It’s Candice vs. Kree. But only one is still fighting.
Here is my solemn promise: The last competitive episode of every American Idol season is anticlimactic and boring, and the last actual episode of every American Idol season is shockingly, face-kickingly wonderful. Seriously. Wednesday night we watched as Candice and Kree sauntered around a Cirque du Soleil-size stage and gurgled tunes new and old for an audience that knew exactly what to expect. It wasn’t a memorable night for either performer, even though they both delivered at least one knockout performance. My takeaway from the night is this: If you came in rooting for Kree, you’re still rooting for Kree now. If you came in rooting for Candice, you’re still rooting for Candice. And I like you better. Because Candice is the rightful next American Idol.
Here it is, my final rankings of season 12. There are only two performers, and I’ve already spoiled my pick for the #1 chanteuse of the evening, but hey! There’s still time to get mean and competitive about who should win this damn thing. Call me Paul Jolley, because I’m about to get “theatrical” about this sh*t.
2. Kree Harrison: Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel,” Patty Griffin, “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song),” “All Cried Out”
By far, the most underrated American Idol winner is Kris Allen. I’m not saying his voice is ready to duke it out with Marian Anderson, and I’m certainly not saying he had the pleather-panted gall of Adam Lambert, but he is perhaps the canniest contestant in the show’s 12 years. Whether or not you dig his soft-serve vanilla, DMB-idolizing antics, you had to respect Kris for choosing unexpected songs and performing with them with subtle, even-sorta-cheeky sincerity. He jumped from Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” to Garth Brooks’ “To Make You Feel My Love” to Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard for the Money” to Kanye West’s “Heartless” — which is a pretty weird array for a guy lumped in with truly boring contestants like Casey James and Lee DeWyze. He used the gaping differences between each theme week to create signature performances, and that’s why Kris Allen ruled: He didn’t just want to win American Idol; he wanted to play American Idol, trump expectation, and challenge himself every single time he performed.
I bring up the “Live Like We’re Dying” songster because he succeeded exactly where Kree doesn’t, and vice versa. Kree’s voice is the same delicate pink cumulus tuft of angel hair and butterscotch we heard back in the Vegas rounds, and its crystalline qualities conceal Ford-tough reliability. But with the exception of her early rounds (and that standout version of “What the World Needs Now is Love” from a few weeks ago), Kree’s song selections have withered in originality every single week. Can you honestly point out much of a difference between her performance last night of “Angel” and her recent takes on “Whiter Shade of Pale,” “Here Comes Goodbye,” and “Have You Ever Been in Love”? She’s a technically perfect, decreasingly inspired contestant, and that’s why she’s only good enough for a Lauren Alaina-style second place finish. The talent is there. But let’s not pretend charisma, uniqueness, and nerve are dismissible ingredients.
Simon Fuller picked “Angel” for her first performance, and I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that’s the most uninspired selection he could’ve made. Oh, you think Kree’s voice is angelic, Simon? Well! Another $20 million payday for YOU! She needed a more urgent song at this stage of the game, something in the vein of the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice” or Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again” (which Carly Smithson nailed in season seven). Her coronation single “All Cried Out” did not move my preteen Latina spirit the same way the Lisa Lisa single of the same name does, but Kree handled the lilting country ballad with (wait for it!) an admirable vocal. As for her retread of “Up to the Mountain (MLK Anthem),” her version is still not as good as Crystal Bowersox’s, so I ordered my brain to forget everything I was watching.
Kree’s sailed to the top of season 12 thanks to pure talent. But pure talent is not the same thing as gamesmanship, and that’s why I predict she’ll end up in second place.
1. Candice Glover, Adele’s “Chasing Pavements,” Shirley Bassey’s “I Who Have Nothing,” “I Am Beautiful”
Right, like I was going to abandon my girl ten seconds before the final bell.
Before we get to Candice’s superior performances, one last note about Kree: Was anyone shocked as hell to see that Mz. Harrison was a show-stopping, camera-loving prodigy on The Rosie O’Donnell Show as a kid? She must’ve wasted all her winking, vaudevillian showbizziness there, because Candice is the only competitor left who clearly loves connecting with an audience. From week to week, Candice has not only sung well, she has sung dynamically. As Mariah astutely noted, her musicality is as much a part of her act as her pitch-perfect vocals. She lives in each performance, selling you on joy, anguish, insecurity, or loneliness, depending on the track and whatever is happening precisely within that lyric, word, and syllable. She’s a dogged interpreter of song who knew to pick “When I Was Your Man” because she saw herself in its lyrics (despite the pronoun-mindful puritanism of her Idol mentors), The Cure’s “Lovesong” for its warped sentimentality, and even Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” for its sensual overtones. This girl is for the thinking, discerning Idol fan, and even if I admit she is lacking a certain ebullience that’s most often summarized as an X-factor, at least she possesses the maturity of Melinda Doolittle and the power of Jennifer Hudson, along with a stronger gift for interpretation that I find worthier of an Oscar than anything in Dreamgirls. For real.
At least Simon Fuller was as uninspired in picking for Candice as he was for Kree: The mogul upstairs chose Adele’s “Chasing Pavements” for Candice, and though the truth may be controversial to Adele fans, that tune is more about production value than it is vocal chutzpah. Plus, it’s just lazy to pick an Adele song for Candice. Both are bigtime belters, but Adele is beloved for the whimper buried within her blaring instrument; Candice is hardly melancholic, because when she projects sadness, she wraps it in blistering self-revelation and a howl. She is rougher and riskier than Adele. I’d have loved to see her tackle a saucier contemporary song like Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable” or a soulful classic with a rock pulse like Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady” because unlike Adele, Candice likes to couch her chirps within purrs and growls. “I Who Have Nothing” was as effing unbelievable as you remembered, and I think that performance alone should seal the season-12 victory for her. You can’t argue with operatic grandeur and everywoman charisma.
I mean, there you have it. I may have preferred Amber Holcomb’s hip-jutting sass at least initially, but it’s Candice’s mesmerizing vocal strength that has remained season 12’s proudest asset since her audition. You want this girl to win. She can sing at you, startle you with great instincts, and stomp with genuine defiance. She’s ready to win, hard.
Now, onto a more exciting question: Who will she perform with tomorrow during the big finale? You think Smokey Robinson convinced Gladys Knight to stop by? Will Aretha show up? Patti LaBelle? Is Drake on his way back? I think we may be in for a gigantic treat tomorrow — and I’m not just talking about a salacious “military school” photo shoot with Devin Velez and his “recruit” Lazaro Arbos in torn-up army fatigues.