Clean teen vs. rocker

Times Music Critic

Sometimes, things turn out just like you thought they would. That new program manager you thought was flirting with you over at the water cooler asks you out. You cut out carbs and lose 5 pounds. And the two "American Idol" finalists everyone was betting on, at least since the moody and glorious Carly Smithson felt the blade last month, are indeed battling for the crown next week.

David Archuleta and David Cook -- the clean teen versus the Bed Head by TIGI-coiffed rocker -- should make for a final round marked by big notes and bitten lips. Both young fellows looked kinda sick Wednesday night after learning they'd be going on, in contrast to departing Syesha Mercado, who kept her Miss World smile frozen in place as she delivered yet another pitch-perfect, stylish performance, reprising "If I Ain't Got You" by Alicia Keys.

During the segment on her hometown visit, her dad bravely reminded the world that he'd struggled with drugs and alcohol, and suddenly, we all remembered -- Syesha's not part-robot because she's evil but because she's been holding it together as her family's struggled for God knows how long.

Darn! We should have voted for you, girl. Instead we've got gosh-monger Archuleta and shrug-meister Cook, who announced Wednesday night that he'd never even meant to try out for "Idol" -- he just did it, apparently, to torment his poor younger brother, Andrew, who had dragged him along to the auditions for moral support. Poor Andrew! There's a place for you, dude, in your bro's future. It might be on the roadie bus, but you'll still get to meet plenty of hot girls. And direct them toward David.

OK, I'm being flip now. It will be a great final: historic, thrilling, et cetera. One scary possibility is that David the Younger will collapse completely under the gale force of David the Elder's alternative-rock attack. Another, perhaps more likely, possibility is that the finale will radiate toxic cognitive dissonance -- these two strivers are so fundamentally different that a competition between them seems almost ridiculous. Until now, a buffer existed between them, but next week, this season's multiple-personality disorder will be on full display, as the "Star Search" paradigm collides with that of "Rock Star: Supernova."

But then, that's a lot like the entertainment business these days: increasingly decentered, full of weird success stories and strangely, sadly devoid of the unifying power that once made music culture a force for change. "Idol" really is a mirror, it turns out, though not a very heartening one into which to gaze.

Still, Fantasia Barrino did remind "Idol" viewers Wednesday night what musical excitement looks and sounds like with her fiery, funky rendition of "Bore Me (Yawn)," from her last album. Unpredictable, raw, dangerously close to chaotic, Fantasia's performance recalled how the best music on television once felt -- like something breaking through the screen. Simon Cowell, of course, looked horrified. Thank goodness he wasn't a judge at Janis Joplin's audition.


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