‘American Idol’ Tracker: Many roads to the Final Three


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Just two months ago, 12 strangers stepped onto this stage, bearing the weight of a multigazillion-dollar entertainment powerhouse on their collective shoulders. Eight weeks later, the crowd Tuesday in the Idoldome was no longer swooning for mere firmaments in the franchise’s galaxy, but as the fans of three individuals who have sung through fire and earned their places among ‘Idol’ immortals.

Ultimately, what was quantified by this column as the most talented season in ‘Idol’ history, has produced a Final Three worthy of the name, and three individuals worthy to stand with the Final Three of any season. Along the way, giants have fallen; the losses of Michael Johns and of the greatest performer in ‘Idol’ history (also the most electrifying), Carly Smithson, still sting. And the lights still shine bright from the supporting cast -- Chikezie Eze, Ramiele Malubay, Jason Castro, Kristy Lee Cook, David Hernandez, Brooke White and Amanda Overmyer, still with two months’ hindsight, not a forgettable talent amongst them.


But ultimately from this chaos of unknown talents, three singers, David Cook, Syesha Mercado and The Chosen One, David Archuleta, emerged from the thickets hardened, weary but determined, the youthful bloom of Hollywood Week long gone, but in its place the calm that comes only from hard-won experience (except for Archuleta, who seems as nervous and giggly as the day he stepped on this stage.)

The pressures of life in the ‘Idol’ contestant ranks at these exalted heights are incomparable. This week alone, the survivors were forced to master and make their own three songs (two of which were foisted upon them) while dealing with wardrobe, photo shoots, gala trips home, studio sessions, Ford commercials –- all of which comes at the end of two months of nonstop labor in a bubble isolated from their family, friends and home. And while all performances were not perhaps equal on Tuesday night, all rose to this challenge and performed, at worst, decently.

Each of these combatants, however, found his or her way to this exalted place in a very different way. Let us examine then the paths to glory taken by each of Season 7’s Final Three.

Syesha Mercado: In February, handicapping the women of the Top 24, I predicted (I was stunned to find when I was re-reading today) that Syesha would win the entire competition. However, I wrote that while I saw her as ‘the one female candidate with true star presence,” I cautioned that her “Celine/Whitney style may be too familiar to ‘Idol’ competition.” Within days, I was backing away from my prediction of triumph, seeing her as a generic throwback to the traditional sort of contestant, a model whose time seemed to have passed in the face of genetically engineered superpowers such as The Chosen One. And for week after week, Syesha seemed to hang a hair’s breath from mortality, claiming as her own one of the bottom-tier stools.

But while given up for dead by the punditry, Syesha refused to quit. After a disastrous maiden outing in the first week of the Top 12, she delivered performances that, if they didn’t garner raves, were always at least passable. And then, after finding herself suddenly in the Top Six, she suddenly turned it on, week after week, when little was expected of her at this point, favorably surprising again and again.

The public seemed only barely to notice her, however, continuing to consign her to the lower tiers. One night several weeks ago, after turning in one of the most memorable performances on an Andrew Lloyd Webber night and still finding herself in the bottom, Syesha, who always kept her happy stage face on, turned her back to the audience during a break and gave herself over to tears, seeming to say, will nothing I do ever be good enough? But little by little, it was good enough, and to much public shock, Syesha found herself in the Season 7 Final Three.


David Archuleta: In February, I predicted The Chosen One would finish in second place, citing his “strong appeal to ‘Idol’’s most powerful voting block” (tween girls), while warning that his youthful persona might turn off everyone outside that demographic group. It seemed to me that, raised on ‘Idol,’ studying the works of Kelly Clarkson, Jason Guarini and Clay Aiken from his infancy, The Chosen One was the fulfillment of ‘Idol’ Prophecies, the messiah of the unswerving voice forged to lead the show from its wayward, clumsy youth into a realm of perfection and vocal gymnastics at heights never before seen in the annals of competitive singing.

Mostly, Archuleta has done that. Never straying from the top tier, having only the rarest of off-nights, The Chosen One provided the show with a backbone of perfection to see it through its lowest moments.

What I did not foresee, however, was that Archuleta might become this year’s Melinda Doolittle.

Having established from the first moments of the season a standard of perfection, Archuleta left himself almost nowhere to go. The tween girls continued to swoon, screech and speed-dial, but to many in the crowd, seeing him once again turn in a flawless rendition of a adult ballad became very familiar. However, his presence remains magic to ‘Idol’’s most important voters, and that may be more than enough to guarantee him the crown.

David Cook: In February, I wrote that Cook managed to be “alternative without being scary,” but predicting that he would finish in 10th place, I warned that “the John Mayer path might be too intense and limiting to go the distance.”

When the story of this season is recorded in history books, the rise of Cook will be its great tale. Coming out of what seemed too obscure a niche to become a credible contender, Cook has steadily broadened his appeal far beyond the indie demo. In the Idoldome each week now, grandmothers and, more ominously for Archuleta, children, identify themselves as his fans. Throughout the long season, Cook’s performances –- often surprising and always seemingly carefully considered –- became the most anticipated of each night. Of all the contestants, Cook seemed the most comfortable on stage, singing apparently without fear and behaving in his interview segments in a low-key but self-assured manner that conveyed both humility and a strong sense of self. In the early weeks of the Top 24, Cook appeared almost bratty on stage, snapping at the judges, and was informed by judge Simon Cowell that he was entirely without charisma. But he quickly seemed to bring himself under control at once, restraining what flashes of anger he may have felt and projecting a very likable, unaffected personality.

Finally on Mariah Carey night, a month back, Cook broke through. His performance of “Always Be My Baby,” sung with his ailing brother in the audience, was the most dramatic of the season, producing an ovation that lasted through the break as Cook waded into the crowd to visit his sibling. That applause held the season’s record, until tonight, when Cook’s final song produced an ovation so thunderous and unrelenting across the Idoldome, the night almost felt like a coronation.

But still, one more elimination lies ahead and one more challenge for the surviving two next week. And it is still very, very possible that this season may yet have a surprise (or two) up its sleeve.


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-- Richard Rushfield