The judges, the producers, and the contestants themselves pick songs, and Syesha is short-changed, making the all-David finale almost inevitable
David Cook, Syesha Mercado, ...

‘Idol’ recap: Choice items

INTERIOR. A DARK HOLLYWOOD SOUNDSTAGE. Dressed in a slinky, metallic-sequined gown, a blindfolded SYESHA MERCADO is led by a pair of GOONS to center stage, where she is tied to a wooden post. One of the men lights the extra long cigarette hanging from Syesha’s mouth. She inhales, chin held high, betraying no hint of fear or desperation.

Suddenly, the floodlights are switched on. Syesha finds herself facing an angry semicircle of VIOLIN PLAYERS. From stage left, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER NIGEL LYTHGOE rubs his hands and salivates, while a deathly quiet falls over the audience. The JUDGES take their seats and prepare to speak.

RANDY: What’s goin’ down, Syesha? So listen, dawg, in round 1, your Alicia Keys cover, I dunno…for me, for you, it started out a little rough for me, but ultimately, it was equal to Little David’s ”And So It Goes.”

PAULA: Let me just start by saying that you look lovely tonight. You are authentically playing the role of Syesha with authenticity. And also, your performance of ”Fever” was definitely more in tune than Rocker David’s ”Dare You to Move.”

SIMON: What Paula and Randy are trying to say is it’s a good thing we ended with the ”producers’ choice” round, because if I’m being honest, even if the sequins in your dress miraculously began to display the image of the Virgin Mary in front of an American flag, there’s no way you’d be able to overcome the fact that we saddled you with that deplorable Rihanna knockoff from the Happy Feet soundtrack.

SYESHA lets the cigarette drop from her mouth. She smiles broadly, and though her mike has been shut off, she gamely mouths the words ”Idols oh two.” Seconds later, however, a trapdoor opens up beneath Syesha, and she falls out of view. The camera cuts to Ryan.

RYAN: Syesha, your journey ends tonight.

Backstage, NIGEL and his fellow producers jump up and down excitedly, while confetti rains down from the ceiling.

NIGEL: [Tearfully.] David wins! And so does David!

Yeah, so maybe that’s not exactly how season 7’s penultimate American Idol performance episode played out. And I’m not going to pretend to make a compelling case that over 13 weeks of live performances, Syesha has proven she truly belongs in the final two. What I will say, though, is that in a season where my very favorite TV show has repeatedly undermined its own credibility — judging some contestants before they’ve actually performed, praising others even when they noticeably botch kind-of-important details like, oh, their lyrics — it would’ve been nice if the Mistress of the Bottom Two had been allowed to compete on a musically level playing field with the dueling Davids.

Okay, end of rant. Because, keeping it really real, dawgs (yes, I just used a season 5 Randy-ism; 18 weeks into the current Idol season, I’m running out of fresh sentence transitions), and putting aside any overt or subconscious efforts by the production to sabotage her, Syesha was merely good tonight when she needed to be great.

NEXT: The judges score!

What’s more, while I’ve been pretty hard on Paula, Simon, and Randy the last few weeks, I’ve got to admit the ”judges’ choice” portion of tonight’s entertainment was decidedly its most successful.

Simon, not surprisingly, was spot-on when he declared that round 1 went to ”Cook and Cowell,” considering that his unexpected pick of ”The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” turned out to be the performance of the evening and rendered everything that followed anticlimactic by comparison. As Simon explained it, he wanted to pick a song that was ”very, very, very tough” vocally and would also force the contestant to stretch his artistic boundaries. And interestingly, while Rocker David added a little more guitar to the mix, he didn’t stray wildly off the path laid down by Roberta Flack, which allowed him to highlight the gravelly timbre of his voice, the seldom-heard beauty of his falsetto, and, most important, his ability to breathe new life into decades-old lyrics that most of us have heard more times than Randy has used his ”you could sing the phone book” cliché.

Side note: I’m really glad that turned out to be David’s mom who was standing and gazing admiringly throughout the performance, and not just another overzealous mama with a homemade ”Cougars for Cook” sign under her seat.

The depth of emotion in Rocker David’s ”Face” was the one ingredient missing from Little David’s delicate rendition of Billy Joel’s ”And So It Goes” (a solid, if not particularly daring, selection by Paula). I momentarily nodded off when Ryan once again attempted to elicit a spontaneous answer from the young contestant about song choice (”I was excited; it was a really pretty song”), and judging from all the squinting that took place during the performance, I worried Little David might be about to catch some z’s, too. But let’s give credit where it’s due: The way the kid stripped the song’s arrangement down to just a light sprinkling of strings made his performance sound borderline a cappella and highlighted the purity of his tone. I will agree with Randy, though, that it might’ve been even more effective if David had sat down behind the piano on this one.

And thus we conclude the portion of this column where we express kind thoughts about Randy, because, seriously, could the Dawg have been less imaginative choosing Alicia Keys’ ”If I Ain’t Got You” for Syesha? At no point in the season has Ms. Mercado proven herself to be a masterful song re-arranger, so why saddle her with a big, well-known ballad by one of the most successful pop-R&B belters to conquer radio in the last decade? (In fact, why didn’t they just force Syesha to tackle ”Bleeding Love” moments after Leona Lewis’ results-show performance of the current chart-topper a few weeks back?) Ultimately, Syesha’s ”Ain’t Got You” was perfectly serviceable, albeit a wee bit shrill on her upper register, but I was more disappointed in her decision to bury herself in 500 pounds of silver and gold sequins (this will not end up on my new list of 10 best season 7 outfits) and affect an accent (”be my-say-ulf”) more off-putting than her patented ”baby cry.”

NEXT: Make your own kind of music

That said, when it came to the ”contestants’ choice” round, I’d actually give the gold star to Syesha’s unabashedly cabaret cover of ”Fever.” Yeah, her pre-performance mantra of ”fever, fun, happy, yeah” was typically bizarre (and not in a good way), and true, her use of the ”sexy chair” was a little stagy, but I think we can all agree this was the most successful public audition for a road-company production of Chicago that the world has ever seen. And while she may not have been capable of the vocal bombast of Paris Bennett’s season 5 performance, Syesha infused Peggy Lee’s classic with a raw sensuality that little Paris couldn’t have possibly imagined. Bonus points for that Claudette Colbert leg extension on the line ”chicks were meant to give you fever,” although with a hemline that dangerous, was there really any need to draw more attention to the gams?

Granted, Simon had a point when he noted Syesha’s performance squandered the ”chance to prove that you are a contemporary recording artist,” but how come he didn’t drive home the exact same point about Little David’s deeply embarrassing take on Chris Brown’s ”With You”? I agreed with Randy and Simon that on paper, it was refreshing that the kid chose a contemporary R&B jam over a treacly ballad, but he delivered it as if there were a two-ton anvil swinging back and forth over his head, ready to drop at the first botched note (I counted several) or mangled lyric (just one). By the time he went in for his first big run (on ”girl, you’re my heart”), he actually looked like he might vomit into the Swaybot pit. (They would’ve deserved it.)

Paula gave some sage advice about ”not extending the phrases” on a stylized track that requires the kind of nimble, airy cadence that is decidedly not Little David’s forte. And indeed, when David held on to his notes too long, ”You’re a class all your own” morphed into ”You are a…uh…classyourown.” (This, naturally, went unnoticed by the judges.) What’s more, I disagree with Randy and Little David that a white boy can’t convincingly sing about his ”boo.” The color of David’s skin had nothing to do with why ”With You” was a catastrophe. Instead, why not point to his season-long struggle to handle nonfunereal rhythms, or the way he can’t seem to break out of his ”catch a rainbow” hand-extension dance move, or his general discomfort tackling mature relationship-themed material?

Bad as Little David was on the ”contestants’ choice” round, though, I’m guessing he hit more notes per minute than Rocker David did on Switchfoot’s ”Dare You to Move.” Seriously, my favorite contestant left in the competition had more issues with pitch than I did in my one thoroughly unsuccessful season of Little League baseball. (That’s a story for my therapist, not this TV Watch, thank you.) And although Rocker David kept repeating the line ”today never happened” at the end of his performance, I regret to inform him that indeed it did, and it was a lot worse than the judges would have him believe. Seriously, if the two Davids had ”okay” middle rounds (as Simon declared), then Syesha channeled the ghosts of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Marie Curie at different points during tonight’s telecast.

NEXT: The producers’ pet

Which brings us to the ”producers’ choice” portion of the evening. Oh, and guess who the producers want to win now. Not the poor child who had to try to sell Dan Fogelberg’s ”Longer” to the advertiser-desired demographic of 18-to-34-year-olds. Not the chick who was slapped hard with that tacky dance track you’ve never heard before. Nope, apparently Nigel & Co. are now squarely behind Rocker David, since they served him ”I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” delivered hot and fresh by songwriter Diane Warren herself and garnished with the kind of ”serious strings section” drama usually reserved for the Oscars, Very Special Grammys performances, or Fourth of July fireworks with the Boston Pops. Still, take away all the fanfare, and you really had a pretty middle-of-the-road performance with a bum final note. Yeah, David delivered it with his typical sexy swagger and stubble, but this was far from the starmaking magic of ”Billie Jean” or ”Always Be My Baby.” But yeah, Simon was right anyway: ”David Cook wins the night.”

Still, you have to put an asterisk in the win column, don’t you? Little David and Syesha couldn’t help that they drew matching short straws with ”Longer” and ”Hit Me Up,” but of course, the big difference was that the judges were willing to excuse the former, not the latter.

My biggest chuckle of the night was watching Randy and Paula use complex code to critique Little David’s ”Longer.” Randy looked positively unenthusiastic about what he had just seen, tepidly declared it ”an interesting song choice for me for you,” and then, as if he had just remembered who he’s supposed to be pimping for the final two, used his top two clichés of the season — ”phone book!” and ”in the zone” — and then screamed ”another hot one from you!” (Good save, Mr. Jackson!) Paula, for her part, flatly declared, ”It was a lovely performance, David. I expect nothing more. It was just very lovely.” (I know, Paula, I don’t expect anything more from Little David than a bland, straightforward ballad with lots of runs, either!) Only Simon had the guts to tell Little David he wouldn’t criticize him for getting stuck with a horrible, gooey ballad that you’d expect to come out of a 90-year-old.

Similarly, I’m not going to slam Syesha for her performance of ”Hit Me Up,” a non-hit single from the Happy Feet soundtrack. I mean, the producers could’ve selected any one of the millions of songs in recorded history, or at least the hundreds of thousands of songs in recorded history that they could get cleared. They could’ve let her sing some En Vogue or some Rolling Stones or some Madonna or some Frank Sinatra or [insert your 20 favorite artists here]. But instead, they made her sing Gia Freakin’ Farrell, and if that weren’t enough of a banana cream pie to the face, they dumped a bucket of cold water over the poor woman’s head by having Paula declare, ”I don’t know if it’s gonna be good enough to get into the finals of American Idol. I love you, though.” Lucky for Syesha, she’s an actress as well as a singer; no matter how maddening the script, tomorrow night, she’ll play her part.

Speaking of roles, fourth-place finisher Jason Castro played the part of Idolatry interview subject during his New York City press tour on Tuesday. In part 1 of our chat (watch it below), I grilled him about whether or not he received an apology regarding Paulagate, how seriously he performed during dress rehearsals, and what he thought of my opinion that his final-four-week performances lacked the spark of his best numbers. (Click here to see part 2.)

Before going, tell us what you thought of tonight’s show. Who came up with the best song choices: the judges, the producers, or the contestants? Did Syesha get a fair shake with the numbers she was asked to perform? And who’s your pick to win the season 7 crown?

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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