To those who equate the 1970s with ugly hair, ugly platform shoes and ugly polyester clothing, we have only one thing to say: you left out an "ugly". Disco nearly choked the pop music world to death in the second half of the decade, the way kudzu once overran the American South. To the Top 20 Guys' credit, they largely avoided the tar pits of the Toot-Toots and Beep-Beeps as they fought to keep stayin' alive in the competition.
Michael Johns led off the night with a song that has a deep, dark history on American Idol...even though it was the first time it had ever been performed. Go Your Own Way is notable not for who sang it before, but for who didn't. Johns's rendition received lukewarm reviews from both the judges and the Idolsphere. Jason Castro And His Guitar were next, this time delivering the disco-pop I Just Want To Be Your Everything with a folk-rock arrangement. Too many genres perhaps spoiled the broth, as once again the judges were underwhelmed (with Simon, for whatever reason, advising Castro to lose the six-string going forward.)
Most sane contestants would choose Killer Queen only at gunpoint, but Luke Menard, an accomplished a cappella stage singer, seems to have done so on his own accord. At best, he fought the song's stratospheric pitch jumps and multiple falsetto transitions to a draw. Randy noted that Menard might deserve an award for degree of difficulty, but Idol's Web reviewers, many of whom previously served as East German figure skating judges, gave him only a 21. Next, rocker Robbie Carrico seemed determined to prove that his widely-admired song choice of a week earlier was a fluke. He struggled with Foreigner's Hot Blooded, delivering a pitch-perfect but power-lacking vocal that cost him over 30 rating points from One.
Danny Noriega candidly admitted that, upon watching the playback, his previous week's Jailhouse Rock was "a disaster." Tonight he took on Superstar, thus inviting comparisons to both Karen Carpenter and Ruben Studdard, which is a little like challenging Kerri Walsh and Misty May to a 2-on-1 beach volleyball game and expecting to win. He carried the demanding melody just far enough to earn a 37. Next, David Hernandez made a brave song choice indeed: The Temptations' soul classic Papa Was A Rolling Stone. He stayed true to the lyrics, avoiding any cheesy smiles that might have shattered the moment, and he incorporated the backup singers masterfully. All this garnered him warm reviews from the judges and the top approval rating of the young season, an 85.
What can befall you when you smile inappropriately during a blues song was demonstrated in gruesome detail by Jason Yeager. His cheery, bopping delivery of the great Long Train Runnin' belied the song's hardscrabble lyrics; several bloggers observed that no one ever seemed happier that Miss Lucy had lost her home and family. Sadly, some strong vocals were wasted on the way to a 20. Chikezie ditched his tangerine suit in favor of a simple polo shirt, but many forumists predicted pre-episode that all he'd really need was a toe-tag. Surprise – his I Believe To My Soul was a 48-point rise over More Today Than Yesterday, shattering the improvement record for a Semifinal performance. (You'll never guess who held the mark previously – hover your pointer here for the answer.)
Self-described "word nerd" David Cook ironically chose a song consisting almost entirely of one-syllable lyrics: Free's All Right Now. He and his Les Paul received a solid 4-star rating from the Idolsphere, though many reviewers wondered if there will be consequences from his mild talkback to Simon afterwards. Closing the show was 17-year-old David Archuleta, who got the Full Spa Treatment of Pimpage from the producers: the Darkened Studio of Portent, the Single Spotlight of Drama, and the Split Screen Cross-Faded Montage of Pimptography Extraordinaire. Good thing the young man brought the vocals to deserve it all: most (but not all) reviewers found his rendition of Imagine to be nothing short of breathtaking. At 91, it became the first performance of the season to reach the hallowed 90s, and it earned a spot in the WhatNotToSing.com Top 20.
There were no real surprises on the results show. Yeager, like Miss Lucy, won't be comin' back. The other dismissal came down to Noriega and Carrico, with the latter told rather cold-bloodedly by the voters that his career total of strong Idol performances would remain stuck on One forever.
Coming in at 51.2, this was actually one of the highest-rated semifinal episodes in our database, but that was more due to disaster-avoidance than anything else. We didn't think that highly of it because of what we felt were numerous missed opportunities.
For example, we believe Johns had the right idea by choosing Fleetwood Mac – he merely picked the wrong Lindsey Buckingham song. "Go Your Own Way" requires Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie singing harmony to work properly, but either "Monday Morning" or "Second Hand News", if properly arranged, can work for a strong solo singer. Future folk-country-rock contestants, take note.
Carrico's and Castro's selections deeply disappointed us as well, but again, if there were only 50 songs to choose from, then the producers have to shoulder some of the blame. Carrico might've tweaked his 'faux-rock' critics by choosing the campy "Signs", while we think Castro could've brought down the house, with or without his guitar, on "Sunshine (Go Away Today)". Noriega did all he could with a song he simply never should have chosen in the first place, and for reasons that go well beyond the unfavorable-comparison factor. Here's why.
If you have a classic rock-loving friend who doesn't watch Idol, try this: show him a clip of Yeager's performance with the sound muted and tell him he's singing a popular Doobie Brothers song. Give him 5 guesses as to which one. We'll lay 3-to-1 odds he won't get it. Had Yeager presented the song properly, and especially if the harmonica was one of the many instruments he played, this could've easily scored 60 points higher. Song Presentation ought to be part of any wise contestant's Holy Idol Trinity, along with Song Choice and Vocals. Hernandez and Cook showed why tonight.
Perhaps Menard's song choice wasn't as dumb as it appeared. Leo, one of the quartet of sublime AI beat writers on FansOfRealityTV.com, notes that no Idol has ever gone home or even been in the Bottom Three after performing a Queen song (save, of course, for AI5's Queen Night, when somebody had to.) Still, we liken this to the fact that not everyone who plays with matches in a dynamite factory blows himself up. WNTS.com's junior co-founder and vocal expert, who also happens to be an enormous Queen fan, just shook her head at the TV after Menard was through and asked, "Why?"
Finally, it's obvious that the precocious Archuleta can sing the lights out like no male contestant in years. But, that hardly means he's a lock to win. (For further details, contact one M. Doolittle of Brentwood, TN.) Evidence of a monstrous Idolsphere backlash is already forming. If he is truly the producers' Chosen One, as it by every inch appears, then they and the judges would be well advised to ramp down the obvious favoritism. The voters have shown a rather fierce streak of defiance the past two seasons.