Jessica Shaw
May 02, 2008 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The one thing we’ve learned from American Idol this season is that the show isn’t about singing as much as it’s about songs. As in, choosing the one that’s edgy without being alienating, popular without being tired, inspirational without being cheesy. A mediocre contestant like Kristy Lee Cook scored with a syrupy ballad like ”God Bless the U.S.A.” because it galvanized the patriotic vote. Early front-runner Carly Smithson was booted after singing a strong rendition of ”Jesus Christ Superstar,” perhaps because the song offended some Christian voters.

”We talk about song choice because we’re trying to hammer into their heads that a good song tells the audience who you are,” says judge Simon Cowell, who has harped on song selection this season more than ever before (and that’s saying something). So then, who are finalists David Archuleta, Jason Castro, Syesha Mercado, and David Cook? EW spent two days of rehearsals with the top four (as well as now-eliminated Brooke White) at the Idol production offices in West Hollywood, and got a unique view of how and why they chose the songs they did for Neil Diamond Week. Since season 5, contestants have not been allowed to perform the same song on the same night, so the selection competition is fierce. And what happens when two people want the same tune? If one person does not voluntarily bow out, they are forced into an Idol tiebreaker of pulling the desired song title out of a hat — both scenarios that played out during Neil Diamond Week. ”I’ve had people going into fetal positions over song choice,” says vocal coach Debra Byrd. ”The judges say song choice, song choice, song choice constantly, so they’re in agony all week over it.” Sure enough, some contestants angsted. Others ignored suggestions. Some made calculated moves based on what Simon might like. Others procrastinated learning the lyrics. And one paid the ultimate price with her ouster.

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