You might not realize it, but tonight marks the season finale of American Idol. Even more significantly, it will serve as Simon Cowell’s final episode before he jumps ship to his other franchise, X-Factor. However, buzz on Idol has been so low that it’s difficult to imagine that either of these things are about to conspire. Heck, it’s hard to even believe that our two finalists squared off just last night. There’s been no talk, discussion, or excitement about this finale. Even lame seasons have created some sort of fervor in pop culture by now — intense debates about who should win versus who will win. But not this year. The experience has been tepid at best, and last night’s showdown between Crystal Bowersox and Lee DeWyze was no different. It’s not to say there weren’t noteworthy moments, but the excitement that’s usually there for an Idol finale — that unique feeling like you’re taking part of a significant pop cultural event — was completely absent. Instead, last night’s show felt simply like we were just watching two people sing songs. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Maybe it’s also because Crystal Bowersox is and has been so much more massively talented than anyone else that it simply feels redundant to pull for her. I do understand that this is Idol and her victory is not guaranteed; however, watching her duke it out with Lee is like witnessing a professional basketball player shoot hoops with, well, me. Not thrilling.
For Lee’s part, he pretty much choked on every level. He looked more nervous than he’s been since the first week of semifinals, and his voice reflected that. I’m not sure he hit a single note all night. Luckily for him, he has one of those voices that can skew a touch atonal and yet still garner praise (not from me, mind you, but others). Nevertheless, Lee took the stage at the Nokia Theater with wide eyes and a lump in his throat — an endearing and humble look that ultimately reminded us that he still has a far, far way to go before inhabiting any sort of confident star quality.
Crystal on the other hand was a bit more self-assured, wading confidently through the masses and making genial patter with Ryan Seacrest at the top of the show. She at least made an effort to seem at home up on the stage, even if her uncharacteristically shaky voice in her first song suggested that she too was suffering from nerves. On the charisma front, there’s no question: advantage Bowersox (which is kind of sad because it’s not like she has that much charisma).
In terms of singing, Lee kicked off the night with a reprise of “The Boxer” by Paul Simon. I didn’t love his rendition the first time around, and I liked it even less now. Not only was his voice off, but his energy seemed low and unfocused. There was no emotion pouring out of the song. It was merely a rote and forgettable performance. With the exception of Ellen, the judges dinged Lee for his lackluster song and told him to bring it stronger in round two.
Lee attempted to bring it home with Simon Fuller’s choice of “Everybody Hurts,” but not even a rousing gospel choir could inject life into yet another proficient but dull performance. Again, Lee received warm notices, but ones that were tinged with criticism. Simon deduced that Lee was clearly nervous (how astute) and said that for the third and final song, he had to deliver a ten out of ten. No pressure though.
Well, Lee fans, I’m sorry to say he did not deliver a ten out of ten. Instead, it was a solid 6.5 or 7. Singing “A Beautiful Day” by U2, Lee was totally out of his league. Say what you will about Bono, but the guy has the whole “soaring vocals” thing down pat. Lee does not. He was completely lost in the song, often growling instead of inspiring. Pretty much the only thing exciting about it all was knowing that for the first time ever, the producers were not having the finalists sing some schmaltzy, gospel-infused gunk about flying on the wind without wings at a moment like this.
Ultimately, the judges gave Lee a thanks but no thanks round of criticism. They didn’t want to rob him of the moment, but they weren’t exactly doling out praise. Instead, they focused on Lee’s character, journey, and likability. So yeah — he sucked.
Crystal, meanwhile, was swinging for the fences last night. She seemed to put everything into all three songs she sang. Unlike Lee who was simply singing big notes in an almost perfunctory way, Crystal seemed to be expunging some sort of emotion — or at least feeling something. She began with “Me and Bobby McGee,” a seminal Janis Joplin tune that Crystal nailed earlier in the season. This time around, she wasn’t so hot off the bat — surprisingly missing several notes in the first half of the song — but eventually Crystal found her happy place and managed to save her performance with a rousing second half. The judges all praised her, and Simon proclaimed that she had won round one.
For her second song, the producers chose “Black Velvet” for Crystal, and she again rocked it. She perhaps lacked some of the slinky sexiness of the original song, but that didn’t really matter. Crystal used the tune to showcase her awesome vocals, and it would have been an amazing performance if only she didn’t have to awkwardly clunk down a staircase right at the beginning. Crystal seemed most ill at ease as she gingerly descended one step after another, and honestly, this little bit of blocking only served to remind us of how stiff she can be. Once Crystal reached terra firma, she sort of plodded from one side of the proscenium to another, occasionally touching a fan’s hand. It all seemed a bit rigid — like she was doing what she thought she was supposed to be doing. What I wanted to see from her was some body language to match the tremendous voice coming out of her mouth. When Crystal hit those high notes, I wanted to see her truly throwing her body into the song — arching back, bending forward, something. Instead, it was a rather stiff performance, which to me suggested that she wasn’t that emotionally connected to it. But whatever, Crystal still sounded great, and she did a far better job than Lee DeWyze on his second song; so again, another round for Crystal.
Finally, for Crystal’s single, she dialed it back for “Up To The Mountain,” a hauntingly beautiful song which featured just her, her guitar, and some understated backing vocals. It was honestly amazing; perhaps one of the best, if not the best performance of the season, and at just the right time. In that one song, Crystal absolutely blew Lee out of the water, and if she doesn’t win tonight, it will be one of the more significant crimes of Idol’s tenure. But then again, will anyone really get too mad if such a thing were to happen? Eh, probably not.
Ultimately, the judges praised, praised, praised Crystal yet again, and I don’t know if it was just me, but Randy looked almost a little emotional when he began speaking. For his part, Simon served up his final Idol criticism by saying “That was outstanding.” Ryan then took the stage, said some nice words about Mr. Cowell, and the show ended with Will Young, the first winner of Pop Idol (American Idol’s British predecessor), taking the stage to sing that song that’s been playing over every elimination retrospective video. Honestly, after a few seasons of dud goodbye tunes, I gotta admit that I really like this one. So there’s that.
Now we have to wait for tonight’s bloated two hour telecast. Chances are Crystal will win, but you never know. What do you think will happen? Who will win? Who should win? What was the best song from last night? The worst?