They're the youngest final two in the history of "American Idol," but Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina showed no signs of nervousness as they took the stage Tuesday night (May 24) for their final showdown.
Both high-schoolers had their game faces on as the first-ever all-country championship ended in a near dead heat, with each singer putting up strong vocals on a trio of down-home tunes, including the debut of the emotional singles that will be their crowning songs, should they win.
There was, of course, some last-minute drama, as host Ryan Seacrest revealed that Alaina has sprained one of her vocal cords in rehearsal, but the plucky high-schooler assured him that she was just fine and ready to rumble. And not only did Alaina pull her voice back from the brink, but with an emotion-packed final performance of what could be her victory song, she may have snatched the title from self-assured front-runner McCreery.
The two teens were thrust onto the biggest stage of the competition so far in the 7,000-seat Nokia Theater in Los Angeles, and the first round had them reprising their favorite song of the season. McCreery went with Montgomery Gentry's country-rocking "Gone."
Looking confident as he strolled his way from the audience to the stage, Scotty worked the room with some newly acquired swagger. The hyped-up performance ended with a powerful golf swing and more high-fives for the kids down front.
Alaina sounded in fine form again on Carrie Underwood's kicky "Flat on the Floor." With a bit more sandpaper in her voice, Lauren put the pedal down and gave it her all, ending with a big, rich note that proved she was — yes, Randy — in it to win it.
In an unexplained break from "Idol" orthodoxy, Seacrest rushed through the call-in numbers for each contestant after their first performance without making time for the judges to offer commentary.
The second round had the contestants' own idols offering up their choice, with Country Hall of Famer George Strait suggesting one of his own hits, "Check Yes or No," for Scotty. Strumming his guitar and raising his eyebrow just so, McCreery, 17, did the most he could with the middle-of-the-road tune, crooning in his signature bullfrog voice and venturing up into his twangy higher register on the choruses. Though no revelation, it was another fine example of the kind of clean, professional mainstream country tune McC excels at.
Alaina's idol, Underwood, went with a less contemporary choice, opting for the hit 1991 version of female country icon Pam Tillis' "Maybe It Was Memphis." Wearing a poofy, gold-bead bedazzled miniskirt and shiny cowboy boots, Alaina nailed it again, taking a lesser-known tune and putting some smoky emotion into the vocals and rising up into her power range on the choruses to give the song a radio-friendly modern vibe.
Finally, Seacrest went to the judges for their take on the first two rounds. Randy Jackson praised America for the fine job it did in picking the final two, saying it was a very even match. He called Scotty's first song "brilliant" and liked the Strait pick, while giving Alaina props for both of her performances. Ultimately, he gave the first-round edge to McCreery, while saying Alaina took round two.
"I thought it was such an explosive start from both of you," said Jennifer Lopez, praising their first songs, adding that Scotty's second song was not as impressive, while Lauren was "strong and clear and beautiful." She agreed with Randy on the split decision.
That left it to the ever-flamboyant Steven Tyler, who called both rounds for Lauren, "Only 'cause she's prettier than you are," he said, a sentiment McCreery couldn't disagree with. The rivals gave each other a good-natured hug and took off as Seacrest introduced Taio Cruz, who sang the crowd-sourced, Coke-promoted "perfect harmony" contest single "Positive." Singing the cliché-ridden midtempo pop tune amid a black-helmet-wearing futuristic drum line, Cruz struggled to get through the tune as his microphone repeatedly conked out.
McCreery's final song of the night was the single he'll release if he wins the competition, "I Love You This Big," a swaying ballad that tips its 10-gallon hat to his youth. "I know I'm still young/ But I know how I feel/ I might not have too much experience/ But I know when love is real," he gently crooned while wearing a suit jacket and jeans.
The weeper was firmly in Scotty's range and had the kind of honest sentiment that matches his sincere persona (and surely makes the girls swoon). As an added ratings-bonanza and vote-snagging bonus, it also brought a tear to his momma's eye and ended on a yearning note that sent the crowd into a frenzy.
"I'm not sure it's the perfect song for you, but the range was great because you sung low and you sung really high," said Randy, adding yet another superfluous "in it to win it" bark. "I'm proud of you, because you've grown during this contest and that was a brilliant vocal." Recalling her comments about his strong storytelling ability, Lopez praised Scotty for selling a tune nobody has ever heard before.
Lauren's winning tune was "Like My Mother Does," a song mentor Jimmy Iovine said is the perfect encapsulation of Alaina's journey on the show, not to mention some serious mom-bait. "People always say I have a laugh like my mother does," Lauren sang. "Guess that makes sense/ She taught me how to smile when things get rough/ I've got her spirit, she's always got my back."
The uplifting ode to maternal love and strength was, like Scotty's tune, the typical frothy "Idol" championship cream puff, with an extra helping of cornpone thanks to Lauren's drift down to the audience to embrace her weeping mom. Even amid the blatantly cloying lyrics, the teenager imbued the song with some honest emotion and sold it just like Jimmy knew she would.
As Lauren broke into sobs, Randy agreed with Iovine that the tune was the perfect pick for the singer and praised her for the Mariah Carey-like "soft whisper" vocal at the end. "Lauren Alaina has arrived, America!" he screamed. "This is a very tight race tonight, but Lauren, with that song, you may have just won," Lopez said. "You sang it just the way you needed to: with heart, emotion, feeling."
Randy and Steven called the final round for Alaina, while Jennifer said it was too close to call.
Wednesday night's finale will feature performances from this season's top 13, as well as judge Steven Tyler and a number of yet-unannounced special guests.
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.