Adam B. Vary
May 26, 2010 AT 09:49 AM EDT

Image Credit: Michael Becker/PictureGroupSo let’s just call this thing: Crystal killed it, and Lee kinda choked. Having discussed last night’s American Idol finale performance night with’s preeminent Idoloonie Michael Slezak, I know that was also his assessment of the evening from the vantage point of his living room couch. From my seat inside the IdolDeathStar — a.k.a. the Nokia Theater LA Live — the difference between Crystal’s often effortless excellence and Lee’s unfocused striving was even more stark. I don’t think I’ve experienced an Idol finale, on TV or in person, this lopsidedly obvious since the days of Fantasia Barrino and That One Girl Who Does Broadway Now. Crystal owned that gargantuan room like it was a small bar in Toledo, Ohio and not packed with 7,000 screaming fans. Lee just barely borrowed it.

Before you scream “omigodyouaresooooobiased!!!!” at me in the comments, please know I truly have no dog in this hunt. Really, my job here is to report back to you what the experience was like at the show itself, so I’m honestly just telling you, as a reporter, that Crystal was simply better. Now, the Crystal and Lee t-shirts being sold outside the Nokia before the show were an entirely different matter. Lee’s shirt sported a respectably cool photo montage that included a pair of guitars crossed like swords. Crystal’s was…well, where to start? Let’s just say this: Instead of a photo of Crystal, the shirt featured an illustration of her that looked like a talented high school senior’s attempt to fulfill this assignment from her art teacher: What would happen if Crystal Bowersox looked like Stevie Nicks crossed with Debbie Gibson, circa 1987? (FYI: The answer apparently includes some very big hair.)

The courtyard outside the Nokia was also lousy with Idol alumni. Look, there’s season 8’s Scott MacIntyre doing some press! There’s his season mates Anoop Desai and Matt Giraud posing together for an iPhone photo! There’s season 6’s Chris Richardson chatting and hugging some fans! There’s season 4’s Constantine Maroulis politely waving off some fans! And there’s season 5’s Kevin Covais…talking to his friends who are all somehow smaller than he is! (For the record, the crowd appeared by far to be most excited about spotting Anoop, although that may have something to do with his jaunty bow tie with white and orange stripes.)

Inside the Nokia, I also caught season 6 runner-up Blake Lewis, and season 7’s Kristy Lee Cook and Brooke White making the rounds. At one point, Chicken Little Kevin, Country Fembot Kristy Lee, Justin Timberlight Chris, and Irving R. Levine Anoop all posed for a photo together, and then [SPOILER ALERT!] the Nokia was bathed in a warm bright light, and the foursome passed on together from Idol has-been purgatory into the great beyond. (Or not. But at least I got the Lost finale a shout out on, finally.) The only non-Idol celeb that I managed to spot was Two and a Half Men co-star Angus T. Jones. That was not meant as a joke.

Elsewhere in the Nokia, Crystal’s father walked over to greet and shake the hand of Lee’s parents, in what to my rather incredulous eye appeared to be the very first time they all had met. Then High School Student Aaron Kelly’s mom scurried over to say hi to Lee’s mom, just as Scotty Mac entered to a small wave of applause. It was about that time that I scanned the room for signage; while the raw numbers stacked up pretty evenly between Lee and Crystal signs (with small helping of Simon signs for flavor), the Lee fans won the creativity award in a landslide: “Lee makes my [heart] go weeeee!” “The Cougar Grandmas Love Lee!” “DeWyze  choice is Lee!” The only standout Crystal sign appeared to be this one: “This ‘Mama’ Drove 410 miles for Idol on Fox.”

With 15 minutes to air, Cory the Warm Up Comic took to the stage, modulating his opening act not a whit for the Nokia audience, which proved difficult when it came time for Cory to rally 7,000 people to participate in a “Raaaaandy! Jaaaaaaackson!” call and response. Given that it was Simon Cowell’s penultimate night as an Idol judge, it made sense that he received the largest audience response upon his arrival inside the IdolDeathStar; curiously, Ryan received an almost equally sized reception upon his introduction as well. For those keeping score at home, the Idol intro applause-o-meter would look like so:

(*Technically, it’s Your! Bottom! 10!, but Cory never purported to be an expert at math.)

As the show was just 90 seconds from going live, Cory settled everyone down and explained that after the opening credits, Ryan would introduce Crystal Bowersox and Lee DeWyze, and the Idol finalists would then walk down the stage left and right aisles, respectively. “So don’t try to grab them to sit you your seat,” joked Cory, causing me to jot in my notebook “STOP GIVING PEOPLE IDEAS, CORY!” My seat was near the Lee aisle, so I cannot tell you first-hand whether Crystal dropped her mic, or had it deliberately knocked out of her hand — I’m just saying Cory’s words were still ringing in my ears when I waited for what seemed like an eternity for Crystal to emerge from her aisle and take to the stage.

At the ad break, the judges somehow managed to make it from their desk all the way to the stage left exit without the aid of a hyperdrive — did I mention the Nokia is gargantuan? — but not before the audience seated in front of said exit had a collective conniption at the mere sight of all the Idol judges Ellen and Simon. Cory pointed out Brooke White to the audience even though her face screamed “Don’t notice me, don’t notice me.” Then Cory noticed Kevin Covais. “Check out my buddy, right here,” Cory said. “It’s my old buddy, America!” Finally, a lightbulb flashed, and Cory asked Kevin if people still called him “Chicken Little.” Not once did he use Kevin’s actual name.

We came back from the ad break, and Lee gave to my ear his least problematic performance of the night with “The Boxer.” Kara bobbed her head approvingly. The audience immediately launched into a standing ovation, as they would for every performance all night. When Simon complained that Lee’s performance was more of a kiss on the cheek instead of a kiss on the mouth, Ellen darted her gaze at the judge, and then slowly leaned forward, like a cat closing in on its prey — oh, if only she had pounced, it would have redeemed so much of her performance this season. Anyhoo, after Crystal tore through “Me and Bobby McGee,” the audience, which had been appreciably on Lee’s side from the get go, began to turn its attention anew to the Ohio mama.

For the first few minutes of the ad break, I listened pleasantly to Cory tantalizing the audience with the promise of free Idol merch, and tried mightily not to be concerned with the nine-year-old girl holding the sign “Lee & Me are Meant To Be!” Then with a minute to go, chaos. The bottom 10 all stood up and started waving at their families seated way the other side of the Nokia, though I’m not quite sure how they all saw each other without binoculars of some sort. At the same moment, the judges filed back into the theater, prompting a couple thousand people seated near them to erupt into a roiling sea of flailing arms and feral cheering. And Ryan moved up my aisle to position himself to introduce Lee’s performance of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts,” which caused the people seated around me to temporarily lose control of their limbic systems. The one man keeping his cool? Kevin Covais, who high fived Ryan as the Idol host walked back down the aisle after introducing Lee.

It was during Lee’s second performance segment that I noticed a few quirks about the Idol finale that set it apart from your average Idol show — other than its elephantine venue, I mean. For one, with umpteen songs to learn between last night and tonight’s finale and only a few days to learn them, the lyrics for both Lee and Crystal’s final two songs were up on the main prompter (you could briefly catch it, in fact, during the telecast), making the finale officially the most watched karaoke performance ever. For another, while the Wyoming-sized TV screens on either side of the stage carried a video feed of the performers performing, there was no video of the judges while they gave their comments. With nothing to focus on other than the back of the judges’ heads, the hoi polloi way back in the wayback got rather rowdy as the judges were speaking. Again, not to pick on Lee, but this seemed to be a problem especially after his performances, which could lead a person to conclude that the audience’s interest in said performances had waned rather drastically by the time they were over.

Perhaps they were concerned with Lee’s non-committal take on one of the most anguished songs in the pop music canon; perhaps they were rattled by the audience’s rude behavior; or perhaps Debbie the Stage Manager just told them their hyper-drive motivator was busted and they couldn’t fly in and out of the Nokia in time to make it back to the show. Whatever the reason, not only did the judges stick around during the entire ad break, but they all huddled together near to Ellen’s seat — yes, Simon actually wheeled his chair over to another person — and entered into the most concentrated and extended interaction I’ve ever seen these four people have all season.

Crystal took to the stage next with “Black Velvet,” and while her vocals certainly were mostly smokin’, I was surprised the judges chose not to comment on just how powerfully awkward Crystal’s body language was during the entire number. The high heels, the high school prom dress, the walking in high heels, the missing guitar, the walking in high heels down a staircase — on camera, it looked okay, but in person it all conspired to rob Crystal of the rocker chick vibe she was clearly going for. But at least Crystal was happy with it — she just about bounded off stage once we were in an ad break, as if those heels gave her no trouble at all.

After our first uneventful ad break, it was time for the third and final round, and the audience was clearly still hungry to give Lee a fighting chance to swing back and make a real case that he deserved to win. He’d barely started singing “Beautiful Day” when the entire theater was on its feet, clapping along more-or-less to the beat, willing him to knock it home. But, alas, then Lee hit the chorus, and instead of his voice soaring up and carrying us with him, he stubbornly stayed in that same dour low octave. Just like that, the audience began to stop clapping. Some people sat back down, while the rest simply stood there, pleasantly if placidly waiting for the song to end.

Now, if you’re wondering how Lee came to be singing a U2 ballad that was seemingly way out of his range: Backstage after the show, Crystal told the assembled press that the contestants chose their final songs themselves. “They just told us we were allowed to choose any song,” she said, “and [I] just thought of a song that’s right for the moment tomorrow [for the finale], no matter what happens.” Lee never addressed the question himself. Make of that what you will — I will try to root out more info tonight at the finale.

And if you’re also wondering how Ellen and Kara came to be handing their Coke cups to the sway pit during the ad break following Lee’s performance: Just as Lee was giving his Ryan-prompted final words, Simon pointed directly at one of the bodyguards standing at the far (stage) right of the sway pit. He then pointed to two young female swaybots directly in front of him in the sway pit. It seems one of the ladies had fainted into the other one’s arms, and it was all the woman’s friend could do to remain upright while ostensibly on live national television. (After the end of the show, Cory informed us that the fainting woman had donated blood earlier in the day. And if there’s any requirement for being a successful swaybot, it’s a high platelet count.) The bodyguard raced to help her, but the fainting woman still ended up on the floor while Ryan read Lee’s numbers to America as if there wasn’t a minor medical emergency unfolding ten feet in front of him. And so, as we entered the ad break, Kara and Ellen both volunteered their Coke cups for the young woman, which one hopes were filled with water and not the caffeine-and-sugar delivery system that is Coca-Cola.

The rest of the evening unfolded pretty much as you saw it: Crystal went up to the mountain, and gave practically everyone chills in the process. After her love-fest with Simon, the PAs set up Will Young’s mic stand during the recap montage. The first Pop Idol winner was obscured in darkness at the time, and there were whispers in the audience that he looked kinda like George Michael, even though Mr. Michael hasn’t looked that fit since the Reagan Administration. Debbie pulled the bottom 10 up from their seats to stand with Lee and Crystal, and everyone hugged everyone. Ryan put the results in America’s hands, the 19 Entertainment logo chirped, and Randy Jackson walked over to Simon Cowell and gave him the warmest bro hug I’ve ever seen between the two by a country mile.

And thus ends my tenure this season as your American Idol on-the-scene recapper. Tonight, the illustrious Mr. John Young will be inside the Nokia during the finale, while I’ll be backstage awaiting the winner and runner-up. Bearing in mind that I’ll likely have just five minutes at most with each of them, what would you like me to ask? Who do you think should win? Who do you think will win? And what’s the over-under that the producers will get Simon Cowell to cry on camera?

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