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Taylor will be the new ‘American Idol’

Hicks just plain outsang Katharine McPhee on final performance night
/ Source: contributor

When Taylor Hicks is crowned the "American Idol" champion on Wednesday night, he'll have a long list of people to thank. First and foremost among them should be the people responsible for writing Katharine McPhee's original song.

After each singer re-covered two songs they had performed earlier in the competition, each closed the show with what would be their debut single. Shockingly enough, both were given ballads. "Idol" may talk a good game about trying to be hip and relevant, but in the end the debut single is always a safe, boring, inoffensive choice. Can't be having Hicks shake those hips in his MTV debut!

If she wins, McPhee might want to check the fine print on her contract to see if she can get a quick rewrite, because even her biggest fans would have a hard time purchasing her song unless it got a total overhaul. The California native who looks the part of an "Idol" even if she doesn't always sound like one got saddled with "My Destiny."

The tune sounds a bit like Kelly Clarkson's "A Moment Like This," if that No. 1 single was even more boring and insipid. It also required her to start in a key that was at least one octave lower than she normally performs, making her sound like a little girl imitating her father. The result was a huge mess. Even Randy Jackson essentially said the song itself stunk, which won't make the producers very happy.

Hicks' selection wasn't much better, another ballad called "Do I Make You Proud?" But the thing with Hicks is that he's a good enough performer that he can do a whole lot to sell a mediocre song. He can take a crappy melody and maudlin lyrics, add his usual so-stiff-that-they're-endearing dance moves, and come up with something that has the audience on its feet. Because of that, he ended Tuesday's show as the clear favorite.

It's doubtful that anyone responsible for bringing "Idol" to the airwaves ever envisioned that a gray-haired soul singer from Birmingham would even be a contender to win it all. But barring a major upset, that's what's likely to happen on Wednesday night. One note of consolation for the loser will be the presence of Clay Aiken at the finale, an illustration that losing the "Idol" battle doesn't necessarily mean an end to the possibilities of a successful career in music. No word on whether Season 1 runner-up Justin Guarini will be there as well.

Katharine McPhee, 21, Los Angeles: McPhee entered the night as the underdog, and needed a dominant performance to have a real chance at winning. That didn't happen.

She opened the show with an encore performance of "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree." When she first performed the song a few weeks ago, it was her best effort of the year. She couldn't match that effort this time around, and had to make up ground on Hicks from the beginning.

Her second song was "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," which the judges loved for the second week in a row. Of course, the fact that she just sang the same song last week may not do her any favors, but she made up some ground on Hicks despite the fact that the vocals seemed to impress Simon and company more than they did the audience.

That left her in position to make a strong case for her candidacy with her original song, but the songwriters did her no favors and she didn't help herself with a blah performance. Other than her parents, it's doubtful that anyone could quote one lyric from the song 10 minutes after the show ended, because it was so horribly bland. It's doubtful that even Kelly Clarkson could have made it sound interesting, but McPhee certainly wasn't up to the challenge, and it probably cost her the title. Grade: BThe judges, "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree": "I'll give it a 'good' with a small 'g,' I think, because this occasion is bigger than that song." – Simon Cowell. The judges, "Somewhere Over The Rainbow": "You've made every girl proud who wants to dream and aspire to be you." – Paula Abdul The judges, "My Destiny": "I got three things for you. You look amazing. You sounded really good. I did not love the song." – Randy Jackson Odds of winning:  25 percent. Paula Abdul said on "Access Hollywood" before the show began that it's a huge asset to be the favorite of the teenage girls texting their votes in. Of course, Paula also said that Chris Daughtry would be in the finals and 40 million people belonged to the Church of Mandisa, so her word isn't exactly gospel.

Taylor Hicks, 29, Birmingham, Ala.: Hicks didn't do anything to lose his status as the favorite. While he wasn't perfect, he was good enough to win.

The geriatric Alabama native opened the show with "Living for the City," a shrewd call in that his original version of the Stevie Wonder song was far enough in the past that the performance seemed fresh. It was enough to give him the early lead despite the fact that he wore a velvet purple smoking jacket that even Liberace wouldn't have been caught dead in.

His second song was Elton John's "Levon," a choice that didn't make it easy for him to win over the crowd. He played it a little too safe with his stage movements, which made it a duller than usual performance.

He closed the show with "Do I Make You Proud," and for his fans the answer had to be a resounding "Yes!" The song itself isn't going to win any awards, but Hicks sold it with every fiber of his being. All season long, he's been the best at making himself stand out, and this final effort likely sealed the deal to win the "Idol" title.Grade: A- The judges, "Living for the City": "You know what I love about you? Stevie [Wonder] is the hardest thing in the world to sing, but you don't care how hard it is, because you made it your own." – Randy Jackson.The judges, "Levon": "What may be 'pitchy' to you [Randy] is the essence of what Taylor is." – Paula AbdulThe judges, "Do I Make You Proud": "Assuming that I was right and the show was tied [heading into the final song], you just won 'American Idol'." – Simon Cowell Odds of winning:  75 percent. Hicks has done better than McPhee throughout the competition, and he did better on Tuesday night as well. While nothing is certain, and there's always the dreaded telephone glitch to worry about, Hicks is in great position to be crowned the next 'American Idol' winner.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.