The whole reason for these genre-themed American Idol shows to exist is variation. The challenge of pushing their voices into whole new territories ideally should force contestants to switch their games up, finding some common ground between their thing and the theme’s thing. Lately, rather than doing genre-themed shows, producers have been bringing in guest-mentors to stand in for different genres, and there’s a certain peril in that approach. Last year during Barry Gibb night, a few contestants raided the Bee Gees’ pre-disco output for some dozy folk-pop adult-contempo tracks. Last night, the same thing happened again. When the show is centered around Dolly Parton, why would any of the contestants go out of their way to sing the same boring soft-rock fluff that they always sing? Carly Smithson, in particular, sounded even sleepier than usual, doing what amounted to another damn Celine Dion tribute. When one of the most forceful, alive personalities in American pop is ostensibly the focus of the show, that’s surely some kind of deeply dubious accomplishment. David Archuleta, meanwhile, sang “Smoky Mountain Memories” pretty well without actually giving the impression that he’d ever seen a mountain in his life. Syesha Mercado did exactly what pretty much everyone expected her to do, singing the Whitney Houston version of “I Will Always Love You,” and probably wrote herself a ticket home in the process. Her version started off really well, all slight and tender, and she would’ve been much better off if it’d stayed that way. But when the big orchestral swell kicked in and she wailed out the enormous last note, it almost seemed like she couldn’t help herself. It’s become a cardinal sin on Idol to try a Whitney Houston song; the judges inevitably eviscerate whoever does it by comparing it to her version. Syesha had to know that was coming; I wonder what she was thinking. Michael Johns, meanwhile, sang “It’s All Wrong, But It’s All Right” like he was in Blues Hammer. Everyone loved it. I just don’t understand people sometimes.
The contestants who tried to country up a bit didn’t fare much better. Ramiele Malubay looks totally skittish and lost every time she’s onstage these days. She just gets worse every week, and I have no idea why she’s still on the show. Brooke White sang “Jolene” and smiled during it, which is a cardinal sin. Anyone who sings “Jolene” without summoning some measure of icy resolve doesn’t understand the song. Last night left us with exactly zero great performances and three pretty good ones. Kristy Lee Cook is a country singer, so this week was no stretch for her. Her take on “Coat of Many Colors” was poised and polished, and she seemed to revel in the opportunity to coast for a week. I’ve been saying for a few weeks that Jason Castro needs a great song to have any real effect. “Travelin’ Through” is a great song (though not a great great song like “Hallelujah”), and it meshed nicely with his whole dorm-room stoner-folk delivery. And David Cook, who may actually stand some chance of winning this thing, worked his grizzled whine-yowl on “Little Sparrow,” Seacrest taking care this time to point out that he was actually doing his own arrangement this week. Given that “Little Sparrow” comes from the same album where Parton covered Collective Soul’s “Shine,” there’s an appealing circularity in someone turning her song into an airy neo-grunge howler. Cook was definitely this week’s standout, and him finally getting rid of that stupid soul-patch was only part of it.
Still, it was painfully apparent this week that this year’s cast, the one we’ve been told again and again is the greatest in the show’s history, can’t sing country for shit. We’ll know soon enough if they can sing disco or showtunes or, um, Neil Diamond songs, but I’m not optimistic. (Actually, they might do OK with Neil Diamond songs.) This week’s show was definitely sorely missing Chikezie, my favorite contestant of the year by far. He got voted off last week, way too early. Chikezie had already gone all batshit country (on a Beatles song, of all things), and we’ll never learn what insanity he could wreak on something from Parton’s catalog. The show is immeasurably more boring without him, and I basically no longer care who wins.