American Idol Top 30 Performances of All Time: No. 4, David Cook, “Always Be My Baby”

The night that American Idol changed forever

The night that American Idol changed forever

Sit down boys and girls. I want to tell you about when American Idol was a singing show.

Yes, there was a time when the show was less about musical versatility and originality and all about the voice. We weren’t blessed with performers showing off what they were made of; instead, we were shown the same type of singers year after year and things were getting rather boring.

Boys and girls, that all changed with David Cook.

Many a music snob hates the WGWG dominance of Idol – which is grossly overstated – but it all started with Cook, who took songs and did things to them nobody thought to do. Now some of these were arrangements were little-heard arrangements from other artists, but that wasn’t the point; what made them special was they showed artistry is just as important to an Idol as having a perfect voice.

Cook came in with the stigma of a rocker, but he was far from a Chris Daugherty impersonator. His goal was to be the first David Cook.

Since Cook there’s been plenty of Idols who have done the crazy rearranging thing. Some are good, others aren’t; far too many rearrange a song just for the sake of doing it without realizing that Cook was doing it with a purpose.

And we didn’t know what that was until he told us he was covering Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby.”

THE SITUATION: Three weeks earlier Cook established himself as a favorite with “Billie Jean,” a cover that shocked everyone because nothing like that had been done on the Idol stage (should be noted the cover wasn’t an original arrangement; it was a remake of a Chris Cornell take).

So with Mariah Carey Week coming up for the Top 7, nobody had any clue how the rock guy was going to get a song done mainly because when you think of Mariah Carey, you’re thinking pop music and simple lyrics. There’s no depth there; just a beautiful voice with a catchy beat.

It was an important week because the talent among the Top 7 was deep. Eventual finalist David Archuleta was a judge’s fave and loved by American teens who still watch the show; Jason Castro was the lovable stoner; Syesha Mercado was a brilliant soloist; Carly Smithson was the Irish pro who delivered every week; and then there was Brooke White, who was a female Cook and turning into the brightest darkhorse candidate ever.

Cook was probably going to be safe regardless. He had a big fan base and was bringing people to Idol who had never really watched before.

But instead of just being safe, he won the show that night.

HIGHLIGHTS: You can’t ignore the Mariah pre-peformance comments. She’s either stammering over her words because she’s doesn’t speak so well or because she can’t quite comprehend what she just heard Cook do.

“I was surprised David chose ‘Always Be My Baby’ because I didn’t know what he was going to do with it,” she says, with that spacey look in her eye. “I thought he did something really different and it made me proud as a song writer that oh, this can stand the test of time and also, like, a male perspective.”

So her failure to grasp the English language aside, basically what Mariah said was “I didn’t think my colassal pop hit was anything more than a chance for me to get super rich and famous and now hearing an actual musician sing it, I think I might have accidentally written something that makes me look way, way smarter than anyone thought I was.”

This was the first year Idol threw songs on iTunes – it was brilliant; they’d throw the live performance on, then the studio version of some songs, and people forked over $1.98 without thinking twice – but there were no spoilers that gave you any idea how Cook was going to sing it.

It’s a very soothing start. Doesn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary. The song builds. And builds. The violins come in. It continues to build and you might as call Cook the hammer, because he is nailing everything.

Then it hits. The splash of the cymbals from the drummer keys a simply brilliant moment in Idol history: David Cook, a rock guy, is singing probably one of the five most poppy pop songs ever and he has turned it into one of the best pieces of music anyone who watches Idol has ever heard on the show.

The judges’ reaction is pretty much what you’d expect. Randy Jackson, still not in full Dawgfather mode, gives him a standing O. Paula Abdul mumbles, says something about a soundtrack, nods and stops talking. Then Simon Cowell finishes the critiques as only Simon could.

“David, it was sort of, it was like coming out of karaoke hell,” he says as the crowd starts to boo, anticipating Simon to take apart something that nobody knew was going to change Idol forever, “into a breath of fresh air because,” and Simon stops as the crowd applauses.

He continues: “That was, it was original, it was daring, it stood out by a mile. This is the sign of a great potential artist – someone who takes risks. Congratulations.”

WHY IT’S HERE: You’re not going to find a lot of people that really explored the depths of a Mariah Carey song before David Cook did that. The difference between ordinary songwriting and great songwriting is the ability for a song to make sense regardless of genre; it’s why artists like Dylan have had their songs transformed into legendary masterpieces and people forget they were the ones who performed it first.

This isn’t comparing Mariah to Dylan or Cook to, say, Jimi Hendrix. It’s pointing out that Cook’s ability to read music and find a song with actual meaning and turn that into something beautiful isn’t what we see a lot of anymore on Idol. Sure, the cover of T-Pain sounds awesome and funny during auditions, but it doesn’t really resonate during Idol’s live shows because most popular post 2000 music has the depth of a kiddie pool. Pop music is pop music more for addicting beats and hypnotic choruses and everything else gets lost in the mix thanks to a special appearance by Pitbull (quick – name a song he doesn’t sing on).

Mariah – and two co-writers, including Jermaine Dupri – wrote a truly beautiful song that never really got the recognition it deserved because the lyrics were lost in the oversynthesized music. Cook had the foresight to find the lyrics, strip the song down and turn it into what it is – a truly great love song.

And one of the best performances we’ve ever seen on an American Idol stage.

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