The Final Week of American Idol

An all-David slugfest!

Michael Buffer introduces David Cook and David Archuleta on American Idol

If you were feeling the déjà vu last night, that’s because Idol finale week has brought us right back to the Rocky place where we started in January—complete with a flurry of boxing metaphors, the Davids making their “Gonna Fly Now” entrances in silly gloves and silk robes, and Michael Buffer actually standing on the stage at L.A.’s Nokia Theatre, getting us ready to rumble. I can’t help thinking that this would not have happened if Syesha were in the top two; a lady would never let Michael announce her weight like that. (Poor, tiny David A.!)

But we’re down to two Davids. Each sang three songs last night: one assigned by Clive Davis, one personal pick out of the top 10 submissions to the songwriting competition, and one number each singer considered a favorite. Davis’ selections were superb—U2 for David C. and Elton John for David A.—and both came out swinging (trying my hand at the boxing analogy there!). The two personal choices were very different. David C.’s emotional Collective Soul cover was compelling enough but seemed somewhat self-indulgent, while David A. instead settled on exactly what his voting audience was expecting (“Imagine”). I’m just happy we didn’t end up with an encore of his preposterous version of “With You”; I suppose little David singing “I need you, boo” is the price you pay when you ban stage dads with no regard for clearance fees.

We’ll hear Regie Hamm’s winning “Time of My Life” tonight, but this season’s songwriting competition apparently delivered so many entries on the lofty level of last year’s schmaltz-fest “This Is My Now” that we got to hear two more on Tuesday. It actually wasn’t a bad idea, having the finalists choose their favorites. Both singers performed numbers that fit comfortably within their individual styles instead of competing on the same song, thus avoiding the uneven footing last year’s power-ballad set between ballad queen Jordin Sparks and quirky “beat boxer” Blake Lewis. But the material both Davids had to choose from was as predictable as the double-David showdown at which we’ve now arrived. America sure loves songs glorifying Dreams and songs about defending Moments (no one can take it away from me! hands off my Moment!), songs about holding onto your just-short-of-overtly-Christian Faith, and songs telling us it’s Time for Change … oops, David C., wrong election!

OK, I admit it’s a bit of a compulsion for me every May, finding parallels everywhere between Idol and politics in the real world (real-world reality, not Real World the show). But it’s all there, just under the surface. Or, considering Kristy Lee Cook’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” performance earlier this season—on the dual anniversary of the Iraq war and the song’s Idol debut—maybe totally, transparently on top of the surface. I know I said back in March that Season 7 was all about the hair, and that did recur as an important theme (see Fantasia’s fiery return to Idol last week). But in retrospect, I think the strongest thread running through the past 18 weeks has been all about the audacity of hope. Regardless of Internet photos, stripper pasts, and anxieties about rigged judging, this year we’ve had an entire cast suffused with the most idealistic innocence this side of Pollyanna. The always sunny Brooke White, the sweet spaciness of Jason “I didn’t know it was sung by a cat” Castro (what could be more innocent and hopeful than a blissful ignorance of Cats?), Syesha Mercado’s discovery of the civil rights movement, David Cook’s steadfast belief that artistry matters, and of course David Archuleta “Imagine”-ing John Lennon’s perfect world. I should mention, too, the dogged persistence of Michael Johns and Carly Smithson, even as they faced effectively the same problem that’s been vexing Schwarzenegger supporters for years: Not born here? Not eligible in the ultimate American election. Johns for Governor in 2010! Oh, and we can’t forget Renaldo Lapuz’s audition ode to brotherhood, can we? Even if we’d like to? Seriously, that song has been stuck in my head for four months. Then there was the sincerity explosion that was “Idol Gives Back,” and, believe it or not, this week’s finale is—get ready for it—going green.

Still, I suppose American Idol politics are small potatoes compared with the tensions plaguing some other current singing competitions. At least the U.S. Idol studios haven’t just been attacked in a violent uprising like Future TV in Beirut, where the resulting interruption of regional Idol show Super Star is the least of anyone’s concerns right now. And we can be glad our competition doesn’t have a history of meddling fascist dictators like the Eurovision Song Contest, the Idol format’s forefather (fore-eccentric-uncle?) in many ways. Plus, we can thankfully say that our contestants have never included a turkey puppet.

As for what we can expect tonight, Nigel Lythgoe says it’ll be big! We’ll see the biggest star in the world! OMG! Zac Efron will be on Idol? HSM 4eva! Oh, never mind, it’s George Michael. And there will be a new rotoscoped performance in the style of the Dion-Presley duet from last year’s “Idol Gives Back.” What could top the resurrection of Elvis? I’m guessing this time they’re going all-out and bringing back Jesus? We know from Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber that he could sing … But failing anything apocalyptic like that, I’m at least crossing my fingers for a David-vs.-David “Eye of the Tiger” sing-off.