American Idol: Two of a Kind

If you want to know the problem with last night’s final on American Idol, just think back a couple weeks to the night when Crystal Bowersox and Lee DeWyze performed “Falling Slowly” from the movie Once.

Yeah, the arrangement was too big for my tastes, but Crystal and Lee sounded great together and the song worked perfectly for their voices and mutual sensibilities. Within the Idol bubble, Crystal and Lee practically qualify as soulmates. They both came out of this year’s much-maligned Chicago auditions and Crystal even confessed her longstanding musical crush on Lee. Based on last week’s post-results hug—including a wraparound leg embrace from La Bowersox—her dude in the flag pants might be getting a little nervous.

Last night was hardly a clash of opposites. And now think back to previous Idol finals match-ups. Whether it was Adam Lambert vs. Kris Allen, Taylor Hicks vs. Katharine McPhee, the battle of the Davids, or Ruben vs. Clay, the finals have relied on a clear contrast in styles and personalities as a source of drama. The closest parallel to Crystal and Lee was Carrie Underwood and Bo Bice and that’s stretching things.

So here we are at the American Idol finals and what happens? It turns into open mic night. The show moved into the 7,000-seat Nokia Theater in L.A. even though the backroom at McCabe’s Guitar Shop out on Pico Boulevard would have been a more fitting venue.

But Idol loves big. It positively joneses for big. And here come Crystal and Lee, entering through the crowd. She gets the microphone knocked out of her hands, shrugs, and backtracks to her mark. Once she finally gets up on stage, Crystal states the obvious: “This is a lot of people.” In fact, there’s a fair chance that neither one of them will ever play such a large room again no matter how successful they are in their post-Idol careers.

So much for “the star-making machinery behind the popular song,” as Joni Mitchell put it. I have to admit that the Revenge of the Troubadours may not have made for the most compelling must-see TV. If you like Lee, there’s a fair chance you like Crystal and vice versa. Which means that it’s hard to work up the kind of clash-of-civilizations rancor and venom that the Kris-Adam battle stimulated.

I must stipulate that Lee and Crystal are probably the closest to my own musical tastes of any Idol contestants over the years (the originals of four out of six of last night’s songs are on my iPhone—not including the painful “Black Velvet”). Considering all that, I took great satisfaction in watching two singers beat Idol at its own game: they stayed true to themselves even when it wasn’t in the best interests of Idol Industrial Complex. Crystal and Lee were even spared the indignity of singing one of those syrupy coronation numbers that Idol so dearly loves, despite the dangerous spike in national blood sugar levels following performances of such songs as "This Is My Now.”

But right, this is a competition, so who won?

Lee DeWyze: He seemed a bit overmatched by the moment and his old nemesis—his nerves—came back to haunt him. And not to get overly glandular, but there was some sticky salivary evidence of his dry mouth.

Counting the clip of him singing “The Boxer” at his hometown celebration, last night’s performance was the third time we’ve heard it, which lessened the impact. His best performance was REM’s “Everybody Hurts,” especially the opening sections before the choir came in and began to overwhelm his vocals. By the end, he couldn’t sing above them. His rawness and vulnerability are keys to his appeal and he would have had a better chance at a big MOMENT if he had just gone out there and done the song on his own.

As for “Beautiful Day,” the close-up of the sheet music said it all: LOUDER. Lee seemed to battle with the arrangement at times and came in and out of his comfort zone. That said, I liked it better on a second viewing and I suspect it played better within the hall than at home.

Crystal Bowersox:  She was more consistent throughout the night and I had her winning each round. I’m sure she’s going to be thrilled when this is all over and she doesn’t have to worry about going down steps in heels or singing songs like “Black Velvet.” Forced to play the Idol game, she survived that one and turned in the best performance of the night on Patty Griffin’s “Up To The Mountain.” It was authentic and heartfelt and that all came through.

This is it: Who do you think is going to win tonight?

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