Choosing songs from their birth year, most of the contestants do way better (Michael Johns) or way worse (David Archuleta) than we expected
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If you had told me a month ago that in this week of the American Idol finals, Jason Castro or David Archuleta would be in the bottom three — while Kristy Lee Cook, Syesha Mercado, and Michael Johns looked on from the comfort and safety of those hideous blue chenille couches — I’d have said you were crazier than the bespangled, black-leather half gloves that Paula pulled out from the back trunk of her closet tonight.

And, yeah, while the above scenario is about as likely to happen as Simon wearing a rainbow-hued button-down to Wednesday night’s results show, it wouldn’t be the most shocking turn of events — not after a bizarre set of performances on the bizarre ”Songs From the Year You Were Born” theme night.

Then again, it’s been that kind of season — with momentum zipping among the contestants in wildly unpredictable fashion. Except, of course, for the one man who — despite a decided lack of early-season hype — is looking more and more like a potential champion every time he takes the Idol stage. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear it for…

…David Cook and His Steadily Improving Hair!

Indeed, the man whose baby pictures made him look like a supervillain from a Marvel Comic (thank God he said it so I don’t have to!) gave the performance of the night, twisting the highly danceable 1982 smash ”Billie Jean” into a dark and stormy ballad.

We now interrupt this paragraph to note that, as Ryan Seacrest pointed out, Rocker David was actually reinterpreting Chris Cornell’s 2007 take on Michael Jackson’s original. Which means Rocker David will likely be fending off ”rip-off” and ”copycat” accusations regarding his performance. And while on some level I do wish that Idol contestants would (or could) rearrange well-known hits without relying on someone else’s recipe, that might not always be a realistic request, given the fact that each one of ’em has to pick and learn a new song (while getting the Idol band on board and recording a version for iTunes) every seven days.

Either way, even if you stripped Rocker David of any extra credit for originality, there’s no denying his vocal on ”Billie Jean” tonight. The physical and emotional power of his glory note toward the end of his number alone exceeded anything sung by any of his nine rivals this week. As Simon succinctly summed it up, Rocker David was ”amazing.”

I’m not sure I’d dole out an adjective quite that strong to describe either Syesha Mercado or Michael Johns, but I’ve got to give credit where it’s due and rank them as the evening’s second and third best performers — despite the fact that I’ve never been a huge fan of either one of them.

Syesha boldly chose the super-size ballad ”If I Were Your Woman” — the third time in six weeks she’s sung about her yearning for a man who’s otherwise engaged! — and for the second straight performance, she hit practically every note, without resorting to flat-out shouting. There’s still something slightly off-putting about Syesha’s interview packages — I can’t shake the weird feeling that she’s been programmed from birth to hunt down fame like Anton Chigurh going after double-crossers — but there’s nothing Idol voters like better than contestants who show week-to-week growth.

Michael, meanwhile, received some help this week, getting bathed in a blinding glow of Nigel Lythgoe’s love — or was that merely some extraordinarily blinding ”I am rock star, hear me roar!” lighting? — as he sang ”We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions” (coincidentally, a wise suggestion by my colleague Kristen Baldwin on this week’s Idolatry). But the lighting and collective hand claps from Rickey Minor and the band didn’t detract from the fact that for the first time in six weeks of live performances, Michael delivered a number with gobs of charisma and (as with Syesha) barely a note out of tune. No, he didn’t really color outside the lines of Queen’s template, but you’ve got to start the momentum-building somewhere, right?

NEXT: Rally round the flag!

With Rocker David, Syesha, and Michael looking pretty secure to advance to the top nine, that leaves seven other contestants scrambling for the coveted middle ground that’ll keep them out of the bottom three. And you can bet your mother’s apple pie (or perhaps your actual mother) that the oft-maligned Kristy Lee Cook will be sailing into Dolly Parton week thanks to her inspired choice of ”God Bless the U.S.A.” (complete with an American flag backdrop, American flag lighting, and a shirtless beefcake shot of Kristy Lee’s dad, circa 1984). I loved watching Simon grapple with his words as he began his critique of the performance. Obviously, Lee Greenwood’s ballad is a gargantuan slab of government cheese, but a lot of folks love the taste of it. So allow me to translate Simon’s remarks (”the most clever song choice I have heard in years”) into British (”behind that nice Oregon-gal smile lies a shrewd yet limited vocalist who knows that playing the patriotism card is a surefire way to buy another week in the competition”).

And Kristy Lee’s safe passage could spell an anxious results night (and a dreaded trip to center stage) for one of these sometime front-runners: Brooke White, Carly Smithson, Jason Castro, and David Archuleta.

Of that quartet, Brooke probably has the least to worry about, considering the opening half of her cover of the Police’s ”Every Breath You Take” gave off the kind of surprising alternative vibe you might expect from Tori Amos (if Tori Amos had spent her entire life inside the protected bubble of an animated Disney classic). Sadly, as Randy and Simon pointed out, the band arrived at the midway point and turned Brooke’s vaguely stalker-y performance into a fluffy adult-contemporary soufflé.

Carly, by comparison, probably delivered a stronger all-around vocal than Brooke, but she appeared so overwrought during ”Total Eclipse of the Heart” that I worried she might collapse as she attempted (and failed) to turn that final vocal run into a showstopping momentum booster. The weird thing about Carly is that I’m probably more likely to go out and buy her album after Idol than any other finalist’s, and yet, as Simon noted tonight, something’s just not working when she gets on the stage (and not just because she picked a song previously covered by season 1’s Nikki McKibbin and season 4’s Jessica Sierra). As our reader call-in guest on last week’s Idolatry noted, Carly ought to be having the time of her life out there, but instead she’s giving off an air of desperation that’s becoming the central theme of her story arc. (Also, she should be aware that Bonnie Tyler’s lyric references ”a powder keg,” not ”a power keg.”)

Still, I’m guessing Carly’s flirtation with elimination last week will motivate her fans to speed-dial her to safety; that could leave Jason Castro or David Archuleta as this week’s bottom-three shocker.

Jason’s probably the most likely candidate, but not because his cover of Sting’s ”Fragile” was any more or less effective than any performance he’s previously given on the Idol stage. (As Paula noted, it was all very lovely, but not different from his last five live performances.) But Jason’s utterly unconvincing attempt at telling Ryan Seacrest that he was actually interested in taking home the Idol title could be the beginning of a downward spiral in momentum for the Dreadlocked One. Yeah, yeah, I know Chris Daughtry and Jennifer Hudson have done just fine without cracking the top three — but I never got the sense that either of them wasn’t coming out on the stage every week and doing their damnedest to solidify their growing fan bases.

NEXT: David’s ”Voice” problems

Little David, on the other hand, would’ve probably had to choose a raunchy 1990 hit like ”Do Me!” or ”Rub You the Right Way” to alienate the legion of tweens (and their moms) dialing on his behalf. Still, why for the love of all that’s holy did he pick a slice of Up With People treacle like John Farnham’s ”You’re the Voice”? I’m with Simon: I half expected a herd of Julie Taymor-created puppets to come dancing out of the wings midway through the number. Except, well, Little David’s actual vocal performance wouldn’t have cut it on a Broadway stage. The cracked high note, the wobbly opening lines in his lower register, the oddly static bopping, all passed unremarked by the judges, but to me, the performance was another sign that the season’s youngest remaining contestant is way outside his comfort zone on anything but ballads.

Still, fret not, Arch Angels; while I think a one-week scare might be good for your boy and jolt him out of his recent complacency, there’s no way he’s in any danger of going home anytime before May. I’m betting this week’s ouster will either be Chikezie (no!) or Ramiele (go!).

Poor Chikezie! From his interview package, it sounded as if he’d fretted about his choice of a ballad (Brenda Russell’s ”If Only for One Night”) all week, and sure enough, Randy and Simon pounced (somewhat correctly) on the lack of energy, the cabaret quality, of his rendition. But Paula, lucid aside from her choice of hand garment, made an excellent point: Chikezie has some amazing textures to his vocals — I’d argue more so than almost any of his remaining opponents. From that low, rumbling growl to the satiny falsetto, the guy has it goin’ on — and he hasn’t had previous reality TV competitions (Syesha, Little David) or record-label experience (Michael, Carly, Kristy Lee) to help him hone his talent. Which is why I really want America to give Chikezie a couple more weeks, so we can see just how good he can (or can’t) be.

Conversely, I am completely and unequivocally ready, without even a hesitant scrunch of the nose, for Ramiele’s exit. The way she keeps rehashing worn-out Idol standbys like ”Don’t Leave Me This Way,” ”Against All Odds,” and now ”Alone” makes me think the woman (not girlchild) is secretly working on a book titled Every Song I Ever Learned I Learned From Watching Idol. And why pick the one number that most clearly defined Carrie Underwood’s meteoric rise to the top of the season 4 heap? Did Ramiele really think she could improve on the classic Heart anthem and deliver a more on-point vocal than the reigning Idol sales champ, or even one-up Gina Glocksen’s decent season-6 rendition? Not in that unspeakable combo of high-waisted shorts, knee-high boots, and a Flashdance-esque knit tank. Not with the lethargic tempo and arsenal of flat notes. And so what if ”big talent, small package” (as Paula calls her) had a cold? Ramiele herself noted she’d have to do better than a karaoke-party performance, and she failed. And I think Simon’s telling her she was safe this week was merely a ploy to convince her fans that they needn’t speed-dial on her behalf. Here’s hoping the sly Brit’s reverse psychology worked. Viva Chikezie!

What did you think of Idol tonight? Who gained momentum, and who will end up in the bottom three?

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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