At its best, last night's three-hour American Idols Live marathon was a vindication. Admittedly, much of it wasn't. But there were instances – teases, almost – where the concert possessed the level of pop smarts that outpaced the juggernaut TV series from which it was sprung.
One such moment came when David Archuleta blended the 1961 Ben E. King pop-soul standard Stand by Me with a few verses of Beautiful Girls by Jamaican reggae rapper Sean Kingston. On the surface, that might not have seemed like much of a leap, as Beautiful Girls borrows heavily from the lyrical construction of the former hit in the first place. But Archuleta, the runner-up of American Idol's seventh season, used his comfortable tenor to make the tune a retro vehicle with an honest sense of swing.
Of course, when Archuleta spoke between songs, the armor came down and what stood before the crowd of 8,500 was a good natured 17-year-old who ended almost every sentence with a chuckle.
The concert was, in essence, the reverse of conventional pop music marketing. Most acts hit the road to promote a new recording. American Idols Live was more of a victory lap for the 10 finalists of season seven. Each was presented as part of a Casey Kasem-style countdown. The 10th place finalist (modern R&B singer Chikezie Eze, another of the evening's nice surprises) started the show. Each successive vocalist was afforded three songs, save for Archuleta (he was awarded four) and season champ David Cook (who was given nearly half an hour of stage time).
One house band, heavy on '80s-flavored keyboard orchestration, backed everyone up. And save for The Time of My Life e_SEmD a flat ballad that won an American Idol songwriting competition, sung last night by Cook e_SEmD the evening's full repertoire was a jukebox of cover tunes that shifted from Feist to Ray Charles.
We'll save the bigger debate for another time on American Idol's credibility factor in manufacturing pop stars like fast food and then sending the newly idolized Idols on the road to sing music that is in no way theirs. To an audience devoted to their TV generated heroes, the performance provided a very obvious thrill.
Watching girls grab the arms of their husbands, boyfriends or, in many cases, fathers when Jason Castro (No. 4) whittled the Gnarls Barkley soul hit Crazy into a folkish serenade or when Archuleta rose from the floor seated behind a piano for Robbie Williams' weepy Angels was all the evidence one needed that American Idol has hit a bulls-eye with its target audience. Cry foul over the heavy sentimentality the show heaped onto the crowd. The simple truth remains that pop stars sing and girls (and a few mothers and grandmas) cry. Like it or not, that has been part of the game since Frank Sinatra began his reign nearly 70 years ago. It lived on Saturday night.
Cook was something of a novelty in the pack. Dressed in a worn T-shirt and jeans, his set centered around two dirge-like makeovers: a grunge take of the '80s Lionel Richie single Hello and a version of Billie Jean fashioned far more on Chris Cornell's doomsday remake than the Michael Jackson original. More than a few fans made their way to the exits, bypassing the ensemble finale of Don't Stop the Music.
The highlight of the night, far and away, was 21-year-old Florida singer Syesha Mercado, who delivered with ease and expression hits by new generation pop-soul divas: the Rihanna groovefest Umbrella, and a pair of power ballads – Alicia Keys' If I Ain't Got You and Beyoncé's Listen.
In a long evening of pop pageantry, Mercado, like Archuleta with his King/Kingston medley, showed American Idol had in its possession something its biggest critics never would have dreamed possible: soul.