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Songs of yesterday ... and yesterday

When I heard about last night's theme on American Idol -- that each performer would sing one song from the year they were born and one on the current Billboard charts -- I was intrigued. I've whined so much about the themes lending themselves to some older and boring songs, as well as ones that don't really show the audience whether the performers can hack it as pop stars today. I assumed the "current Billboard charts" meant the Hot 100. But no. We'll get to that, though.

First up was Elliott Yamin, singing George Benson's 1978 hit "On Broadway," and I loved the song on him. He also seemed to show a little more energy on stage, which I was glad to see. The judges were split, with Randy and Paula calling it "very nice" and mentioning his "rich voice," respectively. Simon thought it wasn't his best performance and that he was lucky there would be two songs. (This would hold true for a lot of the contestants.)

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I had heard that Paris Bennett was going to sing Prince's "Kiss" (from 1988), and I was concerned. Before her performance, she dropped this sound bite: "It's not a song that most people can make a song, but I think I can." Ohhh-kaaay? It wasn't horrible -- in fact, it was pretty good, but I was so worried it would be horrible that I couldn't quite get my brain around the actual performance. Judges? Split again, down the same lines: Randy liked it, Paula said she can sing her butt off, and Simon thought it was screechy and annoying.

Chris Daughtry sang Styx's 1978 song "Renegade," and he was pretty awesome. It doesn't hurt that I love that song to start with (partly because it was playing while the geeks from Freaks and Geeks, the dear, departed NBC show from a while back, prepared to face off with some bullies in the pilot episode. But I digress big time.) Anyway, he rocked it, and the judges were unanimous (thankfully, not Unan1mous): Randy said, "We've got a hot one tonight!" Paula: "It was outstanding. ... You're on your path." (Whew, wouldn't want to drive off the road.) Simon: "It was a million times better than the first two performances tonight." Ouch, but possibly true, and you know it pains me to say that.

Katharine McPhee took a swing at 1984's "Against All Odds," and in this case it hurts a lot that 1) the song annoys me to no end and 2) she was not singing it well. But at least she knew. Randy pulled a Paula, telling her how good she looked, but that the key wasn't exactly right. (Which I think is putting it mildly.) Paula said it wasn't her favorite performance, and Simon said that in parts, it was a mess. Then he totally misspoke and said he agreed with Randy and Paula, that it was one of her best performances. But everyone heard what he meant, which was "worst." But then someone tried to correct him like a minute later, and then he interrupted Ryan and tried to fix the mistake, and everyone thought he was just being a jerk, and it got all weird for a while.

Taylor Hicks (who is the new choice at votefortheworst.com now) took on 1976's "Play That Funky Music." He ran all over the stage and danced and flailed so much that my Tivo kept sticking, so as to save me the horror of seeing a couple of those moves. Here, I'll let Randy take this one: "I know you had a good time, but I felt a little like I was in the bar and I'd had a couple." (Taylor responds: "WOO!" Um, sorry, but he didn't mean that in the nice way, if there even is a nice way for that to be taken.) Paula thought he dressed the part (and the shirt was pretty rockin) and showed the "authentic Taylor." Simon again brought up the "horrible wedding performance" comparison, and I think that's never been more accurate. Still, a little harsh with this one: "I liked the end -- when you collapsed."

How frightening is it that all the American Idol contestants put together who have released albums have garned 90 No. 1 hits on the Billboard charts? Very, very. It would have been hilarious if someone had done Daniel Powter's "Bad Day," don'tcha think? Looking at the Hot 100, I see some intriguing options. Taylor singing Bubba Sparxxx? Elliott singing Pussycat Dolls? OK, I guess I can see why they included all the week's charts. But still. Michael Buble? The Beatles? So much for Sounds of Today.

Elliott went with Michael Buble's "Home." I would like to state for the record that before Simon pointed out the lyrical issues of possibly having to sing this if he gets sent home tomorrow ("I want to go home, got to go home, let me go home") that I had already written that down as my first point. So there is no originality in the world. What can you do? Randy thought it was a nice choice, Paula talked about the richness of his voice and Simon was "a little bit concerned" that he might get sent home. I thought it was pleasant enough, but not very engaging -- about the same as the original.

Paris took on a song from the actual Hot 100, Mary J. Blige's "Be Without You," and despite being dressed for warfare in unicorn-land some 2,000 years from now (short-sleeved camo jacket with a wide red belt with a butterfly buckle and silver pants that were baggy and gathered at the knee), she "rocked it out," as Randy said. Paula was "hoping you'd do your Paris flip on it" (she doesn't know what that means either), and Simon liked it, too. This week, I kind of felt like Paris thought she might be at risk, so she just decided to sing whatever the heck she wanted, regardless of what anyone else might think. And it might have worked for her.

Chris sang Shinedown, and it sounded like generic alt-rock. Much better on "Renegade" because the song itself was so much better. Randy thought the key was a little high and "I'm not sure I loved it." Paula just loved him, and Simon made a good point: "Your voice is going, and it felt like it was going to give way at any moment, so watch yourself." Chris copped to singing the song five times yesterday alone and wearing himself out and said he needs to pace himself.

Katharine went with KT Tunstall's "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree," and it was so good and so much fun. She kind of biffed the last note, but she totally knew it, and you could hear her laugh at herself just before they cut her mike. Randy: "Now that's more like the Katharine we grew to love." Paula (I know what she meant, but this is what she said in reference to the two box-drummers on stage with Kat): "I love the choreography and the intimacy -- you got these two guys to do it with you." Simon "much preferred" this performance because it was young and showed personality. I thought it was a blast. I hadn't heard the song before, but I think I will make a point to hear it again.

Taylor worked the system and sang the Beatles' "Something," which is in the Top Pop Catalog charts at the moment. I don't know -- I don't really want to hear anyone besides the Beatles sing this song, and if I had to pick a second person for it, Taylor wouldn't be it. But the judges seemed to like it, even Simon saying he's a good singer -- after calling him out for managing to get a "30-year-old song into 'songs of today.'"

Hands down, my favorite performances of the night were Chris on "Renegade" and Katharine on "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree." I think everyone else is at risk tonight. As always, we shall see ...

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