May 21, 2008By Joe Diliberto Posted: May 21, 2008
Our long national nightmare is almost over; it's time for the finale of AMERICAN IDOL. Okay, so it's my nightmare. I have been looking forward to this denouement for the entire month I've been watching.
The evening kicked off with an über-macho boxing theme: "Big David vs. Little David," complete with boxing gloves and robes. Right from the start, the dichotomy between the contestants is obvious. David Cook has stage presence; he acts like he's been in front of an audience before. David Archuleta looks like one of those puppies you see in PETA films that's terrified of being beaten again; clearly he is unafraid to milk the audience for sympathy votes. He later dons a jacket with an anchor embroidered on it, making him look 10 years old instead of the usual 12.
The evening's first songs are chosen by Clive Davis, chief creative officer of Sony BMG Worldwide. Not so coincidentally, he will be the Davids' new boss, since the IDOL winner and runner-up must sign with his label. He assigns Cook U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," while Archuleta gets Elton John's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." I personally don't care for the way Cook elongates some lyrics, but he plays to the crowd wonderfully, wading into the adoring throng and putting on a show. Unfortunately, I don't sense any yearning in his voice, no pain of unrequited desire. It all sounded a little rote. Still, Simon called him "phenomenal." Archuleta is much more low-key, and aims his singing directly at the home viewers, virtually ignoring the live audience — in other words, his usual schtick. Sounds very karaoke to me, as always. When the judges sound off, Archie looks like he's about to burst into tears — even though they are complimenting him.
The advantage of using unknown tunes from the songwriters competition is that we (the audience) don't know what the songs are supposed to sound like, so the singers can get away with anything. This makes song choice even more important that usual. Cook's song suits his voice very well, and he actually manages to carry off the last big note of the song for the first time since I've been watching him. The song is pretty good, too. Sadly, Simon doesn't agree. (I wonder whose fan club he's planning to join?) Archuleta's song also works with his voice, but the tune is so pedestrian it would easily melt into the blah Michael Bolton-style white noise of any adult-contemporary radio station. In other words, it's completely horrible. Inexplicably, the judges are rapturous, falling all over themselves to declare Archie the Second Coming. Simon awards this round (as well as the first) to Archuleta. After two rounds, I see no change in the contestants' demeanor: Cook is loose and having fun; Archuleta is frightened. (Perhaps this is an argument in favor of raising the minimum age.)
Wondering what the other channels came up with to try to lure viewers away from the AI juggernaut? ABC offers the season finale of DANCING WITH THE STARS; CBS has the season finale of NCIS; and NBC is airing something called TV'S MOST OUTRAGEOUS MOMENTS — in other words, the Peacock has ceded the hour. DANCING actually makes IDOL seem interesting to me, so I stay on Fox. (BTW, if Kristi Yamaguchi, who won an Olympic gold medal for essentially dancing on ice, does not win, the fix is in!)
I flip back just in time for the contestant's choice round. Cook selects "The World I Know" by Collective Soul — which he notes he has never performed before. (Is this a good time to experiment?) Archuleta chooses to reprise John Lennon's "Imagine." Cook's performance is...nice. Bland and lackadaisical, but...nice. I think it was a mistake to go with something so low-key for his last impression, but Cook claims he wanted to do something different, and there is value to that. Simon feels the same way I do: not the best song for the finale. How ironic that Randy's "song selection, song selection, song selection" mantra may contribute to Cook's goose getting cooked. (Hey, I think I showed remarkable restraint by not using that line before now!) But, hark! There's hope! When Archuleta starts singing, I think he's forgotten the words and started making stuff up — but no. He's not ad-libbing lyrics, he's ad-libbing the melody. Now I remember: We saw him butcher this song in the "journey home" video. Once again, he has rendered a very familiar song almost unrecognizable. He made the classic his own, but not in a good way. Not that it matters: The judges gush like Archie's sad eyes and small-scale voice have just cured cancer, solved the Iraq quagmire and fixed the economy. Maybe something else is fixed? A colleague of mine was dialing furiously to support Cook, so we shall see.
For me, the winner clearly should be Cook. He is a much more rounded, professional performer. He's much better at connecting with the audience and putting on a show. Archuleta is clearly too young for this. His voice is stronger than Cook's, but Archie has no presence. He needs a lot of time to polish his stagecraft. If someone is buying a concert ticket, they want to see someone who is able to at least pretend he wants to be there. It's a stage, not the gallows. But, hey, the "kick-me" act has so far motivated multitudes of little girls to dial in, so more power to him. Simon, Randy and Paula have done all they could to deliver the crown to "Little David" on a silver platter. Was it enough?
This just in: Kristi did win DANCING WITH THE STARS. Hooray for her!
My sad prediction for tonight: David will win. Archuleta, that is. I hope I'm wrong, but we'll find out tonight, just in time for the next Night Shift...