I’ve never been drawn to reality shows or contests on TV, but with two pre-teen girls in my house, I’ve watched the last few seasons of American Idol. Austin City Limits is more my speed, so I’ve usually just been content to hear a handful of songs I loved in their original form made “relevant” or “current” by the contestants (to use two of executive producer/surly judge Simon Cowell’s favorite words). But this season, I’ve become an unabashed fan of one of tonight’s finalists, Crystal Bowersox.
In her audition, the 24-year-old single mom sang the Jerry Ragovoy/Bert Berns song “Piece of My Heart,” popularized by Janis Joplin—a song that’s been butchered countless time on the show by Joplin imitators. But she sang it with such ease and grace, it was impossible not to take note. Here she is playing the song at a tiny club called The Village Idiot in Uptown Maumee, Ohio, before she’d ever tried out for Idol:
She’s a fairly traditional singer/songwriter, a bluesy descendent of Melissa Etheridge, but that’s pretty atypical for a show that usually favors country, pop, urban or the lite-modern-rock-radio style of her competitor Lee DeWyze. But her voice is an undeniable presence, and her self-assured performances have taken her all the into tonight’s final two.
I love how she’s picked the songs she’s wanted to play and goes up there to have fun each week and play the music she loves. Her song choices have included covers of Aretha Franklin, Tracy Chapman, The Impressions’ “People Get Ready,” Etheridge and Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová’s “Fallin Slowly”—a duet with DeWyze. Hansard is listed among her musical influences, along with a pair of obscure Toledo artists who she calls her mentors—Bobby May and Ron Rassberry. When she returned to her hometown of Elliston, Ohio, a couple of weeks ago, she played an original song “Holy Toledo” about working-class troubles in the Midwest. It made me look forward to her post-Idol career—the first time that’s happened with a contestant on the show.
One of her biggest fans on the show has been Cowell, which, I have to admit, has surprised me a little. To his credit, he’s loved the way she’s ignored the “game” of Idol and just quietly done her own thing, always appreciative and never condescending. There’s a refreshing humility among both finalists and third-place finisher Casey James that’s overpowered some of the cheesier aspects of the show this year. The finalists’ performances have routinely mopped the more famous special guests off the stage.
I’ve often wondered how some of my favorite vocalists like Brandi Carlile or Over the Rhine’s Karen Berquist would have fared on the show. Crystal Bowersox has made me think they’d have done just fine.
Josh Jackson is Paste’s editor-in-chief. You can follow him on Twitter @joshjackson