It was the strangest thing. During this week's "American Idol" elimination round, a truism briefly came true. For the 12 or so minutes when the show's three top stars-in-training actually performed, this was a singing competition, maybe for the first time this year. But it became so in ways more subtle and meaningful than that usually empty phrase implies.
Adam Lambert, Danny Gokey and Kris Allen went into this all-important episode -- the final before the finale, which like the NCAA Final Four is usually a tougher and more involving match than the championship -- with a certain sense of predestination. Lambert is the front-runner, the judges' favorite, the one who's already a media sensation. Gokey is America's sweetheart, the candidate of the silent majority. Allen has to be getting really sick of the term "dark horse."
Offering up one song the judges chose and another they selected themselves, each would play to his own crowd and play up his own strengths. Each would hit his marks during the two songs allowed. Each would send a message -- not by wearing cool clothes, or making cute moves, but with his extraordinary voice.
In doing so, the Final Three would prove once and for all that on "Idol," as in pop, singing is not only a matter of pure talent. It's about communicating, through every small choice and calculated risk, a way of thinking about what moves us, what makes us feel.
One thing singing can make us feel is astonishment -- and that's a big part of what makes Lambert special. The other stuff does matter; his ability to inhabit and refresh the daring, mysterious role of the rock star has won him many fans and will surely allow him to break down whatever barriers he seeks to take on, once he's free of "Idol's" confines.
But Lambert love is rooted in the pleasure of being amazed by his range, his power, the wail that some deride but that can never be ignored. Undeniable talent is Lambert's master key -- on "Idol," it's gotten him past many barriers, and it still could (should!) take him all the way.
But relying on it too much Tuesday night, Lambert made one wrong move. He chose Aerosmith's "Crying" -- an athletic challenge, but otherwise a conservative selection -- and by nailing it, failed to surprise. His moving rendition of U2's "One," a song with a powerful message of compassion as well as a challenging melody, served him better. But flexing muscle instead of moving hearts was probably a mistake.
Showing off your pipes is one obvious choice that ultimately might not have served Lambert; Gokey took another one, and shone. Another thing singing can make us feel is open -- empathetic, sentimental, grateful that a singer has freed us from our usual restraints. Gokey hopped and yelled his way through Terence Trent D'Arby's "Dance Little Sister," which judge Paula Abdul chose for him. But he touched that empathetic nerve with his rendition of Billy Preston and Bruce Fisher's "You Are So Beautiful," a great song that, over the years, has become a greeting card but that through his surprisingly subtle delivery, was renewed. As always, Gokey wasn't too original, and though Simon Cowell stated otherwise, his technique was just OK. Still, he conjured the Kleenex. It was the night's shrewdest move.
Leave it to thoroughbred Allen to make the most inventive choice -- and, one suspects, to make Lambert feel really nervous. A third sensation music can make us feel is tickled -- not blown away, but just delighted at a performer's risk-taking and wit.
After doing just OK with the judges' choice, "Apologize" by OneRepublic, Allen executed a great head fake: He reworked Kanye West's heavily Auto-Tuned (and, when he performed it on "Idol" last month, off-tune) hit "Heartless." In doing so, Allen lived up to his reputation as the season's most musically agile contestant. He made a heavy song light, showed how rapping really isn't that far from singing and probably earned himself a spot on Timbaland's next project, if not West's.
In Allen's hands, this wasn't just a singing competition -- it was a pop event. That's what "Idol" always wants to be. And for that, he deserves to be in the final. But since this singing competition is really a heart-winning competition, a memory-making competition, a community-building competition -- it's still anybody's game.