'American Idol': Season 7

There were no Goliaths, just a duel between two Davids — David Archuleta and David Cook — in the seventh season finale of “American Idol.”

In the end, it was Cook, a 25-year-old bartender from Blue Springs, Mo., who received 12 million more votes than Archuleta out of the nearly 100 million that were cast.

Performers were allowed to play instruments this season for the first time, a new wrinkle that already was in place in at least one edition of the series overseas.

“It showed that the singers were not just singers, but also dedicated musicians,” says Katherine Meizel, author of “About the Idolized: Music, Media and Identity in American Idol.” “It gave them a little more cred, and it gave the show a little more cred.”

Rodney Ho, an “American Idol” blogger with the Atlanta Journal Constitution, was particularly impressed by Jason Castro, already an accomplished guitarist who learned how to play the ukulele the week before his rendition of Judy Garland’s hopeful “Over the Rainbow.”

“Jason’s version had a little Hawaiian kick to it, and it was transcendently beautiful,” Ho says. “He did a wonderful job, and brought a level of innocence and longing and his own personal charm.”

Other instrument-playing contestants included Brooke White, at the grand piano for a performance of “Every Breath You Take” by the Police and playing an acoustic guitar for Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”; and Cook, who used a guitar adorned with an “AC” for his brother, Adam, who was undergoing chemotherapy for brain cancer.

“You wonder if the change to using instruments ushered in an era of rocker guys winning, because for the next three years you had guys who were kind of soft-rock guitar players from the Midwest winning it,” observes Brian Mansfield, a music writer with USA Today, referring to Cook, season eight winner Kris Allen from Conway, Ark., and season nine winner Lee DeWyze from Mount Prospect, Ill. “It also brought out a slightly different type of person at the auditions because they would be able to use instruments. They have become a popular type of contestant on the show.”

The Beatles catalog also made its debut with mixed results, but Mansfield says it did produce one of the best performances he’s ever seen on the show: Chikezie doing “She’s a Woman.”

“He starts out and it’s kind of this jug band, down-home thing, then he ends up turning it into a Big & Rich wild country rocker sort of version,” he says. “I’m absolutely convinced he was speaking in tongues on that stage because he looked like a man who had no idea where he was, he was so transported into the moment.”

It also received raves from judges Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell.

“Idol Gives Back,” a star-studded benefit show to raise funds to fight poverty and provide relief in disaster areas, returned for its sophomore outing. Calling it a “celanthrapoganza,” Meizel says, “It was pretty exciting.”

TOP 5 HIGHLIGHTS

  1. Contestants are officially allowed to play instruments during performances.

  2. Rights are secured to a significant part of the Beatles’ catalog.

  3. On March 25, Kristy Lee Cook sings “God Bless the USA” five years to the month after President Bush launched the invasion of Iraq.

  4. David Cook sings “Always Be My Baby,” with his cancer-stricken brother, Adam, in the front row on April 15. Adam died a year later.

  5. “Idol Gives Back” returns.

WINNER’S UPDATE

David Cook has been on a roller-coaster ride since winning the seventh season of “American Idol.” Highs included the November 2008 release of a self-titled CD, which reached platinum status; a low was the May 2009 death of his brother, Adam, who was fighting brain cancer. “Being on stage with guitars turned up and drums going on, that was probably the quietest moment of my day for a while,” he recalls. At the end of ’09, Cook immersed himself in writing tracks for his sophomore CD, “This Loud Morning,” which is due June 28. None of the songs are implicitly about Adam and his death, but “that vibe and dealing with all of that definitely permeated throughout the entire record,” Cook says. “I have never taken on a record as big as this one. All of the pressure I currently feel and have felt for the past year and a half has been self-imposed. I’m really hard on myself. Past that, I feel we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish and needed to accomplish with this record. And at this point, if you can’t control it, laugh like hell. I guess I’m trying to laugh a lot.”

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