how far America is willing to let his flamboyance take him, as you can only flaunt your, um, personality so long before it delves into Taylor Hicks territory. But hey, look where that got him! Oh, better yet, don’t.

David Hernandez
Song: The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”
Verdict: A rolling stone gathers no moss. Will David sustain his?

Though he veered into Tony Orlando and Dawn/ Sonny & Cher ’70s variety-show terrain (I was half-expecting the Ernest Flatt dancers to shuffle in from stage left), this was a surprisingly good performance by Hernandez, who I previously thought didn’t stand a chance at surviving, especially after last week’s tepid “Midnight Hour.” Hearing the opening refrain, I was instantly vexed. How many people can actually pull off the Temptations? But I’ll be damned if he wasn’t pitch-perfect, with solid vocal flexibility and just the right showbiz chutzpah. And believe it or not, a lil’ bit o’ soul.

Jason Yeager
Song: The Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Runnin’ “
Verdict: Out of gas

Jesus freak Yeager wanted us to know that he’s a self-taught multi-instrumentalist. Too bad he couldn’t find a “Singing for Dummies” manual anywhere. OK, OK, I’m being hard on him — it wasn’t as awful as the judges would like us to believe. He was even better on Tuesday than judges’ fave Michael Johns, but that was a fluke and a half. In his pre-perf video, he mentioned that he wanted to find a “killer” song to incorporate his guitar skills. In his post-judging bash-a-thon, he went on and on about how he has a wide range and how he understands that he needs to accelerate his talent because this group of guys, including himself, are a “killer” bunch of singers. It’s this type of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi-like hallucination that makes him a bad father. Go home and take care of your kid.

Chikezie
Song: Donny Hathaway’s “I Believe to My Soul”
Verdict: I know his name is Chikezie — I just can’t pronounce it

His soulful vocal styling trumpeted his return to form Tuesday night, and it just might save him from going home. However, it’s that superciliousness that will eventually do him in; playful or not, his retorts to Simon came across as sour grapes. Accept the accolade graciously and move along. While it was nice that he acknowledged Hathaway’s daughter Kenya as one of the backup singers (as Elliott Yamin did in season five), it didn’t mask the ignorance he displayed, and that’s a turnoff. These Idols don’t get it … you’d better be as great as Fantasia if you want to sass the headmaster. Chikezie, you may be good, but you ain’t Fantasia. Heck, you aren’t even Ne-Yo.

David Cook
Song: Free’s “All Right Now”
Verdict: Lord above, now he’s tryin’ to trick us in love

David wanted us to know that he’s a word nerd who loves crossword puzzles. OK, five-down, two words, nine letters: the clue is “Rock and roll irrelevance.” What’s the answer? David Cook! You know the type: one of those young guys who strums the guitar his mama bought him from the five and dime, reaching for rock-star dreams only his parents and friends understand. Hmmm … too bad he doesn’t have the musical chops to make that vision a reality. But history is chock full o’ rock stars with dubious rock credentials, especially recent history. (Don’t believe me? Then click here, here, here or here for a miniscule sampling.) So what’s to stop Cook? Well, that Trump-like comb-over, for one. (Will balding men never learn?) And, like Chikezie, he needs to realize that mouthing off to Simon — especially when the judge is spot-on — is “Idol” suicide.

David Archuleta
Song: John Lennon’s “Imagine”
Verdict: Imagine there’s no David, it’s so hard to do

OK, I’ll admit it. I didn’t get this kid or his Liza Minnelli-like breathiness and theatrical hand movement. The judges’ relentless, almost embarrassing platitudes were uncomfortable at best, nauseating at worst — they all but crown him victor on a weekly basis, and the season hasn’t even hit full steam yet. During his pre-perf interview, they pimped him out even more by showing the now-famous Internet clip of his singing the not-very-masculine (and not very pleasant) “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” to a perplexed Kelly Clarkson during season one’s tour. Besides that, he has yet to give anything better than an average performance. Until now.

As of Tuesday night, by the musical heavens, I am a fan. And to admit that to myself I had to relisten to the MP3 three times just to make sure I wasn’t suffering a case of acute Abdulism (trust me, it’s a real affliction). But I’ll be damned if he didn’t pull a Melinda Doolittle on us. His “Imagine,” while a curious choice, was akin to Doolittle’s “My Funny Valentine” insomuch that, besides the gorgeous fluttering tones, he changed the melody a tad — not as a showcase of skill, but to enhance and reflect upon the lyrics’ profundity. His vocals were so impassioned and so real that I didn’t mind the few times he strayed off-key; it just contributed to the validity of his delivery. For the first time in years, I can say I profoundly agree with a Randy overstatement: It was one of the best “Idol” performances ever.

This all leaves me to ponder if America will get it right. I mean, this season could have been a bit scarier, so despite my misgivings, I’m still grateful. But will you save Danny the Diva from banishment? Will deaf “Pirates of the Caribbean” fans mistake this for this? (As if!) Clearly, the two weakest links tonight were Menard and Carrico, with Yeagermeister coming in a close third. But who knows what America will do? We are, after all, responsible for this.

Get your “Idol” fix on MTV News’ “American Idol” page, where you’ll find all the latest news, interviews and opinions. And relive six seasons of “Idol” hot messes and high notes in six minutes with our video timeline .