Every "American Idol" season is a lively, long argument about what matters most in contemporary music. Some think it's vocal talent; others, personality, an image that startles or a crooked smile that helps fans relate. People vote their loyalties and create an intriguing snapshot of the zeitgeist.
This year's American Idols Live tour, which brought the top 10 finalists to Staples Center on Thursday, reflected all of those aspects of stardom but ultimately focused on something more specific: body language. Bent on proving that they deserved the fame and glory toward which "Idol" points them, Adam Lambert, Kris Allen and the others posed and pointed and swayed and shook, forming a concordance of arena pop moves.
They sang too, of course, all well, even in the lower rungs of hierarchy. The top four contestants -- winner Allen, season sensation Lambert and runners-up Danny Gokey and Allison Iraheta -- each easily found a comfort zone and excelled within it.
Everyone in the crowd knew that would happen; this was a season of well-defined types (yes, even the unassuming Allen is one: the Quiet Surprise), all working at a fairly sophisticated level.
So Gokey did his inspirational thing, walking the line between gruff soul and country crooning, and Iraheta rocked like a whirlwind. Allen displayed his musical competence and added extra guts. Lambert emerged in a mist, armed with a throat full of gorgeous, impossible notes, ready to slay the ghosts of all who'd come before him.
But let's get back to the gestures. Group numbers and choreography were fairly scarce in this production. Yet everybody seemed to have a trademark move, and to let his or her performance spin out from it. Pointing was a favorite. Michael Sarver, amiable in the lucky-to-be-there opening spot, had the most aggressive index finger; for the big-voiced but somewhat bland Texan, it offered a way to gain connection. Anoop Desai, who's nicely evolving into a heartthrob, made a kind of dance of his salutes, clutching his chest and reaching outward to distribute some love.
Megan Joy, who was reportedly under the weather last night, has worked up some dizzy little hand flips to go with her patented shimmy. Her crackly alto has an appealing tone, but she's still unsure onstage -- she smacked herself in the face with her microphone at one point. Lil Rounds delivered the urban hits she favors with confidence and verve but busted a few really strange dance moves, seeming more like a kick boxer than the next Beyonce.
The two performers whose hands mostly stay busy at the piano still managed to work in some pointing, including at each other. Matt Giraud and Scott MacIntyre have very different strengths but were paired for a rendition of Billy Joel's "Tell Her About It" that was the night's silliest moment.
Individually, each did better. Giraud was relaxed and masterful covering the soulful standards "Hard to Handle" and "Georgia On My Mind." MacIntyre stressed vocal sweetness with singer-songwriterly choices and created his own semaphore: a slowly raised open hand that followed his vocal ascents.
Gokey also mostly pointed upward, which made sense, since he turned his mini-set into a revival meeting. Failing to convince with a couple of up-tempo numbers, the recent widower invoked his lost wife and used two Rascal Flatts songs -- "What Hurts the Most," one of his big numbers during the season, and "My Wish" -- to whip the crowd into a nondenominational lather, shouting phrases like, "Do we got any dreamers in the room?" and using that voice, scratchy like a beloved blanket, to soothe and inspire.
His performance was the night's biggest revelation, because it laid out a clear possible future for the devout Wisconsinite: praise and worship superstar.
After Gokey's brief foray into the megachurch, Lambert emerged to a firestorm of fans' screams and took the evening somewhere that felt distinctly more dangerous -- in the best way. His brief star turn wasn't a revelation, since it's been widely acknowledged that the young Angeleno is a great in the making. But it was extremely satisfying.
Reprising several "Idol" high points (including the inevitable "Mad World") and adding a David Bowie medley that started in an old-time music hall and ended at a rave, Lambert moved from pose to pose, gesture to gesture, with the poise of an artist who's absorbed the history and meaning of every eye flicker. But his favorite was a bump and grind that was both playful and entirely serious.