American Idol Top 30 Performances of All Time: No. 13, Jason Castro and Lee DeWyze, “Hallelujah”

You try picking which version was better. Both were too good.

You try picking which version was better. Both were too good.

How many songs do you know that you don’t know you know?

Not trying to confuse the masses, but there are a lot of people (ahem) who listen to music that’s simply on the radio or because it’s insanely popular (not me … OK, me). You hear a lot of music in a lot of different scenarios over your lifetime and it’s simply impossible to try to remember how, when and why you recognize a song.

Hallelujah is one of those songs. Unless you’re really into music, or you’re a hipster, you don’t know Leonard Cohen’s catalog. You probably heard a cover of the song, or heard it on a movie, or heard it when you played the soft rock station going to bed when you were growing up (not that I ever, ever, ever did that except when I did it all the time).

The song’s been done on Idol who knows how many times, but there are only two that matter: the time Jason Castro turned from stoner to contender and nearly made America cry; and the time Lee DeWyze put his gravely voice behind it and made it the reason why he won Season 9.

THE SITUATION: Who do we talk about first? Let’s go chronological.

Mr. Castro was in the Top 16 and there were two things we knew: nobody took him seriously because he looked high every second he was on (including the one time he was); and America loved him. He needed to survive a crazy deep guys Top 8, which included David Archuleta, the late Michael Johns (RIP) and Idol-god David Cook (I almost said “and Chikezie” for a laugh) but really didn’t seem like much more than a guy who’d do better than Top 12, maybe Top 10.

And then we saw him sitting on a stool. Magic followed.

DeWyze’s performance came under a little more duress. He was in the final three with Casey James and Crystal Bowersox and while he was awesome all season, with a superhunk and the chick America loved, he was far from a favorite to make the final. After nailing “Simple Man” in his first performance, he needed a closing song and Simon Cowell picked Hallelujah, which had already been butchered early in the season by Tim “Didn’t Think You’d Ever Hear My Name Again, Did You?” Urban.

It was the perfect choice.

HIGHLIGHTS: I was going to talk about DeWyze first, but you can’t analyze that performance without talking about Stoner McGee’s rendition.

First off, Castro talking about his embarrassing date is stoner gold. Then the music starts.

There’s a peace and serenity with his tone. You get lost in the performance and almost forget that this is the same guy who’s giggled and laughed his way through a lot of performances. We hadn’t seen a serious side until this and he’s just nailing the song. At some point during this performance you realize “holy shit, I do know this song.” And you can’t remember why, but it’s Jason Castro’s song.

There isn’t one moment that stands above the rest. From start to finish he nails it. He brought the song back to the forefront; it spiked on iTunes immediately following the performance and with good reason.

Now any time a song is done like that, it gets put on the “DO NOT SING THIS UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE” list (which have already or will be on the rest of this countdown). So when it was announced Cowell picked that song DeWyze, alarms should have been going off screaming “DANGER, DANGER.” You weren’t going to be comparing the song to the original; you were going to compare DeWyze’s performance to Castro’s just like everybody uses Carrie Underwood’s “Alone” as the baseline when it’s done on the show.

DeWyze’s performance starts the same, but his voice is so much stronger than Castro’s that it completely changes the song. Castro had the tenderness in his voice and the solo on a chair look worked; DeWyze needed something more to avoid sounding like a bad copycat.

And that’s where the gospel chorus comes in (PS Contestants should always, always, always use a gospel chorus).

The chorus carries the tenderness of the song, which allows DeWyze to use the strength in his voice. He doesn’t over-growl songs; he emphasizes words and phrases perfectly. The voters obviously agreed.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: Castro was a slam-dunk decision. His performance came on the deepest pool of talent in Idol history and he had one of the Top 3 performances from the season and forever changed the popularity of a single song. That’s hard to do.

DeWyze makes the cut because this was his moment. It was his best SOLO performance by a mile and to have it come on a song that should have been retired makes it even more impressive.

There are songs that people do in auditions or Hollywood Week and you automatically think “that belongs to So-and-So.” With Hallelujah, it belongs to both of these guys and trying to pick one over the other just wasn’t happening.

Plus it’s my countdown and I can do whatever the fuck I want.

PREVIOUSLYNo. 14, Jena Irene, “Can’t Help Falling In Love”
NEXT UP: No. 12 – The song that changed Idol forever