I have to apologize. When I started this post (yesterday, as a break from real work), I meant for it to be a top 5 kind of situation, but I got overly excited while looking up performances on YouTube, so it became a longer retrospective on the previous nine seasons of American Idol, and the potentially wonky theme nights that instead turned into what my sister calls Idol "magic". My point is that I think it's lame when Idolestants do the same thing each week instead of letting the theme week exhibit their creative strengths. Quick note: where available, I've found YouTube clips of said performances and attached them to the song titles, so you can see for yourself what I'm talking about. Without further ado, then, here are some talented Idolestants who made weird theme weeks work for them (and for us!):
Kelly Clarkson, “Stuff Like That There” (Big Band Night, Season 1): Big Band nights and Great American Songbook nights have been disasters for some Idolestants. It forces them to work in a genre that is (and I like this kind of music) dated and (usually) tied to a certain kind of voice. So what did Kelly do? She played to the strengths of the genre. Donned in an adorable 1940s-style polka dotted dress, she showed how confident a performer she could be, hitting all of her notes and maneuvering perfectly around the tongue-twisting lyrics. There's a reason she's the most successful winner ever, y'all! I know this is kind of sad, but every time I see Kelly in concert, I secretly hope she’ll sing this one (like she did at this Baltimore, MD concert in 2008. Dirty Baltimore. That's pretty much the greatest concert clip ever, yes?). I'm calling it: best wonky theme night performance ever.
John Stevens, “King of the Road” (Country Night, Season 3): This kid took some serious, Sanjaya-level missteps during his hijacked run on the big stage against the likes of Fantasia, but even when he briefly forgot the lyrics (Hilarious. About 1:20 into the clip), he made the Roger Miller classic work for his (too) distinct voice. He was never going to win the show, but I include him on this list to show why lesser Idolestants can't blame the theme night for their performances.
Carrie Underwood, “Alone” (Billboard Number Ones Night, Season 4): Okay, so maybe “Billboard Number Ones” isn’t the most unlikely theme, but what made this performance special was that no one in their right mind expected countrified Carrie Underwood to sing (and I mean, saaaang) a song made famous by Heart when the contestants had the entire history of Billboard number one hits at their fingertips. From the beginning of her season, Carrie had a good sense of where she wanted to go with her music, but she still took risks, which made her more than just another gorgeous set of pipes and camera-ready face. This performance was the moment she left her nerves backstage and started to win the show.
Chris Daughtry, “I Walk the Line” (the 1950s, Season 5): I've got to admit that Chris was never my favorite contestant, but I liked what he did with his songs. "I Walk the Line" was an unlikely choice for him, but he didn't change the song in a weird enough way to make it unrecognizable from the original (like Adam Lambert did to "Ring of Fire" in season 8. Most awkward mentoring session since Gwen Stefani and Sanjaya, btw) and it seemed like he was paying attention to the lyrics. I usually give Blake Lewis and David Cook credit for turning the show into "Survival of the Best Song Arranger", but Chris got the ball rolling with performances like this.
Elliott Yamin, “If I Can Dream” (Elvis Presley songs, Season 5): Elliott made this song seem really contemporary, and even five years later, it’s really nice to listen to. Elliott was a classic R&B-type of Idolestant. His musical hero was Donny Hathaway, and he really hit his stride with songs like Hathaway's "A Song for You" (great performance, right??), so for him to make an Elvis song work so well was a treat.
Jordin Sparks, “I (Who Have Nothing)” (British Invasion Night, Season 6): The thing about this performance is that no one saw it coming! Jordin Sparks had been singing consistently well, but the story of the season thus far had (rightfully so) been Melinda Doolittle’s out-of-nowhere-ness, and the juxtaposition of her mammoth voice and her humility. While many of Jordin’s fellow Idolestants sang more obvious British Invasion tunes by the Zombies, the Rolling Stones, and the Kinks on British Invasion night, though, Jordin chose a Shirley Bassey song that would seemingly require her to age about 15 years to nail. As it turns out, though, no one except Simon was really bothered by the seventeen year-old’s lovely (and mature) performance of the song. It was the breakthrough performance for Jordin that all other teenage Idolestants have struggled to live up to since.
Blake Lewis, “You Give Love a Bad Name” (Bon Jovi Night, Season 6): As I scanned through all the theme nights for season 6, I was reminded that there wasn’t even one week that stood out as a particularly well-suited theme for Blake. It would be interesting, indeed, if Idol ever decided to do an electronic or hip-hop night, but thus far Blake’s musical style has been marginalized at best. He is perhaps, therefore, the best example of the point I’m trying to make with this post: that it doesn’t matter which theme night the contestants are stuck with because a truly talented artist will make it work. Case in point: Blake’s awesome and highly original version of “You Give Love a Bad Name” that I’ve re-watched on YouTube many times over the years. Who would think to do that with a “classic” karaoke tune from 1986? But it worked so well! I think the reason Blake’s career didn’t explode (in a good way) post-Idol is because he’s so much more fun to watch rather than listen to, even though the exciting audio component that accompanies the visuals is pure vocal talent. If you didn’t think his voice was up to par during the season with such powerhouse voices as Jordin Sparks, Melinda Doolittle, LaKisha Jones, and even the underrated Gina Glocksen, you have to admit that Blake brought something exhilarating to the stage each week, and I think this performance was the best example.
Jason Castro, “Daydream” (the 1960s, Season 7): This was the perfect song choice for Jason Castro, who in this early semifinal round we didn’t even know yet. It suited his “chill” persona and his perfectly imperfect voice, and best of all, no other Idolestants that I can remember had ever covered a Lovin’ Spoonful tune (a band that my generation really should know better, in my opinion). Win.
David Cook, “Billie Jean” (Songs From the Year You Were Born, Season 7): Worst recurring theme night. Of. All. Time. But this is the best anyone's ever done with it, and it's pretty darn good.
David Cook, “Always Be My Baby” (Mariah Carey Night, Season 7): This could have been a single for him. David Cook and Blake Lewis (and arguably Crystal Bowersox) are probably Idol’s best examples of artists that were talented enough to make anything work. It shouldn’t have surprised anyone that David was able to take one of the catchiest pop songs ever written (yeah, I said it) and turn it into a heartfelt goodbye song, while retaining its original melody. Seriously, Mariah Carey night ended up being one of the best theme weeks ever because of the way David raised everybody else’s game. Who would’ve put those two artists together on paper?
Carly Smithson, “Here You Come Again” (Dolly Parton Night, Season 7): You didn’t think I would get through this list without mentioning one of my top 3 favorite female Idolestants of all time, did you? (You read that right, “Top 3”. Hint: the other two have already been mentioned and are the most obvious). Here’s a sad factoid about Idol: female contestants never get credit for song arrangements. Never. Crystal Bowersox got about halfway through the competition before they gave her any credit for her fantastic, personalized arrangements. Song arrangement credit in season 7 always went to the inimitable David Cook, but I would argue that Carly’s beautiful, heartbreaking “Here You Come Again” was one of the best performances of the best Idol season ever. All you have to do is listen to an original version of the song to realize what Carly did with it. She changed the tempo and stripped away any of the musical excess that would take away from those sad, beautiful lyrics. Poor Carly never got the respect she deserved, and it turned out that Dolly Parton night, of all nights, was one of her best. (Note: Dolly Parton is AMAZING.)
Anoop Desai, “Always on My Mind” (Grand Ole Opry Night, Season 8): I like that Anoop Desai’s best performance came on Grand Ole Opry Night. It further proves my point about unlikely musical pairings. The song was written by Willie Nelson and was made most famous by Elvis, but Anoop’s performance worked because he didn’t try to do a weird copycat of either of those artists. He let the lyrics direct the performance, which is the key to besting an unlikely theme night.
Allison Iraheta, “Papa was a Rollin’ Stone” (Motown Night, Season 8): Motown is usually a great performance night for Idolestants because so many of them fit into the wannabe R&B category vocally, but a less talented rocker could have royally struggled with Motown. Allison, on the other hand, rightfully goes in the Jordin Sparks Hall of Fame for Teen Idolestants with this performance...and with such a weird song, too. It gave her the opportunity to flex her vocal muscles with crazy-awesome phrasing and those perfectly raspy high notes, not to mention the emergence of some stage confidence we hadn’t yet seen from her. LOVED IT!
Kris Allen, “She Works Hard for the Money” (Disco Night, Season 8): I used to wholeheartedly believe that all disco-themed Idol nights were doomed to be disasters of “Jive Talkin’” proportions, but leave it to Kris Allen to re-write the Idol theme night rulebook. If you didn’t know that song and you didn’t know what the theme was, you might have assumed it was a contemporary song by what Kris brought to it. I think Kris’s win over the embarrassingly talented Adam Lambert that season was a big surprise to most people. When you look over his performances that season, though, it turns out that he earned every bit of that title.
Crystal Bowersox, “No One Needs to Know” (Shania Twain Night, Season 9): Controversal. This performance got mixed reviews from judges and critics, but it’s still in rotation on my iPod. I was a sold out Mamasox fan all season, so I would defend even her worst performances (let’s be fair, Crystals “worst” performances weren’t anywhere close to some other contestants’ “best” performances that season. That was an unfortunate season, really), but “No One Needs to Know” was cute and light, but not overly so, and full of that fun tongue-in-cheekness with which Shania infuses all of her upbeat songs. In short, I think Crystal “got” the artist-sponsored theme that week better than anyone else.
Crystal Bowersox, “Summer Wind” (Frank Sinatra Night, Season 9): Another controversial Mamasox performance. The main criticism for her performance that week was that she stripped it down too much, and for a song that is so familiar to people as a big band, Rat Pack hit, it didn’t work to do that to the song. Fair enough, I guess, but what we have here is a lyrics versus song feeling debate, and it seems to me like Crystal is a lyrics girl. The opening verses to the song are kind of sad and reminiscent, and as the song builds, you get a sense of the scars and repressed passion that were left by the other person. In short, I think what Crystal did with the song fit the lyrics. Underrated performance, but kind of brill in retrospect.
There you have it. Anyone have any performances they'd like to add to the list?