Anyone who's shocked by the pair of contestants singing in Tuesday's "American Idol" finale hasn't been paying attention. Carrie Underwood and Bo Bice have been destined to meet there for weeks.
Vonzell Solomon's surge, Scott Savol's staying power, the early exits of Constantine Maroulis and Nadia Turner … all that was merely prelude to the matchup that destiny and Simon Cowell have dreamed of since day one. The country girl from Oklahoma meets the country rocker from Alabama, with the country itself voting on the winner.
New York may have Donald Trump and the latest ultimate Survivor, but the "Idol" winner is guaranteed to come from small-town America. All the hopefuls, from New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Las Vegas … gone. Checotah, Oklahoma, and Helena, Alabama? In the house!
Bo vs. Carrie
Fans and judges deserve an equal amount of credit for this one. Sure, both Bice and Underwood have been fan favorites from the beginning; Underwood since her first audition, Bice since the first semifinal round. Then again, it would be hard for them not to have become fan favorites, given the hype each has received from the bench.
On March 8, Simon Cowell told Bo Bice that it was his competition to lose. Randy Jackson added his endorsement, saying "I would love to see a rocker win this this year. I think you're on the right track." That's been a Randy theme throughout the competition — perhaps he misses those days touring with Journey.
As if that wasn't enough, Clive Davis formally endorsed Bice last week, saying "I'm going to make a prediction. We are going to have a great time making a very special album together." Since Davis is chairman and CEO of BMG North America, he can make that happen pretty easily regardless of whether Bice wins or loses.
Not that Carrie Underwood has been slighted; Simon predicted early on that she'd not only win, she'd also sell more records than anyone in the history of the competition. She's sailed on every week without a hitch, accepting compliments and gentle critiques by the bucketload.
Bice and Underwood have one big similarity; both are fans of traditional southern and southwestern music. Underwood goes with the Nashville sounds of country pop, while Bice prefers the Southern rock style of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Besides that, however, they could not be more different, meaning voters will have a clear choice when the phone numbers for voting (hopefully correct this time) are revealed.
Bo Bice: Have you ever been experienced?
Bo Bice has a lot of advantages here. For starters, he's eight years older than Underwood, and he hasn't spent that hanging around at the 7-Eleven. Bice was one of the most experienced of the contestants; he's been in a band that opened for Warrant and Blackfoot, and is no stranger to performing in public.
The result is that Bice hasn't been fazed by anything this competition's had to offer. Nerves haven't appeared to be an issue at all. If anything, he's had the opposite problem; his one appearance in the bottom two came after a series of performances that looked like he was mailing it in.
When he was asked how it felt to be in danger of being voted off, Bice responded by saying "What's the worst that's gonna happen? I go home, I play my gigs, and I have a blast doing what I've been doing." While the honesty was perhaps refreshing, it left him in danger of being bypassed by voters who were looking for someone who, you know, actually wanted to win.
Except that something seemed to click in him after that. He picked songs he knew he could sing well, popularity be damned, and has been consistently excellent every week over the past six weeks.
Moreover, Bice just looks more natural onstage. He's the only contestant this season who's been consistently successful in performing popular songs in a way that doesn't make him sound like the lead singer of a run-of-the-mill cover band.
But he doesn't depend on that; his big performance last week was of a more obscure song — "In a Dream" by Badlands — sung a capella. Without the twin crutches of a backup band and a popular tune, Bice still blew the judges away.
Meanwhile, Underwood looks like she feels the pressure. It's been weeks since she's had a really memorable performance, and when she isn't doing a country pop song, she doesn't look comfortable moving around onstage. And unlike Bice, some of her performances tend to accentuate how far she really is from the singer she's imitating, with last week's cover of Shania Twain's "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!" a prime example.
Carrie Underwood: You're doing fine, OklahomaSound like Bice is the clear frontrunner? Not so fast.
Carrie is the only contestant to avoid being segregated with the bottom tier of vote-getters all season, and that's not because the producers are pulling her name out of a hat each week. She has a great voice, and generally picks songs that allow it to shine.
Underwood isn't as polished a performer as Bice, but then again, she is eight years younger. It wouldn't take much work at all to get her concert-ready, and she's good enough to have a long, very successful recording career. While Bice may be the best prepared to be a star right now, Underwood is the one with superstar potential.
Moreover, it is very easy to root for Carrie Underwood. She's the country girl from small-town Oklahoma who might not have even had the chance at a music career were it not for this competition; she's the candidate the show is designed to discover.
Underwood is clearly the wide-eyed innocent here, as both she and the show take great pains to point out. We've learned that before her first date her father was in the living room cleaning out his shotguns, that she misses her family terribly and loves all the animals she's left behind on the Checotah homestead.
For goodness sake, Underwood said back in the Hollywood auditions that Ryan Seacrest was the biggest star that she'd ever seen. Can anyone be more innocent than that?
Finally, Underwood's musical style probably gives her an edge. While some say she'd be a better fit on "Nashville Star," country pop is trendy these days, and it gets more airplay than the traditional rock that Bice performs. Underwood taps into a larger existing market than Bice does, a small difference that may prove big if the voting is close.
Advantage: UnderwoodAll that analysis begs the obvious question: Who's going to win?
The most accurate to that is "it doesn't matter." Not for any of the feel-good everyone's-a-winner-who-makes-it-this-far reasons, but because both will get record deals out of the equation anyway.
Given the voter interest in each, and the effusive compliments from the judges, it's extremely unlikely that either will have to wait tables to make ends meet (at least, not this year). The big benefit will be that the winner will get to release their album first.
Given the fact that Carrie Underwood has been a fan favorite from day one, and has been forgiven even in the weeks that she stumbles a bit, this competition is still hers to lose.
If she can handle the nerves and put forth a strong performance Tuesday night, Carrie Underwood will prove Simon right and earn the "American Idol" crown.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.