A night of supposedly uplifting ballads meant to set up ''Idol Gives Back'' somehow falls flat, although Kristy Lee Cook suddenly seems amazing again
Brooke Kristy
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he annual American Idol charity special had better live up to its name and give back come Wednesday night, because this evening, the show that becomes my obsession for five months a year just took and took and took, and when it had run its 60-minute course, my good mood, my enthusiasm, and quite possibly my sanity had gone missing. All that was left, in fact, were some uneaten mixed greens and a couple of heinous trout bones on a dinner plate (et tu, grocer?), along with the unsavory task of writing words of praise about Kristy Lee Cook.

The weird thing is, I can’t even blame the episode’s theme, ”inspirational music”; where I’d expected eight consecutive servings of pabulum, the remaining finalists instead offered up a (relatively) decent(ish) assortment of songs, including unschlocky tracks by Robbie Williams, Aerosmith, and Carole King. Too bad most of the vocal performances didn’t live up to the material.

The worst offender of the night truly hurt. For seven straight weeks, David Cook has ridden a wave of great performances (”Hello,” ”Day Tripper,” ”Billie Jean”) to the front of the season 7 pack and has turned me from an early doubter into a fan who doesn’t even care about that comb-forward (though I was happy to see the sexy, stylin’ side part once again tonight!). And while, sure, it was inevitable that Rocker David was going to hit a pothole or two on his way to the Nokia Theater, nothing could have prepared me for his thoroughly disjointed effort on Our Lady Peace’s ”Innocent,” which he performed with all the awkwardness of a man who’d accidentally wandered onto the set of Dancing With the Stars and found himself asked to perform a paso doble with Edyta Sliwinska.

David, clad in what appeared to be an all-white high-school marching-band jacket, started his number just slightly behind the beat and in a key that was far too low for his vocal range. To make matters worse, he then drifted aimlessly into the Idol crowd, where I’m pretty certain the front-row audiencebots began to telepathically drain his life force, enough to fuel at least another week of off-the-beat swaying. (The ”give back” message scrawled on David’s palm was a nice touch, though.) Still, how Paula managed to praise this obvious belly flop — ”tonight was no exception of you being so good,” she babbled — is beyond me, but let’s give her a pass this week. After all, it can’t be easy to focus when your breasts are just a seal clap away from popping out of your bustier.

(Oh, and burning question of the night: Did Rocker David utter the word ”Cinnabon” toward the end of his performance, or is my brain just rebelling against this whole healthy-eating initiative I’m attempting?)

Actually, I might be drowning my sorrows in a high-calorie breakfast pastry by the end of the week, considering the way my other favorite contestant, Carly Smithson, put herself at risk of elimination with a histrionic rendition of ”The Show Must Go On.” Whereas last week the Irish barmaid used her glorious instrument to caress and reinvigorate Dolly Parton’s ”Here You Come Again,” tonight found her using a different tactic, lacing up her steel-toed boots and repeatedly kicking Queen’s angsty anthem in the groin. Every time Carly strayed from the melody and tried to fire up her number with a howl of passion, she seemed to run out of air, throwing herself off pitch and leaving herself gasping. It wasn’t pretty — unless you hit the mute button and focused on Carly’s flattering black-and-aqua tank and luscious tresses. What’s more, Carly’s excuse that Simon’s mid-performance facial expression threw her off her game did her no favors.

NEXT: We don’t believe

The only contestant whose post-performance feedback session went even more awry than Carly’s is the woman I’m expecting (hoping?) to get the boot on Thursday night’s results show: Syesha Mercado. Yeah, okay, so Syesha hit more notes per minute than Rocker David or Carly, but her choice of Fantasia Barrino’s season 3 coronation song, ”I Believe,” displayed either a jaw-dropping lack of musical imagination and knowledge of Idol history (didn’t LaKisha fail miserably on ”I Believe” just a year ago?) or (more likely) a whopping supply of hubris.

To be completely honest, ”I Believe” is a pretty dreadful composition — a string of achingly obvious clichés set to a simplistic melody that’s about as inspirational as those teasers for your local Fox affiliate’s post-Idol newscast. Yet through the sheer force of her rip-soul-from-chest, hurl-soul-onto-stage style, Fantasia turned the ballad into a rousing celebration. (Yes, I once recorded an EW.com podcast about how the performance moves me to tears every single time. Color me tragic!)

Continuing the previous paragraph’s theme of brutal honesty, but getting back to tonight’s episode, well, let’s just say that not even a 500-member gospel choir led by Patti LaBelle, Aretha Franklin, and Shirley Ceasar could’ve helped Syesha achieve, as Simon called it, ”the big wave of emotion” that swept through Fantasia’s rendition. And Syesha’s dog whistle of a glory note — clearly a subliminal way of saying, ”please vote me through to Mariah Carey week!” — was incongruous, even if it did seem to jolt the audiencebots to attention. Still, whether or not Syesha really did believe her rendition could (or did) match up to ‘Tasia’s, her snappish response to Randy’s critique negated any goodwill anyone in the voting public might’ve had for her.

Amazingly enough, while the complexities of Idol strategy seem completely lost on Syesha, the Little Cowgirl Who Could, Kristy Lee Cook, is proving to be downright masterful in that department. The interview package highlighting the ”don’t give up, young singer” verse of Martina McBride’s ”Anyway”? Absolutely brilliant. The choice of a song that indicates exactly what kind of singer she’d like to be when the competition is over? Very wise indeed. And most important of all, the vocal? Well, even as we choose to ignore commentary from Paula that undermines the very reason she’s on Fox’s payroll (”I think you should leave the pitch moments alone!”), Kristy Lee sang with more emotion and power than she’s shown since her audition performance of ”Amazing Grace” — and under the weight of those mega-nails and heavy mascara, to boot! And whether or not she actually deserves to outlast one of her seven remaining competitors, chances are she’s going to ”anywaaaaaaaaaaaaay.”

The only other contestant I’m 100 percent sure will crack the top seven is Jason Castro, who, like Syesha, tackled a song that’s closely associated with a former finalist. Jason, though, had the good sense to use an arrangement of ”Somewhere Over the Rainbow” so radically different from Katharine McPhee’s that he didn’t end up looking like a pale Idol facsimile. Indeed, by using Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s cherished ukulele-driven rendition, Jason once again painted himself as the contestant of choice for Idol-viewing hipsters. No, the performance wasn’t thoroughly original, but the simplicity and genuineness of the guy’s falsetto had me reaching for the ”rewind” button on a night when the siren call of ”fast-forward” became nearly deafening.

(Side note: For those of you who, like me, got momentarily thrown off by the fact that Jason didn’t rhyme ”bluebirds fly” with ”why, oh, why can’t I,” please note that the sometimes spacey contestant did not flub his lyrics but instead was being faithful to Kamakawiwo’ole’s version.)

NEXT: Narrow escapes

Much like Jason, Michael Johns, David Archuleta, and Brooke White all managed to navigate the minefield of heinous ”inspirational” ballads and come out on the other side with songs that (thankfully) would not be filed alongside ”Inside Your Heaven,” ”Flying Without Wings,” or ”This Is My Now.”

Of the three, I most enjoyed Brooke’s pleasant (if not earth-shattering) take on Carole King’s ”You’ve Got a Friend.” Clad in a pink and brown floral hippie dress, Brooke took her spot at the mike and offered a straightforward rendition that probably won’t win her any new fans but will likely restore the faith of those shaken by last week’s lackluster ”Jolene.” Side serving of Chicken Soup for the Idol Soul: Paula’s sister is a fan of the song! And Brooke once sang it at a talent show with friends!

David Archuleta’s ”Angels,” meanwhile, gave me hope that the Boy Who Basks in Nigel Lythgoe’s Loving Close-Ups and Otherworldly Lighting might not have the worst taste in music among season 7’s remaining contestants. Simon’s right: It’s bewildering that Robbie Williams didn’t score a U.S. hit with the exquisite ballad (although Jessica Simpson’s subsequent bombastic failure with the tune is not quite as much of a head-scratcher). Still, I take offense at Randy’s argument that Little David gave his hottest performance of the season tonight. For starters, was he asleep during the kid’s semifinal performance of ”Imagine” (which made the cut on my new countdown of Idol‘s 15 all-time best performances)? Second, how did he miss the way Little David’s voice virtually disappeared on the first verse? Yeah, when Archie belts out a vocal run, he sounds amazing, but his lower register is wobblier than the judgment of that parent who allowed his preteen daughter to display a homemade pro-David sign reading ”Lick Those Lips” on national television.

Still, even if I’m a little dismayed by the way Little David throws a soggy, adult-contemporary towel over every number he performs, he at least seems more secure in his artistry than Michael Johns, a man who’s more than a dozen years his senior. Indeed, I agreed with Simon that the Aussie dude came off a ”little bit wannabe-ish,” during his cover of ”Dream On.” Maybe it had something to do with that hideous cravat, which was a lot more Thurston Howell than Steven Tyler. Or perhaps it was the slightly loopy falsetto, which Paula tried to compliment with an astute reference to her Chihuahuas. There was also that silly ”hey, Ma, I did it!” grin after Michael threw in that final, tepid ”Yeah!” at the end. Unlike his triumph last week, this time around Michael’s performance was all wrong, but it wasn’t all right.

Speaking of Dolly Parton performances, if you’ve been wondering how Ramiele ended up in that oversize T-shirt last Wednesday on Idol, check out our new video interview below. And tomorrow, we’ll have part 2, in which we ask Ramiele to explain her peculiar song choices throughout the season.

So what did you think of tonight’s episode? Were you as bummed as I was with the level of performance?

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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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