We've hit a strange spot in this year's "American Idol" saga, a sort of creeping lull that bodes of something sinister. It's the moment on the battlefield when four soldiers are sharing a cigarette, and kaboom! A grenade goes off. The mood, I think, isn't just a matter of real favorites departing, now that the finale is almost here.
The question hangs in the air: Is "Idol" working? Or do dropping ratings and the strange enervation of the show's Final Four contenders suggest that it has lost the potential to tap into pop's fundamental pheromone, cited again and again by exhausted "Idol" strivers as a goal: simple, fleeting fun?
Jason Castro had more fun Wednesday night than any other contestant has managed in weeks, doing his hippie dance as he romped once again through "I Shot the Sheriff" after being eliminated. Good for him for reprising a song the judges clearly thought was inappropriate -- a song he obviously loved and actually sang fairly competently, whatever the panel said.
Think about "I Shot the Sheriff" for a minute. A huge crossover hit for Eric Clapton in 1974, the song definitely sounded more Bob Marley-esque in Castro's hands. Its lyric is about killing a police officer; its rhythms evoke the off-kilter, skanky reggae of the late Jamaican master's most revolutionary songs. This choice was way edgier than David Cook's post-Stone Temple Pilots reworkings of R&B.
Had Castro chosen a more conciliatory Marley song, like "No Woman, No Cry" (also on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's list of 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll), Syesha Mercado might have departed before he did. But the good-natured nonconformist, apparently already sensing doom, chose to put his own pleasure first. His loosey-goosey rendition offered an exceedingly rare "Idol" sighting: the kind of spontaneity musicians actually conjure when playing live nearly anywhere but a television studio.
I had wanted Jason to be eliminated because I thought his super-sleepy energy was damping the fire of his more vocally gifted and showman-like competitors. Now I'm not so sure.
There's something wrong up there: David Cook seems truly drained, David Archuleta's melismatic runs grow more extreme as his anxiety visibly mounts, and Syesha is so desperate to figure out why she's special that she's taken to embarrassing herself with sweeping declarations about her "Idol" journey's relationship to the slightly more momentous contest taking place on the primary circuit.
A quick defense of Syesha: I know some people were horrified that she turned the civil rights anthem "A Change Is Gonna Come" into a vehicle for self-aggrandizement, comparing the movement to her own "Idol" journey. She didn't make her analogy tactfully, but she's not the only entertainer to relate personal success to the larger matter of uplifting the race.
Kanye West's notorious line in the song "Good Morning" -- "I'm like the fly Malcolm X, buy any jeans necessary" -- may or may not have been a joke, but Mary J. Blige was dead serious when she told "Blender" magazine, "My God wants me to bling." And I'll bet Halle Berry's emotional Academy Awards speech upon becoming the first African American to win best actress was somewhere in the back of Syesha's mind when she made her comments.
Of course, Syesha's hardly the first nonwhite woman to do well on "Idol." But she stands alone in that category now. This year's wide range of personalities could be one reason for the current aura of melancholy -- as their numbers dwindle, each hopeful seems more isolated within his or her niche.
Previous seasons had variety, but there was a sense that the "Idols" were learning from one another, or at least enjoying friendly rivalries. Now, each fits into a slot so particular that it's hard to see how they even relate. What can Cook, a grown man who even tried (vainly) to inject some sex into the show this week with a growly "Hungry Like the Wolf," really have to say to the virginal Archuleta? Can Syesha, whose charisma has unfurled alongside a disturbingly ruthless pageant-queen personality, stand to be around either of them, or is Cookie too grimy and Archie too naive?
The "Idols" have to love one another for the show's formula to work. They have to project real glee when they joke around in those silly Ford commercials and cry in one another's arms when Ryan gives one the ax. Without camaraderie -- without some whiff of fun, even in the hardest moments -- "Idol" no longer feels like an agent of magical transformation. It feels like an endless casting call.
No one wants to watch careerist kids fighting to be become pawns in a dying music industry. If the last few episodes of this season continue to sink in that direction, it will end in a sad finale, no matter who wins.
Come on, Final Three. Bring back the fun. Keep that bit of Jason Castro's spirit with you.