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CARRYING THE TITLE UNDERWOOD TAKES 'IDOL'S' TOP SPOT.

Byline: David Kronke Television Critic

Carrie Underwood assumed the title of the fourth ``American Idol'' by performing what will be her first single, ``Inside Your Heaven.'' But her voice was so cracked with emotion she simply paused and called out, ``Thank you, America!''

Country tunes were the key to victory for the 21-year-old college student from Checotah, an Oklahoma town so small ``American Idol'' producers had to set up a gathering of her fans in nearby Muskogee.

Underwood beat out 29-year-old Southern rocker Bo Bice in the Fox network's reality hit's season finale Wednesday evening at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood and Highland.

Underwood, in an interview with New York's Fox affiliate, admitted her victory hadn't yet sunk in. ``In my mind, we still have a show next Tuesday,'' she said. ``Now the real work begins and the real fun begins.''

Since both performers will receive recording contracts, the announcement at the end of the two-hour finale was merely ceremonial and largely anticlimactic.

``I knew we'd both be OK - we both have long careers ahead of us,'' Underwood said.

Over the course of the season, viewers phoned in 500 million votes, or roughly four times the number of votes in the 2004 presidential election.

Though Bice had been expected by many to win, Underwood's performances Tuesday night of ``Angels Brought Me Here'' and ``Independence Day'' put her over the top.

Most accounts concurred that Tuesday's final competition was a serious disappointment.

Backstage rumors suggested Bice was suffering from food poisoning and Underwood from an ear infection on the biggest night of their lives.

Whatever accounted for the subpar performances, Lisa de Moraes of the Washington Post was not sympathetic.

``Between them, they couldn't hit a note to save their lives,'' she wrote. ``Bo sounded like a truck in first gear and Carrie sounded like a bad set of brakes.''

Before Underwood was announced as the winner, judge Randy Jackson said after reviewing the previous night's episode, he believed she deserved to win. Simon Cowell, who has stumped for Underwood all season, reiterated his support.

Of course, it wouldn't be ``American Idol'' without controversy, and this season had plenty.

One week's voting was scrapped due to a graphics snafu that gave voting viewers the wrong numbers to call.

And, of course, judge Paula Abdul became the subject of intense scrutiny.

Her on-screen behavior was erratic, and a former contestant, Corey Clark, told ABC's ``Primetime Live'' that he had an affair with her while competing on the show, with her advising him on how to advance in the competition.

Fox announced it would investigate the allegations, but fans were skeptical of Clark and ABC, finding the report more self-serving than serious journalism.

``It's only getting worse,'' host Ryan Seacrest announced during Wednesday's season finale, by way of introducing a parody of the scandal.

``Crime Time Expose'' - its motto, ``We never let the truth get in the way of our ratings'' - featured a faux reporter in a black leather jacket modeled on the one sported by ABC's John Quiones during his report.

The spoof ``revealed'' Cowell's love affair with himself.

That was just some of the 115 minutes of padding in Wednesday night's finale. The program also included a bizarrely cruel moment that brought out an early rejected contestant to croon a virtually tuneless ``Star-Spangled Banner'' and, in another ostensible comedy bit, repeated shots of an open-mouth kiss between bickering judges Abdul and Cowell.

David Kronke, (818) 713-3638

david.kronke(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) Carrie Underwood, 21, reacts after winning the ``American Idol'' competition on Wednesday at the Kodak Theatre; finalist Anthony Fedorov looks on.

(2) Bo Bice, left, and Carrie Underwood sing ``Up Where We Belong'' during the finale on Wednesday.

Kevork Djansezian/Associated Press
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 26, 2005
Words:629
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