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'American Idol' Banter: Who are they really?

Syseshamercado In the climactic moments of what should have been a thrill-inducing semifinal, the three most dutiful finalists ever to dominate "American Idol" fulfilled homeroom teacher Ryan Seacrest's opening descriptions so perfectly, one suspected the producers had slipped in animatronic replacements for the nervous wrecks we've seen the last couple of weeks.

Not that Seacrest's tags were that creative. He called David Archuleta "a high school student," Syesha Mercado "an actress," and David Cook "a bartender" -- that last one got a mortified guffaw from the Missouri rocker. But in a show devoted to song choices from the judges, the producers and the contestants themselves, the singers' most memorable performances mined the truth behind these simple labels.

Taking on Chris Brown's languidly anthemic "With You" as his personal song selection, Archuleta wobbled his hips like a duckling learning to mate and grinned with the glee of someone surprising himself. It was his least comfortable performance in weeks, full of vocal stumbles, and he did seem silly uttering the phrase "my boo" (It's an Afro-Caribbean term, popular in hip-hop songs, and our Mormon favorite is just not fly enough to pull it off.) But the song's awkward movements gave us something more important than his other two spot-on ballads could offer: a glimpse at a Pinocchio letting himself become a real boy, made of something other than beautifully polished wood.

That quick glimpse into the heart of goofy Archie -- who actually sees the girls screaming at his feet, and wants to touch their outstretched hands, and even steal a glance at one or two -- exposed a side different than this baby trouper projects when he's playing the balladeer. Chastised by the judges, Archuleta retreated behind his grown-up mask for his next number, a rigorously sincere version of Dan Fogelberg's wedding song, "Longer."

It takes years for some pop prodigies to get beyond craft and risk vulnerability; Mariah Carey, for example, didn't go there until she was nearly 30. Whether he wins "Idol" or gets booted off for this slip into joyful amateurism, Archuleta probably won't let that high school self through much; he's destined for a more Josh Groban-esque intergenerational appeal. Yet for all his musical gifts, he's going to have to go through many growing pains before he gains depth as an artist. And to grow, you have to start out young. (Ask Michael Jackson.)

Syesha Mercado's revelatory moment, also on her personal song choice, asserted showbiz artifice with as much earnestness as Archuleta showed trying to be a real teen. The judges slammed her for choosing the cabaret standard "Fever," but none of their reasons held up. Had Randy, Paula and Simon ever heard of Amy Winehouse, or seen Queen Latifah in "Chicago," they might realize that these days a retro style is as commercially viable as anything else.

Can those three tolerate even the slightest self-assertion on the part of their talent pool? They've given Syesha bad advice every step of the way, curbing her lounge-friendly, jazz-flirty tendencies and pushing her toward an overwrought "sincerity" that contradicts her strengths. Since her main talent is brainy interpretation, she's adapted to their suggestions, but lately she's realized that her instincts were right all along. She's been playing up her ability to transform, to use choreography and costume to assert herself instead of just aiming for big notes she can't own.

If she survives -- and the judges seemed desperate tonight to make sure she doesn't, dousing her in negativity while anointing the Davids -- Syesha will probably be even better next week. She's fulfilling that classic ingenue role, willing herself to stardom. All the debate about the value of amateurism that's haunted this season of "Idol" crumples under Syesha's shimmering stilettos. Unlike bashful David Archuleta and shoulder-shrugging David Cook, she acts like she was born to be on stage. And even if the judges' manipulations work and she's voted off before the final, she's not letting go of that spotlight anytime soon.

And what about the bartender? Cook's triumphs last night showed his mettle, too. Anyone in the rock world has known characters like him: talented and ambitious young men who aren't quite adventurous or weird enough to find a home in the underground, but who still believe in artistic integrity and the saving power of rock's grandiose noise. These guys often end up slinging mojitos for years as they figure out how to realize their dreams.

Watching Cook absorb the lessons that "Idol" has offered him has been one of the season's most edifying experiences. Though his loyalty to minor modern rock bands remains intact -- last night's song choice championed Switchfoot, a decent bunch of surfers who turned their Christian rock secular and had a hit or two a few years back -- Cook has lately been cultivating the pop-friendly glow of his more restrained vocal timbre. He's the rare contestant who has greatly improved under the judges' tutelage, and for that alone, he probably deserves to win.

Simon Cowell's selection for Cook this week was Ewan MacColl's time-stopping love song, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face"; singing it, Cook harkened back to "Idol" mentor Andrew Lloyd Webber and let his inner drama club kid lead the way. Though not even close to the divine finesse of Roberta Flack's version, Cook's take was quietly gestural, not rock 'n' roll at all, but sexier and more beautiful because he curtailed the catharsis.

And he did get his explosive moment, on Diane Warren's genre-melting 1990s power ballad, "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," made famous by Aerosmith. The rococo arrangement didn't do him any favors; this should have been his chance to whip out the scarves and invoke the skeletal fierceness of Steven Tyler. At the very end, though, he pulled the microphone from the stand, pushed every ounce of air out of his diaphragm and aimed for transcendence. I'd wager that Cook thinks the song is nowhere near as good as Switchfoot's.

-- Ann Powers

Photo courtesy of Fox

Comments () | Archives (54)

I don't think "I don't wanna miss a thing" is as good as Switchfoot's song either. It's probably the worst song Aerosmith ever did. If David had more than 90 seconds to perform the music he prefers........you would have been blown away.

Fever is just an old song and Syesha screeched through it like most songs she sings. Her effort at the song from Happy Feet was even worse. Time for Syesha to go.

For me, this year's Idol just didn't have "it". You know, "it". "It" was missing and, as hard as I tried to find "it", "it" couldn't be found in any of the wannabe's performances. What caused "it"? "It's" simple.

American Idol has lost"it's" attraction - searching the country for raw, undeveloped talent, providing a stage and audience. Now, "it's" nothing more than a springboard for those who have been professionally involved in the business but just couldn't get proper exposure.

Idol gives "it" to them. "It's" sad.

That's "it" for me.

I am so grateful to hear your comments on Syesha Mercardo, as well as the other Idol Contestants. I feel that it is extremely offensive for the judges to categorize the contestants according to what they think/feel they should present in the way of their talents. I am so glad that Syesha has chosen to focus on her strengths and forget what that offensive Simon, Randy and Paula think about her. Syesha has found her niche, and I beleive that she should stick with it, enhance it and grow in it. I believe, whether she advances or not, that we will hear great things coming from her in the future. I am not taking anything away from the David's because I enjoy them very much. However, I do feel the judges have endeavored to sway the audience to the men by the measure of their influence on the public who votes. Nothing will make me more happy than for the public to vote Syesha the next winner of the American Idol contest.

I agree with most of this, except for the part about Syesha being born for the stage. Not the stage, no. Week after week, I have watched her play to the camera, to the point that she does not appear to demonstrate a chemistry with the live audience. She is like a singer in a television advertisement, rather than a singer on stage who is connecting with the audience while professionally aware of and giving space to the cameras as well.

Alas, she is already too old for Disney.

What's up with Randy? Does he really think that boring boy Archuleta is "hot, hot, hot"? Give me a break....we know who he's rooting for.

And why were the judges so mean to Syesha last night? She definitely held her own, and looked great too. I think they're trying to sway public opinion.

For once Paula had something intelligent to say when she told David Cook that judging his first song was all about him, not Randy and Simon.


Just watched the show again and i sincerely hope the finals will be between syesha and david achuleta.

For people rooting for david cook,all i can say is that most of the time he shouts the songs and that is the "memorable" parts.In all of all the 3 contestant david cook was the worst of the lot.

It's time to look at this thing for what it is- and that's what makes it so interesting and hard to predict. Is it a competition to find the best singer? Is it to find the most marketable and profitable act? Or is it just a popularity contest?

I'll try to be as objective as possible here.....

Because, if it was solely about vocal talent, then the competition was over weeks ago. Despite his young age, Auchuleta's by FAR the most talented and versatile. And that's a fact. If you don't see that clearly, you either a) don't know a whole lot about music and/or vocal performance, or b) are having trouble seeing past the personality and entertainment part of the equation. I honestly don't think the kid's missed a note in this entire competition.

IF it were solely about marketability and profitability, then David Cook would have it wrapped up. He's by far the most entertaining, and would sell the most records and concert tickets. He's a PR dream- personable, humble, and witty. This, of course, aside from the fact that his vocals are mostly one-dimensional, and he struggles with anything less than full out. When he has to rein it in a bit, his vocals lack the "pop" and visceral urgency that we enjoy when he's belting it out. And when he belts, he has a tendency to miss his notes a few cents to the flat side. A wise producer and vocal coach can help to hide his weaknesses, though. Still the best bet for someone looking to sign one of these kids and make money.

Syesha, to quote Randy, is just "good, not great." There are a million more of her out there, unlike Cook and Archuleta. Although she came out of her shell a bit this week (which was wonderful to see), she seems to lack a bit in both the vocal talent and stage presence departments.... she does decent at both, but certainly not world class, either. Syesha just doesn't bring that Star Quality "je ne sais quoi" to the equation....Perhaps that will be her downfall. Her vocal runs and "flair" tend to get muddy and imprecise. Her voice lacks the big, boomy, overpowering quality that you hear in her contemporaries. She's good looking and personable. Unfortunately, the fact that she's a black female with a less than mind-blowing voice will keep America from picking her.

So, we have- one artist who is far and away the best singer, one artist who is far and away the most entertaining and marketable, and one artist who falls just short in either category.

I'm not sure what America will vote on, and that's what makes this fun.... but I think it's pretty clear that Syesha should be the next to go home. She just can't hang with the big dogs come crunch time.

You are so much better than the other writer

Jake Cola - you couldn't have said it better! AI has not only jumped the shark, it jumped the whole darn ocean! The entire season was bland, and souless ...

David Cook was the best last night! The performances were right on! I think David Archuletta is too boring and every song he sings just sounds the same at this point - and the fact that is closes his eyes is highly annoying! He needs to go! Syesha has grown a lot in the last few weeks and i think this is her style - she would be great on Broadway! I would like to see: Archuletta out this week, Cook winning next week!

Syesha is wonderful...
(and growing better since Sir Andrew told her to let loose and be herself...)

Cook is Awesome..
(his singing can give goosebumps)

Archuleta really sucks.....
(send him over to Nickelodeon--where he canl be a real winner)

Didn't Randy Jackson say just a few weeks back that he could definitely see Syesha on Broadway? So why pick on her choice of "Fever"? I thought her performance was fantastic! Sadly she did not do nearly as well on the other two songs, especially the last one, which seemed to overwhelm her. I'd love to see her in the finals, but it was obvious that the judges were trying to convince everyone to vote for "the Davids." Even if she's not, I think we'll see more of her in the future.

Thank you!! I, too, was dumbfounded over Randy, Paula, and Simon's comments about Siesha's performance of Fever. Contrary to other opinions, she most certainly did not "screech" it. I loathe the Peggy what's-her-name version, and Seisha actually had me enjoying it. She looked smokin' hot, too! To me, that song made her a winner!!

Syesha was really good last night, she should stay and David Cook, please, not Archuletta....He has no personality at all...very boring

I mean David A sounds like Kermit the frog or is it just me?

There are only 2 things wrong with "American Idle." The style and the content. Oh, a third, Simone.

I think Randy Jackson is into some Vegas bookies big time. That could be the only reason why he is constantly singing the praises of David "Archie" Archuletta. If I have to hear Randy say one more time to Archie "dog..you are great you could sing the phone book" I am going to go postal on Randy. Archie is so boring. Every song sounds the same. He does do a wonderful impersonation of Steveie Wonder...all he needs is some sunglasses and to sway his head back and forth. For God sake, some one please get that pathetic kid some tooth picks to keep his eyes open. I physically recoliled when he sang My Bo. He has the depth and dimension of Gumby or Flat Stanley. He can sing only one type of song and those are good if you are an insomniac.

Syesha got robbed. It is obvious the Judges are trying to get her out of there. I hope she kicks butt. Week after week those judges have done nothing but given this woman bad reviews...kind of like they did to Jennifer Hudson. Well Syesha...I hope you get to throw it back in their faces just like Jennifer did.

Simon is too kind. All three are top notch cruise ship entertainers, except there's no real placefor the rock guy in that category. None of them can write a song, so unless you want to go country where few stars write their own material but it's not seen as a negative, then I'm afraid they may have careers on stage but it won't be as superstars. No one has made it big except for Underwood. She will have a long career and illustrates that success in this arena really is a million to one shot. The turnouts for the A.I. summer tours is dismal.

Post #2, StevenS, said "it" all. The show has lost "it". But....I would pay to go see Syesha Mercardo in anything. Remember that name. I only hope she gets a really good, honest agent working for her interests. Best Wishes.

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