American Idol Week Six: The Archuleta Problem


Know role. Shut mouth.

This one time in college, I watched Monday Night Raw in a coworker’s dorm room with him and a bunch of his friends, and all these kids could do was talk about the Rock. The main event that night was a pretty great ten-man tag-team match, five good guys against five bad guys, and these chumps could barely watch the thing because the Rock wasn’t in it the whole time. Every time one of the good guys would tag in Cactus Jack or Rikishi or whoever, they’d all be like, “No! What are you doing? The Rock is right there!” This, for me, was weird. These guys weren’t fans of wrestling or the WWF or anything; they were fans of the Rock and nothing else. The WWF could’ve replaced the entire undercard with footage of the Rock spouting catchphrases at the camera for two hours, and they would’ve been perfectly happy. Judging by my comments section and the screams that flare up whenever Ryan Seacrest mentions the kid’s name, this is how the assembled grandmothers and 12-year-old girls of America feel about David Archuleta. The whole idea of American Idol and the concept of singing in general are becoming entirely secondary to the inexplicable cultlike appeal of this big-toothed gnome-child, and I don’t get it at all. I hope I’m wrong, but it seems like he could suck mightily every week from now until the finale and still coast through to win the thing. I don’t even know how this happened, but I’m finding myself rooting hard against him if only so this show will lose the stink of inevitability. Uncritical, unconditional devotion is just creepy like that.

Actually, though, Arculeta wasn’t all that bad this week. This was probably my favorite non-“Imagine” performance of his; that sort of Richard Marxist adult-contempo synth-goop is pretty much his lane. I was happy when Simon took a shot at his stage-managed situation, but I didn’t quite agree with his big thumbs-down. This week, in fact, was something of a landmark: I’m not sure I’ve ever disagreed with the judges quite so consistently. The idea behind this week’s show was that all the contestants were doing songs from the years of their birth. Given the age-spread of this year’s contestants, that basically meant another 80s week, which would ordinarily be fine with me. But too many of the contestants either couldn’t quite connect with their material or opted for the hammiest shit imaginable. Out of some combination of patriotic fervor and vote-grubbing desperation, perpetual bottom-three-dweller Kristy Lee Cook sang Lee Greenwood’s jingoistic jock-jam “God Bless the USA,” a song I never want to hear unless I’m at a rodeo or some shit, and she did it, of course, like it was “Amazing Grace.” The judges loved it. Michael Johns, not to be outdone on the sporting-event front, actually did motherfucking “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions.” He sang them well enough, but this was both a gallingly obvious classic-rock move and a trip deep into cheeseball territory. The judges loved it.

It cut both ways. Carly Smithson’s presence might be a blight on the very concept of the show, but I was actually pretty amped about her take on “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” She shanked a couple of notes, but she did over-the-top bombast with serious intensity, and it was sort of fun to hear this song as something other than a half-ironic drunken party singalong. (And that song has become a mainstay of half-ironic druken party singalongs, after all, because it rules.) Ramiele Malubay also did pretty well with another scenery-chewing power-ballad, Heart’s “Alone,” and she did pretty well with the big notes, though she did herself no favors by standing still and shivering on the stage like a scared little kid. The judges stomped all over both of them. Simon wouldn’t even give due props to the show’s one clear standout performance, Syesha Mercado’s take on Stephanie Mills’s “If I Were Your Woman,” a serious old-school soul-jam that would’ve really helped to make her a favorite if America had any idea who Stephanie Mills was. Syesha has had two pretty great weeks in a row now, something I didn’t see coming, but I’d have a much easier time getting to like her if she didn’t come off so completely weird and fake in all the pre-performance video-clips. She even gave an encore of her screeching-baby impression this week, which yeesh.

The contestants I’ve already gotten to like, meanwhile, all had glaring off-weeks. Chikezie was good but boring, and he showed that he’s totally content to play the Luther Vandross impersonator when the show’s theme isn’t forcing him outside his comfort zone, which doesn’t say anything good about his post-Idol viability. Jason Castro, great when he’s working with a great song, proved this week that he’s basically going to suck until another great song comes along. Doing solo Sting this week, he verged on Enrique Iglesias, not a good look. And David Cook took “Billie Jean,” one of the greatest pop songs ever, and stripped it of everything good: its icy tension, its slippery groove, its falsetto yips. Instead, he made it sound like a soulful moment with the guy from Nickelback. Cook can do whatever he wants with the entire Lionel Ritchie catalogue for all I care, but he needs to be very careful about shitting all over deathless paranoiac party-starters like that one. And he apparently bit Chris Cornell’s version, which gives me one more reason to hate Chris Cornell. One more show like that and I’m officially over Cook. The judges, needless to say, loved it.