As a judge on American Idol, Ellen DeGeneres could use all the help she can get. Remember when she accidentally thought a piano was a guitar? Actually, this whole season of Idol seems off key—three promising performers went home last week and Simon Cowell seems more tuned out than ever. That's why NEWSWEEK recruited the world's smartest Idol fans to serve as our own judges.
First up, we have Alexander Rehding, a professor of music theory at Harvard, who doesn't even own a TV. Next, Larry Zbikowski from the University of Chicago who studies the cognitive science of music and had never seen Idol until last night. Then Susan Fast, an Idol junkie and professor of music at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. And introducing our own Simon, Ken Jennings, who holds the record for the most consecutive wins on that brainier TV show, Jeopardy! On Tuesday night, all of the Idol contestants tackled songs from the Rolling Stones. Our judges listened carefully, and here's what they have to say:
Michael Lynche sings "Miss You."
Rehding: This was quite virtuosic. You have a wonderfully bluesy voice.
Zbikowski: A soulful version with a fair amount of power behind it. But the moves on stage don't really work, since you're such a big guy.
Fast: Fantastic! At times you even sounded like Stevie Wonder.
Jennings: Whoa, Michael Lynche dips into the Stones's sadly neglected disco oeuvre. But that's no excuse for that outfit.
Didi Benami sings "Play With Fire"
Rehding: A very dramatic presentation. I liked your dark, expressive timbre. But you seemed quite tense at times, and your voice got a little strangled at the louder sections.
Zbikowski: You don't have much strength in the lower range, which is where the song starts.
Fast: Didi, you sound a bit like Adele. It's a sound being heard everywhere in contemporary pop. But I don't think this performance was terribly exciting. There's not much compelling about you.
Jennings: On the chorus, you go for smoldering—but land somewhere around mildly aggrieved. You don't have the intensity to carry this song off.
Casey James sings "It's All Over Now"
Rehding: You have a nice rock-and-roll voice, with a smoky sonority that draws that listener in. There wasn't a whole lot of variety, but you have great stage presence.
Zbikowski: Casey, you're pretty undistinguished as a singer, especially when you're trapped behind the microphone.
Fast: This was a great vocal, but I feel a disconnect between the emotion in the voice and the lack of personality coming through.
Jennings: I hate the word "himbo," but I am sorely tempted to break it out for you, Casey. You're clearly having a good time up there. But I get a weird Billy Ray Cyrus vibe from you.
Lacey Brown sings "Ruby Tuesday"
Rehding: You have an interesting cabaret-style voice. But not all the shadings of it worked so well. Some of your sounds are wobbly, especially the louder parts.
Zbikowski: You're struggling with pitch, Lacey. There's a lack of projection and you don't quite seem to know what to do on stage.
Fast: Lacey, you have a weaker version of Didi's voice—and the little-girl vulnerability isn't matched with much substance. I feel as if your vocals might fall apart any moment.
Jennings: You've got a thin, thin voice. And that final note … ouch! It wasn't just "changing with every new day," it changed four or five time in less than a second.
Andrew Garcia sings "Gimme Shelter"
Rehding: You have a great sense of drama and lots of energy. There's a rich, gravelly quality to your voice.
Zbikowski: There's not a lot of depth to your voice.
Fast: This is one of my favorite Stones songs, but what makes the original so amazing is Jagger's cool and dark vocals in counterpoint with Merry Clayton's gospel intensity. There was neither of those elements in this performance.
Jennings: So what's worse, Martin Scorsese abusing "Gimme Shelter" in every movie he makes, or you abusing 90 seconds of it on the Idol stage? I'd say it's a tie. This song needs a snarl, and I'm just not buying it.
Katie Stevens sings "Wild Horses"
Rehding: You have a very pleasant voice. Your weak spots are probably your lower range, which lack body, and your top range, which can open up more. Kudos for trying out a song with a dynamic range.
Zbikowski: You're a mezzo soprano, with a fairly decent country performance. Good delivery, but you had a few pitch problems.
Fast: Katie, Katie, Katie, you're my least favorite contestant. You've got some vocal chops, but I just don't believe any performance that comes out of you. I think it's because you lack honesty onstage.
Jennings: You pick the perfect song and you nailed it. But am I wrong to think that if the Stones had a song called "Wild Sparkly Unicorns," you would have picked that instead?
Tim Urban sings "Under My Thumb"
Rehding: You have a pleasant, light voice with a nice vibrato. This performance was clean, unconstrained but always controlled.
Zbikowski: There's no real range in your voice. It felt like some sort of hideous pop/reggae concoction, with no real passion.
Fast: Tim, do you know what you're singing about? These lyrics have been cited as problematically misogynistic by any number of writers and here we have them in a light-hearted musical setting that makes them sound even more troubling. It's as if taking the rock-and-roll aggression out actually makes the sentiments seem scarier—demented, sort of.
Jennings: Whoa, this could be the best reggae cover of "Under My Thumb" ever recorded, and I would still dislike it on principle. Tim, you have the earnestness of a high-school guidance counselor. That's it, I'm switching over to Lost.
Siobhan Magnus sings "Paint it Black"
Rehding: A little uneven—the end was probably the weakest part—but you have the richest vocal range of all the performers. What I liked about this performance is that it seemed intensely personal.
Zbikowski: You have fairly good control of your voice, but you really were almost shrieking at the end.
Fast: Wow! This performance just showed incredible range and drama. I think you are the Adam Lambert of this season. I hope you keep pushing the envelope.
Jennings: This is great! Finally, somebody brings the menace. You can't say you held anything back there at the end—and that naked train-wreck quality is exactly what makes it work.
Lee Dewyze sings "Beast of Burden"
Rehding: I'd actually like to hear more of your voice. The song didn't show it off as much as some of the other performances did, but you have excellent rhythm, energy, and stage presence.
Zbikowski: You have a good pop voice, decent range, and a clear ability to shape your voice. Good job.
Fast: You sound like so many other singers. I don't know what else to say.
Jennings: This low-key song totally plays to your strengths. You have a reassuring voice, straight from a warm-FM rock station circa 1996.
Paige Miles sings "Honky Tonk Women"
Rehding: I found this performance quite convincing. You had great confidence and showed excellent control over your voice at all times.
Zbikowski: Good delivery, solid voice, very good control of pitch. But there were some problems at the lower end of the range.
Fast: I find it interesting that you have such an old sound to your voice—you could be an R&B singer from the '50s. That said, I don't think it was a believable performance. Why didn't you try the Tina Turner version of the song?
Jennings: Paige, you should have laryngitis every night. It gives your voice a real husky, hoarse quality that clueless white people like me go crazy over. I say it worked.
Aaron Kelly sings "Angie"
Rehding: You are the only male singer with a high voice, and you make good use of it. I like the appealing raspiness and your control. But on the whole, it's a little less rich than the other voices I've heard.
Zbikowski: It was like the Backstreet Boys and N'Sync covered the Rolling Stones. This is what will be playing in the waiting room for the entrance to hell.
Fast: Country is your genre, and you turned "Angie" into a country song. But this was one of Mick Jagger's most compelling vocal performances, of which there was no trace here.
Jennings: Aaron, your secret weapon is that you look about 11. We think, "How can THAT VOICE be coming out of a little 11-year-old dude?" What we don't know is that you're actually a 78-year-old chain smoker, aging backward like Benjamin Button.
Crystal Bowersox sings "You Can't Always Get What You Want"
Rehding: Crystal, you have a great country voice—it's rich, mature, with a beautiful vibrato. This was an excellent and moving performance.
Zbikowski: Good voice—a little bit of Janis Joplin or perhaps Bonnie Raitt—and good shaping of the sound. You take a real blues approach to the tune, which is faithful to the Stones.
Fast: Even though your performances are getting predictable, I could listen to you endlessly. You draw the listener in with your incredible confidence and honestly. I hope you stick around.
Jennings: You are playing the game on a different level than every other contestant. But my one concern is that you'll finish second in a big upset—once viewers get tired of hearing your reliable professionalism every week.