In the battle between mothers and sales clerks, the single mom outshone the paint-store employee in the final “American Idol” performance show of the season.
Crystal Bowersox excelled for the same reason she always does — she has a combination of talent and self-awareness that’s unusual for this competition. She knows what works for her and has the confidence of someone who has been performing forever and feels she’s good enough to deserve the “Idol” crown.
Apart from an early snafu when she dropped her microphone on her way to the stage, Bowersox performed with poise and panache. Who else could steal the spotlight from Simon Cowell right before the final critique of his “Idol” career by grabbing the microphone, thanking him for his years of service and wishing him well in his future endeavors? Not to go all Chris Farley on everyone, but that was awesome.
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Meanwhile, Lee Dewyze slid back into the “Wow! I’m really here!” mode that he’d seemed to leap past over the final couple of weeks. It wasn’t that he was bad, but he didn’t come through with his best stuff on the night he needed to be a star.
The main difference between the two was their song choices. Both finalists sang three songs: one they had sung previously this season, one chosen by “Idol” executive producer Simon Fuller and one that would be their first single released if they won.
For starters, Dewyze chose to reprise “The Boxer,” while Bowersox did “Me and Bobby McGee.” The former sounded a lot better than it looked. It was a great way to amplify the strengths of Dewyze’s voice, but the performance itself was low energy. The song sounded fine, but felt like a lullaby. Bowersox’s number was more energetic, and the judges all liked it better.
Next came the Fuller choices. I liked his selection of “Everybody Hurts” for Dewyze, but it was definitely a challenge. REM and Michael Stipe is a high bar to reach, but had Dewyze nailed it, the song might have given him some momentum. Unfortunately for his fans, it wasn’t anything that would get people to race to iTunes and download it.
Meanwhile, Fuller assigned Alannah Myles’ “Black Velvet” to Bowersox, which was excellent. That was no shock to me, but did surprise Simon. Evidently, he’s seen a few too many people butcher that during auditions. That left her two-for-two among the judges.
If this had been like previous years, the final song would have been a coin flip. This has traditionally been the big letdown, since the original song rarely suits the winner’s particular vocal skills. So the “Idol” folks huddled up and came up with a solution: Do away with that entirely and have the winner release a cover song as the first single.
On the one hand, that makes very little, sense particularly for someone like Bowersox who has originals she would surely like to release. Critics who consider this a glorified karaoke competition will revel in the fact that the first release will be a karaoke version of a song someone else originally wrote and performed.
On the other, it saves us from another “No Boundaries,” the song co-written by judge Kara DioGuardi that got bounced quickly from last year’s “Idol” tour on the grounds that it was terrible and nobody liked it. It lowers the risk of a flameout at the price of removing the chances of another “A Moment Like This” moment from the first season.
Dewyze sang U2’s “Beautiful Day,” which posed several problems. One: Dewyze is no Bono. Two: The song isn’t so old that people don’t think of the U2 version the minute they hear it. There isn’t a contestant yet who could out sing Bono, and Dewyze didn’t end that streak and could not put his own stamp on the song. Each judge gave Dewyze what amounted to a eulogy: We love you, you’re what the season is all about, good luck in the future and don’t forget to write.
Bowersox, meanwhile, sang Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain.” Though that is the more recent release, it’s a beautiful song that wasn’t a big commercial hit. I’m guessing that most of the viewers who recognized it did so because Kelly Clarkson covered it on “Idol Gives Back” in 2007, not because they’d recently heard it on the radio.
There’s a risk in picking a song like that: There’s no surer way to get voted off than to pick a more obscure song and give a flat performance. But Bowersox was excellent, and because of that was able to put her stamp on the song in a way that Dewyze could not.
Of course, it’s impossible to end this without noting that this was Simon’s last night as a judge on “Idol.” Tomorrow’s episode is pure celebration, and he won’t have to critique anything except perhaps the other judges’ outfits. In case anyone had forgotten about the occasion, he reminded viewers of that a couple of times, as did both Randy Jackson and Ryan Seacrest.
His most memorable comment came after Dewyze’s repeat of “The Boxer,” when he said he wanted “a kiss on the lips.” Though he hastened to clarify that he meant that metaphorically, odds are close to 100 percent that it will be spliced into whatever Simon tribute package is planned for tomorrow.
But for those curious, his last comment after an “Idol” performance was to Crystal, saying after her last performance of the evening: “Since this is going to be the final critique I'm ever going to give, I would just like to say that was outstanding.”
Odds are good that the voters will agree, and if Tuesday night is the deciding vote for most people, she’ll be the next “American Idol.”
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/craigberman.