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'American Idol' Tracker: Mariah Carey night marks coming of age

April 16, 2008 |  7:58 am

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Kristy Lee Cook sings her heart out on "American Idol" on Tuesday night.

Suddenly the Idoldome is a different place.

In the season’s opening weeks, the Final 12 first stepped onto a cold, hostile stage, one rife with history. They stepped onto the exact marks where Clarkson, Aiken, Underwood and Daughtry once burst forth into the national consciousness. In those opening weeks, the candidates battled to earn their places on the two-tiered couch -- to prove their presence here was not just a fluke. Each thrashed and flailed for his or her voice to be heard crying out into the blank and pitiless space where cranky judges, bad song choices, sore throats, nerves and a failure to connect with the audience can destroy a career before it has even begun.  And they must endure some brutal rites of passage before they can say they not just stood, but truly lived, on this storied stage.

Tuesday night in the Idoldome, the remaining seven finally became bigger than their stage.

Before the show even started, there was a feeling in the Idoldome of the normally near-hysterical pandemonium of the crowd having been lifted to new heights. And as the seven took the stage, lining up during the final countdown before the cold open, it suddenly struck that this was no longer a lineup of hopeful wannabes; these contestants have become icons. Lined up all together, they now seemed to bring something bigger then themselves, to represent the hopes, aspirations and shared experiences of the millions of fans who have seen them battle through to this point. There was suddenly the sense of watching not a group brought together for this occasion of unknowns hoping to break through, but a supergroup of established names coming together for one climactic explosion.

Davidcook A good part of this newfound gravitas must be reckoned to have been built on the battles of yesterday. By now, every surviving contestant has had his or her bad nights and at least one good night. They have fought and lost and (almost) all have looked into the cold, remorseless eyes of Angel of Death Seacrest on elimination night. They have struggled to find their voices, fought back from defeat and learned to control whatever childish tendencies they brought to the stage. 

But more important, perhaps, was the effect of the Michael Johns elimination last week, which marks the critical sobering rite that each season's cast must endure.  Each year, when a dozen very young people are jointly thrown to the lions in the Idoldome, they respond by clinging together. For the first weeks on the big stage, the group can often seem like a bunch of college kids out on a field trip, animated by a “we’re all in this together” spirit -- an attempt to forge a community that ignores the fact that each week, one, and only one of them, must go.

With each season, however, there is a critical moment when, suddenly, sparked by an unexpected beheading, the survivors each realize that there is no longer a safety zone, that each misstep could be their last, and that as friendly as they may be with the others, when it comes time to sing the Goodbye Song, each candidate must sing it alone. After the shocking elimination of Johns, we face a remaining group that seems to have matured by years in the last seven days.

But ultimately, what has pushed this season into the final stage is a feeling that at last we have a story to tell. After all we have been through since the audition tour, after 17 have fallen since Hollywood Week, at last a champion has emerged to go up against David Archuleta, The Chosen One. Originally derided by Simon as having a complete absence of charisma, Tuesday night in the Idoldome all but became a coronation of David Cook (pictured at left).  Giving what has proved to be the greatest season in Idol history an extra power of authenticity that can only be gained from a surprise emergence such as Cook’s, the alt-rocker commanded a deafening ovation from the crowd, perhaps the greatest roar heard this season. After his song ended, Cook made an extremely rare post-song trip to into the crowd during the commercial break to greet his stricken brother. As he waded through the room, the ovation continued unabated with the judges coming over to hug and congratulate him -- an unprecedented action during the show.

Carlysmithson But before the wrap-ups of this season can be written, one must remember there are still six weeks to go and plenty of time for surprises in a season that has already seen more than its share.  For Cook and The Chosen One, the bar is now ridiculously high. Will they be able to rise to it each week without stumbling, or worse, becoming predictably, dependably, uninterestingly great? 

And waiting just behind them remains the one contestant I still contend has the depth and power to earn a spot in the finals. Each time Carly Smithson (pictured at right) takes the stage, her intensity and range absolutely captivates the room in as ferocious a grip as anyone.  Her ability to connect emotionally with her songs and the crowd, I believe, is as electrifying as any singer in the show’s history.

The day grows late, but six weeks is ample time for a surge to the finish.  At this point last year, Blake Lewis was just beginning to reveal himself as a serious contender and a young woman named Jordin Sparks was only just stepping out of the shadows of Melinda Doolittle and LaKisha Jones.

How these final weeks play out remains uncertain, but for the moment, every singer who has made it to this point in the story can rest certain knowing that they have earned their slot on this historic stage.

NOTE:  Please join me for an online chat today, April 16, at noon PDT at chat.latimes.com.

-- Richard Rushfield

Photos courtesy of Fox

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