American Idol has opened itself up to a wider range of musical styles in recent seasons, and the likes of Kris Allen have thrived as a result. But everything about the season finale is bigger: big theater, big ballads, made for big voices. And for this reason, Adam Lambert, the performer who combines musical consistency and polished showmanship better than anyone in Idol history, was able to turn aside Allen's spirited charge in decisive fashion, both on Tuesday night and for the season as a whole.
The men were introduced with Ryan Seacrest pulling out the culture war nonsense (Conway vs. California! The guy next door vs. guyliner!) that Kris and Adam, to their credits, have seemed to want little to do with. Each had three songs to perform: a repeat of an earlier effort, a song picked for them by executive producer Simon Fuller, and the "coronation song," a cliche-fest that it somehow took three people to write, among them judge Kara DioGuardi, who has become a Paula-like punchline as the season has progressed. Despite Kara's best efforts, though, the night had some triumphs, and none were bigger than the one delivered by Adam at its halfway point.
1. Adam Lambert #2 ("A Change Is Gonna Come"): In traveling around the Idolverse following the show, I was surprised that there wasn't more enthusiasm for Adam's take on the Sam Cooke civil rights era classic, as it was probably my favorite performance of his all season. Accompanied by blues guitar, he gave us more of a gospel feel than we have heard from him all season, and unlike his approach last week on the similarly iconic "One," he let the performance build in a dramatic way, so that his eruption down the stretch felt like the night's major moment. Those who have accused Adam of "screaming" all season long were likely put off by the second half of the song, but my guess is that the typical Adam voter found it to be just what they were hoping he would bring to the finale. A
2. Adam #1 ("Mad World"): For his reprise, Adam chose what was certainly his best-received performance of the year (though I preferred "Tracks of my Tears"), and while it suffered from the drawback of all such repeats in that you can't bring back the thrill of hearing it the first time, it was again a stunning display of control in his upper range. Two (very mild) criticisms: First, as Simon Cowell pointed out, the staging, which included a hyperactive dry ice machine and the now familiar Adam combo of staircase and blue light, was just this side of self-parody. And since Adam knew Fuller's song and the coronation song would be ballads, his choice not to repeat one of his many rock-infused successes may have been a missed opportunity. A-
3. Kris Allen #1 ("Ain't No Sunshine"): I thought Kris's first time around with this song was his clear season highlight, even better than "Heartless" if not as startling, and he did the near-impossible Tuesday in making it even better. He knows just the right way to pace the number and make his piano work for him, and despite his typically upbeat persona, this was the one song this season where Kris was able to believably convey emotional pain. I hate to repeat a judges' cliche, but I really think Kris could record this right now and have a hit with it. And if you wanted to rate it ahead of "Mad World," I would not put up a fight. A-
4. Kris #2 ("What's Going On"): Unfortunately, Kris was not as well served by the two songs that were picked for him to sing. Fuller looked at the apple-cheeked Arkansan and somehow thought "Marvin Gaye," which meant Kris had to find a way to make this Motown masterpiece work with his coffeehouse style. Strumming along in a way that recalled Richie Havens, Kris was in decent voice, with some emphatic pauses before the chorus and an approach that managed to sound contemporary and classic at the same time. But it was a bit small for a finale night, as Randy Jackson seemed to imply, and couldn't help but look a bit pallid compared with Adam. Had he done this in March, it would have been a revelation. In May, it doesn't seem like a champion's performance. B-
5. Adam #3 ("No Boundaries"): The coronation was the usual collection of Idol perseverance mantras, with a mention of a hurricane to go along with the proverbial dreams and climbing of mountains. Attempting to judge these guys on their performance and not the song quality isn't easy, but Adam really did have significant issues at the start of the song, truly sounding "pitchy" and uncertain for the first time. But once he moved into the more belty section, he put it together on the too-wordy chorus, and for a performer who has often been criticized for putting glam ahead of heart, Adam was able to almost convince us that he believed all the crap he was singing. I suppose this is where all those nights in Wicked came in handy. C+
6. Kris #3 ("No Boundaries"): Remember how downcast Kara looked when Danny Gokey was eliminated last week? We can now assume that the reason for her mood was that she knew very well that the song she had written for the finale was something Danny would have eaten up like so much Wisconsin cheese. By contrast, Kris never had a chance here. Performing without an instrument, which only exaggerates the charisma gap between him and Adam, Kris couldn't remember all the words (lucky Kris), missed notes continually, and was flummoxed by the higher key. Kris depends on understatement, and Idol is never going to give us a winners' song in that vein. The good news is that no one who is fair-minded would think of voting against Kris based primarily on this ridiculous song. Even Kara said people should just ignore the last performance when casting their vote, and when even its co-author can't stand up for it, you can be sure "No Boundaries" won't ever be heard by anyone again after Wednesday night, unless the CIA brings torture back. D+
I assume Adam won enough of the casual fans who vote primarily on that night's performances that he will be able to claim the title on Wednesday. But betting against Kris has become a dangerous proposition, and if the fans he's won give him a pass on his final two performances, an upset remains a possibility.