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'American Idol' recap: A tale of two Idols

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American Idol, Adam Lambert, ...
Frank Micelotta/Fox

American Idol

type:
TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
seasons:
15
performer:
Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, Ryan Seacrest
broadcaster:
Fox
genre:
Reality TV

It was the best of finales, it was the worst of finales.

On one hand, not even the most rabid American Idol addict — even someone who’s, say, starting to think of the SIMS people in the show’s opening credits as a second family — could’ve scripted a better story arc than the one we got for the final Tuesday-night performance episode of season 8. In Adam Lambert and Kris Allen, we were treated to two wickedly different types of singers, bonded by mutual admiration and respect, singing not so much to win our votes, but rather, to win our hearts. (”We just came to give a good show,” was how Kris so succinctly put it.)

And indeed, there was Adam, his falsetto swooping across the Nokia Theater like some rare, exotic bird, fanning out his feathers of vocal virtuosity and unflinching showmanship, without which this season of Idol might never have left the ground. (Whoa! That sentence just outed itself!) And there was Kris, behind the piano one minute, strumming his acoustic guitar the next, getting our attention with a whisper, and reminding us that his own brand of magic, while more subdued than Adam’s, is just as powerful. I say this without the slightest hesitation or embarrassment: I can’t wait to buy my first Adam Lambert concert ticket. I’m counting the days till I can download Kris Allen’s debut CD. And, despite that promise I made a couple weeks ago to dye my hair Allison Iraheta red if Adam doesn’t take home the season 8 crown, I’ll have a smile on my face when I finish my live-blog of Wednesday night’s season finale sometime around 10:15 p.m. EDT. (Look for it at popwatch.ew.com, and do comment like crazy using our new ”CoverItLive!” technology!)

And yet, would it really be season 8 of Idol if there wasn’t the intermittent sinking feeling that Idol‘s producers are, at heart, NCIS megafans, hellbent on surreptitiously torpedoing their own program for the greater glory of Mark Harmon? I mean, why hamstring Kris and Adam by demanding they choose a ”greatest hit” from earlier in the season, instead of giving them the freedom to pull a David Cook, who offered up a brand-new performance (of Collective Soul’s ”The World I Know”) during Top 2 night during season 7? I know I can’t be the only one who thinks repeat Idol performances are always something of a letdown, since they always lack that essential element of surprise that’s absolutely essential for creating an ”Idol Moment.” I mean, why not just replay footage of the earlier performances and let the judges weigh in on that? (Okay, now I’m being too curmudgeonly by half.)

What’s more, why, at a point in the season when our two young finalists have more than proven their artistic mettle, were they forced to dance to Idol creator Simon Fuller’s socially conscious tune, rather than be allowed to choose their own numbers?

Oh, and don’t even get me started on that bloated corpse of a coronation song that bobbed horrifically across the final 15 minutes of Tuesday’s telecast, threatening to turn my favorite TV show into some kind of torture-porn horror flick like Saw or Hostel or Texas Chainsaw: I Left the Theater After 15 Minutes. Yes, ”This Is My Now” sounds like a rejected cut off the Mulan soundtrack, and sure, ”Time of My Life” contains the phrase ”magic rainbow,” but at least those prior coronation songs had melodies. ”No Boundaries,” co-written by Kara DioGuardi, ’90s pop chanteuse Cathy Dennis (who also wrote Britney Spears’ ”Toxic”), and Mitch Allan.

Yes, folks, I know I’ve been against the ”fourth judge” since back before Paula started predicting this season’s Top 2, but really, you have to admit that ”No Boundaries” was the moldy olive atop the triple-decker s— sandwich of Kara’s tenure on the show. Honestly, the woman has some songwriting ability — anyone who’s heard Kelly Clarkson’s ”Walk Away,” or Xtina’s ”Ain’t No Other Man,” or (forgive me) Ashlee Simpson’s ”Pieces of Me” knows this — but these so-called lyrics! Let us pause and consider:

With every step you climb another mountain

With every breath it’s harder to believe

You’ll make it through the pain

Weather the hurricane

To get to that one thing

And, look, this isn’t even getting into the ”You can go higher! You can go deeper!” bridge. The only positive outcome of ”No Boundaries,” in fact, is that I now get to use the word ”nincompoop” in a TV Watch for the first time in 2009.

Kara DioGuardi, you are a nincompoop!

NEXT PAGE: ”Mad World” vs ”Ain’t No Sunshine”

One other thing before we deep-dive into the performances: If Idol‘s producers were determined to make Adam and Kris perform ”No Boundaries,” couldn’t they have at least given the guys the option of singing the ”victory” anthem at the start of the show? By ending on a double dose of ”Boundaries,” it left an immediate impression that Top 2 night was somehow a letdown, despite the fact that four out of six performances were darn close to sensational. So, on that subject, let’s break down the evening’s opening, middle, and closing rounds.

Round 1: Break out the photo-finish camera…it’s Kris by a nose! On paper, I’d have guessed Adam would easily have the edge, seeing how ”Mad World” had been hands-down his defining performance of the season, while at this point, Kris was better known for ”Falling Slowly” and ”Heartless” (and possibly even ”She Works Hard for the Money”) than ”Ain’t No Sunshine.” But perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, Kris’ move was one of strategic brilliance? I mean, isn’t it easier to slay the crowd when their expectations aren’t quite as lofty?

Still, Adam’s ”Mad World” (Take Two) was about as close to vocal perfection as it gets — and this time had the added benefit of dry ice, some sort of magical stage elevator, and a very dramatic black duster than might’ve fit in nicely on the set of The Matrix. Simon labeling Adam’s performance as ”over-theatrical” seemed like a ridiculous ruse to achieve the appearance of parity, the better to subtly dismiss Kris during the latter portions of the telecast. I mean, Adam without the theatrics is like Roger Federer without a tennis racket! And what was with Randy’s insistence that the performance was more Twilight than Phantom of the Opera? Black hair dye and a deep emotional connection to the material do not a vampire make, sir!

But no matter. Adam is operating on a plane that transcends the opinions of four adjective-challenged foolios sitting behind a table. Let’s hope that in his post-Idol career, he can convince someone to make ”Mad World” his first single, and forget that ”No Boundaries” ever happened.

Likewise for Kris, whose ”Ain’t No Sunshine” was so sublime, you could hear a hush fall over the Nokia as he reached the end of the final chorus, accompanied only by the sound of his piano. (Bonus points to Mr. Allen for nailing the final falsetto note tonight, something he didn’t quite manage to do on Top Downloads night.) Kris’ connection to the songs he chooses, the way he phrases each line, is tremendous. I hate to agree with Kara, but ”If you can’t feel a Kris Allen song something is wrong with you.” (Clearly a more pertinent critique than Paula’s la-la-tastic ”you awaken the spirit in all of us.”) And while some might complain Kris’ sound isn’t ”big” enough for Idol, I love the way he can enter a huge venue packed with frenzied fans (and Katie Holmes) and turn it into the most intimate of spaces.

To break the tie for this round, you’d almost have to go to the Coca-Cola-sponsored parental interviews, but that would require telling Adam’s sweet dad that his tale of his son’s diaper-era wailing was five-percent less adorable than Kris’ ”mama” discussing her son’s ”best gift ever” — hand-made coupons holding the promise of a musical number from her son. Ouch! No one ever said the Idol journey was painless.

NEXT PAGE: ”A Change Is Gonna Come” vs. ”What’s Going On”…and then, Kara’s song…

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Round 2: Break out the photo-finish camera again…it’s Adam by a nose! In a season where certain ridiculous/disgusting factions would’ve had us believe that Idol would be decided on some kind of trumped up ”Godly vs. (Possibly) Gay” battle lines, I found it particularly pleasing that Adam grabbed hold of ”A Change Is Gonna Come” and took it directly to church. In his natty gray suit and a massive metallic ring that recalled shades of Beyoncé’s mechanical ”Single Ladies” hand, and flanked by the ”Idol Guitar Duo Guys,” Adam delivered Sam Cooke’s classic civil-rights anthem with a fervor that resulted in a full ”Gospel hand” gesture, and had me briefly fantasizing about a Glambert-Fantasia duet. (How awesome would that be?) Paula certainly had a religious experience of her own when she went into her critique, waving her hand over her head and blurting with a cracked-voice crazy, ”I know with every fiber of my being you are gonna be iconic. Yes you are.” And yet, while that’s a lot of pressure to place on a guy who only five months ago was a session singer and chorus member for traveling theater productions, Adam seemed to soak in the hyperbole with his usual grinning, unperturbed charm.

By comparison, Kris’ interpretation of Marvin Gaye’s ”What’s Going On” was more like Fourth of July sparkler than a full arsenal of fireworks. And yet, I’ll admit I’ve always had a soft spot for a sparkler, because sometimes simplicity can be refreshing, and because let’s be honest, not every occasion calls for an explosion. So while I understand, and even support, the judges calling Round 2 for Adam, I wish that they’d given Kris some credit for a thoroughly original vocal spin — one that bravely riffed on Marvin Gaye’s classic melody without ever threatening to trample it into the ground. (Loved the momentary a cappella riff on the ”I’ve got to know what’s goin”’ line.) If any one of tonight’s performances was going to surreptitiously sneak its way onto current pop radio airwaves, I think this might be the one. And, oh, Simon: If there really are performances this terrific happening in dorm rooms across America, you better make sure to hit those campuses when you’re recruiting for Idol‘s ninth season.

A quick, slightly shallow side note: Kris’ rich, gray, long-sleeve (mini) V-neck was definitely the look of the night, and one I will totally plan to buy for one of my close friends as a birthday present, until I inevitably discover it’s too expensive for a guy who tends to drip soup on his shirt during lunch. (Okay, that was obvious; the guy is me.)

Round 3: Kris’ ”No Boundaries”…slightly less awful than Adam’s! Does it really matter that ”No Boundaries” was in too high a key for both Kris and Adam? Kris’ voice got stretched like a single parent’s budget in our current economy, but somehow he seemed more emotionally invested than his competitor in the worst song to grace the Idol stage during seasons 7, 8, and 9. (Yeah, I’m psychic like that.) Unnoticed by the judges, however, was the way Kris completely dropped a line of the song, although since said line was directly prior to the ”hurricane” reference, I think we can forgive the guy for experiencing a moment of pure panic. Adam, meanwhile, sounded shrill and strained on Kara’s composition, and missed more notes during its 90-second duration than he has in the rest of his Idol performances combined. Even worse, he seemed to be holding the mic too close to his mouth for the opening of the number, resulting in icky prank-call-ian feedback.

But instead of nitpicking about how our Idols failed in their quests to roll their respective boulders through the hurricane, up the quicksand-covered mountain, etc, let’s check out the way Kara’s fellow judges tap-danced through their critiques. (All quotes taken out of context at my bemused discretion, although watching Kara clap giddily at the end of Adam’s rendition, I came thisclose to feeling bad for her.)

Randy on Adam: ”You could sing the phone book.” (What was left unsaid? ”And I kinda wish you had, Dawg.”)

Paula on Adam: ”You can sing whatever you want to sing and I will be a fan forever, front in line.” (What was left unsaid? ”I’d appreciate it, though, if you skipped that crappy song by the lady who wants to take my job!”)

Simon on Adam: ”[Laughs.] It’s the mountains and the hurricanes. I’m not gonna judge that song. I’m gonna judge you.” (What was left unsaid? Not much.)

Randy on Kris: ”That song kinda fit your voice even better for me than even Adam’s. So good lookin’ out and good luck, baby.” (What was left unsaid? ”I thought you sang better than Adam on this one, but the producers said I can’t say that out loud. Also, you’re supposed to finish second. Good luck.”)

Kara on Kris: ”Kris, I don’t want you to be judged on that song.” (What was left unsaid? ”Damn! Even I’m second-guessing that line about the hurricane.”)

Paula on Kris: ”You’ve done an amazing job to end up where you are right now…I wish you the best of luck, you deserve where you are in that spotlight.” (What was left unsaid? ”Damn you, side-mouth! I rue the day you auditioned! You robbed me of seeing my precious Danny in the finale!”)

Simon on Kris: ”You have thoroughly, thoroughly deserved to be standing on this stage tonight.” (What was left unsaid? ”I am not-so-subliminally telling America that you will finish second.”)

NEXT PAGE: What we now know about season 8

But at this point in our Idol journey, eight seasons in, who needs the judges and producers anyhow? We know now, more than ever, the ways in which the production manipulates and plays with us. Outrage is as much a part of the process as joy. And so while Paula, Simon, Randy, and Kara — along with Ken Warwick, Simon Fuller, and Cecile Frot-Coutaz — may think they always get it right, we know better.

This is the year they almost ruined American Idol. They gave us that fourth judge we did not want or need or even ask for. They gave us the ”Judges’ Save,” which brought us little in the way of suspense, but made the bulk of the season’s exit performances a lot more excruciating. They asked us to whittle down a crop of 36 semifinalists to nine, based on a single performance apiece, then second-guessed us by filling out the last four spots in the finals with their own Wild Card picks. (In other words, they gave us Jasmine Murray instead of — one last shout-out! — Mishavonna Henson.) And at times, it seemed as though they wanted to make us believe our one chance per year to right the wrongs of the record industry boiled down to a culture war, one which, incidentally, none of us had any interest in fighting.

And yet they could not ruin the ride for us. Watching that months-old footage of Adam Lambert and Kris Allen tonight, hearing them offer their respective soundbites — ”I’m one of 100,000” and ”I’m the voice in the crowd that needs to be heard.” — that played so nicely into the theater of the finale, I was struck by the fact that this season, we saw at least two, if not three or four, or maybe even five or six future music stars unhatch right in front of our very eyes. That might be a hokey thing to get excited about (Hey! Albums will get recorded by folks who don’t use Auto-Tune as frequently as their toothbrushes!) but in a season like this one, where I’d be happy with Adam or Kris (or even Allison) wearing the crown, it’s the small victories that count most of all.

What did you think of Idol‘s performance finale? Who will and should win the season 8 crown? Which season 8 evictee’s appearance on screen made you most wistful? Let us know in the comments section below, then make your pick in this week’s EW.com Idol Prediction Challenge! Bonus question: Did you enjoy Simon’s plunging neckline and ”extra crispy” tan?