American Idol, Judging Paula

It's down to just five contestants on American Idol, so you'd think that all the attention would be on the five incredibly talented contestants.

But between scandals among the contestants, and strange behavior by the judges, the real entertainment this season hasn't been the singing.

Case in point, when yet another bizarre outburst by Paula Abdul on Tuesday night left us all scratching our heads.

In a nutshell, here's what happened. With just five singers left, Idol producers now have the opposite problem they suffered at the beginning of the year. Instead of having to cram 10 or 12 singers into an hour, they have an hour to fill with half as many. The answer? Have everyone sing twice. So now they're back to cramming ten singers into an hour again. (It's a vicious cycle I tell you!)

Singing twice made things rushed. So rushed that the judges weren't allowed to critique the singers after their first performance. They had to wait until everyone had sung their second song before giving their usual witticisms and words of wisdom.

But they were given a very brief chance to say something in between the first and second rounds, which led to Paula's strange and senseless episode. Ryan asked the judges to quickly tell how they thought everyone had done. Randy rattled off his assessments in short order. Then Paula began to critique Jason Castro for his first and second songs. Except he hadn't sung his second song yet.

Simon and Randy had to stop her midstream and tell her that Jason hadn't actually sung the song she was talking about.

Had she been drinking? Is she a ditz? Was she more stoned than Jason? All of the above?

Watch Paula Abdul's Confusion 

Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if it was an act, although it looked pretty real to me. Either way, it completely distracted from the performances. The rest of the evening, I was just waiting to hear what stupid thing Paula might say next.

At this point, I'm not sure what to think. I'm tired of the whole what's-wacky-Paula-gonna-do-next? shtick. But I guess it's part of the show. The judges' antics are just as big a reason why we watch as the contestants.

Honestly, don't you sit at home waiting for Simon to rip a contestant to shreds? Aren't you secretly counting the number of times Randy tells someone they were "a little pitchy, dawg"? So I guess Paula's inane behavior is part and parcel of the production.

As for the singers, this week they were mentored by Neil Diamond. When I think of Neil Diamond, I think of two things: karaoke and the movie Saving Silverman. If you haven't seen Jack Black and Steve Zahn singing "Cherry Cherry," that alone might be worth the rental.

I'm certain it's a tribute to Neil that his songs are among the most performed karaoke gems. Go to any karaoke dive bar on a Saturday night and you're sure to hear "Love on the Rocks," "Coming to America," or "Forever in Blue Jeans" at least a couple of times during the evening. So it surprises me a little that Idol producers would thrust this on the contestants, knowing that one of the worst criticisms that the judges (especially Simon) can offer is that something sounds "karaoke."

Then again, I suppose that's part of the challenge of performing a Neil Diamond song -- to make something original out of a tune that every in-their-wildest-dreams-wannabe-crooner has sung on a lonely Friday night or two.

Frankly, only one of the final five Idol-ites did that consistently. The rest of the group fell right into the trap of performing Neil Diamond just like ... well ... Neil Diamond.

So how'd everyone do? Here's my take.

BEST OF THE NIGHT:

David Cook:

Round 1: David sang "I'm Alive," a Neil Diamond song I've never heard before. And considering how often I go to karaoke bars, that's surprising. Playing the electric guitar, David sounded like he was mimicking Diamond, not like he was just singing it. David has gotten pretty cocky lately, and it comes across in his performances. That said, the song was still pretty good.

Round 2: He sang "All I Really Need is You," another lesser known Diamond ditty. Playing guitar with the usual Cook-esque rock arrangement, I caught David giving a smug little smile at the beginning. Did I mention he seems pretty cocky? This time he didn't sound like Neil Diamond. In fact, it didn't sound like a Neil Diamond song at all. Not a bit. It was a top-notch performance. Randy said he was in the zone on his first song, and rocked the house on his second. Paula said she thought she's looking at the next American Idol. Simon thought it was brilliant. Great, just what David needs, more validation to inflate his puffed-up ego.

MIDDLE OF THE BUNCH:

David Archuleta:

Round 1: David came out crooning "Sweet Caroline." Sorry, but this isn't just a popular karaoke tune, it's a Saturday-night standard for the karaoke crowd. And that's what it sounded like. David has amazing vocals, no doubt about it, and (sorry David Cook) he'll probably win the whole competition. But anyone giving this performance a serious critique would agree that this wasn't much more than a mediocre cover of the song. His voice was smooth, and he hit all the notes, but he didn't change the arrangement and did nothing new with it.

Round 2: Taking a page from Kristy Lee Cook who sang "Proud to be an American" a few weeks ago, David chose "Coming to America" for his second song. Another dangerous karaoke choice if you ask me, but this time he really made it feel different. His amazing voice lifted the song above and beyond any rendition I've ever heard. It was as good as you'd expect from David, who quite likely will be the next Idol. Randy said his first song was the bomb, and his second was in the zone. Paula said it was the perfect song. Simon said his first performance was amateurish, but his second was a brilliant song choice.

Syesha Mercado:

Round 1: Syesha sang "Hello Again." She looked great and really belted it out. What a fantastic voice. She changed up the arrangement and put her own twist on it too, which was nice. Neil Diamond really seemed to like Syesha in the pre-performance video, and I think he would have liked this rendition.

Round 2: She chose "Thank the Lord for the Nighttime," a choice that also seemed to please Diamond. Really jazzy and upbeat, Syesha was clearly having tons of fun on stage. With her pipes, she should be a contender for sure. But I'm not sure if anyone can overcome the double-Davids. Randy said her first song was strong, and her second was in the zone. (Jeez Randy, how many times are you going to say that in one night???) Paula said she showed variety with the two performances. Simon thought the first performance was old-fashioned, and thought the second wasn't really memorable, and that Syesha might be in danger of going home.

Brooke White:

Round 1: Brooke chose "I'm a Believer" for her first song. I know this is a Neil Diamond song, but all I can think of when I hear this is The Monkeys and Shrek. Brooke played guitar, which I don't think we've seen from her this season, and she put a slight country twist on the song. She was definitely having fun, but didn't put anything new on it except for a few high notes.

Round 2: She sang "I Am, I Said." Back at the piano, where we've come to expect to see Brooke, she had really nice vocals. The song picked up a bit in the middle, and she switched up a couple of the lyrics, but otherwise she again didn't do anything revolutionary with the song. Still, it was a good solid performance. Randy said her first song was a little karaoke, but called the second a nice job. Paula said she connected with the audience. Simon called the first song a nightmare and said the second was a million times better.

WORST OF THE LOT:

Jason Castro:

Round 1: Jason came out first singing "Forever in Blue Jeans." Playing guitar, it was exactly the kind of mellow performance we've come to count on from Jason. A pretty conventional version, and except for the backing band, didn't offer anything new.

Round 2: Jason chose "September Morn." Sitting and playing no instruments, it was a very mellow performance again. Vocally, Jason's good. He's just so dang laid back. I can easily envision Jason playing guitar and singing at some small nightclub somewhere, but I don't see myself (or many others) buying an album from him. Maybe an EP. Randy said both performances were "just okay." Paula said he played it safe on both songs. Simon called both performances forgettable. I think we're all in agreement here ... it's time for Jason to go.

Wednesday night, it'll be down to four. Unless they decide to elimate Paula.

Ethan Morris: "Not always right, but never in doubt." Go ahead and write me.