Ken Tucker
March 24, 2010 AT 01:29 PM EDT

For a show that prizes excessive emoting as a path to artistry, American Idol had a surprise last night: Crystal Bowersox took one of the most overrated songs in popular music, Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” and made it not just listenable again, but actually enjoyable and revelatory.

I’m not going to step on the toes of my colleague, the Idol Master Michael Slezak, in talking about the show itself — it’s this song and this performance that drew me in last night. Bowersox has been compared to Janis Joplin before, usually in the silly way that any woman who sings lustily but doesn’t come on like Madonna or name-your-favorite-female-Idol is compared to Joplin. One reason the Joplin myth endures is that no one has supplanted the earth-mama cliche in pop music history.

Joplin’s 1971 version of Kristofferson’s rambling story-song started out soft and built to one of her most sustained feats of caterwauling. In this, Joplin was more like an Idol contestant than Bowersox is. Indeed, whether consciously or unconsciously, it’s the memory we carry in our heads of Joplin belting out the title phrase with rip-roaring abandon that prompted the two negative criticisms of Bowersox last night, from Ellen DeGeneres (who wanted to see “more personality” from Bowersox) and Kara DioGuardi (who wanted Bowersox to, heaven help us, “let go completely”).

Letting go completely is one of the best ways to lose artistic control, a notion Joplin indulged repeatedly throughout her too-short career and life. Bowersox approached this composition for what it really is: a folk song that tells a story, not a blaring rock anthem or an R&B hip-shaker. She didn’t have undue respect for the song, but instead bent it to suit her style.

That she sang it better than its author — Kristofferson’s croaking voice is the only thing worse than his purple-prose lyrics — almost goes without saying. Indeed, Bowersox’s performance owes less to Kristofferson, who wrote it, or Joplin, who rode it to Number 1 on the pop charts, than it does to the man who first recorded the song, in 1969, Roger Miller.

Bowersox, as a 2010 budding star, knows a lot more about image than any of her predecessors — it’s the thing that young performers now, so media-savvy, know better than even the older stars more talented than her. Last night, she used her intelligence to do more than just give a fine contest performance. She breathed life into a song that had long been dead from its inflated reputation.

Agree? Disagree?

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