After more than 40 shows, hundreds of contenders, almost as many broken hearts and one of the tamest set of finalists in the show's history, "American Idol" season nine came down to a pair of 24-year-olds, each vying to be the first Midwesterner to hold the crown.
Two days after the buzzed-about "Lost" finale, the second meanest man on TV this side of John "Smokey" Locke — departing original judge and the heart of the panel, Simon Cowell — went out not with his usual snarling put-downs, but with mostly kind remarks as Crystal Bowersox re-asserted her season-long status as the woman to beat with a pair of powerful performances that might have beaten back the late-season surge from rocker Lee DeWyze.
After Bowersox won last week's coin toss, Mt. Prospect, Illinois, paint clerk DeWyze went first, reprising his cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "The Boxer," putting a bit more emotion into the ballad, raising his voice through the midpoint of the verses as he went into his signature rock-radio rasp.
Randy Jackson said it was "nice" but not quite energetic enough, while Ellen DeGeneres confused everyone by stating, "I couldn't be prouder if I birthed you myself," complimenting Lee for performing the song even better the second time. Reminding DeWyze that he was on the big stage at the Nokia Theatre, Cowell said he expected more passion, calling it a "kiss on the cheek when I want a kiss on the lips— not from you, you know what I'm saying."
Bowersox was firmly in her wheelhouse with a reprise of Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee," strumming out the rock chestnut on her acoustic guitar and inspiring a group clap-along. The song again showed off her soul-mama bona fides as the wordless chorus gave her a chance to work through her powerful, bluesy range.
Ellen said Crystal drew the whole crowd in, and Kara DioGuardi said, "I loved it when you first did it, and I loved it tonight. You told us so much about you as an artist, and you have fire in your belly tonight!" For Cowell, after a few tepid weeks, the performance brought back the Crystal the judges fell in love with, and Randy praised her for picking up the pace midway through and said it was exactly the kind of record Bowersox should make.
Lee's second song was chosen by executive producer Simon Fuller, who went with R.E.M.'s iconic ballad "Everybody Hurts." Lee turned it into an acoustic campfire ballad, swamping up the arrangement and snarling a bit of a rock edge into the alt-rock classic while highlighting the expressiveness of his voice as a gospel choir backed him up and brought a majestic feel to the tune.
"What makes you great as a performer is that you're emotionally accessible," Kara said. "I can feel every word you're saying, and you're telling a story." Cowell called it a "brilliant" choice of song, even if he went a bit off melody and Lee was clearly nervous. "You've got another song to come, and I think you've got to really understand what this night can do in terms of changing your life," he warned. "And when you come out for your last performance I want a 10-out-of-10."
Fuller went with Alannah Myles' "Black Velvet" for Bowersox, a song that has a long "Idol" history and seemed custom-made for Crystal's gutbucket growl. She seemed a bit uncomfortable walking down the steps in her, yes, black-velvet dress and heels, but Crystal matched the squealing guitar licks with throaty growls and a loud, cat-scratch note at the end.
DioGuardi said Bowersox proved she wanted it and really gave it her all, while Cowell groused about how sick he is of hearing the tune in countless horrible auditions. "But I've got to tell you, you took that song and you absolutely nailed it," he enthused. "MamaSox is in it to win it!" Randy yelled, while DeGeneres simply gave her a standing ovation.
And then it was down to the coronation song, typically a trip to Cheesy Town, but DeWyze dodged a bullet by snagging U2's uplifting "Beautiful Day" instead of a mewly original. The synth-pop orchestral arrangement was a bit lightweight, and Lee seemed to get lost in it at times as he drifted off-key at points. Wearing a black leather jacket over a black hoodie, he eventually found his footing, gripped the microphone and leaned into the soaring chorus, showing a bit of his rock-star potential, opening his mouth and howling out the refrain with all his might.
Cowell said he made the most of it and gave it more effort than the other two songs and then took a moment to say what amounts to his farewell to "Idol." "This is my final time I'm ever going to judge this show," Cowell said. "I just want to say about you, is that this is what this competition was designed for, which is somebody who needs a break ... having a normal job working in a paint shop. You've worked hard, you've remained a really, really nice person throughout, and I genuinely wish the best for you. You're a great guy."
"Watching you grow to where you are right now, standing on this stage making it this far," DeGeneres said, "I was watching your eyes, you were fully present for that song, taking in every bit of these people's energy, and I love that you were able to get to that place to do that." First, the good news: DioGuardi said he has grown the most on the show this season and has the most commercial voice of the season and deserves to be in the finals. But she felt he got swallowed up by the arrangement.
"This whole thing has been amazing, from the very beginning to right now," DeWyze said. "I want to be doing this for a long time. ... I will be doing this for the rest of my life, one way or another."
Crystal's coronation song was Patty Griffin's Martin Luther King tribute "Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)," which Bowersox sang while strumming her beat-up acoustic, dipping and swaying through her broad range and owning the song as if she wrote it. (The song wasn't new to the "Idol" stage: Kelly Clarkson performed it with Jeff Beck during 2007's "Idol Gives Back" show.) Hitting a sustained, powerful note and putting her busker's passion into the emotional lyrics like her next meal depended on it, MamaSox ended the show with a powerful display of why she's been this season's front-runner since she first stepped on the stage with the top 12.
"An amazing song by an amazing singer," Jackson roared, saying it was one of the best performances in the show's history. "I cannot compare you to one person. ... You are in a league of your own. You have a beautiful voice," Ellen added, unable to resist yet another food metaphor. "If you make an album, I'm gonna buy it. If you go on tour, I go on tour and watch you. If you make a salad, I'll eat it."
After a season in which she sometimes had a hard time connecting with Crystal and felt she had her guard up, Kara said the singer from hardscrabble Elliston, Ohio, finally let her guard down and seemed fully emotionally invested in the song.
Before Simon made his final comments on the show, Crystal addressed him and expressed her gratitude. "You've been amazing this season," she said. "Thank you for all the critique and criticism and help. ... Good luck on your future endeavors."
"Since it's becoming a bit of a lovefest tonight," the typically hard-hearted judge replied, "I thought that was by far the best performance and the song of the night. And since this is going to be the final critique I'm ever going to give, I would just like to say that was outstanding."
After Tuesday's (May 25) vote, the season's winner will be announced during Wednesday night's two-hour finale, which will feature a performance from Christina Aguilera. Who do you think won the battle Tuesday? Who are you going to vote for? Leave your comments below!
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