'Idol' Finale: Did Crystal Out-Sing Lee?

Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FOX/PictureGroup(2)

The final performance night of American Idol‘s season 9 was a good one for Crystal Bowersox — perhaps being the underdog stirred her resolute Midwestern spirit — and a sad one for America. It was the last night with Simon Cowell adjudicating. I hope tomorrow’s finale concludes with Paula Abduland/or Sanjaya jumping out of a cake. FOX owes this man the moon. PEOPLE TV Critic Tom Gliatto breaks down the hour’s three rounds:

Round One: The singers reprise their favorite songs.

Lee DeWyze started with Simon and Garfunkel’s “Boxer,” and it was a more accomplished but also a much showier interpretation than his earlier performance. I still don’t see why he thinks this song should be sung as if it were an inspirational anthem. (If you want to hear it done truthfully, try Emmylou Harris’s cover.) Randy thought the performance was nice, but lacked energy. “I love that you were connected to it,” said Kara. But Simon more accurately noted: “That was a kiss on the cheek, when I want a kiss on the lips.”

Crystal’s “Me and Bobby McGee” didn’t feel much different — a perfectly good cover that brought nothing fresh to a famous song. But the judges definitely interpreted this first round in her favor. Randy thought it was “dope, dude.” Kara said: “You have fire in your belly tonight.”

Round Two: The singers perform a song picked by producer Simon Fuller.

Lee was assigned REM’s “Everybody Hurts,” that sweet, plangent radio staple, and it was very much in the same vein as last week’s “Hallelujah” — a gospel-backed piece of middle-of-the-road commercial pop rock. Ellen was disappointed that Lee kept surging toward a full-throttle performance, then retreating. But Kara credited him, correctly, for being “emotionally accessible” — for having an unfeigned ability to connect with an audience. Simon thought he hadn’t fully delivered on an exceptionally apt song choice, and advised him that his last song would have to be a killer: “I want a 10 out of 10.”

Crystal was assigned that tough old standard “Black Velvet.” She belted it out while moving uneasily down a flight of steps, and I’m not sure she ever really sang it in a way that made sense. It sounded like a woman frantically hunting for a swatch of fabric. But the judges gave her this round, too. “Mama Sox is in it to win it,” said Randy, and Ellen gave her a standing ovation. “I’m almost ALLERGIC to that song,” said Simon, but nonetheless he said she “absolutely nailed it.”

Round Three: The singers perform the song they’ll release as their (winning) single.

The producers obviously, and wisely, gave up on having the singers take turns singing some bombastic new ballad — remember “This Is My Now”? Most likely you don’t.

Lee sang U2’s “Beautiful Day.” He seemed to understand that if he emphasized the song’s blunt melodic repetitiveness, it would build and build in force and finally pay off. A smart gamble, even if it didn’t produce that 10 and out of 10 Simon demanded. Kara acknowledged him as the singer who’d grown the most and had the most commercial potential. Simon, as well, allowed himself a moment of grand self-reflection to deliver a similar verdict: “This is my final time I’m ever going to judge this show … and this is what this competition is designed for” — a nice, talented guy hoping for a magical break at stardom. “I genuinely wish the best for you.”

Crystal sang Patty Griffin‘s “Up to the Mountain,” and it was full of spiritual grit and peace and sung with deep feeling. “That was incredible — incredible,” said Randy at the end of a string of glowing adjectives. “You really blossomed,” said Kara, “just with that song.” Then, after Crystal graciously saluted Simon for his advice throughout the season, he in turn praised her: “By far, the best performance and the song of the night.”

In fact, Crystal did so well, and reigned over the stage with such natural calm, I started to wonder whether I’d been wrong to think Lee had such a competitive edge. In the end, though, his three-song set, despite its flaws, showed an understanding of how to make a contemporary pop song work — memorably or not. (How many Idol songs have ever been memorable?)

I still have no idea why Crystal ever tried out, unless she entered under the impression that Joan Baez was going to be a judge.

Tell us: Who do you think was better round-for-round? Should Crystal or Lee be named the winner of American Idol?

Don’t forget to join PEOPLE’s American Idol Finale Live blog during Wednesday’s big show!

Michael Becker/FOX/PictureGroup; Ray Mickshaw/FOX

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