‘American Idol’: Doesn’t America Have Better Taste Than This?

I don’t know what America wants to hear.

–Lilly Scott, American Idol Season 9 finalist

If you still need proof that American Idol lacks any and all credibility, Lee Dewyze’s win over Crystal Bowersox would be Exhibit A. Blame it on the blogs, blame it on demographics, blame it on votefortheworst.com. America got it wrong, and deep down, Lee Dewyze probably knows it.

Despite the fact that Crystal’s voice, stage presence, and overall chops far outmatched Lee’s, that her look was authentic and her story compelling, she somehow ended up on the other side of that 2% margin of votes. Perhaps her fans thought, after a stunning cover of Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain” (one that brought me, literally, to tears), that she had this thing locked down. It’s true, Lee’s first single, a completely milquetoast rendition of U2’s “Beautiful Day,” might also evoke tears — but not the good kind. He is David Cook 2.0 at best, with a voice that the judges repeatedly called “commercial.” Isn’t that code for “sounds like everyone else”?

This upset shouldn’t have been surprising, however. The first three guest judges on the season finale — Alice Cooper, the Bee Gees, and Hall & Oates — all had big hits in the ’70s. That didn’t bode well for a satisfying outcome, or suggest this show is tapped into the pulse of contemporary America. While it was cool to see Cooper snarling in leather, and mystifying to see Barry Gibb’s hair, their appearances were so disconnected and irrelevant that it’s hard to imagine why Simon Cowell didn’t intervene during rehearsals. Perhaps he was just so happy to be out of there. As of now, he needn’t be bothered.

In fact, Simon’s exit from the show somewhat eclipsed the normal ballyhoo of an Idol finale. With no less than three video montage tributes to Simon, a Dane Cook tribute song (hijacked by a mouthy past contestant with a grudge), and one oddly coherent Paula Abdul wishing him well, saying goodbye to Simon seemed a much bigger deal to American Idol than it did to Cowell himself.

Abdul aside, the tide of stars that washed up on the Idol stage was strangely unimpressive and slapdash (Michael MacDonald: really?). The least terrible by far was Christina Aguilera performing the ballad “You Lost Me” from her new CD, Bionic. Like some kind of futuristic pin-up girl, she twitched and thrashed beautifully, hitting a range of notes with equal parts theatricality and authenticity. Why her performance was buried at the end of the first hour is anyone’s guess (which is not to say she’s precisely “right now” either, what with the “suspicious” timing of her tour cancellation on the very day of her appearance on Idol). But I suppose room had to be made for Chicago and Joe Cocker, both of whom seemed winded within the first 60 seconds on stage. The anti-climactic headliner was an auto-piloted Janet Jackson, who strutted through an anachronistic rendition of “Nasty Boys” with closely cropped hair and a cat suit that was so deeply unflattering, it was its own kind of wardrobe malfunction.

If I seem harsh, well, it’s because I can’t forgive American Idol for yet another lame duck winner. Last year’s loss for Adam Lambert was the canary in the coalmine. What bothers me about his loss, and Crystal’s now, is the show’s pseudo-political predication that it represents what America wants. Whether or not that’s true, the outcome is problematic and troublesome. I’d like to think that America has better taste than this, but I look around me — and at the finale’s “star-studded” performances — and I can see that we probably don’t.

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