It looked like a close race going into the finale, but without breaking a serious sweat, the dreadlocked mother from Ohio rolls over the affable paint salesman from Chicago

By Michael Slezak
Updated May 26, 2010 at 04:00 PM EDT
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American Idol, Crystal Bowersox, ... | TWO FOR THE SHOW Ryan introduced Lee and Crystal to a significantly bigger crowd this week — some 7,000 strong at L.A.'s Nokia Theatre
Credit: Michael Becker/Fox

The breakup occurred around 8:50 p.m. ET, in front of a national television audience. Lee DeWyze stood shellshocked, staring down at the ”Dear John” letter he’d just received from the American Idol judges. ”You’re a super-nice guy, really, and you’ve shown so much growth. But at the end of the day, we needed a little more passion. You’ve got to believe it when we say that it’s not you, it’s us.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the stage, the judges were already trying to reconcile with their old flame, Crystal Bowersox, whispering sweetly into her ear. ”We know we’ve been fickle, baby. But all that flirting with Lee over the last few weeks? It didn’t mean anything. It was always you, MamaSox. It was always you.”

Okay, so maybe it’s a stretch to say the four folks on the Idol panel ever truly had feelings for anyone but themselves/the sound of their own voices. (Badum-bum!) But seriously, it all played out like a bad romance up there on the Idol stage tonight. I mean, earlier this week, Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson each made national talk-show appearances where they predicted Lee’s win; six performances later, they were pulling out ”I genuinely wish the best for you” consolation critiques that sounded like lyrics to a bittersweet Whitney Houston breakup ballad.

Ultimately, the old switcheroo can be viewed one of two ways: The judges made a major fuss over Lee the last few weeks in order to set up Crystal as an appealing underdog who could stage a ”comeback kid” rally at the finale and win the whole shebang. Or the judges really thought momentum was on Lee’s side, but reluctantly called the night as Crystal’s after she clearly and forcefully outperformed him in the first and third rounds of tonight’s three-part battle.

The larger question that’s looming over the Idoloonie nation, however, is whether Crystal’s triumph in the Tuesday-night performance finale will be enough to win the season 9 war. As I said in the latest episode of Idolatry (embedded at the end of this recap), it doesn’t matter that much whether it’s Crystal or Lee getting that confetti shower at the Nokia on Wednesday. Because unlike some of their Idol predecessors, these two cats seem to have developed the kind of fan bases that will buy their post-Idol debuts based on the quality of the music, not on the basis of a ”winner” or ”runner-up” title.

But since we’ve collectively sat through 42 episodes of Randy’s booing and Ellen’s stammering and Paige Miles’ warbling — and since we’ll sit through another two-hour marathon tomorrow — I’m not going to pretend that in terms of Idol the TV Show, we can call it a draw and let Crystal and Lee share joint custody of Kris Allen’s sash and tiara. Nope, based on tonight’s finale — and based on a head-to-head comparison of performances from the prior 13 weeks of competition — the American Idol title is wrapped up in brown paper and decorated with a variety bird feathers. And Crystal Bowersox is the one who should be opening it Wednesday night.

NEXT: Crystal sets a high-water mark for the season

Whether you agree with me or whether you want to shove a copy of Taylor Hicks’ latest album down my throat to silence my blasphemy, let’s latch on to that ”Dear John” format I introduced above and look at how tonight’s telecast played out.

Dear Crystal, Hope that closing number was as good for you as it was for us… Look, if Crystal is declared the season 9 champ, I honestly can’t predict whether or not she’ll get any radio play for her studio rendition of Patty Griffin’s ”Up to the Mountain.” I mean, I don’t really understand radio anyway, seeing as how that Ke$ha entity is currently experiencing her second top 10 hit on Billboard’s Hot 100, while Allison Iraheta’s devastatingly good ”Don’t Waste the Pretty” presses its nose against the glass and awaits some kind of recognition from Clear Channel and its ilk. But as Ellen noted, there isn’t a contemporary artist right now who’s similar to Crystal, and maybe that’s a good thing. Do we need a carbon copy of a carbon copy of Gaga or Bieber or Jason Derulo? (And wouldn’t that just end up being that Perez Hilton protégé from last week’s results show?) Setting aside the vagaries of what makes a hit, Crystal’s ”Up to the Mountain” was absolutely gorgeous — a high water mark in a season that’s been depressingly short on ”moments.”

Armed with just an acoustic guitar, Crystal (in a gorgeous necklace) kept the arrangement sparse, with a chorus hovering quietly in the background, and it showcased the complex emotions in her vocal to devastating effect. That massive note she hit on the final repetition of ”It’s there I will go-oh-ohhhhh” was as big and impressive as anything we’ve heard on the Idol stage this season, and yet it wasn’t showboat-y or unnecessary. All the joy/nervousness/exhaustion/whatever of the Idol experience was bubbling up throught Crystal’s performance, to the point where her voice threatened to break under the weight of the emotion. But with a shake of her dreads and the strum of her guitar, she shook it off, and finished like the pro that she is.

I was a little scared when Crystal pressed pause on Simon’s critique to interject her own comment — cut to me, on my couch, holding my breath — but her good wishes send-off to the departing British judge turned out to be both sweet and self-effacing. ”Like that matters coming from me,” she acknowledged sheepishly, before making a corny ”I’m beside myself, beside Ryan Seacrest” joke that prompted another zinger: ”Comedy tour starts next summer.”

Not so funny, however, was the way some cameraperson nauseatingly encouraged a Swaybot to create a finger-heart gesture that framed not one but two shots of Crystal during her performance. WAY TO SULLY A COMPLETELY AUTHENTIC MOMENT WITH A GHASTLY AND UNNECCESSARY CONTRIVANCE! Whew. Okay. I feel better now.

Oh, and for those of you who keep score of these things, Simon’s final Idol critique ended thusly: ”That was outstanding.”

NEXT: Lee’s less-than-beautiful day

Dear Bono, First you experience a serious back problem that’s put your summer tour on hold, and now you have to witness ”Beautiful Day” getting asphyxiated in a toilet bowl? Harsh!

Okay, beLEEvers, let’s call a truce, ’cause I like Mr. DeWyze very much myself, and I think he’s a helluva lot better than he showed during the potential ”Idol Singles” round tonight. But at the end of the day, there’s no grading on a curve, or factoring in what Lee might’ve sounded like had he not picked a seriously inopportune time to regress back to playing the role of the nervous-to-the-point-of-nausea guy who struggled with ”Lips of an Angel” back in the semifinals.

Maybe it was the fact that Lee set down his guitar/security blanket. Maybe, like Kara and Her My Pretty Pony Mane suggested, he just got swallowed up by the massive V-formation of strings players who flanked him like a gaggle of noisy geese. Or maybe Lee hadn’t quite gotten all the lyrics solidified in his memory (the heart, not a rose, is supposed to be abloom on the track’s opening line). Whatever the excuse, this was the most tentative vocal Lee gave all season. At times, his voice seemed to drop right out of the mix; at others, he seemed to be mumbling his way through phrases, hoping he’d stumble on the right word or emotion; and then there were what Randy called ”interesting” parts of the vocal, which is finale-speak for ”wildly out of tune.” Ellen declared that Lee was fully present and connecting with the audience, but what I saw in his eyes was pure, unadulterated terror. You can’t blame the guy for melting down in front of 7,000 fans and a TV audience of 20 million, but I’m not sure if you can vote him your Idol on those grounds, either.

By the bye, my colleague Adam B. Vary informs me that the contestants revealed in a post-show press conference that they chose their own songs for round 3, so if, as some EW.com readers have suggested, Lee was ”sabotaged” with the U2 track, he did it to himself. What’s more, I bet if he’d performed up to par, ”Beautiful Day” could’ve been a ”moment” for him; I know I’m eager to hear the iTunes version after I sleep off the exhaustion of this recap.

Dear Simon Fuller, Didn’t you learn anything from that Nikki McKibbin performance in Season 1? Look, I’m not going to lie to you and say my iPod doesn’t contain Alannah Myles’ ”Black Velvet” (or her followup ”hit” ”Love Is”). But what in 1990 nostalgia hell was Idol‘s creator thinking when he saddled MamaSox with this dated clunker? Still, the wonky track was the least of my issues; Crystal (sans guitar/security blanket) experienced pitch problems on the bridge, and then again when she tried to power through the vocals and add some whiskey-soaked grit to the final chorus. When Simon declared she ”absolutely nailed it,” I was bracing myself for a classic Cowell fake-out where he’d pause, then add ”nailed it to the cross, that is!” I dunno, I mean, it wasn’t a terrible performance, but it wasn’t anywhere near Crystal’s best, either. And I thought the blues guitar and the overall arrangement sounded more cacophonous than cool.

NEXT: Michael Stipe vs. Celine Dion

Also, on a shallow note, what sadist in wardrobe trussed Crystal up in black satin and sequins, like an uncomfortable teenager forced to be her out-of-town cousin’s prom date for the evening? I was seriously worried Crystal might tumble down the Idol staircase as she kicked off her performance tonight, a fact that may have prompted Kara’s comment that at this stage of the competition it’s important for a contestant to ”kill yourself on the stage.” [Hey now, no contestants should be harmed in the making of this production. Not even Jermaine Sellers.]

Dear Gospel chorus, Weren’t you supposed to get this week off? I know Lee’s ”Hallelujah” — and its horns and its strings and its full choral support system — were a big hit last week, but honestly, was there really a need to break out the backup-singer army on ”Everybody Hurts” tonight? I was actually rather enjoying Lee’s rendition of R.E.M.’s heartbreaker of a ballad until I got distracted by the sight of a random woman walking across the back of the stage. And then I realized she had company — a whole lot of it — and they were all there to life Lee’s voice heavenward, or something. (I assume this is why they all raised their arms in unison at the end, right?)

In my mind, this performance (intermittent pitch problems notwithstanding) would’ve worked better with just a single, humble paint salesman and an acoustic guitar. And I kind of wish it had been his closing number, instead of the less successful ”Beautiful Day.” Simon was right that Lee ”went a little bit off melody in parts” (interesting word choice), but ultimately, if you’re channeling Michael Stipe and all his angst, I’m okay if you’re not Celine Dion and all her pitch perfection, if that makes any sense. Yeah, it probably doesn’t. So I’ll move on to the next thought.

Dear MamaSox’s Mama, I know we haven’t heard much about you this season, but thanks for leaving your guitar where Crystal could find it back when she was a 10-year-old kid snooping for Christmas presents. I’m not a big fan of the ”contestant redux” round — one of the myriad reasons I love David Cook is because he chose to perform a new track (”The World I Know”) for the Idol performance finale rather than follow Simon’s dream of him repeating ”Hello” or ”Billie Jean” — but Crystal’s ”Me and Bobby McGee” was, if not completely equal to her performance from Top 11 week, then pretty darn close to it. Somehow, when she’s standing there on the stage with her guitar and belting the Janis Joplin classic, the gritty details of this road show come to strikingly vivid life, as if she’s lived every word of the Kris Kristofferson lyric herself.

NEXT: Lee puts himself at risk for heat stroke

Then again, if you’re Randy Jackson, maybe it ”started a little slow.” Um, what did he want Crystal to do? Speed up the tempo? Get into full holleration mode from the first note to the last? Twirl her Stevie Nicks-style peasant dress with Tasmanian-devil abandon? Dawg, maybe with Simon leaving the show, and you not having anyone to ”booo! booo!” during the judges’ intro, you should vacate the Idol panel, too? Mariah is probably gonna need you back in the studio soon anyhow.

Dear Simon Cowell, Most of us are sophisticated enough to understand the difference between you trotting out a new metaphor versus you trying to have a tongue-wrestling match with a male contesant. I mean, come on. It’s 2010. We know what you meant when you critiqued Lee’s redux of ”The Boxer” by declaring ”That was a kiss on the cheek when I wanted a kiss on the lips.” No need to add a ”not from you!” just on the off chance that some member(s) of the audience think you ever entertained a single homosexual /homosexual-esque urge in your life in the all time of ever.

But, yes, as Randy said, Lee’s rendition ”sounded nice,” but perhaps lacked some of the emotional heft of his Inspirational Songs Week version. I know this because at one point in the performance, I zoned out and fixated on the multiple layers of Lee’s outfit — gray plaid sportscoat, white t-shirt under a gray Henley — and wondered if he was running the risk of overheating underneath the spotlight. Someone tell me it wasn’t just me.

Anyway, before we get to my 13-week, head-to-head tale of the tape, let’s grade this evening’s six- — no, wait, seven- — song set.

Tonight’s ScorecardLee: ”The Boxer”: B

Crystal: ”Me and Bobby McGee”: A-

Lee: ”Everybody Hurts”: B-

Crystal: ”Black Velvet”: B-

Lee: ”Beautiful Day”: C-

Crystal: ”Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)”: A

Will Young: ”Leave Right Now”: Vocal, A-; Song, B-

And now, I’ve taken the trouble of going back through all my season 9 performance-night recaps and snagging the letter grade I gave Crystal and Lee on each of those occasions. Below, a head-to-head comparison, just to see which finalist ”won” the overall season in my book, and to refresh your own memories so you can do your own seasonal audit.

NET: The season at a glance

SEASONAL SCORECARD

Semifinals, Week 1: Crystal’s ”Hand in My Pocket,” A-; Lee’s ”Chasing Cars,” B

Semifinals, Week 2: Crystal’s ”Long as I Can See the Light,” A-; Lee’s ”Lips of an Angel,” B

Semifinals, Week 3: Crystal’s ”Give Me One Reason, A; Lee’s ”Fireflies,” B

Rolling Stones: Crystal’s ”You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” A; Lee’s ”Beast of Burden,” B+

Billboard No. 1s: Crystal’s ”Me and Bobby McGee,” A; Lee’s ”The Letter,” B-

R&B: Crystal’s ”Midnight Train to Georgia,” A-; Lee’s ”Treat Her Like a Lady,” A

Lennon-McCartney: Crystal’s ”Come Together,” B; Lee’s ”Hey Jude,” C+

Elvis Presley: Crystal’s ”Saved,” A-; Lee’s ”A Little Less Conversation,” A-

Inspirational Songs: Crystal’s ”People Get Ready,” A; Lee’s ”The Boxer,” B+

Shania Twain: Crystal’s ”No One Needs to Know,” B; Lee’s ”You’re Still the One,” B-

Frank Sinatra: Crystal’s ”Summer Wind,” B-; Lee’s ”That’s Life,” B+

Songs of the Cinema: Crystal’s ”I’m Alright,” B; Lee’s ”Kiss From a Rose,” C

Top 3 Week (contestant’s choice): Crystal’s ”Come to My Window” C+; Lee’s ”Simple Man,” A-

Top 3 Week (judge’s choice): Crystal’s ”Maybe I’m Amazed” B+; Lee’s ”Hallelujah,” B

Whew! That’s a whole lot of performances, and not too many stinkers in the bunch. But based on my season-long tally, and factoring in tonight’s scores, the count actually takes me by surprise. I suspected Crystal would have the edge over 14 weeks of live telecasts, but I didn’t think it’d be this much of a blowout: Crystal, 12; Lee, 3; with two ties (Elvis Week, and Simon Fuller’s Choice). Even if you overturn my scores last week by using the general consensus that Lee’s ”Hallelujah” was better than Crystal’s ”Maybe I’m Amazed,” that’s still 11-4. And that, I think, proves the point that while a Crystal-Lee finale was the correct capper to this much-maligned season, there’s only one correct choice to carry the title of American Idol. Whether or not that proves to be the case remains to be seen, but you can bet I’ll be heading up to the Idol mountain tomorrow, and praying for a beautiful day.

Episode Recaps

LIONEL RICHIE, KATY PERRY, RYAN SEACREST, LUKE BRYAN

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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