Despite a tiresome prizefighting theme, the last performance episode is an exciting three-round match that Simon calls for David Archuleta over David Cook
Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC
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”As far as I’m concerned, the competition’s over, and we’re just having fun.”

While those are the exact words David Cook used to describe his feelings about the final performance episode of the American Idol season, they also describe my own approach to looking at the evening’s indisputably entertaining festivities.

Because, really, let’s have a show of hands: How many of you came into tonight’s telecast undecided about whether David Cook or David Archuleta deserved the season 7 crown? And how many of you actually changed your minds by the time Ruben Studdard’s ”Celebrate Me Home” segued into the screaming and yelling and sautéing of Hell’s Kitchen?

(Yep, as expected, there are fewer than 10 of you out there.)

And so while I could blather on incessantly about how American Idol needs to crown a hip, radio-ready winner like Rocker David, fans of Little David could just as easily (and very correctly) counter with the fact that tonight’s finale was a vocal tour de force for their boy, a tidal wave of glory notes, runs, and misty eyelashes that only the most horrible kind of cynic would try to deny. (Sorry, haters, I’m not volunteering for that kamikaze mission.)

It’s weird, my current lack of fighting spirit. Maybe after 41 episodes, I’m too Idol-ed out to rail against Simon Cowell for essentially standing on his seat and reconfiguring last season’s Idol coronation theme into ”This Is Archie’s Now.” Maybe after getting repeatedly punched in the face by the episode’s overzealous boxing metaphor, I can’t get up off the mat and make note of the fact that Randy had been hand-stenciling his ”I’m an Arch Angel 4EVA” poster for the last several weeks. Heck, even Ryan got in on the action tonight, with a ”Well said, Mr. Cowell” only seconds after Simon declared the evening a knockout for Archuleta. (Et tu, Hostbot?)

But as Brooke White always liked to remind us, ”It’s okay. It’s okay.

Because while nothing and no one will ever convince me that David Cook didn’t prove himself the undisputed Idolweight champ over the last 14 weeks — and while I remain optimistic he will prevail when the votes are tabulated (and Idol fans realize they’ll need to take out home-equity loans to pay off their text-messaging bills) — I won’t gnash my teeth if it’s David Archuleta who gets the confetti shower on Wednesday night. No, he didn’t once step out of his gooey-ballad comfort zone tonight, but the kid left all 100 pounds of himself on the Idol stage, and still managed to give a post-show interview to my colleague Adam B. Vary. (Click here to read Adam’s Q&A’s with both Davids.)

Okay, but enough waffling. I’m paid to have an opinion. So cue up the Rocky theme and let’s discuss round 1, better known as Clive’s Choice! Or, alternatively, as the round in which Clive Davis continues his ongoing love affair with Elton John’s ”Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” the same song he chose for Bo Bice on top-three night in Idol‘s fourth season. Seriously, Clive, I know it’s a pretty ballad, but after spending almost six decades in the music business, don’t you know a few thousand great songs that you haven’t already foisted onto an Idol contestant? (And maybe one that hasn’t been covered on the show by Justin Guarini, Clay Aiken, and Jasmine Trias, as well?)

NEXT: Round 1 goes to David

Luckily, Little David responded to Clive’s startling lack of musical imagination by singing the bejesus out of his number. I had to agree with Simon, that ”Don’t Let the Sun” was arguably the best performance he’s given during his 14-week run, in spite of, or maybe even because of, the slight shrillness of a couple of his high notes. In those brief seconds of imperfection, the kid gave himself completely to the material, actually feeling the lyrics and turning them into his personal Idol mantra. Say what you want about Little David, but there’s no questioning his desire to inherit Jordin Sparks’ mantle — or the fact that he came out swinging to get it.

(Ugh, sorry for the boxing metaphor. That was below the belt, considering the pounding we all took during tonight’s broadcast. I promise if I don’t throw in the towel on the pugilistic imagery for the remainder of this column, you can all give me a good walloping in the comments section — with your gloves off!)

As much as Little David impressed me during round 1, however, I was even more taken with Rocker David’s heartfelt cover of ”I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (and his very stylish gray jacket). I’ll admit that when Randy started his yammering about how Rocker David hadn’t done everything he could do with U2’s anthem, I actually found myself doing something I never thought I’d cop to: Looking forward to Paula’s critique! (Oh, snap!) But really, while Rocker David’s rendition may not have been a radical reinterpretation of the original — and why should he be asked to clear that bar every stinkin’ time unless Archie is asked to do the same? — it accomplished something even more impressive, by making me hear every word of the well-worn lyrics like I was hearing ’em for the first time. Nope, it wasn’t allergies that had my eyes watering at the end of the performance; somehow, when I really wasn’t expecting it, Cookie made me cry.

The only thing that had me reaching for the Kleenex during round 2, unfortunately, was the sheer awfulness of the songs the two Davids selected from the top 10 vote getters in the American Idol songwriting competition. (I listened to all 20 finalists back in April, and let me just diplomatically say that if Nigel Lythgoe wants a sappy ballad, he should shell out some dough and hire Grammy winner Diane Warren to do the dirty work.)

All kidding aside, though, I don’t understand why Simon was all over Rocker David’s case for his choice of ”Dream Big,” and how he determined Little David’s ”In This Moment” was the better song. That’d be like saying a fetid turkey sandwich (”I wiped my tears away/Now it’s time for a change/No, I can’t waste another day”) is far less appetizing than a fetid tuna sandwich (”Staring through windows at my own reflection/How can a window encompass perfection”). And if Simon meant to say that Rocker David messed up by choosing a midtempo rocker over a maudlin bucket of balladry, then perhaps the British judge isn’t as good as he thinks he is.

NEXT: Something old, something new

I didn’t think either David was particularly superstarry in round 2. Rocker David reached far and wide for that big finishing note on ”Dream Big” but fell just a tiny bit flat, despite Randy’s contention that he was ”singing his face off.” Meanwhile D’Archie’s vocal sounded uncomfortably tremulous throughout ”In This Moment,” and he looked genuinely horrified as he received his critiques from the judges. (Perhaps he was freaked out by the scary hand with gigantic fake nails that reached out of the Swaybot pit midway through his performance.) That said, I have to give Little David bonus points for the giant anchor on the back of his jacket; could it have been his sneaky metaphor for the way Idol weighs its winning contestants down with such dreary debut singles?

Side note: Randy managed to cram three of his favorite clichés — ”in the zone,” ”sing the phone book,” and ”another hot performance” — into his critique of ”In This Moment.” Um, dawg, how about ”you took the elevator to an undiscovered floor,” or ”you could sing the back of a cereal box,” or ”that was another scalding effort”? I mean, Mr. Jackson certainly makes enough money to invest in a thesaurus, if not a team of writers to help him freshen his stale lineup of five or six quips.

Thankfully, the evening didn’t end with round 2 but rather with the contestants’ choice, during which both Davids fared considerably better than they did in last week’s Chris Brown/Switchfoot debacles. Not so thankfully, however, Simon berated Rocker David for his brave (and delightful) decision to choose a brand new number for his last performance, instead of trotting out one of his ”greatest hits” from earlier in the season.

I mean, I took Cookie’s cover of ”The World I Know” as a very special gift to all of us who’ve made it a point to watch every single episode of Idol this year. We’ve already heard his takes on ”Billie Jean,” ”Hello,” and ”Always Be My Baby” — why look backward on the biggest night of his life, especially knowing that it’d be damn near impossible to re-create the magic of those original performances? Instead, David tackled a pretty terrific Collective Soul track that he’s been jonesing to do all season, opening with a gentle, acoustic vibe, gradually building momentum throughout the performance, and wrapping it up with a gentle falsetto note. To me, it was near perfection — including the evening’s snappiest fashion choice, a black shirt, a black pinstripe vest, and an audacious pink tie — except for the fact that I would’ve liked to hear the entire track, not just a two-minute snippet. (I could start a rant about how Nigel could’ve cut round 2 altogether and let the Davids sing two complete songs, but really, the complete and utter destruction of the Swaybot pit is too important an issue, and I will not be distracted from my primary cause.)

NEXT: Lack of imagination

Meanwhile, round 3 found Little David revisiting the most memorable moment of his Idol journey, his semifinal cover of John Lennon’s ”Imagine,” and while I won’t disagree with the judges’ glowing reviews, I’d be lying if I said the experience was as magical the second time around, maybe because the kid threw a few additional (and unnecessary) runs into the mix, taking a detour down Boys II Men Boulevard before correcting course and finding his way back to Lennon Lane. (Wouldn’t you have loved to see Little David sit down at the piano as a way to reboot and refresh his ”Imagine”?)

All right, all right, I’m just quibbling. I am certain that for fans of David Archuleta, ”Imagine” was like stumbling across manna in the desert. Just as for David Cook fans like myself, ”The World I Know” was like finding a lonely square of Lindt chocolate in the fridge in the wee small hours of the morning. (Ah, the fine line between nodding off at my desk and finding the will to keep clacking away at my keyboard.)

Either way (and I think we all know it’s gonna be a close one), this much is certain: After a long and winding season — one that focused on artists more than contestants; one that allowed the singers to play instruments for the very first time; one in which performances were judged before they happened; one in which truly talented folks sometimes got sent home in the wrong order — our collective journey will come to an end tomorrow night, and a guy named David will be crowned King of the Nokia. And whether or not you and I end up thinking it’s the ”right” David who takes home the enchilada, here’s hoping that come January ’09, we’ll all find ourselves another Brooke or Carly or Syesha or Michael or Kristy Lee or Jason or David (or even an Amanda or Danny) to capture our imaginations, and turn us from mild-mannered music lovers into speed-dialing, trash-talking members of the great Idol nation. You may say I’m a dreamer, but that’s the world I know, y’know?

Speaking of which: Brace yourselves, Idoloonies! Wednesday night, my mesmerizing colleagues Mandi Bierly and Kate Ward will be live-blogging the Idol telecast, while Shirley Halperin and Adam B. Vary file reports from the red carpet and backstage (including one-on-one interviews with the winner and runner-up). Plus, on Thursday, we’ll be ”in the zone” with ”molten hot” photo galleries, Chris Willman’s ”On the Scene” PopWatch report, and your regularly scheduled TV Watch column, written by yours truly. Then, on Friday, check back for the Idolatry season finale!

As for tonight’s broadcast, was it just me, or was the boxing theme all a bit much, especially Jim Lampley’s tired ”analysis”? Could you believe Ryan saw his ”This…is American Idol” duties stolen away by Michael ”Ready to Rumble” Buffer? Did anyone else find it odd during the show’s intro when Ryan noted the Idol title is ”reserved only for superstars,” then proceeded to show a picture of fourth-place finisher Chris Daughtry? Finally, who will (and should) capture the season 7 win?

Episode Recaps

American Idol

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.

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