Once upon a time, artists who'd produced a critical and commercial masterpiece were content to let it rest on its laurels and move on to new endeavors. But if the entertainment industry has learned anything over the past few decades, it's that laurels are so 19th Century. Today's masterpieces scream "sequel!" They're recycled, reheated, and repackaged as many times as the unwashed masses are dumb enough to pull out their wallets. If Tchaikovsky had been under contract to a Hollywood studio, we'd have endured The 1813 Overture: Revenge Of The Cannons!
The good folks at 19 Entertainment aren't above a little bit of prosaic profiteering themselves. One week after the twelve AI7 finalists did a mostly credible job covering the Lennon-McCartney songbook, the producers went to the Beatles well again. It's rumored that this was because several of the contestants' chosen songs for the planned Year You Were Born theme didn't receive copyright clearance in time. The last-minute switch reportedly caused some hardships for the Idols, not to mention setting four of them with the considerable task of having to produce an encore for a 5-star performance out of the same music catalog. America tuned in on Tuesday to see whether Beatles Week Redux would be closer to The Empire Strikes Back or Caddyshack II.
Per Idol custom, the contestant who performed last in the previous episode sang in the treacherous leadoff slot in the subsequent one. Out first thus came David Archuleta, looking and sounding remarkably like Amanda Overmyer. Her Back In The USSR wasn't nearly as well-liked as You Can't Do That (though a few forumists quipped that they couldn't tell the two apart), finishing with an ominous 29 approval rating. Then came Kristy Lee Cook, and there was really no place for the singin' equestrian to go but up. Indeed, she more than tripled her previous rating on You've Got To Hide Your Love Away ...but that still only saddled her with a 17, with Simon dismissing her as "musical wallpaper."
The real David Archuleta, accept no substitutes, was next, singing The Long And Winding Road. To his massive fanbase's relief, he remembered all the words this time, and as a make-up gesture he threw in some very fine vocal runs and phrasing as well. The judges raved, with Simon terming it a "master class." Grade inflation may have hit the judges table, but not Idol University's full faculty: Web reviewers, while agreeing the performance was good, rated it at 68, with the most frequent word in their synopses being "overpraised."
Ever since Constantine Maroulis sliced and diced Bohemian Rhapsody into a two-minute patchwork quilt and then sang the daylights out of its remains, contestants have been trying to duplicate his unlikely feat. Michael Johns's rearrangement of A Day In The Life was even more disjointed than most such efforts; he even stitched together entirely new verses by borrowing lines from various places in the song. (Did he botch the lyrics in the "I saw a film" verse? Possibly, but given the choppy excerpting, only Johns can say for sure.) The Idolsphere was not particularly impressed – he saw 2-stars today, oh boy. Perhaps the biggest disagreement among Web reviewers was on the subject of Brooke White's canary yellow dress, which was described alternately as adorable and abominable. Her chirpy performance of Here Comes The Sun, however, was generally agreed to be her low-water mark of the season, coming in at a disappointing 43.
The Acme Official Peter Frampton Talk Box that David Cook ordered for 1970s Night arrived a couple of weeks late. He put it to use on Day Tripper, using the Whitesnake arrangement. Both the judges and a large number of Web reviewers found the gadget to be gimmicky, though the rest of the performance still rated out to a respectable 63. White, D. Cook, and Carly Smithson had all reached 5-stars consecutively the previous week; now, only Smithson was left with a chance to duplicate that mark. In fact, her Blackbird, sung in something of an Annie Lennox-like fashion, was the highest-rated performance of the night, but it topped out at 71. Incidentally, the song's lead-in proved conclusively which of the six billion people currently residing on Planet Earth does the absolute worst impression of a British accent: Paula Abdul.
Jason Castro admitted in his intro clip that he speaks no French, which makes his choice of Michelle even the more puzzling. He murmured the French lines phonetically which, coupled with his bashful, self-conscious grin as he sang them, didn't vont très bien ensemble. Castro's 43 approval rating was his lowest thus far. Then, Syesha Mercado, who won an 11-way game of rock-paper-scissors to earn the right to sing Yesterday, delivered a soulful, highly stylized rendition of the McCartney classic. Significantly more Web reviewers liked it than not, with some calling it the best pure vocal of the night, while others wondered if she and the guitarists were performing the same song. Positive critiques from the late-publishing journalists and roundtable panelists pushed Mercado up to her second 4-star honor, finishing at 62.
Lightning, it's said, never strikes the same place twice. That didn't stop Chikezie from trying another frenetic bluegrass/country, ballad/uptempo hybrid, this time built around I've Just Seen A Face and punctuated with a harmonica interlude. Reaction from the judges and the Idolsphere was severely mixed, ranging from "wow, he did it again" to "yawn, been there, done that", all averaging to a 47 – a 33-point decline from She's A Woman. Finally, Ramiele Malubay closed the show with I Should Have Known Better and dedicated it to all of her previous song choices. (* rimshot! *) Unfortunately, Malubay's fans still gently weep at her lackluster approval ratings of late, which remained mired in the 2-star range.
Overmyer and K. Cook were in the Bottom Three the next night as virtually every online pundit predicted, but they were joined by a surprise guest: Smithson. The latter was quickly sent back to safety. And in the end, the Final 10 learned they'll have to take good care of themselves on the 2008 Summer Tour, because they won't be traveling with a rockin' registered nurse.
So much for sequels. The average approval rating of Beatles Night II was just 46.9, a four-point drop from the previous week. Had K. Cook and Archuleta not suffered those two show-ending disasters, the difference would have been nearly 11 points. That placed this week solidly among the ten least-liked finals episodes in our database. Should this outcome have come as a surprise? Let's look at a seemingly unrelated statistic for the answer:
From AI1 through AI6, no reprise performance (same song, same contestant, later episode) has ever rated higher than its original. In fact, only twice has a reprise even come close: Livin' In The City by Taylor Hicks (a 1-point drop), and You Give Love A Bad Name by Blake Lewis (-6 points.) Overall, the average decline is a whopping 21 ratings points. When it comes to songs, therefore, American Idol viewers overwhelmingly prefer the new to the old and originals to sequels. It would seem the same holds true for episode themes.
If you're wondering, Smithson's sojourn into the Bottom Three marked only the fourth time that fate has befallen a contestant with the highest-rated performance of the night. Her fans shouldn't despair just yet, since the previous three all survived the trip and wound up doing quite well in the competition: Kimberley Locke, LaToya London, and Elliott Yamin.
Archuleta became just the eleventh contestant to follow up a 1-star performance with a 4-star or better one. Only one Idol thus far has ever gone the full monty of 1-star to 5-stars, and that's Katharine McPhee. Incredibly, she achieved the feat in the span of half an hour: from a 14 for Against All Odds to an 81 for Black Horse And The Cherry Tree. Archuleta and his fans might find comforting that three of the other eight to bounce back that strongly went on to win the crown: Fantasia Barrino, Taylor Hicks, and Jordin Sparks. Resiliency is definitely a factor in this game.
Though it didn't rate terribly well, our senior staff happened to like Chikezie's performance quite a bit, rehash or not. "I've Just Seen A Face" happens to be the song in which WhatNotToSing.com, breaking with our usual policy, suggested on our home page two weeks ago that K. Cook sing in a country-folk style. (Randy: "Hmm, yeah, it sounds like that would make a good country song." Us: "Gee, dawg, ya think?") Mind you, the thought of Cook applying to "Face" the same horrific hoedown arrangement she did to Eight Days A Week left us trembling. And that, in a nutshell, is why we rarely publish song suggestions. Countless contestants have made a great song choice but butchered the final performance via a bad arrangement, bad presentation, bad vocals, or a bad combination of all three. However, few if any have ever started with a lousy song selection and turned it into a great performance. Were the opposite true, we'd have named our website WhatToSing.com instead.
Finally, could anyone explain to us what's happened to the Pimp Spot's magic? Since Archuleta's Imagine (still the only time Season Seven reached the 90s), five straight show-closing performances have rated out to a 50 or below, the longest such streak in the show's history. Are the producers no longer trying to end the show with the usual bang, or are their picks not panning out, or are the contestants just choking? If there's something sinister going on, it's not terribly apparent what it might be.