American Idol Week Four: The Beatles? Really?

American Idol Week Four: The Beatles? Really?

I would pay five dollars to watch this guy punch David Arculeta in the face

So: the Beatles. The most important band in the history of the universe ever. I like maybe seven of their songs. Those of us born after the band's breakup have spent our entire lives being continually blasted with information about how great and world-changing they were, information that most recently took the form of a ghastly, endless Cirque du Soleil tribute at this year's Grammys. This week, American Idol jumped on board, Ryan Seacrest constantly declaiming what a coup it was when the show secured the rights to the Lennon/McCartney songbook while the top twelve contestants desperately tried to find ways to make these songs work. Most important band ever or not, does anyone ever listen to the Beatles for the vocals? At least in the context of today's scenery-chewing robo-virtuosos, were Lennon and McCartney even good singers? Or, more to the point, were their songs conceived as showcases for vocal pyrotechnics? If we're to believe Simon Cowell, the American Idol competitors are chosen above all for their technical abilities, but how do you put those technical abilities on display when you're singing, say, "I Saw Her Standing There"?

Well, David Hernandez, who'd apparently spent some of his strip-club tips on a college-level Beatles class, tried. And the result, predictably enough, was all over the place, Hernandez trying to find room for his quavery George Michael runs while the backing singers ran rings around him. It wasn't exactly a surprise when he got voted off last night, but then, at least half of this week's contestants put themselves in danger with some seriously ill-advised moves. Syesha Mercado turned "Got to Get You into My Life" into uber-bland Vegas neo-soul and made the bottom three. Kristy Lee Cook turned "Eight Days a Week" into ADD bluegrass and made the bottom three. (Actually, the problem wasn't so much Cook, who did what she could with it, but the arrangement. The drums never came close to matching up with anything else; it was like one of those death-metal songs where the double-bass pummel never stops no matter what else might be going on.) Further up the food chain, Ramiele Malubay, who I'm liking less every week, pretty much fell asleep on "In My Life" while Amanda Overmyer did a take on "You Can't Do That" that basically amounted to an audition for the next godawful Blues Brothers sequel. Most gratifyingly, former presumptive nominee David Archuleta tried out the Stevie Wonder version of "We Can Work It Out" and crashed and burned in the process: forgetting lyrics, grimacing, and generally looking like the little kid who he's probably never had a chance to be. If my blog's comments section are any indication (and I sure hope not), Archuleta is still teflon right now. But a few more shows like that, and I'm guessing the grammatically unschooled teenagers of America will lose patience with this creepy little elf-kid.

We're fully into the meat of the Idol season now; last night's results shows brought back the unbearable movie tie-ins (Jim Carrey) and hilariously awkward group-sing car commercials (Cake's "The Distance"!) of seasons past. And one of the nice things about the more specific theme-shows is that all the contestants have to leave their comfort zones at some point or another. A vetted-from-babyhood stage-child like Archuleta can coast through the early rounds singing songs he's sung a billion times, but when he has to engage with stuff that's new to him (like, uh, the Beatles?), he's lost, whereas some of the more interesting contestants can actually make something out of what they've been given. I no longer have any doubts, for instance, as to Brooke White's singing abilities; she treated "Let It Be" like the Starbucks-pop manna it is. Chikezie, meanwhile, absolutely stepped his game up on the bigger stage, turning "She's a Woman" into an unlikely defining moment and finding his swagger, giving us the closest thing we got to a revelatory performance this week. I would've liked to see Jason Castro sing "Across the Universe" (that one went to blowhard hack Michael Johns instead), but he did a pretty good job turning "If I Fell" into his usual breezy folk-pop. And even if nobody has any real business signing finely wrought depictions of British middle-class repression in yarling post-grunge bellows, at least David Cook got a big chorus to belt out. The real test is going to be whether these contestants will be able to repeat the trick, carving out spaces for themselves in unfamiliar territory week after week. In the meantime, I'm really hoping I hallucinated that Seacrest announcement that they're doing another Lennon/McCartney show next week. I get it, OK?

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