Never let it be said that the producers of "American Idol" are masters of subtlety.
For its first all-male finale since season two, "Idol" pulled out all the stops. The long-simmering epic battle between teen angel David Archuleta and twenty-something rocker David Cook kicked off with the hype of a prize fight, literally. Tuesday night's performance show opened with a microphone descending from the rafters, as the theme from "Rocky" played and legendary ring announcer Michael Buffer intoned, "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Nokia Theater L.A. Live and the main event. This is the fight of the century, scheduled for three rounds of competition. So let's get ready to rummmmble!"
"Idol" hammered the boxing theme over and over, beating the metaphor into submission amid a barrage of every sports cliché in the book. At the end of the night, with each singer sticking close to their tried-and-true playbook — Archuleta pouring it out in diva-worthy ballads and Cook cranking up the rock — the judges said it was clear that Archuleta had come to win.
Rather than opening with the traditional cheesy medley, Buffer kicked off the show by announcing Cook, who took the stage in a red satin robe and boxing gloves. "Introducing first, in the red corner, weighing in at 180 pounds: He's the real deal, from Blue Springs, Missouri. He's David 'Sugarfoot' Cook!"
Cook, his hair spiked up in a faux-hawk, gamely played along, bouncing on his toes and doing some shadow boxing as he kissed his gloves and walked to center stage.
"And his opponent, in the blue corner, weighing around 100 pounds, soaking wet: He's the humble pride of Murray, Utah. Ladies and gentlemen, David 'Baby Face' Archuleta." Looking like he was wearing his dad's oversize robe, the perpetually grinning crooner raised his hands and gave a half-hearted air punch before shuffling over to touch gloves with Cook.
Veteran boxing analyst Jim Lampley then took over, laying on the pugilistic shtick, as a montage of boxing images unfolded. The two finalists tried to look their toughest while Ryan Seacrest intoned in his best NFL Films voice, "Two men with one name and one desire, to be crowned champion. Their prize: a heavyweight title reserved only for superstars. Tonight, they go head to head for three rounds with the eyes of the nation fixed on their every move. Their ring: a 7,000-seat theater in the neon glow of downtown." Oh, you get the point.
Cook was up first, singing a song hand-picked by music-industry legend Clive Davis, who said he chose U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" because it "captured the yearning of a generation looking for answers, looking for love." Cook left the guitar behind and gave the iconic anthem a grunge-gospel touch, wandering out into the crowd, working the adoring audience with his best Bono hand-in-the-air moves and ending with an extended male-diva note hold.
Judge Randy Jackson loved the end note, though he said Cook might not have done everything he could have with the song. Paula Abdul said Cook had "arrived." Simon Cowell said that despite what he perceived as nerves at the top of the song, the singer was "phenomenal."
Davis' choice for Archuleta was Elton John's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." Seated on the mid-stage steps, bathed in a spotlight, Archuleta put on his serious camera face, narrowed his eyes and took a slow walk to the lip of the stage as he brought his voice to a crescendo and threw in a heretofore-hidden gritty lower register that added some soul to the vanilla ballad.
"This is one of the best performances of the season ... and unbelievably molten hot. Crazy vocals!" Jackson exclaimed. Abdul chimed in with another song-title cliché, telling the nearly bawling Arch that "the sun is never going to go down on you, because you bring out so much sunshine." Cowell took things down, and cautioned everyone to chill out before telling Archuleta that the song was the best he'd done so far in the competition. "Taking everything into account, round one goes to Archuleta," Cowell said.
Round two featured the singers picking from the top 10 entries into the "Idol" songwriting competition. Cook chose a song called "Dream Big," while Archuleta went with the very "Idol"-sounding "In This Moment." Clad in a leather jacket and jeans, standing alone at center stage with his trusty electric guitar and an amp, Cook barked out the lyrics to the Goo Goo Dolls-like rocker with the uplifting chorus, "If you don't dream big, what's the use of dreaming?/ If you don't have faith, there's nothing worth believin'."
Jackson didn't love the song, but complimented Cook for "singing your face off." Abdul said he took a song no one knew and made everyone fall in love with it, while Cowell dubbed the performance "lightweight." Though the tune was supposed to be a winner, he lamented, "It didn't feel like a winning moment for me."
Not surprisingly, Archuleta's choice was a tender ballad about "staring through windows at my own reflection" that asked, "How can a window encompass perfection?" Wearing jeans and a sport coat adorned with anchors, Archuleta bit hard into the Josh Groban-esque weeper packed with all the emotional highs and sweeping melodrama of a typical "Idol" winner's song.
Jackson again didn't love the song, but he did love recycling his old bit about how Archie could sing the phone book and make it work, while Abdul said he was "on fire." Cowell loved the "fantastically self-centered ... egotistical" lyrics and told Archuleta that he definitely chose the better song. Round two: Archuleta.
For the final bell, the contestants chose their own songs. Cook went with Collective Soul's "The World I Know," which he said he's never performed before, and Archuleta reprised his cover of John Lennon's "Imagine."
Strapping on an acoustic guitar, Cook, this time in an all-black outfit with a red tie, tried to pump life into the midtempo snoozer, which threatened to turn into a towering jam in the middle only to fizzle out at the end as the singer was brought to tears. Jackson said the mellow ballad showed another side of Cook and was exactly the kind of record he should make after the show. Adbul told Cook he was standing on stage "in your truth and delivering unbelievable songs with integrity and originality." Cowell praised Cook as one of the "nicest and most sincere" contestants in the show's history. But though he liked the song, Cowell said it was "completely and utterly" the wrong choice for this stage in the competition.
Refuting Cowell's assertion that he should have done a reprise of one of his successful covers, such as Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," a somewhat indignant Cook shot back, "For me, this whole thing has been a progression, so the way that I was looking at it was, 'Why do something I've already done?' "
Taking the opposite tack, Archuleta stood stock-still in center stage and sang his angelic best on "Imagine," scanning the crowd with his half-shut eyes and pulling the final note taut as his voice was drowned out by girlish squeals.
"Dude, you are so good tonight, you are exactly what this show is about: finding the best singer we can find and the best singer of season seven is right there!" Jackson howled. Abdul said she was rendered speechless by the performance, calling it "stunning." Cowell seemed to complete the Archuleta coronation, saying the night was one of "the great finals" in "Idol" history.
"Here's the difference," he said. "In my opinion, David, you came out here tonight to win. And what we have witnessed is a knockout." By tomorrow night, we will know who is the people's champ.
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