American Idol meets the Beatles.

Obsessive analysis of American Idol.
March 25 2008 11:40 AM

Idol Meets the Beatles

Whitesnake's adaptation of "Day Tripper," the curse of the upbeat song, cooliosis, and other highlights you may have missed.

American Idol. Click image to expand.
American Idol's top 10

That's a lot of Beatles songs. Don't get me wrong, I was psyched when I heard that American Idol finally acquired the performing rights from Sony/ATV. But four hours, 23 solos, two medleys, and a Katharine McPhee/David Foster collaboration later, I'm ready to let the singers get back to their regular Idol fare. It wasn't all bad—though it's maybe not their thing. The Top 12 worked the hard-won Lennon-McCartney songbook two weeks ago in some innovative and fairly satisfactory ways. And then the producers couldn't just "Let It Be," so there was a second Beatles night last week (this time including songs by the Other Beatles!). Has this ever happened before—two successive weeks of the same theme? The answer is no, and now we know why.

While it did provide a second chance to a few who faltered the first time, the reverse situation prevailed. Chikezie, who turned out my favorite performance during Lennon-McCartney night, tried unsuccessfully to replicate the success the following week. His bluegrass-cum-Little Richard rendition of "She's a Woman" had been lively and so full of sh-sh-sh-showmanship that it drew rave reviews from the judges and sent Ryan running around the stage in a Beatlemaniacal frenzy. But his second attempt at the country vibe, an odd dual-tempo arrangement of "I've Just Seen a Face," found Chikezie trying to board the instrument-playing bandwagon with an ill-advised harmonica solo—it was pretty much just that ingressive-egressive thing your toddler does with his Fisher Price model.

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Likewise, Brooke White initially shone with "Let It Be," and then when she wasn't allowed to repeat the performance the next week, she seemed to founder without a piano in "Here Comes the Sun." After a sparkling "Come Together," Simon compared Carly Smithson to Kelly Clarkson, and while the subsequent "Blackbird" inspired Randy to invent either a new word or a new disease (cooliosis—it's catchy, Randy, but it's no "toe-jam football"), Simon thought it was an indulgent song choice. Then there was a whole discussion about blackbirds and broken singers beaten down by the music industry, and Paula found a kindred spirit, and Carly got a Season 7 tattoo, and is it just me, or is there a lot more Idol chatter happening onstage this year? No more diffident Melinda Doolittle and her humble smiles. This year the singers are taking back the mic.

The second show did have its moments, offering a reprieve to David Archuleta after he dropped some lyrics in "the Stevie Wonder version" of "We Can Work It Out." In his pre-performance video package he confessed to some discomfort regarding the Beatles theme, a stress that manifested itself onstage as "why see it your way … nuh nuh nuh nuh love will soon be gone." I'd make an effort to scoff a little if I hadn't recently made precisely the same noises during a page-turn disaster at the church where I sing ("washed in the blood of the … nuh nuh nuh ..."). I'll let you decide which of us is facing a higher trinity of judges.

His Stevie Wonder allusion wasn't the only cover of a cover. David Cook rocked Whitesnake's rockin' adaptation of "Day Tripper" with a startling Framptonesque talk box moment, and even though Simon mocked it, I think David's performance was far better than his noisy, thoughtless interpretation of the intimate "Eleanor Rigby." Save it for Guitar Hero, David. But, really, what's the deal with the layered covers? We are heading into copy-of-a-copy simulacrum territory here, a situation that Simon Cowell once compared to a "ghastly Xerox machine." When will it end? Will we turn on the TV one Tuesday night and find Michael Johns performing Chris Daughtry's rendition of Live's version of Johnny Cash's "Walk the Line"? Speaking of Michael, he sang two of my favorite Beatles songs, "Across the Universe" and "A Day in the Life," with lovely but lackluster vocals and some decidedly odd pronunciation of the jai guru deva om mantra. And speaking of pronunciation, Jason Castro sang an adorable "Michelle" with perfect just-learned French and the same air of slight embarrassment he's exuded ever since his rocky high note at the end of "Hallelujah"—a gaffe he unwisely reminded us about in his "my most memorable moment so far" clip.

Those clips seemed out of place. There was an awful lot of nostalgia on display for a show that still has two months to go. And Ramiele Malubay sang a pretty but uninspiring "In My Life," dedicated to the contestants who have gone home already—OK, it is sad when people leave, but at this point in the competition, we didn't know them well enough to require a tribute like that. That's what we have Ruben Studdard for. The finalists who made their exits during the Beatles weeks fell victim to the perennial curse of the "upbeat song." It's hard to pull off these nonballad songs on American Idol; peppy songs are rarely about showing off competitive singing chops, so you have to be hugely energetic and entertaining to make an impression. While Chikezie and Carly managed this in the first Beatles episode, Syesha Mercado, Kristy Lee Cook, David Hernandez, and Amanda "Ballads Are Boring" Overmyer did not. David and Amanda were sent home, and now we have our Top 10 for the tour, coming soon to a giant half-filled arena near you!

So are you ready for Beatles Night, Part 3? Just kidding! Before you go get your Revolver to end the agony, tonight's theme has the Top 10 belting out "Songs From the Year They Were Born." Wait, didn't we already do the '80s theme? That's a lot of Whitney Houston songs …

Katherine Meizel is the author of Idolized: Music, Media, and Identity in American Idol and a visiting assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Oberlin Conservatory.