Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Season nine leaves a Crystal-clear choice

On a show that tends to reward contestants who "grow," Lee DeWyze had the momentum heading into Tuesday's "American Idol" season nine performance finale. But Crystal Bowersox brought something far more important: Unbridled talent, with both the skills and, yes, the ambition to carry the night. By the time the evening was through, viewers had witnessed a Crystal eclipse, buoyed by superior personality, confidence, musicality, pitch, phrasing and the factor that's arguably hardest to pin down, but easiest to recognize when you see it - heart.

After the judges buried Lee with praise last week, I still figured anything could happen - neither contestant seemed an overwhelming, easy favorite, offering hope that season nine, for all its disappointments, might at least conclude interestingly. But, I also suspected that, as much as I wanted both contestants to bring their A games, top two night would offer little middle ground. Either the Chicago paint salesman would triumphantly barrel across the finish line, or the Ohio mom would roar back and knock it out of the park, something she'd shown herself capable of all season. Well, chalk one up for the second option, because she totally rose to the occasion, even as the producers handed Lee just as many chances to do the same. Lee lacked spark compared to Crystal, and seeing only the two of them facing off made the contrast and disparity starker. While Lee has an appealing, raspy tone, he continued to struggle with pitch and, to an extent, confidence, while Crystal happily belted out incredible notes. Most of the night, the sound mix also seemed a bit off, with arrangements threatening to overwhelm the contestants' singing. To be fair, though, Crystal showed Tuesday that she wasn't just better than Lee, she was better than everyone all year. For that, she deserves to win. But will she? I'm not as certain.

Even though Lee didn't measure up to that high standard, the night overall was still, frankly, a lot better than anyone had any right to expect, with several non-intrusive hat tips to the departing Simon Cowell and a shockingly low schlock factor helped immensely by the surprising lack of an original winner's single. Instead, Crystal and Lee both performed covers of non-crappy, relatively recent, uplifting-without-being-maudlin songs. This, from the show that just last year brought us poor Kris and Adam attempting "No Boundaries"? From the show that's unleashed "Inside Your Heaven," "A Moment Like This," "Do I Make You Proud" and - well, I needn't go on. Suffice it to say, this shift dramatically lowered the cheese content, even if it was scarily un-Idol-like. As much of an improvement as both songs were musically, part of me longed for Lee and Crystal to have to run the gauntlet that the mighty Idols before them also faced down, tackling the dreck head-on - it's like, what's "American Idol" without the terrible original song to ridicule? That said, I get why the producers opted to dump it after nine seasons: The winner's singles rarely had any long-term impact, musically or commercially, anyway, nor did they ever really speak to the type of album a contestant would make. So why not sub in a cover?

At the top of the show,  I couldn't have been the only one thinking, "Surely, some of these people must have been better than a bunch of the finalists," as photos of rejected hopefuls from auditions flashed on the screen. Still, at least the producers didn't portray Lee and Crystal as boxers, a la the Battle of the Davids two years ago. Helpfully, Seacrest informed us that, "Both are here to win it," and assured us, less than reassuringly, that the judges would guide us along the way. In keeping with tradition, Randy booed Simon after his introduction, although perhaps this night, he was booing because the show's most important stalwart is about to leave the panel after nine seasons. (At least, that's why I'd be booing.) Also in keeping with tradition, Cowell dressed up for the occasion, with a jacket and semi-unbuttoned button-down shirt instead of the usual v-neck t-shirt.

Cutting to shots of Lee and Crystal walking down the looong Nokia Theatre aisles, Crystal seemed jauntier and more excited, while Lee took more of a languid stroll. "This is a lot of people!" Crystal exclaimed once onstage. Girl, not nearly as many as are watching at home! Anyway, having won the coin toss, she elected to go second - who wouldn't? - and so it began: 

Round one, contestants' favorite from this season: 
Simon & Garfunkel's "The Boxer" was the right choice for Lee - a song he performed long enough ago that it didn't seem repetitive, yet one that remained resonant and a good fit vocally. He was possibly more in tune this time than he had been the first time around, but if it was more polished, it wasn't quite as emotional, either. The judges urged him to be more energetic and exciting. "That was a kiss on the cheeks when I wanted a kiss on the lips," Simon said, hastening to add, "Not from you." Oh, how we'll miss those bons mots!
To the surprise of no one, meanwhile, Crystal revisited Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee," a nonetheless savvy choice that reminded viewers why they liked her in the first place - and why she'd stood out since the year's early rounds. (Also, seriously, how cute were those pictures of lil' guitar-playing, braces-wearing Crystal? Of course her first gig was in a mall coffee shop, playing the same 10 songs as people came and went.) Standing behind her familiar mic stand, with an acoustic guitar in hand, she laid down her template for the night - singing confidently, in fine voice, varying phrasing and dynamics and flashing happiness and engagement. This prompted heaps of judges' praise: "You are just so compelling on stage," Ellen said.

Round two, executive producer Simon Fuller's choice:
Fuller handed Lee a prime filet mignon of a song with R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts," but alas, the paint salesman proceeded to serve it up at low temperature with little to no seasoning - starting off disappointingly samey, plagued by the unbalanced mix, with a big backing chorus then inexplicably entering the proceedings. Yet ultimately, it didn't build or amount to much. The judges observed the same, with Ellen noting that every time he seemed to be getting into it, he'd pull back. Simon rightfully commended the song choice, but observed that Lee went off the melody early on - and cautioned him to rein in his nerves and recognize the importance of the night's show. "I want a 10 out of 10," he said, "because you're capable of it."
Meanwhile, Crystal got stuck with the package of 80-percent-lean ground beef that is Alannah Myles' "Black Velvet," a song that has been performed - mostly poorly - on "Idol" so many times that the mere mention of it induces grimaces and cries of "Why?!" (Simon, it transpired, had the same reaction.) But while not a particularly original or relevant pick, she managed to make it sizzle. The song certainly suited her voice, and darned if she didn't improve on the overdone original, rocking it up and sprinkling in some giant notes. Though she sounded to me to go a bit off key at the end, the overall ferociousness of the performance was pretty undeniable. "MamaSox is in it to win it! That was hot!" Randy enthused. Kara praised her for giving her all tonight. Simon, meanwhile, articulated the thoughts of millions: "I had a little bit of a problem, because I'm almost allergic to that song, I've heard so many people murder it in auditions," he said. "But I have to tell you, you took that song and you absolutely nailed it."

As the commercials struck up following this semi-unexpected turn of events - that is, Crystal's ongoing dominance and her ability to render "Black Velvet" palatable - I then wrote in my notebook, "OH GOD, THE WINNERS' SINGLE." I tell you, I was filled with dread. BUT NO! A twist awaited!

Round three, the winner's single:
Otherwise known as, "When things got more interesting." When Seacrest unassumingly announced that Lee would be performing "Beautiful Day," I immediately thought, "What, no way would they give him a song with that name, not with the U2 song already out there!" But lo and behold, it WAS the U2 song - and so, with little fanfare, it turned out that the show had shifted away from the original winners' singles after nine seasons.
Anyway, this was Lee's final chance to make an impression, and honestly, despite Simon telling him he made the most of it, he kind of blew it. It wasn't an unsuitable choice, but he did nothing with it, with pitch that was painfully weird and a bit flat at times and was, frankly, a bit drowned out by the arrangement, as the judges later noted. Lee's voice isn't as naturally soaring as Bono's, and it appeared he initially struggled to compensate, before digging into the song more at the end, with stronger and more sustained vocals. This prompted plenty of applause, but tepid endorsements from the judges, who at this point had clearly recognized the smackdown Crystal was delivering - Kara even broke out the ol' "You deserve to be here" line. Simon credited Lee for being a nice person throughout and referenced his journey from paint-store clerk to Member of the Top Two, remarking, "This is what this show is about." But seriously, isn't Crystal's path also what the show is all about - I mean, she was literally playing on subway platforms before trying out.
I feared what Crystal might end up with, but as it turned out, I shouldn't have worried, because she returned with Patty Griffin's "Up to the Mountain," a moving, modern folk-soul song also performed beautifully by Kelly Clarkson on the 2007 "Idol Gives Back," accompanied by Jeff Beck. (Honestly, it was awesome: Check it out yourself on YouTube.) Clarkson is probably the former contestant most comparable to Crystal, at least in voice if not in terms of potential pop-star malleability, so it was a fitting choice in that regard. Distressingly, a Google search revealed that Cowell protege Susan Boyle also included a version of it on her debut album - one that's way too cold and stiff for an emotional song, inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.
Astonishingly, the song was not only genuinely - as opposed to sappily - inspirational, but actually kind of subtle. Playing her acoustic guitar, wearing a lovely diamond-y necklace and backed by an understated chorus, Crystal emoted her heart out on the song, standing and delivering a huge note, but then proceeding to choke up and finish softly. This feeling spread to the judges, too - Randy appeared to have grown teary-eyed, which was a rare sight (he's going all Paula on us!), and he paused a moment before saying, "This is what this show is about - an amazing performance by an amazing singer." Ellen rightfully praised Crystal's voice, while Kara said Crystal let down her walls and invested in the performance. At that point Crystal, somewhat hilariously interrupted - I mean dude, they were in the middle of majorly complimenting you! - to thank Simon for his criticism, before getting lost, wandering a bit and hitting the cul-de-sac of her remarks by saying, "Good luck on your future endeavors," which sounds a lot like a letter telling you you've been rejected from a job or from college. Once The Only Judge That Matters got a word in edgewise, he called Crystal's take "By far the best performance and the best song of the night." And, he added, since this was going to be the last criticism he was ever going to give on the show, "That was outstanding."
When Seacrest asked Crystal how she felt, she said, "I'm beside myself - actually, I'm beside Ryan Seacrest," which, I mean, HA. She then spoke of her family, her dreams and concluded, "I'm ready for anything." After that, she should be: She took advantage of the opportunity she had, and she didn't hold back. In an interesting full-circle moment, the show then concluded with Will Young, the winner of the original, British "Pop Idol" that started the whole franchise, singing this year's exit song, "Leave Right Now."

Rationally, empirically, it's clear that Crystal was the best. Even if Lee "wins," she'll always have that - and, one has to think, a music career, no matter what. But I also wonder, especially in a lackluster season like this one, who's even invested enough to really get passionate about the outcome (and, accordingly, vote)? How, for that matter, will the "teen girl" vote that's tipped the Idol scales toward male winners lately play out?

It's weird, because Idol viewers know, logically, that runners-up can succeed just as much as the official winners. But at the same time, what is the point of the show if you don't root for and want the best person to win? That's sort of how I feel about this - I know Crystal will be ok regardless of the outcome and might even be better off as the runner-up, but this being a singing competition, she deserves the crown. Then again, in a pop landscape that's far more competitive and vast than whatever exists in the Idol bubble, will it make a difference anyway? You don't have to look back that far to find out: Though I was really happy to see both Kris Allen and Adam Lambert in last year's final, I really wanted Adam to win. He didn't, and while plenty of Adam fans (ok, including this one) initially reeled at the result, a year later, it doesn't really bother me. He'd proven his talent, he still got his chance and he's working to make the best of it. And if this year's duo is deserving, no matter how the results shake out, they'll get the same opportunity, and take it from there.