American Idol

Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina Compete in American Idol Finale

05/24/2011 at 09:40 PM EDT

Lauren Alaina and Scotty McCreery in American Idol Finale
Lauren Alaina and Scotty McCreery
Michael Becker/FOX
At the start of the final showdown at L.A.'s Nokia Theatre, Ryan Seacrest described the faceoff between Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina as "the boy-next-door versus the Southern belle."

Lauren, unfortunately, had also been doing battle with her own voice – or, more accurately, her voice had been doing battle with her.

During rehearsal she'd blown out a vocal cord. A doctor in black scrubs – wouldn't that cheer you up in the ER? – came out and explained that she'd been treated and would do "great."

Said Lauren: "I'm here, I'm ready to sing, and I'm fine. Don't worry about it."



She said this with a brave smile that was actually not all that reassuring.



But this was live TV, and we were off. And Lauren was right.

The night was broken down into three rounds: 1) The contestants encored their favorite songs from the season; 2) They sang a number chosen by their personal idols – Carrie Underwood for Lauren, George Strait for Scotty; and 3) They performed what would become their first single, should they win.

Round One
Scotty McCreery: Montgomery Gentry's "Gone." Well, he was impeccably smooth. This was even smoother than I remember his original performance, and cool as a sheriff at high noon.

Lauren: Underwood's "Flat on the Floor." Her voice seemed to get lost in the tumbling lyrics, but then a fast tempo has never done her any favors. She's better when she can slowly pour syrup over everything. (I mean that in a good way.)

Jennifer Lopez gave her a standing ovation, but during the performance the camera kept cutting to her in close-up: She had the stern, concerned look of a tree surgeon wondering if branches would have to be cut.



Round Two
Scotty: Strait's "Check Yes or No." Even better, more confident than "Gone," with nice little hiccups in tone. You probably could have told him a country-seeking missile was heading straight for him, and he'd have given the same performance.

Lauren: Pam Tillis's "Maybe It Was Memphis," which she sang in a poufy gold party dress and boots. Much better, because it was more in her wheelhouse, as Randy Jackson might say – she connects better to an undercurrent of emotion.

At that point, Ryan asked the judges to assess the first two rounds.

Praising both singers as "incredible," Randy Jackson gave Round One to Scotty with a slight edge, and Round Two to Lauren, again with a slight edge. Jennifer described the opening round as "explosive," and agreed with Randy's verdicts.

Steven Tyler gave both rounds to Lauren, "but only because she's prettier."

Round Three
Scotty's single: "I Love You This Big." Producer Jimmy Iovine told Scotty it was "a big moment and a big song, and you've got a big voice." Beats me: It was a slow, sincere, porous marshmallow of a song that soaked up a lot of Scotty's ornery strength.

"The range was great," said Randy. Jennifer: "A really amazing job." Steven: "You nailed it again."

Lauren: "Like My Mother Does." Another marshmallow, but melodically richer, and Lauren's a natural for this kind of ballad. Most important, perhaps, she was allowed the supremely sentimental moment of being led by Ryan down into the audience and hugging her own mother, who mouthed "Thank you" to her.

Lauren cried, her mother cried, her dad cried. I mean, come on, didn't you cry? As Iovine put it: "Moms are the bedrock of American society, and they're all going to be moved by this song like crazy."

The judges all loved it, too. Randy gave the round to Lauren with a slight edge, Steven said she'd won it "hands down," and Jennifer concluded: "With that song, you may have just won."

Think Jennifer's right.

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