American Idol Tried to Carey Difficult Tunes

If one thing is certain on this season's American Idol, it's that nothing at all is certain.

With everyone still reeling from Michael Johns' stunning elimination, I think all of the Idol-ites know their number could be up at any time.

That fear must have been looming large as they had to perform Mariah Carey songs this week. So far this year, some of the worst criticisms from the judges have gone to singers who have dared to tackle divas such as Whitney and Mariah.

Trying to sing Mariah is a little like skating on thin ice while holding a tiger by the tail with one hand and trying to bite off more than you can chew with the other. It's hard. Good thing the contestants actually had Mariah as their mentor this week. Who's better to coach you through a Mariah song than Mariah herself?

I have never been much of a Mariah Carey fan, but I have to admit that after watching her interview and the coaching sessions, I have a little bit more respect for her. She's not nearly as flaky as I, for some reason, imagined her to be.

Still, the contestants had their work cut out for them. No more coasting through a performance knowing that there are still one or two weak players in the pack who will probably get picked off. There are seven singers left, and all seven are pretty dang good. As was Michael Johns.

As Ryan so aptly pointed out, every vote counts. Which means every note counts.

Now I need to confess something before I get to the specifics of the performances. As I mentioned, I've never been much of a Mariah Carey fan, which means I don't know any Mariah Carey songs. Not a one. Seriously.

If I had to swear on a stack of Bibles while hooked up to a polygraph with a gun to my head, I could not confidently name a single Mariah Carey song. Didn't she do something called "Butterfly" once, or maybe that's a nickname... I don't know.

My point is, I had to judge this week's performances without any frame of reference. I knew that all of the renditions would be unrecognizable to me, so I'd have to critique their actual on-stage performances, which, with only two exceptions, were pretty tame.

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

TOP TWO:

David Cook: David's back! After what I thought was a dismal song choice last week, David returned with a vengeance. Singing "Always Be My Baby," he looked a lot better than last week. I vaguely recognized this tune, at least enough to tell that David was once again putting his own unique spin on it. The song started slowly with the kind of rock-like feel we've come to expect from David, then it really picked up. Cook put on a heck of a show, giving the only animated stage performance of the night. It blew the judges away. Randy said he's ready to make an album now. Paula thought it was like a movie soundtrack. Simon said it was a breath of fresh air after karaoke hell and called it original and daring. David was actually crying afterwards.

Brooke White: I have to give the other top honors of the night to Brooke White. Brooke sang "Hero" while playing piano, and was the only contestant of the evening to play an instrument. She kept it piano only, with no backing band at all, so it really showcased her voice which was terrific. There's something more real about Brooke than some of the other contestants. She's the kind of singer I'd want to go see in concert. There were no "blow you away" notes or moments in the song, it was just a good solid performance. And besides David Cook, Brooke's was the second most animated performance of the night since she actually played the piano instead of just standing and singing. Randy thought it was pretty good, but hated the bridge. Paula said every ounce of Brooke is authentic. Simon dissented and didn't think her voice was strong enough to carry the song.

MIDDLE OF THE PACK:

David Archuleta: After week one, everyone pretty much thought David Archuleta would waltz into the finals. But in the weeks since, I think David's youth and inexperience have hurt him a little. He's a great singer, but he comes across to me as young and goofy, like... well, like a 17-year-old. David sang "When You Believe," and when he started, I couldn't believe it. He looked older. Wearing leather pants and a t-shirt, I thought I was watching a 20 or 30-something-year-old. The vocals were amazing as usual. But the second he stopped singing, the shy, goofy 17-year-old was back. On singing alone, David beats everyone around him. But he needs to own the stage, even after the music stops. The cuteness of being embarrassed by praise from the judges has worn off for me. The judges do love him, though. Randy said he was the bomb. Paula thought Mariah would be proud of the performance. Simon said David had set the bar and that it was very, very good.

Syesha Mercado: First let me say that Syesha looked amazing. The best-looking singer of the night by a mile. I thought I was watching a bona fide concert. Her song was not as smashing though. Syesha sang "Vanishing," which the judges implied was a monumental task. The middle notes sounded a little haphazard to me, but she hit a few huuuuuge notes at the end, earning her a few last second points with the judges. Randy thought she was bold for picking such a tough song, but did a good job. Paula thought she was smart to pick a song that not a lot of people know, so that she wouldn't be compared to Mariah. Simon thought technically it was very good, but that she should have chosen a better known song.

Kristy Lee Cook: Everyone who wants to see Kristy Lee Cook go home, raise your hand. Okay, now put them down, because she didn't do anything to deserve a ticket back to Oregon tonight. While Kristy didn't have the strongest performance of the evening, she wasn't the worst by a long shot. Singing "Forever" with a slightly country arrangement, Kristy looked and sounded terrific. She's just as strong vocally as any of the other contestants, and proves it when she finds a song that fits her country-leaning tendency. Randy said it wasn't amazing, but that she really nailed the song at the end. Paula said she was blown away. Simon said it wasn't great, but that she managed it well enough considering that Mariah is about as far from country music as you can get.

BOTTOM TWO:

Jason Castro: Last week Jason had a huge hit with a Hawaiian-style, mellow performance of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and he went for mellow again, but this time it didn't work. Jason sang "I Don't Want to Cry." It didn't help that he had to follow David Cook's amazing and upbeat performance. In Cook's wake, Castro felt a little flat. The song was fine, but not spectacular by a long shot. I kept waiting for something bigger to happen, but it never did. Randy thought it sounded like something he'd hear at a beach luau. (Umm, that was last week Randy.) Paula loved it. Simon thought it was cool, although not the best vocal performance of the night.

Carly Smithson: Like David Archuleta, I think everyone assumed that Carly was the crowned-princess of Idol, destined for the finals whether we all liked it or not. But for the second week in a row, I put Carly at the bottom of my list. Not because it was a bad performance, but because it wasn't good enough. Carly sang "Without You," which I instantly recognized, because it's not really a Mariah Carey song. It's a cover of a '70s song made famous by three-hit wonder Harry Nilsson. Carly sang well, and it was a perfectly good performance. But that's all. Just... good. Not great. Randy said it was pretty good. Paula liked the beginning but had trouble with the back half. Simon said he didn't think Carly pulled it off.

After the Michael Johns shocker, it's clear that performances will only get you so far. I think at this point in the competition, it's safe to say... no one is safe at all. Someone will find that out the hard way Wednesday night. See you then.

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