An awfully scrub-heavy Idol season came to a head last night with the show’s first scrub-free episode, the two contenders the show’s been building up all year finally facing each other down and giving this messy, messy year a satisfying conclusion, the one we probably should’ve seen coming from a ways off. Crystal Bowersox and Lee DeWyze basically do the same thing: They take songs with big, meaty melodies and just pound them into submission, leaving all subtlety to the chumps who went home early, maintaining earthy smirk-free personas the whole time. Lee’s not half the singer Crystal is, but he’s been a lot smarter in recent weeks, picking songs that ably convey his everydude persona without overwhelming his burly but limited yarl. Crystal, meanwhile, does exactly one thing (Joplin wail) extraordinarily well, but even she seemed to be getting bored with it in recent weeks. So what wins? Drive or talent? As it turns out, both. Crystal woke the fuck up and tore Lee to pieces. It was something to see.
Last week, I wrote that Crystal thinks she’s better than the show but that she’s not. After spending the first couple of weeks of the show utterly decimating everyone around her (except Siobhan Magnus, who should’ve never fallen off), Crystal went into full-on coast mode, grinning her way through low-key nothing songs and ending last week’s show sounding exactly as she had at the very beginning of the thing. But last night, she suddenly figured out that she might actually lose this thing and flipped her demon switch on, and holy shit.
Crystal’s version of Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Moment”, which closed the show, felt like an instant classic, a defining moment for a show that badly needed one right about now. Kelly Clarkson, still our best argument for this show’s continued existence, sang the same song on the first “Idol Gives Back” show a few years ago, and she beasted it hard. But she wasn’t a competitor then, and she had the added advantage of Jeff Beck wheedling away expertly beside her. Crystal came through with something in the same league as what Kelly had done, and she did it as the big climax of the competition, with something still at stake. Crystal’s version was some heavy shit, climactic big note after climactic big note, building toward a transcendent wail. Crystal herself was barely able to hold back tears by the end. After it ended, she seemed a bit twitchy, making self-consciously awful jokes and stiffly thanking the departing Simon Cowell, like she was having trouble returning to earth after what she’d just done. Big things right there.
The other two Crystal moments were both completely solid and relatively negligible. Both contestants had to sing songs they’d done earlier in the season, so of course Crystal picked the Joplin one. She held back a bit on it, but her howl was back in evidence by the time the song ended. Producer Simon Fuller, tasked with picking her second song, gave her the undying kitsch nugget “Black Velvet”, a perfectly ridiculous song that she sang remarkably well, even if she did look almost unbelievably awkward stuffed into a cocktail dress. Both songs were good, and neither was amazing. But Crystal had a great internal narrative throughout the night, her moments getting bigger and bigger until the deathblow. If she doesn’t win tomorrow night (and I’m prepared for anything after last year’s Kris Allen bullshit), I am going to pull Mr. Socko out of my sweatpants and slap the Mandible Claw on the entire American public. You’ve been warned.
As for Lee DeWyze, who’s been so goddam canny these past few weeks, he seemed to finally hit smug autopilot at the exact moment he needed to wow. He’s got his hammy stagecraft down, wandering through fields of violin players and fake gospel singers. And it’s pretty funny when the growly rock contestant ends his season with Simon and Garfunkel and R.E.M. songs; maybe Lee was more twee than anyone knew. But Lee’s secret weapon is that he knows how to groove; his “Treat Her Like a Lady” was the shit, lest we forget. He did none of that last night, and so all his big gestures fell flat. His “The Boxer” was wishy-washy and free of force. His “Everybody Hurts” straight-up sucked; you can’t use a gospel choir as an automatic out when you’re nowhere near a song’s emotional core. And his “Beautiful Day” was a textbook example of why nobody makes a living impersonating Bono. You know what happens when you impersonate Bono? You look like a fucking tool.
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