The judges work overtime to convince us we've witnessed a ''Moment,'' and push hard for a Lee vs. Crystal showdown

By Michael Slezak
Updated May 19, 2010 at 04:00 PM EDT

Like a pizza without cheese or a Beyoncé concert without costume changes, an American Idol season without ”Moments” (upper-case ones, naturally) is just an impostor, a 43-episode litany of unfulfilled promises, unexplored risks, and underutilized water coolers. And so, as we get dangerously close to the end of the show’s sleepy ninth season, I guess we can’t really blame its producers for going to almost comical lengths to make our souls stir and our tear ducts activate and our hearts beat double-time, faintly thump-thumping the words ”de-WYZE, de-WYZE, de-WYZE…”

Yes, folks, tonight we were treated to a Very Special Episode in which the combined medical staffs of Grey’s Anatomy and House teamed up to cure cancer, the castaways of Lost walked meaningfully across a scenic beach, and David Caruso’s Lt. Horatio Caine took off his shades. And then put them back on again. Plus, Julia Roberts stood in front of a boy, asking him to love her.

And what song was playing over this deeply moving montage? Why it was Lee DeWyze, backed by strings and horns and an eight-person Gospel choir, bringing us Leonard Cohen’s ”Hallelujah,” the musical GPS perpetually set to the corner of Emotional Release Ave. and ”Feel Something Already!” Blvd.

Heck, I’m surprised Ken Warwick didn’t think to plunk Paula Abdul in the front row and pay her a full season’s salary to seal-clap and shed pure, glistening tears of joy. ”It was you, Lee! It was always you! All this time, I’d been waiting for a Moment, and you were right there, delivering your authentic truth right in front of me!”

The shame of this 20-car pileup of hype, of course, is that Idol‘s overwhelming desire for a Moment tonight essentially doomed it from ever happening in the first place. I mean, subtlety has never really been the show’s strong suit, but its greatest hits — Fantasia’s ”Summertime,” Kelly’s ”Stuff Like That There,” Bo’s ”In a Dream,” to name a few — have always been performances that caught us unaware, that jolted our seats upright and out tray-tables back without any signal from the Captain that something noteworthy was about to go down. Simon’s banty-rooster intro — ”We’ve heard this song before, but I don’t think we’re ever gonna hear it like Lee’s gonna do” — promised us calla lilies; Lee’s eventual delivery of high-quality carnations could only be a let-down by comparison.

But as much as I want to bristle against the great big Idol Manipulation Machine, it’s impossible for me to deny that Lee was, without question, the star of the evening, and that the only satisfying(ish) conclusion to this long and inauspicious Idol season would be a Lee DeWyze/Crystal Bowersox finale. Hey, just because Simon’s got a smug grin on his face doesn’t mean I’m rooting for it to get wiped into a mask of stunned horror on Wednesday. Not if it means advancing the underwhelming Casey James into the finale.

NEXT: Reading a little too much into the night’s proceedings

And anyhow, at this point in the season, I’ve reached that stage where everything’s become an ink-blot test of murky, indistinct motivations. Were the judges genuinely giving Lee the accolades they felt he deserved? Were they trying to level the playing field between Lee and Crystal to ensure the most thrilling possible finale next week? Or were the judges possibly trying to catapult Lee to the role of front-runner, the better to allow their true pet, Crystal Bowersox, to attain the desirable ”outsider” status that certainly didn’t hurt Kris Allen or David Cook? Or was the Lee pimpage merely a means of ensuring against any last-minute surge by Casey, the only person on the planet who still had the ability to thwart the long-expected Lee-Crystal faceoff? Or am I spending too much time trying to look for deeper meaning in the uninspired words of Randy Jackson? Maybe I should choose ”E) All of the above”?

Or maybe I just need to set aside the judges’ opinions for a minute and rate the performances on their own merits. Yes, this! So let’s get to it, in descending order from ”blew it out the box” to ”it was just ai’ight for me, dude.”

Lee DeWyze, ”Simple Man”: If ”Hallelujah” was the slightly overcooked, herb-encrusted lamb shank in port-wine reduction with turnip puree and a chanterelle foam, then Lee’s Lynyrd Skynyrd cover was a simple steak, grilled to near perfection, and served on a plain ceramic plate. (Great…it’s the wee small hours of the morning, and I’m suddenly craving protein.)

Seriously, though, while it wasn’t hyped as such, I thought this was the night’s most potent performance — heartfelt, in tune, and absolutely current — and proved that Lee can hold a note for more than three seconds. Perhaps most interesting, though, was the fact that ”Simple Man” was the only selection from the ”Contestant’s Choice” round that played to a contestant’s strengths. I wish one of the judges had pointed out that Lee lazily wore what looked to be the exact same collarless gray leather jacket that he rocked during ”Treat Her Like a Lady” back in Top 10 Week — remember the good old days, when Kris Allen wore that fuzzy gray sweater or that olive-colored military shirt with the numbers on the shoulders? no? — but at least the guy knows what sounds good on him. Now if he could just managed to pull together a coherent thought during an interview segment. ”Um, well, I like the song so I like to play it and it’s like fun for me to play and sing it because I like it so much and also connect…” I loved how not even Lee’s rabid fans in the audience cared to hear his long-winded explanation for picking ”Simple Man,” screeching ”I LOVE YOU LEE!” when he was only halfway through ”articulating” his thought. Somewhere a poster is being scribbled in strawberry-scented marker: Lee DeWyzzzzzzzz.

NEXT: Maybe I’m amazed that Crystal worked that song so well

Crystal Bowersox, ”Maybe I’m Amazed”: Like Simon, I activated my most disapproving side-eye when I first heard Ellen DeGeneres had chosen Paul McCartney’s not-exactly-greatest hit for MamaSox’s ”Judge’s Choice” round. But thankfully, the panelist who doesn’t even bother to critique the contestants anymore took her song-selection duties a little more seriously, pairing MamaSox with a midtempo ditty that stretched her upper register and (despite a couple wonky notes) let her rip into the vocal line with the fervor of a coffee-house patron opening 10 packets of Splenda simultaneously.

I liked that Crystal put down her guitar, worked the stage, and stepped it up in the fashion department with a kicky black minidress and thigh-high boots. I liked that she didn’t awkwardly gender-flip the lyrics to appease the three percent of the viewing audience who might be offended by hearing her sing the lines ”Maybe I’m a man, maybe you’re the only woman who could ever help me.” I liked that we saw the reemergence of the soulful, bluesy MamaSox that I first fell for when she covered Aretha Franklin back in Hollywood Week. That nice lady belongs in the finale, yo!

Lee DeWyze, ”Hallelujah”: Okay, so I’ve already established I thought this performance got a wee bit over-hyped in JudgeLand, and here’s why: For starters, those mariachi horns sounded like they should’ve been emanating from a grainy TV set in the background of a ’70s crime movie. Which is to say that Tim Urban’s stripped-down semifinal arrangement of ”Hallelujah” was probably the more radio-friendly of the two. Secondly, this is a song that benefits from a gentle touch, which is not the effect you get when a Chicago paint salesman is struggling to be heard over the top of an eight-member choir. And really, if this performance proved that Lee is ”a fantastic singer and a great person” (Simon’s words) then Jason Castro’s heartbreaking season 7 cover must make him a God in Mr. Cowell’s eyes. (Seriously, Simon, bow down.)

Anyway, all of this sounds more negative, really, than I actually want to be. But it’s hard not to embrace the role of the syrup of ipecac to counteract Kara’s toxic combination of ”you are what this show is all about” and ”the heart of the show this season” and ”incredible epic moment.” Lee wasn’t kidding when he said ”Hallelujah” is the kind of song that ”pulls everything out of you,” because Ms. DioGuardi was spilling crap all over the stage in the wake of that performance. Uh-huh, I said it!

Casey James, ”Daughters”: The bad news for Casey: Simon was right that this low-key jam climaxes with a guitar solo, which isn’t exactly the best way to advance to the final two of a nationally televised singing contest. The good news for Casey: He’s a better guitarist than he is a singer. Either way, the shaggy-haired singer held up admirably on the Judges’ Choice round, especially considering Randy introduced the performance by noting it would be a good direction for Casey ”even as he leaves the show.” Interesting word choice, Dawg! Of course, then we had Kara ”encouraging” Mr. James by insisting he perform for his audience of ”women and girls,” because apparently he’s competing on The Double-X-Chromosome Factor and not American Idol. Way to help winnow down Casey’s audience for him, Kara! Wait, did you say Casey got to show his ”vulnerable” side? Sorry, I missed it the first 700 times you used that adjective in conjunction with the guy whose abs you ogled back in the audition rounds.

To give Casey his due, though — and probably for the last time — ”Daughters” seemed like a comfortable fit, allowing him to settle into a mellow, sexy groove, even if his slowed-down arrangement played up the goat-bleat in his voice. In other non-negative news, Casey’s purple, vertical-striped shirt was one of the few successful fashion choices made by a male contestant all season — and in the season 9 sea of black/gray/navy, that’s worth applauding.

NEXT: Remember to preheat your oven if you’re going to make warmed-over Melissa Etheridge

Crystal Bowersox, ”Come to My Window” You’d think a musician of Crystal’s caliber would have viewed Top 3 week (and especially Contestant’s Choice) as an opportunity to take a huge risk, to dazzle the audience by selecting an obscure or unexpected track — think Adam Lambert’s ”Mad World” or Kris Allen’s ”Heartless” — but instead she reached into the fridge, pulled out a Tupperware dish from her past, and served us reheated Melissa Etheridge. The vocal was sloppy — particularly the out-of-tune riffs at the end — and verged on unpleasant on more than one occasion, and the outfit looked like something one would wear to plant potatoes out in the vegetable garden.

Simon blathered on that Crystal has made it through 13 weeks of live performances without compromising herself as an artist, but I’m more interested to know if she’s grown as an artist, if she’s challenged herself to raise her game and look for new and different ways to entertain her audience. I’ve been a MamaSox fan all season long, but if she can’t answer that query with a resounding ”yes” next Tuesday, I might abstain from my right to vote — or perhaps even change allegiances.

Casey James, ”Ok, It’s Alright With Me” Honestly, dude should’ve chosen Kris Allen’s delectably boppy ”Alright With Me” from his jaunty Ford ads instead of the bland slice of album-filler blues-rock from Eric Hutchinson. As Kara pointed out, it’s tricky to choose a track that most of the audience doesn’t know, because it’s harder to establish that you’re putting your own stamp on it. In this case, though, it doesn’t really matter. Putting a stamp on a bowl of cold oatmeal doesn’t mean you’re not still staring down at something you’ve got zero interest in ingesting. Casey, though, is ”just glad to be here.” Enjoy it while it lasts, dude — in a few hours, I predict your ”journey” will come to an end.

And now, tonight’s scorecard:

Lee DeWyze, ”Simple Man”: A-

Crystal Bowersox, ”Maybe I’m Amazed”: B+

Lee DeWyze, ”Hallelujah”: B

Casey James, ”Daughters”: B-

Crystal Bowersox, ”Come to My Window”: C+

Casey James, ”OK, It’s Alright With Me”: C-

What did you think of tonight’s performances? Were you disappointed with the song choices? Was Lee as good as the judges said, or was he overrated? And who do you think will and should go home on Wednesday? (I’d vote Casey and Casey.)

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