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Idol Top 7: Mariah, The Mentor

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks

There have been some pretty major mentors on American Idol over the years: Stevie Wonder, Jennifer Lopez, Gwen Stefani, and Burt Bacharach, just to name a few. But there's never been a bigger superstar mentor than the ultimate diva and Randy Jackson's BFF, Mariah Carey...who uncoincidentally is releasing her new album, E=MC2, this week. Ryan described the woman as "unstoppable," and while that's not entirely true--that Glitter fiasco stopped her pretty good, for a while--she is no doubt a positive role model for anyone who's had to overcome adversity. Because being in the bottom three ain't nothing compared to what this lady's been through.

But anyway, as I mentioned in my previous blog about this season's mentors, usually when an Idol contestant tackles a Mariah song, it proves to be a very, very bad decision. Because the finalist is inevitably--and almost always unfavorably--compared to Mariah. So the finalists seemed set up for failure tonight--and naturally, I steeled myself for an evening of pale Mimi imitations, missed upper-octave notes, and biased critiques from Randy.

Turns out I needn't have worried. Well, not in most cases, at least...

So first up was David Archuleta, in what is quickly becoming known in Idol circles and on message boards as the "death slot." See, recently several finalists who sang first (Ramiele Malubay, Amanda Overmyer, and last week's Michael Johns, for whom we are "still feeling the shockwaves" according to Ryan Seacrest) ended up getting cut the following night. So why was David A. kicking off the show tonight, huh? Have the Idol producers tired of their golden boy? Do they want another shockwave-inducing elimination to keep the message boards a buzzin'? (Conspiracy theorists, start your posting...)

Anyway, whatever the reason, Archie went first. It was kind of cute to see how flabbergasted this little guy got in the presence of a red-blooded woman like Mariah ("Meeting Mariah Carey was scary," he said--hey, that rhymes!), although I got a little worried for him when Mariah advised him to go into falsetto mode. Didn't she know that Michael Johns ran into bad luck last week when he broke out his chihuahua-baiting falsetto schtick? And didn't she know that no matter how firmly Archie nailed those high notes, he was never going to nail them the way SHE can? Hmmmm. Wonder what her motive was there. But hey, if there's any guy left in the top seven able to reach Mariah's range, it'd be David A., a boy barely past puberty and probably not yet struggling with any Peter Brady-esque voice change.

So Little David did "When You Believe," and to me it was nauseatingly reminiscent of his overly feelgoody "You're The Voice" performance. But hey, at least this was a song everyone knew, and it was the kind of stuff that his fans gobble up. He still doesn't have my vote, personally, but he obviously has millions of others.

Carly Smithson was up next, belting out the season 3/LaToya London favorite "Without You"--not a bad choice, since it was originally written and recorded by a '70s rock band, Badfinger, and she obviously considers herself such a rocker chick. But you know, Badfinger hold the dubious distinction of quite possibly being the most doomed, unlucky band of all time--yes, even more doomed than Def Leppard or even Lynyrd Skynyrd. The story of Badfinger is indeed pop music's most epic tragedy; our own Yahoo! Music scribe Dan Epstein put it best in his review of Badfinger's Without You biography when he wrote: "[Badfinger were] screwed by music-industry machinations so brutal and complex that the book reads more like a horror story than a rock biography." Badfinger were in fact so screwed over that eventually two of the band's original members ran out of hope and killed themselves. Whoa, sorry to be a downer here. My point is, I simply wonder if Carly identified with this song, even on a subconscious level, because of its origin. After all, this woman, while not nearly as screwed-over or suicidal as Badfinger, has certainly been through the music-biz wringer herself. Just a thought.

Anyhoo, my opinion of Carly's "Without You" performance was pretty much the opposite of Randy's: It started off good, ended up annoying. This is because I personally prefer Carly when she mellows out and holds back, not when she shows off and borders on bug-eyed banshee screaming. Lately her performances have smacked of desperation, like she's suddenly realized she's not the frontrunner anymore and is starting to panic. And tonight was no exception. She "can't give any more," indeed.

Syesha Mercado followed, and she was very much in her element. Of all the finalists, her genre is closest to Mariah's, so she seemed confident and ready to shine. And shine she did, literally, in a very Mimi-ish metallic gown that made her look like she's been dipped in liquid gold. Syesha was also wise with her song choice, "Vanishing"--a big ballad challenging enough to showcase her range, but obscure enough to not automatically elicit comparisons to the incomparable Mariah. Syesha is still not my fave, but I must admit she did good tonight. And she ought to stay another week based on this solid-gold-lamé performance.

Brooke White was up next, and I was fairly amused watching her strum her acoustic guitar in the practice room while Mariah stood nearby, posing like a pinup (always with her right face to the camera), playing with her hair, and basically looking kind of...bored. I got the vague impression that Brooke was not Mariah's cup of throat-coat tea. However, I personally dug Brooke's interpretation of "Hero." It wasn't as good as her finest moment, Pat Benatar's "Love Is A Battlefield," but Brooke's been flagging the last few weeks and I thought this was a nice return to form for her.

She was back at the piano, where she belongs, and thankfully this time Ricky Minor's band didn't come crashing in like when they ruined her "Every Breath You Take" number. I think Brooke was wise to do a quieter, lower-key version of this song--she knows her strengths, and she knew not to attempt Carly/Syesha-style vocal acrobatics. Brooke is not the strongest singer of the bunch, but she's one of the top seven's more fully formed artists. See, with Brooke (as is the case David Cook and Jason Castro; more on them later), I can already vividly imagine what her album would sound like. And that's important. As Paula said tonight, Brooke is "identifiable."

There's just one thing that bugs me about Brooke White, though, and it's NOT her spastic "Here Comes The Sun" dance. It's the way she always, always interrupts the judges. The minute any of them say anything remotely negative about her, she cuts them off at the pass, saying (and I paraphrase), "Yes, yes, you're right, I know I suck!" At first this seemed like plain old humility, but now it just seems defensive. Stop interrupting the judges, Brooke, and let them tell you if you suck, OK? However, at least one judge, Simon, was able to shut up babbling Brooke tonight with a weird hamburger/bun analogy. Is McDonald's a sponsor of Idol now or something? 'Cause I was not "lovin' it" when Simon said that...

Kristy Lee Cook followed, and like Syesha she cleverly picked a lesser-known tune, "Forever." And like Syesha, she decked herself out in Mariah-esque gold lamé and subsequently looked like a star. Her rendition of "Forever" garnered extremely high praise from Mariah herself, who became covered in goosebumps and said she actually preferred KLC's version! And even I, a longtime Kristy-basher, must admit this was a solid showing. KLC was almost Carrie Underwoodish tonight. Kristy's still not my fave and never will be (sorry, we all have our favorites), but I do think this was her best moment of the season. She didn't give me goosebumps, exactly, but she was a'ight, dawg.

Next was the other Cook, David, doing a rockin' power-ballad version of "Always Be My Baby." And as I far as I know, this time he was not "borrowing" an existing arrangement from Chris Cornell, Incubus, et al. Mariah seemed impressed by David when they rehearsed together--she even sang along with him, something she didn't do with the other six. (Oh my, was she flirting with him? Well, if she was, who could blame her?) David really killed it on this one, transporting the show out of "karaoke hell" (Simon's words, not mine) and right into rock 'n' roll heaven. The guy hasn't been in bottom three yet, and if he is after this, it'll be an even more cardiac-arrest-inducing shocker than Michael's elimination last week.

And finally, there was Jason Castro. As I mentioned above in my Brooke White paragraph, Jason is not the best singer in this competition, but that doesn't matter. He's a real artist, with a real identity. He does what he does, and he does it very well. And tonight, he did "I Don't Wanna Cry" very well indeed. He knew he couldn't hit the Mariah-style notes, so he didn't even try, but he infused the song with sweet emotion and turned it into a lovely and lilting coffeehouse ballad. In other words, he successfully Castro-fied it.

So now, it's prediction time. Who glittered and who tanked like, well, Glitter? Well, my gut is telling me that David C., Kristy (yes, Kristy), Syesha, and Jason are safe. So I'm guessing Brooke and Carly will be back in the bottom, and that--yes, I know I'm going out on a very loooonnnng limb here--that David "Death Slot" Archuleta will finally land in the bottom three. But I don't actually expect that Archie will get eliminated. I'm not going THAT far out on the limb.

Honestly, I predict Carly will finally get axed. I just hope if I'm correct, Carly looks to Mariah, NOT Badfinger, for inspiration on how to deal with career setbacks.

Tune in tomorrow to see if I'm right!

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