Performing Freddie Mercury songs, the ''American Idol'' contestants fail to show they deserve the crown

By Michael Slezak
Updated July 03, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
American Idol: Ray Mickshaw/FOX

American Idol

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”American Idol”: They don’t quite rock us

I’m sure Kelly Clarkson herself would wince at my starting this American Idol TV Watch with a reference to her debut hit, ”A Moment Like This,” but to the eight remaining contestants of season 5, I say ”A Moment Like This” is exactly what you need. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting anybody consider recording a tediously saccharine Diane Warren ballad. Rather, each of them needs to deliver a Moment — a performance that is so undeniably marvelous that it transforms a mere reality-TV competitor into someone the public can envision as a future Billboard chart-topper.

Think about it: Every successful Idol alumnus has had one: Fantasia’s ”Summertime,” Carrie’s ”Alone,” Clay’s ”Solitaire,” and so on. Whether or not you’re a fan of any of those performers, it’d be hard to argue that those performances didn’t prove them to be potentially special artists. And that’s why it’s interesting to me that in what’s been hands down the most closely matched season in Idol history, no single contestant has managed to infiltrate the public consciousness with a single song. Simon hinted at this in his critiques of Chris and Katharine tonight: With only six weeks left to the season, somebody had better make like Jim Morrison and break on through.

In my mind, that task looks more and more likely to fall on the well-proportioned shoulders of Chris Daughtry — but unlike Simon, I’m glad the bald-headed dude didn’t try to make it happen tonight. Fair enough, Simon had a valid point that with ”Innuendo,” Chris didn’t exactly choose the strongest selection from the Queen songbook, but I think it was a savvy move. For starters, the expansive range of ”Innuendo” allowed this season’s front-runner to prove unequivocally that he can do a lot more than growl and swing the mike stand (and that he’s man enough to rock a little eyeliner, too).

On the other hand, if Chris had followed Simon’s advice completely, by perhaps deciding to tackle one of Queen’s three most iconic hits (”We Will Rock You,” ”We Are the Champions,” or ”Bohemian Rhapsody”), it would’ve been a no-win situation. Those songs are so closely associated with Freddie Mercury’s blistering vocals that the only smart option is to avoid them entirely, not to mention the inevitable comparisons they’d invite.

For proof of that, look no further than Ace Young. His cover of ”We Will Rock You” was hot — as in hot mess. Granted, Ace’s vocals have sounded worse in the past (”Butterflies,” anyone?), but I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed an Idol contestant so badly at odds with the spirit of the song he’s chosen. Simon’s withering critique — ”It was ‘We Will Rock You Gently’ ” — only got it half right. As far as I see it, the only thing Ace rocked was his solid position as this season’s seventh-place finisher. I’d bet good money viewers are gonna kick his can right back to anonymity on Wednesday night’s results show.

Similarly, I didn’t think Kellie Pickler benefited from her choice of ”Bohemian Rhapsody.” Granted, she did a better job than I’d expected trying to reinvent one of the world’s most popular karaoke tracks, but riddle me this, Kellie supporters: In eight live performances this season, has Kellie once delivered the kind of vocal worthy of the Idol crown? This isn’t the talent portion of the local Dairy Princess Pageant — it’s supposed to be the search for a singing superstar.

That said, I can’t argue with the judges for giving this season’s blond bubblehead mostly positive remarks. Somehow, despite her consistently annoying, prefabricated shtick — does anyone really believe that Kellie is confounded by the phrase ”on paper” when seconds later she uses the word ”terminology” without batting a heavily mascaraed eyelash? — she still manages to charm me.

I can’t be quite as forgiving about the judges’ uniform praise of Katharine McPhee’s ”Who Wants to Live Forever.” Maybe they all got distracted by the Liv Tyler-in-Lord of the Rings lighting. Or maybe it was Katharine’s matronly red-belted blouse (which, granted, wasn’t as scary as the hideous floral muumuu she donned during last week’s results show — is someone in the wardrobe department doing their darnedest to narrow the attractiveness gap between gorgeous Katharine and the seven remaining contestants?). But what I heard was a shrill, lethargic performance riddled with pitch problems — decidedly the low point of Katharine’s Idol run.

Oddly enough, of the three women remaining in the competition, I thought last week’s bottom-three dweller Paris Bennett gave the strongest vocal performance. Unfortunately, Simon seemed fixated on the teenage belter’s umpteenth image makeover (this week’s look: Lil’ Kim joins a biker gang), but if he closes his eyes and plays back ”The Show Must Go On” on his DVR, he’ll understand what prompted Queen’s own Brian May to remark, ”She’s damn good.” Hell, yeah!

You’ll also note May and bandmate Roger Taylor said nothing of consequence about Bucky Covington’s vocals. But why gang up on him at this point? I mean, Bucky seems like a congenial guy, and he hit more than a few correct notes in covering ”Fat Bottomed Girls” in his standard southern-fried-rock mode. But not since season 1’s Nikki McKibbin has an Idol wannabe seemed so destined to a life of playing karaoke bars and roadside watering holes. Not that it isn’t a respectable way to earn a living, but does anyone believe this guy belongs on the Idol stage? Every time he tosses the mike from hand to hand while performing, all I can think is, ”We lost Gedeon McKinney for this?”

At least we’ve still got Elliott Yamin and Taylor Hicks in the mix, though. Deep down, I doubt that America is ready to crown either of these peculiar dudes as the season 5 champ, but I’m praying for watchability’s sake that both survive till at least the final six. I was happy to see the judges highlight the fact that the DJ formerly known as E-Double took on the night’s hardest number, ”Somebody to Love.” Unlike, say, Kellie, who failed to convince me she’d just ”killed a man,” Elliott threw himself into the lyrics with gusto, turning his tale of lonely-heartedness into a fevered gospel plea (and on-key, too!). And in contrast with so many other Idol wannabes, it’s quite clear that Elliott’s humility is 100 percent genuine.

Taylor’s ”Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” meanwhile, wasn’t exactly a vocal showcase, but after Chris’ seriousness, Ace’s earnestness, and Kellie’s vapidity, it was refreshing to see a performer who actually appears to be having a blast every time he takes the stage. That said, if Taylor actually wants to win this thing, he’s going to have to tap into the deeply soulful vibe he displayed way back in his Las Vegas audition — you know, the one we haven’t really seen ever since? But fret not, Soul Patrol, if your man gives the performance of his life next week, he could find himself back at the head of the pack. He just needs to remember this one simple rule: You can’t have momentum without first having a moment.

What do you think? Which contestant do you see poised to take over front-runner status in the next two weeks? Which of the judges’ favorites do you feel might be most vulnerable to voter fickleness? And which contestant won’t need to worry about any of it, since he or she will experience the Idol guillotine on Wednesday night?

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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