In a hard-to-call night, the contestants' renditions of Elvis songs hit different notes

By Michael Slezak
July 03, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
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”American Idol”: The final four take on the King

Holy cow. Here’s where it starts to get interesting. For the first time in five seasons of American Idol, I wouldn’t be shocked if any one of the final four contestants got eliminated, or conversely, went on to win (and subsequently record a drippy, Clive Davis-produced ballad called ”A Moment Inside Your Wings,” or some such nonsense.) Indeed, the question of who’ll be permanently exiting the Idol building on Wednesday night’s results show is about as unpredictable as the moods of Paula Abdul — which alternately thrills, terrifies, frustrates, and tickles me.

The only thing I’m certain of after a particularly solid Elvis night, in fact, is that I’ll be sleeping fitfully tonight, tossing and turning and mulling over which of the following scenarios will lead to the untimely elimination of one of the talented (and closely matched) Idol wannabes we heard tonight.

1. If voters focus solely on tonight’s vocal performances… Katharine McPhee should pack her bags. To be fair to the last female standing in the competition, I thought her ”Hound Dog/All Shook Up” mash-up was actually quite inspired, a playful, pleasant, and (mostly) on-key departure from her standard-issue balladeering. That said, if Katharine really envisions herself as the second coming of Kelly Clarkson (hey now, try to suppress the groaning, haters), aren’t we a bit far into the competition for her to be botching her lyrics?

As for Kat’s rendition of ”Can’t Help Falling in Love,” the opening 20 seconds or so sounded like the musical equivalent of a home run, until the performance suddenly veered left — and right into foul territory. (Okay, maybe that was a bad analogy, but I watch too much Idol to follow baseball, so cut me a break.) Even Katharine’s biggest boosters can’t pretend they didn’t hear the screeching ending, or the way the fashion-challenged beauty abruptly terminated her last note, then stood waiting for the judges’ critiques while the band wrapped up the song.

Not exactly an Idol-making moment, but then again, what if the dudes split the vote? What if Kat’s built up enough good will with ”Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” and ”Someone to Watch Over Me” to overcome a one-song stumble? What if she wins sympathy votes from viewers who hate having to watch her endure Ryan Seacrest’s icky attempts at flirting?

2. In that event, if you’ve studied Idol history… Chris Daughtry fans might be in for a shock this week. True, many folks have been calling the bald-headed hottie a shoo-in for the final two since sometime around Valentine’s Day, but think of the way the voting’s gone down in previous seasons: Jasmine Trias outlasting La Toya London in Season 3, or Nikki McKibbin garnering more votes than Tamyra Gray in the show’s first edition.

Perhaps Chris chose the wrong week to play it soft and sentimental. (Note: The last time he took a non-howling approach, on ”What a Wonderful World,” he landed in the bottom two.) And let’s be frank: What was the guy thinking pulling a David Caruso — removing his unnecessary shades mid-line-reading — midway through his otherwise heartfelt rendition of ”Suspicious Minds”?

On the other hand, Chris’ ”A Little Less Conversation” was loooow-key, but it worked for cryin’ out loud. I mean, not every recipe calls for all the ingredients to be thrown directly into the fire, and accordingly, Chris let his number simmer slowly and sensually, building to an appropriately spicy finale. That clingy white shirt, all that talk about action and satisfaction, and the well-timed use of his secret weapon — Chris’ admission that he wears boxer briefs (!) — may not have worked on Simon, but I bet there’ll be a sudden spike in Daughtry wallpaper downloads in the next 24 hours. I mean, the dude’s shtick certainly seemed to register on Paula’s lust-o-meter.

3. If the skivvies talk worked (and you know it probably did), it’d be hard to ignore season-long voting patterns… Which clearly point out Elliott Yamin as the likeliest evictee from the competition. His bottom-two finish last week, along with the fact that he’s the only remaining finalist with multiple bottom-three appearances, means he’s probably got the least sizable (or least-likely-to-speed-dial) fanbase.

In other words, E-Double will always need to be twice as good as his competitors when he takes the stage. And while I’m sure everyone reading this column has their own opinion on the subject, I’d say the unlikely heartthrob (yes, imperfect teeth and all!) did exactly that. Elliott’s wickedly soulful ”If I Could Dream” proved Mandisa’s not the only Season 5 finalist who could rock the gospel charts, but it was ”Trouble” — a song choice that on paper seemed like a disastrous misstep — that proved Elliott is fully capable of taking over Carrie Underwood’s crown. More so than any other performance tonight, Elliott’s ”Trouble” possessed passion, conviction, and a true sense of Elvis-esque cheekiness. It also showed the diabetic guy with 90 percent hearing loss in one ear might, for the first time, believe he’s talented enough, handsome enough, and that, gosh darn it, people like him. Heck, even Simon thinks Elliott deserves to survive till next week!

4. Which, while it’s not very likely, means that not even Taylor Hicks should be feeling completely secure right now… Sure, there’s no denying his ”In the Ghetto” was a perfect song choice, proving (once again) that the gray-haired guy has better taste in music than any of his rivals. And Taylor sang it beautifully, too, eschewing even the slightest hint of gimmickry, and reminding even his naysayers of his ability to not only connect with his lyrics, but to make familiar tunes sound very much his own.

In fact, I’d call this Taylor’s first true ”moment” since his ”Change Is Gonna Come” audition. Too bad he didn’t rise to the occasion on his first number, ”Jailhouse Rock,” which Simon astutely noted was ”karaoke with a capital K.” I know some folks will call me a killjoy, but honestly, I have no problem with Taylor’s goofy dancing or his inherent showmanship — they’re both A-OK as far as I’m concerned. What bothers me is that when Taylor gets into his manic groove, his voice sounds listless and strained, and he gets away with it, thanks to the Mr. Congeniality, ”Soul Patrol!” shouting routine.

Still, what I’m trying to say is, even after slicing up tonight’s show four different ways, I can think of a dozen other factors that could put the contestants at risk. If viewers listen to the judges, Katharine and Chris will be the bottom two. If we’re thinking cynically about the predictably market-driven sensibilities of the American public, it’s probably the end of the line for either Elliott or Taylor. In terms of week-to-week momentum, it seems Chris might be slipping the most. If teen speed-dialing makes the difference, Elliott’s a goner. To put it another way, this week’s outcome is anyone’s guess. And with not a single talentless screech owl in the bunch, I think I could learn to live with whatever happens. In any event, it’s going to be a nail-biter. See you at the watercooler this time on Thursday?

Which contestant do you think deserves to get the boot? Is America in for a shock during tonight’s results show? And anyone else out there think Paula should be strapped to her chair?

Episode Recaps

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.
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