When Brooke White, the 24-year-old nanny from Arizona, sat down at the piano and sang "Let It Be" during the first week of the "American Idol" finals, judge Simon Cowell told her it was a "brilliant song choice." But no one knew at the time that David Hernandez, the former male stripper also from Arizona, had earlier in the week requested to sing the same song.
"If someone has the same song, then we draw out of a hat," Hernandez told MTV News. White won. Hernandez, instead, sang "I Saw Her Standing There." His performance was panned (Simon called it "corny, verging on desperate"), and the next day, he was eliminated from the competition.
Few topics garner more airtime on "American Idol" than song choice. While the judges often harp on the decisions the contestants make, there is almost no recognition of the outside factors that influence those choices, such as contenders wishing to sing the same songs or artists refusing to allow or clear particular tracks for use on the show.
On Tuesday, Michael Johns was criticized for choosing the hard-rocking Aerosmith song "Dream On" after earning scads of praise for his soulful take on Dolly Parton's "It's So Wrong But It's So Right" last week. America agreed with the judges, surprisingly eliminating the good-natured Aussie on Thursday.
"I think song choice is a very personal thing," Johns told MTV News after his elimination. "If you can't go out there and believe every lyric and it doesn't have an emotional connection to you, then it's not gonna work. From my whole experience on the show, with Simon saying, 'I want you to sing more of that blues/soul stuff,' but not every theme week fit into that. So what I chose throughout the entire competition was a representation of the kind of artist I'm going to be after [the show]. I'm gonna be a rock/soul singer, I'm gonna make that kind of record, and I'm proud that I stayed true to that during the entire competition."
Josiah Leming, who garnered a great deal of attention during the audition and Hollywood Week episodes of this season after admitting he used to live in his car, was eliminated from the show after a disastrous rendition of "Stand by Me," during which he asked the band to leave the stage.
"I didn't really pick that song," Leming told MTV News. "I had a few songs lined up out of the list they gave me that they wouldn't allow me to do, you know, whether that was due to clearance [issues] or whatever reason."
The rules for Hollywood Week on "Idol" vary from the semifinals and finals — and they change every year.
"This year there was no group day [during Hollywood Week]," said Michael Orland, the current "Idol" vocal coach, whom the contestants call "Michael O." "But on the first round, they were given a CD with 37 song choices."
Getting a song cleared can be a tricky venture for reality-show producers. Georgia Stitt, a Los Angeles vocal coach who has worked on several of these shows, says that sometimes the process can "take weeks, so if they haven't planned well enough in advance, the clearance may not come through in time for the airdate of the show."
(For the record, Leming said he had hoped to perform Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out" or the Sinead O'Connor version of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U." "Man, that would have been so awesome," he says.)
Nadia Turner, the eighth-place finisher during season four of "Idol," was determined to perform U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name" while on the show, but it wasn't offered to her by the producers.
"I was on a mission. I was like, 'I'm going to sing that U2 song,' and nobody was going to stop me," she said.
Knowing that a cameraman from "Idol" had once worked with the band, she asked him to reach out to them and ask permission. After several weeks of trying, word finally came that the song had been cleared, but unfortunately it was not soon enough for Turner. She had been eliminated from the competition the day before.
Clearing songs gets easier for producers as the "Idol" brand continues its monumental streak of success. What artist doesn't want to be associated with a show that gets 30 million viewers a week — especially for older, less-recognized songs like Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," which contestant Jason Castro sang recently.
"The fact that people are still talking about an older song is a great thing," Stitt said. "But a song that has just come out and is still doing well on the charts might actually be damaged by a bad performance on a reality-TV show. Hence, sometimes brand-new songs — less than a year old — are extremely difficult to clear."
Of course, with a juggernaut like "Idol," the opposite can be true as well. Music publishers must lobby to have their songs rendered in front of 30 million people.
"I think Idol is a big enough show that the producers can name who they want," Orland said. "I know as the show grows bigger and bigger and artists like Prince and Aerosmith and Maroon 5 start allowing their songs to be cleared, the more exciting it becomes."
"When we did it, of course you couldn't even touch the Beatles," said Justin Guarini, the season-one runner-up, who now works as a host on the TV Guide Channel. "And many major artists did not want their songs being sung on the show because they had no clue what it was."
In his year, Guarini said, the contestants would sit in a large living room filled with CDs, and a staff member would say, "Here are all the songs that we managed to clear."
"It's a luxury the kids have nowadays that they can pretty much point their finger at something and it's cleared," Guarini said.
A perfect example of that luxury is the two weeks of songs performed this season that were written by the most elusive band of all: the Fab Four.
"They never gave permission to use Beatles songs on reality TV," Stitt said. "In fact, if the title of a Beatles song came up in a discussion [on one of my shows], a producer would inevitably say, 'Well, we'll never clear that,' and it would get knocked off the list. That's why it was such a big deal that 'American Idol' gained clearance to use the Beatles' catalog this season."
Contestants are quick to dispel any conspiracy theories that suggest producers help some contestants pick their songs but not others. "They're not going to spend millions of dollars, literally, each show to knock the people who are helping them make all that money," Guarini said.
Kevin Covais, who was known as "Chicken Little" during season five, said there was only one time producers suggested he change his song: the week Stevie Wonder was a mentor, and he feels it was for his own good.
"I was going to sing a lesser-known song, and I remember [Executive Producer] Ken Warwick said to me, 'Kevin, I like the way you're singing that, but you're going to want to pick a song that is more memorable.' And I definitely took that to heart." Covais did change his mind, from "Golden Lady" to "Part-Time Lover." "At the end of the day, the decision was mine," he said. "I was going to fail or succeed on my own."
Garrett Haley, the long-haired singer from Ohio who lost in the first round of this year's semifinals, recalled a different experience.
"I didn't really get to choose it," he said of his swan song, Neil Sedaka's "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do." "We're allowed to choose three songs from a list. I didn't get to [perform] any of my songs because they gave the songs out to the contestants before [my turn]."
The contestants agree that their song choices were ultimately their own, and therefore the judges have the right to criticize them.
If a song didn't clear for one reason or another, Guarini said, the producers would always be sure to find one that did — an assertion Covais agreed with. "It never seemed to be devastating, because there would always be songs that would clear," he said.
The issue of contenders wanting to sing the same song can be more complicated, but contestants say that any tension between them is minor.
"If there ever was any sort of 'I want that song,' 'Oh, I'd really like that song too,' it would be decided with a flip of the coin," Guarini said. "No bad blood, no sort of animosity or anything like that."
Hernandez agreed, despite losing out on "Let It Be" to fellow contestant White. "It was fair," he said. "Everything was fair, like it always is on 'American Idol,' and I felt confident in my song, or else they wouldn't have made me move forward with that song. It's all up to the contestants, and they choose their [own] songs."
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