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On the Scene: 'American Idol' Final Four performance

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Syeshamercado_l

Syeshamercado_lDo you remember the mid-1980s video for that Twisted Sister song, the one that starts with a sadistic schoolteacher berating a student for desecrating his notebook? The teacher caps off his tirade with a guttural, “What do you wanna do with your life?” And the mulleted, denim-vested kid has a very simple reply: “I want to rock.”

That’s exactly how I felt heading to last night’s Idol. I knew it was Rock and Roll Hall of Fame night… and I was ready to rock! So while I was driving from the EW offices in Brentwood to CBS Television City studios in West Hollywood, I cranked up some Heart: “Crazy on You,” “Magic Man,” “Barracuda”… ladies and gentlemen, the best of Ann and Nancy Wilson! But none of my Wilshire Blvd. jammin’ prepared me for what I was about to witness: Duran Duran. To be more precise, this season’s Daughtry doing his rocked-out version of Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf.”

addCredit(“Syesha Mercado: F Micelotta/Getty Images”)

But I really ought to back up and explain a few things first.Namely, that I’m a stand-in. Normally, this would be Shirley Halperin’sweek to blog from inside the Idol studio, but she’s in New York at therelease party for Pot Culture: The A-Z Guide to Stoner Language and Life, her impressive new book about, well, the title pretty much says it all.

Secondly, I ought to confess that I’m not an American Idoladdict. I’m more of a casual viewer. I love the singing competition,but it’s the embedded commercials and the strangely tuneless theme song— which gets embedded in my brain — that I can do without. This week’sembedded commercial was less offensive than usual: Cleveland’s Rock andRoll Hall of Fame. I wonder how much they spent for that privilege.

But let’s get back to David Cook’s show-starting “Hungry Like theWolf.” Now, I like Duran Duran as much as the next child of the 80s,and I enjoyed this contestant’s rockier version of it, but where wasthe rock ‘n’ roll swagger to go with the voice? Where’s that hungerhe’s singing about? Let’s see some guitar smashing and crazy David LeeRoth splits from the man with “AC/DC” emblazoned on his blazer! Was itme, or did he seem a little sad? For once, I agreed with Randy, whocalled this performance “Just okay.”

And then there’s Paula Abdul, bless her heart. “I think your ‘HungryLike the Wolf’ has left me with a big appetite,” she declared. I seemto have been the only one in the audience who interpreted thatstatement negatively – I thought she was still hungry, like I was, fora more satisfying performance. (I was also hungry for dinner, butthat’s a whole other blog.) Nope, she meant that he had whetted herappetite for more. And certainly Cook’s cocky smile showed that he tookit positively as well.

It’s comments like that one from Paula that make me sure what shesays is rehearsed. Is it scripted by someone else? Who knows? Probably.But her delivery can be so stilted and the lines so crafted thatthere’s no way that woman is coming up with them on the spot. Which iswhy last week’s “debacle”didn’t surprise me one bit. And why I also think any shock over it isdisingenuous. I mean, we’re dealing with Fox — hardly a bastion ofintegrity — presenting an entertainment show. Of course some of it isscripted! Does that make it any less fun? Nah.

But thanks to Paulagate, everyone seemed on their best behavior lastnight. Syesha had a little scripted repartee with Ryan about the Idoltour (tickets on sale soon! Plug, plug!): “Oh my gosh, I’m so excitedabout the tour,” she said before heading to center stage for her TinaTurner moment (pictured). “Proud Mary” — now that’s a rock ‘n’ roll classic! Butwhen Tina has made it so indelible, you’ve got to be extraordinary tohave an impact. Syesha looked happy, and you could feel that in thestudio. Randy loved it, Paula did too (of course), but Simon, as usual,called it like it was: a shrieky Tina Turner impersonation. Sadly, I’veseen versions just as good at many bar mitzvah receptions.

During every commercial break, I was surprised to see the judges rush off. The only other time I’ve attended an Idol performance night was, coincidentally, the same week last year, when I sat in for my colleague(and high-school classmate) Shirley. From what I saw then, the judgesstayed put in their seats during a few of the breaks and chatted withnearby celebrities — that is, if you count Judge Judy as a celebrity,and I’ll be generous and do so. But this time, during every singlecommercial break, Randy, Paula, and Simon marched through the crowd,pausing to hug and gladhand a bit, and headed out the door, only toreturn a scant two minutes later, often at the very last moment(Paula!), often causing a bit of controlled panic. I wonder what onecan possibly accomplish in two minutes anyway. And is it worth the trekto get there? Maybe they need some hair and makeup touch-ups, but notduring every break. I bet Simon does a lot of texting; he seems like abig texter, right? Randy’s probably doing status updates on hisFacebook page. And Paula has got to be just going along so that shewon’t be the only one left behind, right? Plus, she has this tallbodyguard/handler who escorts her back and forth, standing at a ratherintimate distance from her, his hand around her waist as if they’reabout to begin a waltz.

Meanwhile, during those two minutes that they’re gone, Cory, the audience warm-up guy, gives out copies of Chicken Soup for the American Idol Soul. Jo-Lynn from Arkansas got a copy last night. Mazel tov, Jo-Lynn!

And before you know it, it’s time for some Bob Marley. He alreadyhad the hair, so Jason Castro completed the portrait and sang “I Shotthe Sheriff,” but, from where I sat, it was incredibly unimpressive.While Jason’s “atrocious” (Simon) performance carried on to a “weird”(Randy) arrangement, my attention wandered to the set. It’s changed alot since last year – they added a bunch of levels, each with multiplevideo screens. It’s all very busy and big and seems to serve no purposeat all. And then there’s the mosh pit. Now, mind you, there is noslam-dancing or body-passing occurring down there, but there are somepeople – some positively old people – standing there, hands in the air,through the entire show.

Soon enough, Jason was done. What’s clear in person is he has abeautiful smile, a nice energy, really (Boy, now I sound like PollyannaPaula!), but I can’t imagine there’s any way that’s enough to put Mr.Castro in the top three.

Up next: Lil’ David, and he’s got some back-up singers for hisrendition of “Stand By Me.” I must say, the kid (or his dad?) chose agreat song. His voice is terrific and the arrangement is good, but hisdelivery is so… earnest. Aah, well, no matter, because the judges lovedit.

During the next commercial break, Rascal Flatts arrived. I’m not even sure if they’re promoting their album that came out in the fall, or what, but it was certainly curious thatthey stopped in late, took seats in the center, got a shout-out fromRyan and, unseen by the cameras, departed before the final performance.

David Cook took on the Who’s “Baba O’Riley.” He did a solid jobvocally, but Cook has really mastered that bored rock look. Where’s theedge, man? Randy thought it was “great,” Paula was “humbled” to watchhis “soul,” and Simon told David, “Welcome back.”

It’s right around this time when I had to control myself fromunleashing my inner New Yorker on this little girl in front of me.Adorable. Clad in a pink dress with sequins on the neckline, I imagineshe’s a very nice kid. But I just wanted to wring her neck. Every timeDavid Cook got on stage, up went her “I [heart] David Cook” sign –right in front of my face. Sigh. But it was really her mom – standingher daughter up on her seat, pushing up the sign, screaming louder thanany of the kids any time David Cook appeared, and literally pushing herdaughter towards Cory the audience guy whenever he would come around:”Give my daughter free stuff,” you could practically hear her plead.Finally, Cory obliged, and the kid received an iTunes gift card. HappyMother’s Day!

As Syesha explained, Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” waswritten about the Civil Rights movement. Her comparing that “pivotalera” to this “pivotal time in my life” could have felt cheap, butmusic’s power is in the way it can connect to anyone – good lyricsresonate however we interpret them. Plus, Syesha was so genuinely movedby Randy’s criticism and Simon and Paula’s support. What you couldn’tsee on TV was Debbie the stage manager, in her red bandana, runningfrom offstage, handing Ryan a tissue to wipe the tears.

If only there were a quick, tissue-like fix for Jason Castro’sproblems. His second song yielded a pretty major misstep: forgettingthe lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Again, the kid’s charmcame across, but this time it can’t possibly make up for that.

This next break brought some commotion in the audience. With RascalFlatts departing, all the judges chatted with them, and Randy spentsome time working the crowd. When it came time for the show to start upagain, poor Debbie had to get everyone’s attention to get the crowdsettled (“Ten seconds! Everybody settle down!”) and her judges back inplace (“Four, three, applause everybody!”). But, as always, it came offas seamless.

You can’t hear what’s happening in the audience during thosepre-taped “packages” but D’Archie’s second one was nearly impossible tohear in the studio over the piercing screams of girls and women (andmen?) alike. Man, they love him tender. Archuleta’s like a little kittycat, so cute and soft you just want to pet his face. No one mentionedthat he had some pitchy moments in his Elvis number, but he clearlysecured his place in the top three.

Hopefully, whoever wins season 7 of American Idol will be theperson who truly rocks this competition — whether that’s David Cookfinding his inner David Lee Roth and letting his presence match hisvoice; or David Archuleta, whose way of rocking is more tender, anddefinitely earnest; or Syesha Mercado, who only seems to be gettingmore comfortable each week.

Rock on!

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