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Does ‘American Idol’ want an artist, or a star?

Kris Allen and Adam Lambert landed in the finale by utilizing the same skill. No, not singing. They listened.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Adam Lambert and Kris Allen could not be more different. Their musical styles and strengths don’t mesh and their personalities are opposites. But they share a skill that explains why they’re the two singers competing in the “American Idol” finale.

They listen.

The judges made it very clear what they were looking for in season eight; performers who could take a song and make it their own. While other singers took that advice from time to time, no singers took the message to heart more than Adam and Kris.

As the other finalists fell victim to unfortunate song selections and karaoke performances, it was the originality of Adam and Kris that kept them on the good side of the four judges.

No finalist in history has been more memorable week after week than Adam Lambert. Sometimes the impact of an Adam performance may be felt more for its strangeness than its skill — his version of “Ring of Fire” caused guest mentor Randy Travis to spend the whole night wearing a “what is this guy doing?” expression — but most of the time, he hits the mark. His “Mad World” was missed by DVRs everywhere the week the show ran long, and it was good enough that the omission inspired outrage and not relief.

Adam's big weakness would seem to be that he's the most theatrical contestant in the history of the show, but he's turned that into a strength by embracing it. By going all-in and showcasing the lighting, effects, and costumes, he's turned his comfort with stagecraft and his Broadway-sized voice into his biggest assets. Nobody loves the spotlight more, and no other contestant has looked as comfortable standing in it.

From motorcycle jackets to snazzy suits, the “American Idol” runner-up knew how to dress for each song.

Instead, his weakness is that he's the most polarizing "Idol" figure in recent memory. He has fans who will defend him with passion, and detractors who would do anything to bring him down.

It's possible that the anti-Adam contingent will watch the finale for the sole purpose of voting against him. But Adam isn’t going to give anyone else much ammunition to hate him. Although when he’s singing he plays the part of the diva, he’s been nothing but respectful as soon as the music ends and always has kind words to say about his fellow contestants.

To win, Adam needs to keep on doing what he’s been doing; take chances, make songs his own, and perform like he’s going for broke. He enters the week with a slight edge, but Kris has been steadily improving and will seize any chance he's given.

Kris is Adam's opposite
While Adam is a natural under the bright lights, Kris looks to be the male version of Carrie Underwood, a small-town singer who uses "Idol" to jump into musical stardom. Even after months in Hollywood, Kris still has a country-mouse-in-the-big-city look that has helped endear him to millions of “Idol” voters.

That wouldn’t be enough, however, if he wasn’t also talented. Kris has made every song his own, but in the exact opposite manner of Adam.

Whether strumming his guitar or playing the piano, the “Idol” winner always stayed low-key.

Instead of blowing things up to show-business size via lights, smoke, mirrors and costumes, he uses a stool and a guitar or piano to strip down the arrangement and engage with the audience. That makes him less of a spectacle than Adam but easier to listen to, and it has allowed him a number of memorable moments performing less familiar songs. It's always a risk to pick something like "Falling Slowly," which didn't receive a ton of airtime apart from the Oscars, but he was able to make turn that into a compelling performance.

Kris' biggest strength is that it's very easy to see the kind of album he would create and the audience who would buy it. Is there anyone out there who can’t picture him with a hit record that sounds an awful lot like, say, Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours?” It’s easier to give him a sellable label than it is Adam.

Like Adam, Kris has a weakness that can double as a strength. He doesn't come across with that star quality aura, and seems pleased and surprised to have made it this far. That humility is what makes him so likable, but most seasons that factor is less important in the season’s final days. In last year's finals the more likable David Archuleta fell victim to an edgier David Cook.

This is the stage where viewers are looking for superstar potential. That’s what Kris has lacked all season, and he has to show it here if he’s going to win. He can't look boring when he's going head-to-head against a singer who makes Prince seem tame.

It's easier to see Kris as a successful recording artist. It's easier to see Adam as a genuine star. Next week, the “American Idol” audience will decide which one they want.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington.