American Idol: The Season Finale

Lee Dewyze won. It’s the biggest shocker in the music industry since Willie Nelson cut his hair. At least that’s the line in media outlets after Wednesday night’s finale although Lee’s victory can’t be much of a surprise to Idol addicts, who know that the momentum was clearly in his corner heading into Tuesday night’s rumble verses Crystal Bowersox. Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson, in separate interviews, had both predicted that Lee would win, and it didn’t much matter that Lee was clearly outsung by Crystal on the final competition show.

For when it comes down to it, Idol has more to do with the fickle and shallow waves of crap-taste loyalty that permeates the American viewing public than anything else. After all, if we had any sense, we’d be watching those past seasons of The Wire we’ve been meaning to get to instead. Simon, in his cold-as-ice farewell comments, dismissed speculation over who’d fill his judge’s seat next year by saying that the American people are the real judge and that they’d done a fantastic job throughout the series. Which is horseshit, of course, as a glance at the past winners and losers, many of them on display on Tuesday, would indicate.

So, just as Adam Lambert lost last year to an inferior artist, Crystal Bowersox finishes second to Lee Dewyze, and, yes, it was a surprising finish if you take the whole season into account. It was certainly a come-from-behind victory since at times Lee was doing little more than surviving while Crystal was the talk of Idol Nation. For a good chunk of the season, it felt like Crystal was single-handedly saving whatever integrity the show had left while singer after singer—Katie Stevens, Andrew Garcia, Paige Miles, Todrick Hall—turned out to be overestimated initially.

But Crystal was cool enough, hippie enough, old-school rock enough, to make believers of people who’ve always hated American Idol. And like Chris Daughtry, Jennifer Hudson, Kellie Pickler, Glambert, etc., finishing first in this competition has little bearing on her impending career. She’s an artist, like Carrie Underwood, who has the kind of fully-formed talent and trajectory to make us forget her American Idol roots. I’d be shocked if she’s not a significant festival draw next year—Crystal for Bonnaroo 2011!–something that can’t be said about any Idol contestant before her.

One of Wednesday’s best moments was a shot of the waiting room in Chicago, where hundreds of hopefuls waited to audition for a golden ticket to Hollywood. And there, a seat apart, were Lee and Crystal, a couple of nobodies, who a few weeks later would be famous as hell and dueling for all the marbles. Do you remember when they first announced the Top 24, and they showed the traditional montage of all of them dancing? While busting a quick move was no prob for Todrick Hall or Jermaine Sellers, Lee Dewyze was low-grade white toast, with no idea what do, settling for pointing at the camera like Fonzie. But it turned out that America wasn’t much interested in a dancing pop-teen confection this year; they wanted a guitar-strumming, soulful grit-voiced belter, and either Lee or Crystal—and even third-placer Casey James—fit that bill. As Crystal said many weeks ago, she hoped to provide a shot in the arm for real, organic music again, and if Lee and Crystal can put real money where their growls are, this season of American Idol will be worth much more than it’s been given credit for all along.

It was an odd season—Ellen, “Pants on the Ground”, Tim Urban, Siobhan Magnus. Paula was out; ratings and votes plunged; Ryan got sassy; Simon announced the season would be his last. Ellen, for her part, fell mostly flat. Sure, she held her own with the other judges as well as can be expected from someone who has no particular musical expertise. But she was brought on to fill Paula’s void by being funny and exciting—look, it’s a TV celebrity! Once the initial novelty wore off, however, you couldn’t help but notice that Ellen had to come up with something to say after every friggin’ song, and Ellen ran out of comments and stopped scripting jokes very early on. The next thing you know, Ellen was just a sweet, boring, pedestrian know-nothing sucking up air time between Randy and Kara. With Paula, you never knew what batshit nonsense she’d conjure up; with Ellen, you knew exactly what she’d say, and you were pretty sure it wouldn’t be all that funny.

Paula herself showed up Wednesday night to pay tribute to Simon, and while she didn’t carry the same Red Bull-and-Percocet vibe of her judging days, she still rambled on enough that producers had to cut her off abruptly to show another medley of Simon clips. A Paula/Andrew Garcia duet of “Straight Up”, sadly, failed to materialize. The final show, however, was the most entertaining in Idol history, with a dizzying display of far-out guests and performances. Bringing out Alice Cooper to sing “School’s Out” was an inspired nod to the teenagers at home who cleaned out their lockers this week, although those kids were probably saying, “Who the hell is that guy!?”

I’ll also take a Hall and Oates performance whenever I can get it, and last night was a reminder that Daryl Hall is blue-eyed-soul’s greatest singer and that no one could ever figure out what the hell Oates did in the band. Bret Michaels showed up as the evening’s most rousing surprise guest. I’d make a snarky joke about his wig or eye-liner, but this is one cowboy who’s had his share of thorns lately, so I was all smiles watching Bret cry tough with Casey James. Crystal’s tango with Alanis Morissette was unremittingly badass, with the two of them circling each other like wrestlers in a cage, marching around and trading verses to “You Oughta Know”.

Carrie Underwood proved why she’s the greatest Idol contestant of all-time with an absolutely ripping version of “Undo It”, high-stepping the stage in skin-tight leather and singing with gale-force power like it’s her last night on earth. And how about Janet Jackson, with a refreshingly close-cropped haircut—who turned in her most graceful performance in many years. She reminded us that she can actually sing—no lip-syncing on that moving version of “Nothing” (and who didn’t think about Michael on such a sound-alike?). Then, she hit enough classic moves on “Nasty” to prove that she’s Janet, but without trying too hard to turn back the hands of time.

If nothing else, there’s no other show on television that provides a vehicle for such nostalgic musical fun, and as a bonus we get to participate in the great American pastime of declaring an arbitrary, token champion. This time it went to a sweet, shy kid from Chicago, so that will serve as a happy ending. For those of us who watched every episode or, say, wrote more than 30,000 words about the season, it’s high time we say goodbye. Until next year, that is, when we see what American Idol looks like without Simon. Let the sweepstakes for his replacement begin. In the meantime, I’ll throw my support behind Gene Simmons and say thanks for reading my reports this season.