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For Finalists, Is It Better to Be Schooled in 'American Idol' History?

Some contestants bone up on iconic moments from 'Idol's' past, like Adam Lambert's toned down "Tracks of My Tears" and David Cook's game-changing "Hello," while others remain blissfully unaware.

Paul McDonald
Michael Becker/ FOX
Paul McDonald

It's an age-old dilemma on American Idol. If you're a finalist looking to advance, do you avoid choosing songs that previous Idols excelled at? Game-changers, as it were, like David Cook's season 7 twist on Lionel Richie's "Hello," or Adam Lambert's nuanced take on "Tracks of My Tears" in season 8. How about Taylor Hicks' "Living for the City," which he performed twice during Season 5?

Some contestants, like last year's Casey James and Season 10's Paul McDonald, arrive at the contest with zero awareness of anything that had happened on the Idol stage prior. They proudly proclaim their ignorance at the start of the season, and most often, it ends up being an advantage -- they perform with their hearts, not their heads. But when it comes to an iconic moment, like Lambert's toned down "Tracks of My Tears," is it better to bone up?

"I never knew it was a song that's been done, though I'm sure it has been," said Paul after trying the Smokey Robinson and the Miracles hit on Motown night. "But I've been out of the Idol loop for, pretty much, ever, so I'm learning about all this as we go along." Normally, I'd find this trait quite endearing, but in Paul's case, it feels like a miscalculation. 

As for Stefano Langone, he said he found out about Cook's version of "Hello" just before the performance. "You just go out there, do what you can do and bring what you have to the game," he explained, before acknowledging that perhaps in the future, he will research the song's history on Idol before committing. Either way, Stefano's version paled in comparison. In fact, there is no comparing -- it felt forced and awkward, whereas Cook's not only hit all the right notes, it changed the competition forever (see video below).

Finally, there's James Durbin, who didn't answer my question on whether he'd studied past performances, but I think it's safe to say that the Santa Cruz, Calif. native is fairly well-schooled in Idol. You can tell in the way he engages with the camera (a cue from season 4's Constantine Maroulis?), those moves (Hicksian?), and how he's setting his own signature style. Of course, what's most important is the voice, and James has that down, too. A frontrunner that's sure to make a stellar frontman, I can only look forward to future performances by this true talent. 

What's your view on this issue? Is it better to be an American Idol academic or to go into each week's competition cold?