‘American Idol’ Recap: David Cook Continues To Sizzle; Syesha Mercado Finally Fizzles Out

Show's three-song night points to long-predicted 'David vs. David' finale.

Tuesday night’s penultimate “Idol” performance show reminded us that after three long months, the seventh-season crown will go to either “a high school student,” “an actress” or “a barrrrtender.” (Considering who we started with this year, it’s a good thing America voted the way it did, otherwise Seacrest would have had to refer to a male stripper, a sushi waitress, a horse whisperer, a Rastafarian, a failed major-label pop star or a failed bald pop star instead.)

The remaining contestants each had three songs to perform: judge’s choice, contestant’s choice and producer’s choice. (I hope Nigel Lythgoe allowed executive producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz in on the conversations. Going by her name alone, I bet she has a lot of spunk.)

Before I start ranting about how excited I was to see my celeb crush in the audience — How you doin’, Emily VanCamp? And, um, Marilu Henner? — let’s get right to the performances!

Round One: Judge’s Choice
David Archuleta: Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes”
Syesha Mercado: Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You”
David Cook: Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”
Winner: David Cook

Perhaps taking a cue from my top-three recap last year , “Idol” finally ditched the outdated “fax-the-contestants” conceit and had the judges text the singers their song choices instead. Notable exception here was David Archuleta, who received the news from Murray, Utah’s mayor Dick Dastardly. But I understand why Paula didn’t text David A. Last time she messaged a young male contestant, it came back to haunt her. (Cue “Paulatics.”)

Abdul’s pick for the young whippersnapper was Billy Joel’s heartbreaking “And So It Goes,” because, as she explained, “[It] shows the level of difficulty in the melodies that I know you can handle.” Say what you will about Joel, but a difficult-melody writer he is not. I think somebody switched Paula’s Storm Front CD with the score to Sondheim’s “Company.”

The musically emancipated Archuleta was adventurous with the arrangement. Instead of going the obvious piano-man route, the prodigy went a cappella (or as I will now call it, Arch-Cappella) and landed in a sea of lush strings. I know a lot of critics are going to gripe that a 17-year-old doesn’t have the life experience to convincingly sing lyrics about “wounds from lovers’ past,” but all things considered, I think Li’l David connected to the tune shockingly well, save for an unfortunate lyric slip that turned one line into “[sneeze] so will you soon, I suppose.”

Next up was the show’s ultimate fighter, Syesha, who, despite being in the bottom more than a proctologist, still thinks she has a chance at winning this damn show. Note to self: When your “Idol” homecoming is so uneventful and desolate that the only usable footage is of you alone in the back of a limo, it might be time to hang it up. Syesha took a serviceable, if forgettable, stab at Alicia Keys’ soulful lament, but I got a sneaking suspicion that the judges worked harder in selling Syesha than she did. Although, in Simon’s defense, he called out Randy for picking a song that didn’t allow Syesha to show us something new, (an especially good point, since Syesha belted this tune the last time she was on a reality show).

Which brings us to Simon’s choice for David Cook, Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Cook’s performance was like a 90-second greatest-hits reel. Drastic re-imagining of a pop song? Check. Surprisingly tender vocals? Check. Heart-stopping high note that leaves you slack-jawed? Check, check, check. Plus, thanks to the gratuitous cutaways to his mother in the audience, he debuted a new song called “Oedipal Undertones”! No wonder Simon called this Cook’s “best performance to date.” But I could have done without the bonus track, when David blurted out post-judging, “Oh, by the way, Mom, happy belated Mother’s Day.” Dude, admitting that you forgot Mother’s Day is not the way to win over America. I’d expect a vapid mood-killing comment from Syesha, but not from my Cookies!

Round Two: Contestant’s Choice
Archuleta: Chris Brown’s “With You” (seriously)
Mercado: Peggy Lee’s “Fever”
Cook: Switchfoot’s “Dare You to Move”
Winner: Argh, nobody!

Tuesday night was the first time this season that the contestants were allowed to pick a song without any contrived limitation. We finally got to see how each singer wants to market him- or herself once the show’s over, and after enduring round two, it’s safe to say that all three of them proved that they need major career advice.

First, Ar-boo-leta showed America that after he wins “Idol,” he aspires to be the next Chris Brown (Chris White?), by choosing Brown’s hit “With You.” Like the judges, I give the kid credit for taking a chance and not going the Josh Groban route, but watching the mini-Mormon bop back and forth while singing to his “boo” was a lot like seeing your 5-year-old nephew perform “Baby Got Back” — unintentionally hilarious and mind-meltingly depressing. At least the irony wasn’t lost on Archucutie, who told a perplexed Randy, “I understand. It’s pretty weird to see a white guy [sing that song].”

It was also weird to watch Syesha audition for the Pussycat Dolls … and fail miserably, by singing the sultry (and ancient) “Fever.” Syesha brought a chair onstage — I guess the season-seven rule book allows the contestants to use instruments and props! — but unfortunately never really did anything with it. She sat on it, walked around it and then pointed at it. Shouldn’t she have, like, kicked it over or something? It was the least sexy performance of “Fever” since I had that “Bea Arthur sings Peggy Lee” nightmare. Simon’s right. This oddball song choice will most likely be the final nail in her “Idol” coffin.

And lastly, there was David Cook who apparently thinks the winning formula for a hit song is 90 percent low moan-y voice and 10 percent off-key shouting. If that were the case, Tom Waits would dominate “TRL.”

Round Three: Producer’s Choice
Archuleta: Dan Fogelberg’s “Longer”
Mercado: Gia Farrell’s “Hit Me Up” (from “Happy Feet”)
Cook: Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”
Winner: David Cook

It’s one thing to be frustrated with young performers who don’t yet know how to pick a song. It’s a whole different ball of wax to be livid with television producers who have at least seven years’ experience and are still completely off the mark. Dan Fogelberg was bad enough. (Even the earnest Archupuppy looked bored to tears warbling that dreadful song.) But to force Syesha to sing a deep cut from the “Happy Feet” soundtrack? Inexcusable! I’d say “Idol” producers just hate Syesha, but somebody’s keeping the girl in the competition, and if message boards, Yahoo searches and iTunes sales are any indication, it sure as hell ain’t America.

Comparatively, the “Idol” peeps did marginally better choosing Aerosmith’s 90th comeback single for Cook. Thankfully, he replaced the Aerosmith stank with chamber-orchestra grace, but just as it was shaping up to be another “wow” moment, the full band returned in all its cacophonous glory and crapped all over the stage. Boo! (And not the kind Chris Brown likes.) Paula and Simon lapped it up, though, with one acting like their body was made of Jello and slurring, “See ya in the finals!,” and the other proclaiming Cook as the night’s big winner. (I’ll let you decide which reaction came from which judge.)

In the end, round three demonstrated several things. It proved that “Idol” producers have no idea what they’re doing. (No wonder ratings are down!) But more important, it showed that Cook could pull off a Diane Warren-penned cheesefest with most of his integrity intact, which will serve him well next week, when he’s forced to sing “This Is My Destiny Right Now” or whatever insipid ballad “America” picked as the winner’s first single.

Hasty Predictions

Sorry, Syesha. You’ve had a better-than-expected run, but it’s time for you to face reality and drop out of the presidential race, er, I mean, leave “Idol.” Thanks to hideous song choices and a good-enough showing by ArchuWunderkind, your momentum died faster than that guy Serena van der Woodsen “murdered.” (Don’t even get me started on that one.)

So it looks like producers are going to get the David-squared finale they’ve been angling for since week three, after all. I don’t blame them for wanting this particular showdown. It’s a marketing goldmine. ArchuChild has the tween vote (and the Claymates) furiously texting, while Cook has everyone else in his corner (including, apparently, cougars).

Who are you voting for? Am I presumptuous in thinking that Syesha won’t be competing next week? And did any other MTVers notice President of Programming Brian Graden sitting in the “Idol” audience? Hit me up in the comments below!

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