All season long, it’s seemed like American Idol was pulling for Lee DeWyze to win — then producers permitted the 24-year-old former paint salesman to sing U2’s “Beautiful Day” on the final competition episode. It’s a song Bono — one of the greatest rock frontmen ever — has performed with tear-jerking, inspiring flair at the post-9/11 Super Bowl and Live 8. It’s one of the most passionate songs in the band’s catalog. And it was a misstep that may have cost DeWyze the victory, especially since Crystal Bowersox stepped up and nailed her pick, Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain.”
DeWyze and Bowersox each performed three songs last night: a track they’d previously sung during the season, a song selected by the show’s executive producer Simon Fuller, and the single they’d release upon winning the competition. This is the first year Idol has dispensed with the “coronation song” — traditionally a schmaltzy ballad that seeks to capture the majesty of the Idol victory — that becomes the winner’s first single. Last year’s official song, “No Boundaries,” was co-written by judge Kara DioGuardi and widely panned. Skeptics also theorized that the tune was better suited to Kris Allen’s vocals than Adam Lambert’s, helping Allen seize the win in one of the most controversial finishes in the show’s history.
There will likely be less pomp and drama after the winner is declared tomorrow night: both Bowersox and DeWyze are low-key singer-songwriter types who seem uncomfortable with the idea of glitz. But Idol still needs to amp up the tension: the judges usually couch the final sing-off in terms of a fight, going so far as to dress up David Archuleta and David Cook as boxers the night they faced off for the Season Seven crown. Typically, the judges also declare a victor for each round — a tradition they curiously skipped this year, though their comments seemed to indicate Bowersox was pulling ahead.
In the first face-off, DeWyze reprised Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” from the Inspirational Songs week, and his gentle, somewhat sleepy take had DioGuardi urging him to “punch harder.” Simon Cowell complained, “I would expect a lot more passion, excitement — that was a kiss on the cheek when I want a kiss on the lips.” He quickly added, “Not from you.” Bowersox brought back “Me and Bobby McGee” (made famous by Janis Joplin) from Number Ones week and emerged with her scuffed up acoustic guitar and personalized mike stand. The result was far more authentic, and the judges gushed. Ellen DeGeneres proclaimed, “You are so compelling onstage, you and that guitar filling up this entire room and drawing us in like this — stunning”
Fuller picked R.E.M.’s ballad “Everybody Hurts” for DeWyze’s second performance, and DeWyze once again tried his gospel choir trick, which served him well during last week’s “Hallelujah.” The judges’ response: Lee was off-key, but passionate enough to nearly pull it off. Bowersox hit a few overblown notes of her own on Alannah Myles’ “Black Velvet,” but the judges were still blown away.
Then came Lee’s unfortunate Bono moment. “Beautiful Day” is a track that’s filled stadiums with rock & roll ecstasy, but there was barely a flicker of emotion on DeWyze’s face and he flattened all of the frontman’s epic notes. DioGuardi contributed the most accurate critique, noting he was “swallowed up a bit in that song.” Cowell took the opportunity to pitch DeWyze’s story to the audience one last time: “This is what this competition is designed for, somebody with a normal job who needs a break. You’ve worked hard, you’ve remained a genuinely nice person throughout.” Bowersox took advantage of DeWyze’s final stumble by stripping away the backup and staying very true to her singer-songwriter persona with the Griffin tune. Randy Jackson countered Cowell’s praise for DeWyze with his own take on Bowersox’s journey: “This is what this show is about, an amazing song by an amazing singer — this is one of your greatest performances at the perfect time.” Cowell wrapped up with a final word of his own, adding, “Since this is the last critique I’m ever going to give, I’d just like to say that was outstanding.”
Tomorrow night’s show will be Cowell’s last ever on Idol before he moves on to his newest reality-talent program, the American version of U.K. hit The X Factor. Whoever takes his place — Howard Stern, U2 producer Steve Lillywhite and Perez Hilton have been rumored replacements — will be tasked with reenergizing the enterprise, which flagged this year after the departure of Paula Abdul, who will return to the airwaves this fall with U.K. import Got to Dance .