After a surprisingly strong showing by the semifinal eight guys, we can only pick one who clearly doesn't deserve a spot in the final half dozen
Cook Castro

”American Idol” recap: The guys’ best night yet

When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. And wow, did I ever prove that point when, back on Feb. 20, I got all huffy and argued that only three or four of American Idol‘s male semifinalists deserved a spot in the season 7 finals. And to put an exclamation point on my error, I argued that ”Rocker” Robbie Carrico was among the worthy contenders!

Now, here we are two weeks later — and less than 48 hours from the announcement of this year’s top 12 — and seven of the eight men left in the competition have made at least a somewhat compelling case that no, their journeys should not end with a torrent of tears from Ramiele Malubay and a dream-crushing insult from Simon come Thursday evening.

That’s how the game is played, though, and if a single painful elimination is the price we have to pay for an unexpectedly high number of above-average male vocalists, then so be it. Look at the bright side: At least one exit-show performance this week won’t have you frantically trying to locate the fast-forward button on your DVR.

So who should be resting easy this week, and who’s at risk? I’d bet every cent in my bank account on the safety of three contestants in particular, and since I can’t bear to lead off (again!) writing about a certain contestant who’s been sucking the buzz out of the room as he makes his inevitable march toward a confetti-and-glitter-strewn Kodak Theatre, let’s start by heaping the praise on his polar opposite in the competition.

Okay, you’re right, that description actually fits Amanda Overmyer.

But you’ve got to admit, Jason Castro also resides on the opposite end of the musical spectrum from the Snuggle bear, and tonight, his rendition of ”Hallelujah” was one of those transcendent Idol performances that we’ll still be discussing come season 9 or 10. To be completely fair, the dreadlocked dude’s vocals weren’t without a couple of glitches — did you catch that goofy hint of a smile as he botched the closing note? — but what made his performance great wasn’t just the ”phrasing” (as Paula claimed) but the way Jason made every single word of Leonard Cohen’s lyric mean something. I could almost imagine the music supervisors from Ugly Betty and Grey’s Anatomy getting into a bidding war to snag Jason’s ”Hallelujah” for their next end-of-episode montage. It was that good. And the guy’s amusingly bewildered interview persona is a sweet oasis in a desert of exceedingly lame clip packages.

But Jason won’t be the only guitar-playing contestant advancing to the finals this week, thanks to a thrillingly inventive cover of Lionel Richie’s ”Hello” by my new favorite emo band, David Cook and His Awful Hair. I won’t lie, I shuddered involuntarily when Ryan first announced that Rocker David was tackling a ballad that invariably gives me flashbacks to that video where the blind woman sculpts a bust of Lionel’s head. But all that ’80s awfulness/awesomeness disappeared with Rocker David’s first guitar chord, and while I’m not convinced he’s the second coming of Daughtry, I’ll say this much: I bet if Nigel Lythgoe saddled Rocker David with a stinker like ”This Is My Now” or ”Do I Make You Proud,” he’d find a way to make it not awful.

As for the third Thursday-night shoo-in — tween audience members please get ready to let out an inhuman squeal — put your hands together for ”Little” David Archuleta! What’s that? You weren’t feeling quite as rapturous over the kid’s ”Another Day in Paradise” as you were about last week’s ”Imagine”? Well, that may have a little to do with the fact that while Phil Collins’ chart-topping ballad does indeed ”bring attention to the people of the world who have nothing” (as Little David noted), it’s also a dreary gob of muck. And although Little David’s vocal wasn’t quite as strong this time either — was anyone else distracted by the way the kid kept licking his lips every 15 seconds or so? — the piano playing was a nice touch, and as Paula sagely noted (in a night otherwise marked by her utter incoherence), it’s good to see he’s not a hologram. You’ll have to forgive me, but I also agreed with Randy: The kid gives off the vibe that you’re not watching a televised talent competition but rather are one of the lucky folks who got through to Ticketmaster and snagged a seat at his sold-out concert.

So if we assume I’m right about Jason, Rocker, and Little David, that leaves five additional men competing for just three spots in the finals. And while I’d put him in my personal bottom three tonight, rest assured that the scads of screen time and loving camera angles that come from being a producer favorite mean Michael Johns will be sailing through to next week’s mixed-gender performance. Unless they were reading off Nigel Lythgoe’s cue cards, I’m not entirely sure why Randy and Paula appeared to be so excited about Michael’s take on ”Don’t You (Forget About Me),” but the Aussie dude sounded to me like he was suffering from nasal congestion, and once again, he failed to really do anything other than offer a straightforward karaoke rendition of a classic. (Side note: Did Randy seem to think the Breakfast Club soundtrack staple was sung by INXS?)

NEXT: The stripper crisis

On the flip side, I have a terrible sinking feeling that one of my top four contestants on the men’s side — David Hernandez — might not have ”100 percent secured [his] place in the finals,” as Simon argued at the end of David’s occasionally rocky but still bold and still potent performance of ”It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.” Yes, a lot of my fear is based on the Associated Press story that confirmed the rumors that David H. once worked as a stripper — a career choice that (a) has nothing to do with his performances on the Idol stage; (b) in no way makes him a ”bad person” or unfit to land a major-label record deal; and (c) reminds me how unfair it was that Frenchie Davis never got the chance to break up the Ruben-Clay party that was season 2. But it’s not just that. Every Idol fan knows the top 12 announcement always contains a shocker, and it often is the ouster of a good-looking, extremely talented vocalist who hasn’t scored a lot of screen time, and isn’t as inherently charismatic/zany/likable/sassy as a few of his or her rivals. Here’s hoping that the part of me that fears for David H. is the same part that’s still in mourning from Sabrina Sloan’s early exit last season, but that interview clip about his experience with a ”walnut-sized” booger was not exactly a star-making turn.

And then there were three. And let us assume, hope, and pray that of that trio, Luke Menard will not receive nearly enough votes to threaten the Idol aspirations of either Chikezie or Danny Noriega. I mean, come on, voting for Luke is like going into a restaurant and saying, ”Hello, I’d like a milquetoast on melba, hold all the condiments!” As the a cappella wonder launched into his exceedingly lame rendition of ”Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” tonight, I realized he’s the one contestant in the competition who was born for those heinous results-night group performances. And for those of you who think Simon was too mean for calling the performance ”weak and a bit girly,” let me make this confession. As Luke was performing tonight, I jotted this fleeting thought onto my notepad: ”on the high notes — voice like a small girl’s whisper.”

If justice not only prevails but absolutely rules on Thursday, the bottom three will be rounded out by Chikezie and Danny Noriega, and here’s where this column gets a little tricky for me. Do I root for the guy who’s a little bit boring, who gravitates toward not terribly exciting songs, but who is a technically proficient singer? Or do I root for the teenager who needs a humble pie launched directly at his face, who gets a little rough on the notes that fall outside his limited comfort zone, but who performs with copious amounts of sass and panache? I’m not sure it matters that much.

I can’t really see Chikezie going all the way, considering he got upstaged by his belt buckle tonight. Plus, it’s week 3 of the semifinals, and already he’s repeating ”All the Woman I Need,” the track he sang at his audition? (Yeah, he did sing it pretty strongly, though.)

As for Danny, well, yeah, he’s definitely TMTH, and if this were America’s Next Top Guest Cohost for The View, I might end up speed-dialing on his behalf. (That ”Mmm-hmmm” response to Ryan’s feigned obliviousness about the purple streaks in his hair was the funniest thing I’ve seen on TV in weeks.) But while his ”Tainted Love” was jauntily arranged and decently sung, he has yet to give a vocal performance I’d even think about downloading.

If I had to place a bet, I’d guess it’ll be Luke and Chikezie who’ll fall just short of the finals. But then again, what do I know? Remember: Fourteen days ago, I was the chump who was pimping for Robbie Carrico.

Who do you think deserves to get the ax on Thursday? And are those the same two guys you suspect will be eliminated? Did you notice how the judges’ mikes seemed to be turned on early tonight, before the performers had barely finished their numbers? And what was with Denise Richards and her sad-stunned expression from the audience? Scary!

Episode Recaps

American Idol

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

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