Contrary to our earlier predictions, "American Idol" on Tuesday night was indeed packed with surprises — just none that had anything to do with Scotty McCreery's and Lauren Alaina's performances. The two finalists, as expected, kept the penultimate "Idol" a strictly country affair.
Instead, the shocking twists and turns took place before and between the singers' onstage appearances (though, sadly, not even these oddities could turn the show into a particularly compelling viewing experience). Ryan Seacrest hit pause on the proceedings just minutes after they began, telling the audience (as had been widely reported online) that Lauren had severely strained her vocal chords but wouldn't bow out of the competition. "I'm here. I'm ready to sing," she said, attempting to maintain her composure. "And I'm fine — don't worry about me."
So much for the possibility of Haley Reinhart rising up from the heap of "Idol" castoffs to challenge Scotty for the win. No sooner had the 17-year-old country boy finished his first performance than Seacrest rushed through the voting numbers and tossed to commercial. What, Randy Jackson doesn't get to weigh in with a "yo dog" this and "for me for you" that? Steven Tyler doesn't get to see how times he can say "beautiful" in a 15-second sound bite? As our MTV News colleague Jim Cantiello put it, "I guess 'Idol' producers finally realized what viewers have been saying for months: These judges are useless."
Randy, Steven and Jennifer Lopez, in fact, wouldn't get a chance to offer up their opinions until after the second set of performances, by which time one thing was clear: If you aren't a country fan, this show was a super-boring affair. But a hoedown is what voters wanted in this "Idol" finale, and who are we to argue? Our job, instead, is to line 'em all up and lay down some grades. It's time for our final "American Idol" report card of the year!
Lauren Alaina: "Flat on the Floor" by Carrie Underwood
Early in May, Lauren's take on this track stood as a sort of comeback moment for the teen: After weeks of tentative performances in which the carefree and confident Lauren we knew seemed to disappear under the sweat-inducing reality-show spotlight, the singer stormed back. We had to stop ourselves from aping Randy and declaring, "She's back, baby!" On Tuesday, she took that performance up a notch, not in spite of but perhaps because of her injured instrument. There was a welcome raspy quality to her vocals, and she overcame some initial nervousness to really let loose.
Scotty McCreery: "Gone" by Montgomery Gentry
When Scotty performed this tune a few weeks ago, we marveled at the kid's swagger: He skipped around the stage, busted out a little call-and-response with the backup singers, and generally seemed to have reached a new level in his onstage persona. This time around, both by comparison and on its own, the performance was a bit of a letdown. Sure it had all sorts of energy, but Scotty mumbled his way through the early lines and didn't soar to the kinetic heights he had before. It was a perfectly good performance, but it was by no means great.
Scotty McCreery: "Check Yes or No" by George Strait
Back in April when Scotty took on a Strait song, he let his vocals stretch further than at any point in the season. Yet he still stayed within his country comfort zone. It was a winning combination. "Check Yes or No" was another winner, though his vocals didn't necessarily have the power to compete with all that instrumentation. Still, Scotty held his guitar like Elvis, wagged his eyebrows like a patient undergoing electroshock therapy and somehow came out looking like a future country superstar. With Scotty standing up there in a row with the band, the stage presented something of an "Idol" hero shot.
Lauren Alaina: "Maybe It Was Memphis" by Pam Tillis
We know Carrie Underwood's heart was in the right place when she selected this song for Lauren. At least in genre, it truly is a great fit for the teenager. But mangled voice or not, Lauren doesn't possess the vocal delicateness the song requires. Making up for the lack of artistic grace, however, was the grittiness with which her ailment had gifted her.
Lauren Alaina: "Like My Mother Does"
Call it a brilliant production move or contrived even for "Idol," but Lauren's ode to mothers was about as savvy a song choice as any contestant could ask for during a finale. There was a lovely little chorus, and who except the hard of heart can complain about the unvarnished, emotional hug she shared with her mom during the performance? Here's the thing: By this point, Lauren's voice really was struggling, the rasp giving way to a warble. Nonetheless, the judges fawned over her, with J. Lo declaring that the song might have won her the competition. Let's not go overboard, but let's also be clear: Anything can happen on Wednesday's (May 25) elimination show.
Scotty McCreery: "I Love You This Big"
Maybe it was the video playing overhead, maybe it was the zombies waving their hands in the front rows, but this tune was undeniably, inescapably cheesy. When the song finally busted open, Scotty's notes were flat, never soaring to the heights to which the song clearly aspired. Yet we have to give credit where it's due. Scotty possesses the icy confidence you want in an ace pitcher: someone who can shut out the pressure, step on the mound and hurl some effing heat; and when a pitcher doesn't have his best stuff on any given day, you need him to find ways to win. If you ask us, that's what Scotty did on Tuesday. He didn't have his best stuff, but his confidence in his gifts carried him through. Again, anything can happen, but we'll call it now: Scotty McCreery for the win!
Don't miss a special edition of "Idol Party Live" Thursday at noon on MTV.com for analysis, finale red-carpet coverage and the last "Idol in 60 Seconds" of season 10. Get in the conversation by tweeting with the hashtag #idolparty! In the meantime, get your "Idol" fix on MTV News' "American Idol" page, where you'll find all the latest news, interviews and opinions.