‘American Idol’ Dark Horse David Cook: Is It Fair For Him To Cover Other Covers?

'Cook deserves credit for being smart and aware of new or different versions of songs,' one 'Idol' expert says of rocker's not-so-new interpretations.

There’s something fishy about “American Idol” contender David Cook.

Cook, the rock-leaning lad with the highlighted comb-over, closed Tuesday night’s episode of “American Idol,” belting out Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” — a song released the year he was born.

But Cook’s take on the track was actually former Soundgarden/Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell’s version. Cornell’s cover appeared on his sophomore solo album, Carry On, which was released last year.

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Sure, “Idol” host Ryan Seacrest prefaced Cook’s performance by saying, “With Chris Cornell’s version of ‘Billie Jean,’ here’s David Cook,” but his introduction was barely audible, coming from the pit of screaming fans located just in front of the studio’s stage. And though Cook’s performance was very much a cover of Cornell’s cover, the “Idol” judges absolutely loved it and praised the performance for its “originality.”

Seeing as “Idol” contestants are judged not only for their vocal performances but on their arrangements as well, it seems Cook has been coasting off others’ visions. Does this mean Cook has had an unfair advantage over the rest of the “Idol” crop?

Michael Slezak, a senior writer for Entertainment Weekly known for his “Idol” coverage, said he thinks Cook is smart for picking the arrangements he has.

“I think it’s a little silly to accuse him of stealing arrangements,” Slezak explained. “You know, Chris Daughtry took a real hit when he did a version of [Johnny Cash's] ‘Walk the Line’ and didn’t, at any point, credit Live’s version, but in this case, Cook put it out there, clearly having Ryan state, ‘He’s doing Chris Cornell’s version,’ and if you listen to both versions, it’s not like he did a complete carbon copy of Cornell’s, anyway.

“I would understand why people would want to see some of these contestants — if they’re going to get credit for being brave and innovative — completely change up a song on their own,” he continued. “I think it’s also hard to ask them to do that. They only have a week to come up with the arrangements, and then they’ve got to get the ‘Idol’ band onboard with it and record their version for the iTunes download, so it doesn’t give them a lot of time to come up with a completely innovative arrangement of a song every week. Ultimately, I think Cook deserves credit for being smart and aware of new or different versions of songs — different than the ones people are familiar with. I don’t know if he should get credit for being brave, but he should get credit for being smart and singing these songs well.”

But this season, Cook has been accused of copping another artist’s cover on more than one occasion. Just three weeks ago, a Seattle band came out against Cook, claiming he’d ripped off their rockin’ cover of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” Doxology said they recorded their version of the track more than a year ago and even had it available on iTunes and their MySpace page. According to the band’s manager, the cover was what Doxology is best known for, but the guys didn’t sue Cook — they merely asked for recognition.

Even prior to that claim, several “Idol” fans took to the message boards to cry foul over Cook’s cover of Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” one they claimed was very similar to Incubus frontman Brandon Boyd’s solo take on the track.

As far as Slezak is concerned, Cook is just dealing with the inevitable backlash that those labeled as “the ones to beat” face when they’re on “Idol.”

“He is getting ripped on now because he has emerged as the surprise front-runner, and I think anytime you are in that position, people are going to look for a way to tear you down,” Slezak said. “It’s the nature of ‘Idol.’ People have to find things to criticize him for, because right now, he’s performing really strongly and moving up in all the ‘Idol’ polls. His detractors have to latch onto something, I guess.”

But no, Slezak insisted, Cook hasn’t survived on “AI” because he’s had an unfair advantage throughout the contest.

“He’s just aware of these versions in the first place,” he said. “It’s not like Cornell’s version was a #1 hit. The average ‘Idol’ viewer at home may not even be aware of that version, so he could have gone ahead and not credited it at all, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the judges didn’t know that version. The judges give him credit for bravery and innovation when he’s just really being smart and savvy and picking interesting versions of the song that really suit his vocal style. What he’s doing is really no different than any contestant on the show. David Archuleta picked Stevie Wonder’s version of ‘We Can Work It Out,’ and Carly Smithson picked Celine Dion’s version of ‘I Drove All Night.’ Cook is just picking slightly more creative and interesting versions of his songs. It’s hard to make a case that he’s doing something unfair. He’s just a smart competitor.”

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