Say, did you hear that the AI7 crew was American Idol's Most Talented Top 24 Ever™? We seem to recall Ryan and the judges mentioning that once or twice in the weeks leading up to the competition. For the Final 12 Guys, however, the proof would be in the pudding. (If you are now having disturbing mental images involving Randy, Paula, Simon and tapioca, we sincerely apologize.)
The evening's theme was The Sixties. David Hernandez led off the 2008 competition with a nervous but presentable cover of In The Midnight Hour, more Cross Country (if anyone out there remembers them) than Wilson Pickett. Chikeze, sans the Eze but dans an unusual tangerine suit, followed with a slow, jazzy rendition of More Today Than Yesterday that failed to impress the judges or the Idolsphere. At 19, it became the season's first 1-star performance, though that was due in part to a testy exchange with Simon afterwards. (Note to future contestants: A training video is readily available that teaches you the best way to react to Simon's barbs. It's entitled Animal House: "Thank you sir, may I have another?")
David Cook put a modern, edgy spin on Happy Together that drew mixed reviews for the vocals and a unanimous thumbs down for the wardrobe, which looked for all the world like he was in the men's room when someone shouted in, "You're on in 30 seconds, Mr. Cook." Little-seen Jason Yeager followed with Moon River, thus giving Idol fans their first direct opportunity to compare an AI7 performance with one from a past season. The verdict: here's to you, Mr. Anwar Robinson – you outscored Yeager by over 40 points. Four songs into the season, the score stood two performances at 3-stars, one at 2-stars, one at 1-star. Not an auspicious start.
Robbie Carrico was next, and while Web opinions about his rocker credentials and vocals varied, there was overwhelming approval for his song choice: Three Dog Night's classic One. Carrico squeaked out the night's first 4-star rating, and he was soon joined by 16-year-old heartthrob David Archuleta, one of the competition's early favorites. His rendition of Shop Around was highly received by most of the Idolsphere as being mature beyond his years, not to mention he likely set some sort of Idol record for the most number of female viewers who wanted to jump into their TV screens to pinch his cheeks.
Next came the most polarizing performance of the night: 18-year-old Danny Noriega delivered a two-for-the-price-of-one show, singing Jailhouse Rock while dancing The Twist. Randy and Paula loved the performance while Simon found it to be "verging on grotesque." Idolsphere opinions were no less divided, and "Rock" eventually settled at 38 after some dizzying rises and falls. Luke Menard received high marks from the ladies for his good looks, though not many reviewers of either sex were terribly fond of his Everybody's Talkin'.
For those who can't get enough of 18-year-old Idols covering Elvis, Colton Berry followed with his take on Suspicious Minds. He earned a fairly respectable 39 rating, but ominously, not a whole lot of strong opinions either way. Three straight 2-star performance had many viewers restless and pondering what the Least Talented Top 24 Ever™ might sound like. Unfortunately, Ohio's Garrett Haley took that streak in the wrong direction; the Leif Garrett lookalike turned in the episode's lowest-rated performance with his balladeer's arrangement of Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, an 18.
American Idol history was made with the evening's penultimate number. Dreadlocked Jason Castro strummed an acoustic guitar through his cover of the Lovin Spoonful's Daydream. (31st-century anthropologists, take note: the guitar was the breakthrough, not the dreadlocks.) Web reviewers liked what they heard and saw, giving the previously unhyped Castro an excellent 76 rating. Would there be no 5-star performances on Opening Night? Australian transplant Michael Johns broke up the shutout in the bottom of the ninth; he closed the show with The Doors' Light My Fire, backdropped by the fabled Red Flames Of Pimpage and earning an 83. (Yes, yes, flames and "Fire", we did get the connection.)
Unsurprisingly, Haley was the first of the men eliminated on the Thursday results show. The other cut came down to Chikezie and Berry, and although the latter's rating was twice as high as the former's, Suspicious Minds claimed its second victim in as many Idol performances. The first, in case you're wondering, was a guy in AI5 named Chris Something-Or-Other.
What We Thought
Like mountain goats, the Guys' herd fell into a very neat pecking order on most websites we sampled. Johns, Castro, and Archuleta were clearly the Alpha Males and established themselves as the ones to beat. (If that also means they got first pick of the females, we honestly don't want to go there.) Carrico, Cook and Hernandez fell comfortably into the second strata. Noriega's love-it-or-hate-it performance was in a class by itself, but the buzz it generated could easily be enough to carry the effusive Californian into the Finals. The remaining five contestants were weighed in the balance and found severely wanting.
"Themed semifinal weeks. Not one of my better ideas." - Nigel J. Plankton
Our opinions, for what they're worth: We weren't quite as enamored with Archuleta's performance as some reviewers were, though we'd chalk that up to obvious nerves. He's the real deal and will be singing weekly on your TV screens into the month of May. With or without the guitar, Castro's vocals were a welcome bit of fresh air compared to the performances that preceded his. We won't quarrel with Johns's ranking as the evening's top performer, as his outstanding voice and stage command warrant it. Still, even though we think the rating is about right, that was one of the least memorable 5-star performances we've ever seen. Combine Cook's vocals and cleverness with Noriega's youthful energy and spirit, and you would have yourself quite a formidable competitor. As it is, however, we had a difficult time watching the former and listening to the latter.
Finally, while we'll withhold judgment on his rocker creds, we'll join the Idolsphere consensus and tip our hats to Carrico for the night's smartest song choice, particularly when one takes into account that only 50 songs were made available to the contestants. How difficult is it, really, to (1) pick a well-liked, crowd-pleasing song that (2) hasn't been sung to death already, and (3) won't draw unfavorable comparisons to past contestants or the original artist, and which (4) lies within your vocal and performing skills range, then (5) go out and sing it decently? Judging by seven years of watching this nutso show, it must be a heck of a lot harder than it seems.