“IDOL GIVES BACK” is a wonderfully philanthropic venture. Taking the country’s most popular show and using its stage to prompt positive change in the world is not only a stroke of genius, but a clear signal that television and other media can be used to help people, not just fill their minds with mindless chatter.

But holy frijoles, does all the hubbub around “Idol Gives Back” make “Idol” a chore to watch. It’s not the “Gives Back” show itself, it’s the constant promotion and Seacrest‘s expansive overenunciation of how massive the show’s efforts are.

It’s like telling a buddy you’ll help him change his tire. Except every time you see said buddy for two weeks before the tire-changing, you announce loudly, “Hey, man — it’s me, the dude who’s gonna help you change your tire!”

And then the night before you help him change his tire, you throw a tire-changing-themed party, with all the attendees dressed as mechanics, music by The Cars and those little Entenmann’s chocolate doughnuts as snacks. They kinda look like tires, right?

Give back, that’s cool. But easy on the self-promotion, OK?

On to the show.

The players: Crystal Bowersox, Casey James, Lee Dewyze, Michael Lynche, Aaron Kelly, Siobhan Magnus and Tim Urban.

The mentor: Alicia Keys, who has her own phenomenal philanthropic background.

Casey’s inspired choice: “Don’t Stop,” a Christine McVie gem that’s been a lasting hit for Fleetwood Mac (as well as a theme song for Bill Clinton). Alicia’s advice: Connect with the song — otherwise, Casey could find himself lost in it.

He’s almost successful. It’s an enthusiastic performance, sung in Casey’s enjoyable, but predictable style and played masterfully on the guitar. Man, can that dude shred.

But Casey still comes off as so detached, so wooden most of the time that I have a hard time connecting with him in the 90 seconds he’s given to sing. A Casey concert could be a rollicking good time. But by the time I’m plunked into his groove, the song’s over — and this song ended with the odd made-up lyric “you got to be lookin’ ahead, no lookin’ back,” which threw me off. I don’t know why some singers feel the need to toss in an occasional gibberish lyric when there’s a bar or two of spare instrumentation at the end of a song or verse, but it always winds up sounding dopey.

“It was a good performance, it wasn’t your best performance,” Randy says. “Just looking for something a little bit more special. … Just give me something else, something different.”

“I have to be a little tougher now,” Ellen says. “You’re consistently good, but I don’t think anyone’s going to be talking about that tomorrow. I think you have to be great right now, and it wasn’t great.”

“What’s so difficult with you is that ‘Jealous Guy,’ you were amazing,” Kara says, “and you came out tonight and it was jam band … you made yourself like everybody else tonight.”

“That wasn’t particularly inspiring,” Simon says. “You just stood there, played the guitar again, sang the song just like the original. … I thought it was a lazy song choice.”

When I hear Seacrest say that Lee will be taking on “The Boxer,” I respond “Say what?”

And during a moment in Coke Corner, Lee explains why he picked it: it’s the kind of music that inspired him to pick up the guitar.

I’m very, very curious to hear how the sweet, subtle melodies of Simon & Garfunkel sound when buzzsawed by Lee’s rock-heavy vocal chords.

I almost really love it. Except.

Why on earth would someone take a simple, spare tune like “The Boxer” and muck it up with all of that excess instrumental mumbo jumbo? Add a strings section, maybe. But the backing band sounded like they’d been pulled straight out of a Celene Dion recording session and told to play behind this kid for a couple minutes. I spend his entire performance trying to tune all the other musicians out.

That said, I really like Lee’s vocals. His voice really is amazing when he gets going, although those pitch problems that seem to bedevil him cropped up again.

Also, does he wear braces? I could swear I can see rubber bands in his mouth when he hits some big notes during a closeup. That’s the power of HDTV. It’s technology we clearly all need, don’t we?

“I think that you are a great artist ready to make great music,” Randy says. “Very nice job.”

“Beautiful song choice,” Ellen says. “You have so much soul and depth in you that we’re seeing more and more of.”

“I think that Simon said a few weeks ago that you had your moment, but I think you had it tonight with that performance,” Kara says. “It shows clearly the difference when somebody feels connected to a song and performs it and when you don’t.”

“Even though we’re only two in, that was the best of the night,” Simon says. “That was sincere, it was emotional, it was inspirational. … I thought that was absolutely brilliant.”

Tim sings “Better Days” by the Goo Goo Dolls, a pick that proves that he has, indeed, found his niche: adult contemporary — the more generic the better — with swooning potential.

Generic indeed it is, and pitchy — whispering lyrics doesn’t make up for not being able to hit the notes, Timbo. But the folks who love Tim will love it and those who don’t won’t and his phenomenon will continue until number of contestants decreases enough that the mathematics of the competition finally catch up with him. Till then, we get our weekly dose of Tim’s pearly white smile.

“It was just kind of OK good karaoke for me,” Randy says.

“You’re like, for me, the soup of the day,” Ellen says. “I’ve liked your soup … but today, I didn’t like the soup.”

“You finally found your lane; you’re in it,” Kara says. “I think this is where you belong, but it wasn’t the best execution.”

“I think, Tim, if this had been the very, very first time we’d seen you, we’d be quite impressed,” Simon says. “This may have been a step too high for you this week, in terms of actually believing in the performance. Having said that, you have improved over the weeks. But it was a little bit of a let-down.”

Why are Kara and Simon soft-pedaling the criticism? Could it be that they see more in Tim now that he’s survived so long?

I never knew that Aaron was a gambling man, but it’s all in for this performance: he’s chosen R. Kelly‘s “I Believe I Can Fly” — a pick that concerned even Alicia. He’s been singing the song since he was five, so he has some practice.

It winds up being as good a performance as Aaron’s ever given. It’s not gush-worthy. I don’t think it’s a Moment™. But it’s a solid attempt at a bombastic song that deviates not much at all from the original, but still packs quite a bit of power.

I like Aaron, and I seem lately to be giving him higher praise than the judges do, but surely they must see this performance as his best yet, right?

“You picked a giant, giant song,” Randy says. “You definitely have pure vocal talent and I think you did a good job with such a giant song.”

“I believe you can fly, and you’re on your way,” Ellen says.

“Watching that was like taking off, but then it got somewhere down the runway, and you hit it, and you started flying,” Kara says.

“I think we have to judge this in two parts,” Simon says. “You, knowing you, liking you and having the guts to take on a song like that, and you really gave it your all. Then in the real world, if we’d have heard that on the radio, I’d have turned it off within 10 seconds, because it wasn’t very good. You kind of made it quite good.”

Huh? So it was good, but it sucked, but it was good. Paula, is that you?

“That’s what you call the money spot,” Alicia says as she hears Siobhan hit a high note during her rehearsal of “When You Believe” — a song that was originally a duet between Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, each of whom is considered nigh untouchable by the judges. In “Idol” world, Siobhan isn’t just touching the third rail, she’s bear hugging it.

Alicia’s reaction: “I’m very impressed by her voice.”

And so am I.

Dressed like a wood nymph and surrounded by images of petals, Siobhan lets the song unfold like a flower in springtime. Deliberate and measured, she eschews her usual big swells and sticks to almost more impressive notes that seem to glide upward, then float back down to earth. It’s simple. It’s controlled. It’s magnificent.

It’s not the judges’ favorite thing ever.

“You probably picked arguably the toughest song of the night,” Randy says. “It was just OK for me, baby.”

“I disagree — I think that’s just more confirmation why you’re here,” Ellen says.

“Technically, it may have been really well sung,” Kara says. “But my problem is it’s not a musical, and it started to feel very dramatic. And if I was listening to the show week to week … I’m starting to feel like I’d want to hang out with you more than buy your record, because I still don’t know who you are.”

Because, of course, most of us enjoy hanging out with strangers.

“I agree with Randy, I don’t think that was the right song for you,” Simon sneers. “The leaves distracted me on the close-ups. … I just found the whole thing just kind of a bit odd, a bit all over the place, really.”

“I didn’t want who the song is by to scare me away from it because I love the song,” Siobhan says. “The meaning of it is why I’m here right now.”

Tell it, girl. That was a performance to be celebrated, if for no other reason than it was a contestant who took on a tune connected to two of the biggest names in the music business and churned out a performance that was indeed really well sung — no “technically” about it. The way the judges, aside from Ellen, turned their noses up at it was predictably snobbish. And very unbecoming.

Michael’s song is “Hero” — the track sung by Chad Kroeger of Nickelback and Josey Scott of Saliva and made famous on the “Spider-Man” soundtrack. You’ll find it in your “Idol” hymnal under 2008, when David Archuleta and David Cook sang it as a duet during the finale, to much-deserved acclaim.

For Big Mike, however, the song’s a rare misfire.

Although it was apparently on a list of 200-some songs that he prepared ahead of his “Idol” tryout, it just doesn’t sound like the kind of tune that fits his voice or his stage persona. Not helping matters one bit is how overzealously the band plays and how bad the sound mix is, leaving Michael’s voice effectively drowned out during the song’s many swells.

“I was really a little worried about this song choice for you,” Randy says. “You held your own with it, dawg.”

“I thought you did a great job with it,” Ellen says.

“I’m sorry, Mike, it wasn’t my favorite performance,” Kara says. “I thought you did not cut through … the song became unrecognizable.”

“You sang it pretty well, Mike,” Simon says. “The theme tonight is inspirational songs and it was about Spider-Man, wasn’t it? … This kinda didn’t quite gel for me, but I think you’re gonna be around next week.”

Hmm. I dunno….

Crystal sings the timeless hit “People Get Ready,” written by Curtis Mayfield and originally performed by The Impressions — and the impression it left on Alicia during rehearsals was strong. “I know people are going to love this performance,” she says.

Two months ago, Simon told Crystal that “there are thousands of you doing this outside subway stations every day.”

If that’s true, we all need to ride the subway more often.

From the ballsy a-cappella intro to her seemingly sincere sobs at the end, the performance is as phenomenal as it is heartfelt. I’ve always liked Crystal; I’ve always respected her talent. But tonight’s performance is starting to make a full-fledged fan out of me.

“Been a fan since day one,” Randy says. “That was unbelievable; got to give you the standing [ovation].”

“You have never looked more beautiful,” Ellen says. “You keep evolving and growing and getting better and better — that was so beautiful.”

“Crystal, thank you so much for taking a risk and putting your guitar down,” Kara says. “And Mama Sox? You know why they call you that? ‘Cause you just schooled all those contestants.”

“That was inspirational,” Simon says. “I’m actually, in a strange way, happy to see you emotional. … You sang it fantastically. For me, it was in a completely different class to anything else we heard tonight.”

It was a night filled with powerful songs — some less inspirationally performed than others.

Crystal remains firmly ahead of the pack — she proved her mettle by hitting a new high mark. I loved Siobhan’s performance, but the judges panned it. Lee sang well, although the band’s shenanigans interfered a bit.

Aaron was at the top of his game, but he didn’t climb high enough to escape Simon’s critical buckshot. Casey was good, but forgettable. Tim was flavorless. And Big Mike made a big mistake in his song choice.

Crystal is untouchable. I think Lee, Siobhan and Casey have enough fans to keep them afloat. Sadly, so does Tim. So it would seem that Aaron and Big Mike are in the crosshairs this week.

I think Big Mike’s time has come. It’s all a matter of fan base, and if Aaron’s is smaller, than he’ll come out the loser. But based on performances this week, if it can’t be Tim to make an exit, then Mike is the next most deserving. That is, if anyone gets kicked off — in 2007, no contestant was given the heave-ho during the “Gives Back” show; in 2008, “Gives Back” was Michael Johns‘s last night. Could there be a trick waiting up the producers’ sleeves?

» COMING UP: Wednesday night will bring us an elimination (potentially) and two hours or more of “Idol Gives Back.” I’ll have a recap on Thursday morning, then more analysis from our Idols on “Idol” crew — Chikezie, Jackie Tohn and Rickey Yaneza of Rickey.org.

Till then, which of the week’s performances inspired you? And who should head home? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Photos courtesy Fox