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'American Idol' Banter: Who are they really?

May 14, 2008 |  2:37 am

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