American Idol: Top 2

In the opening minutes of last night’s American Idol singing finale, David Cook made a telling remark: “To me, the competition is over,” said Cook, providing the antithesis to numerous boxing videos suggesting that Season 7’s penultimate showdown — between a whitebread crooner and an early-peaking rocker, mind you — was some type of Ali vs. Foreman affair. (The Thrilla of Vanilla, perhaps?) . “We’re just out here having fun,” he continued. And he wasn’t kidding.

Over the next hour, David Cook turned in three worst performances of his Idol career. The odds were already stacked against him: we knew the night’s “inspirational” song was David Archuleta’s bread and butter, and we knew his sappy take on “Imagine” would be hard to top. But what was supposed to be a classic David versus David battle quickly turned into David versus Goliath, with the little and likeable kid slingshotting the rocking beast well past his prime.

That said, it’s not absolutely impossible for David Cook to walk away with tonight’s final vote. Crazier things have happened during the Idol finale — look no further than Taylor Hicks taking the crown from Katharine McPhee for proof of that. But really, the Cookster provided about as much of an argument for himself as R. Kelly will in his impending child pornography trial.

But if you still want to see how it all went down, click through for a song-by-song analysis on three levels: first, for the track hand-selection by ever-aging and less-relevant-each-year record exec Clive Davis; second, for the inspirational track handpicked by the contestants from ten choices; and third, for the contestant’s personal choices. I’ve forgone a final prediction this week because I think it’s clear where I stand: my heart is with Cook, my money’s on Archuleta.

ROUND 1: Song Picked by Clive Davis

David Cook — “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” U2
For Idol buffs, it’s notable that this is the first U2 song ever cleared for use on the show. And for U2 buffs, it’s understood that singing runs on a U2 song is almost unacceptable — and that “I Still” is one of their simplest melodies and song structures to begin with. So Clive really screwed David over with this one. On top of that, Cook sang it routinely, only slightly tweaking the chorus melody for the worse. If anything, the performance gave the audience a sense of how iconic U2 is as a band: how difficult it is to match the anthemic quality of Bono’s vocals; how hard it is to imitate Edge’s signature guitar style (nice try, Ricky Minor); and even how stomping and relentless the rhythm section is in any U2 song. For future reference: if chicks don’t sing Whitney for fear of comparison, then dudes don’t do U2. It’s that simple.

David Archuleta — “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” Elton John
For all the time I’ve spent hating this kid, this performance was absolutely fantastic. It was the only one of the finale songs that gave me legitimate goosebumps, the same effect it had on Paula — although her bumps might have been more of the “withdrawal-induced outbreak” variety than mine. Simply stated, Archuleta hit all his runs and turned the last 30 seconds of the song into a give-it-all-you-got shout fest — making sure to guard the melody while doing so. He came in second a long time ago on a little show called Star Search, and he made it clear early in the Idol finale that he wasn’t about to retrace those footsteps.

ROUND 2: Inspirational Song Chosen by Contestants

David Cook: “Dream Big”
David Archuleta: “In This Moment”

There’s only one thing to say about this round, and it was said by Randy Jackson: the songs weren’t good. I remember back in the early Idol seasons, when winners like Kelly Clarkson and Ruben Studdard were able to take songs like “A Moment Like This” and “Flying Without Wings” to the top of the charts. Now, FOX is handicapping the winners by sending them into the pop world without a legitimate chart hit; if either “Dream Big” or “In This Moment” is a Billboard hit, I’ll be floored. The first, with a title nicked from Nickelodeon’s Doug, was an awkward mid-tempo punk song. David Cook warbled all around the difficult melody and even forgot a lyric — which went entirely unnoticed by the judges. Then, during “In This Moment” — which more or less reprises the title of Kelly Clarkson’s first hit — David Archuleta won the round merely by picking a slower, more immediate tune. (He still didn’t awe anyone with his performance.) But honestly, can’t FOX shell out $100,000 to pay an established songwriter for some inspirational gold? I’m pretty sure Andrew Lloyd Weber isn’t up to anything.

ROUND 3: Song Reprised from Earlier Show

David Cook — “The World I Know,” Collective Soul
After staying in the competition this year largely based on his ingenuity, David Cook made a fatal error by picking a new song during the “repeat” section of the show. It was his final moment, his last plea to an audience so enamored with David Archuleta that anything short of “Billie Jean” or “Always Be My Baby” would signal unavoidable defeat. And “The World I Know” fell far, far short of that bar. He did it technically perfect, and it sure is a great song. But it was a great song back when David Archuleta was still losing on Star Search, and Cook did absolutely nothing new with it. We’ll always remember when he morphed Lionel Richie’s “Hello” into a grunge anthem; when he made “Billie Jean” into a low-fi acoustic ballad; even when he turned “Always Be My Baby” into movie soundtrack magic. But “The World I Know” did nothing more than thrust Collective Soul — who got royalty cash when their “Hollywood” was used during this season’s Idol promos — back onto the pop radar for another fifteen minutes. (For reference: “The World I Know” is currently in the iTunes Top 50, the top placement for any of last night’s performed songs.)

David Archuleta — “Imagine,” John Lennon”
At this point last night, David Archuleta knew he had Season 7 in the bag — but he decided to run up the score anyway. “Imagine,” perhaps the best single performance of the year, was nothing short of the original this time around. The runs were there, the arrangement was subtle and pretty, and the final note was fantastic. At least it’s fitting that David A.’s Season 7 reign of terror ends with the same exact song with which it began.

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