American Idol

It’s a marvelous feeling when someone says, “I want to do this song of yours,” because they’ve connected to it. That’s what I’m after.
— Mary Chapin Carpenter

This year’s American Idol was the best. Contestants ran the gamut of musical styles, from pop and R&B to gospel, country, easy listening, and a lot of hard rockin’ — something for everyone and not a single dud in sight.

The quality hasn’t stopped criticisms, of course. You know what I mean. It’s destroying music as we know it! It’s a popularity contest! It’s unfair! Aside from my personal desire to scream, “Get the hell over it!” to the Idol naysayers, aren’t all these points moot? So it’s a popularity contest and the contestants don’t sing their own stuff and blah blah freakin’ blah. It’s not as if talent quests haven’t existed for centuries. And instead of going on a holiday or taking home a refrigerator, the winner gets to make an album. Granted, the first cut is usually commercial pap, but the Idol is out there, and those of us who’ve grown accustomed to hearing his or her voice are happy to have it pop up on the radio on the way to work.

There are quite a few of us, in fact, who’ve contributed to Idol‘s increasing popularity, by picking up Clay’s record and Fantasia’s, and Kelly Clarkson’s endless array of singles. Some think we’re brainwashed, but we know better. Idol‘s not about commercial dictates. It’s about gorgeous voices. These voices put the whole Idol-as-karaoke argument, too: remember Irving Berlin and Burt Bacharach and anyone else who ever wrote a song for somebody else to sing. Hell, Mann and Weil may have written “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” but who else on this earth, stuffed to bursting point with decent singers, could have done the thing justice the way Bobby Hatfield did? It’s a voice delivering a sentiment. Is Idol really that different?

But there I go getting bogged down in yesterday’s debate. Idol‘s here to stay, so learn to love it or change the channel. Previous contestants have been ghastly (Leah Labelle, JPL, and “Teen Martin” from last year, pretty much everyone except Clay and Kimberley in Season Two, Ryan Starr from Season One), thereby inviting criticism for themselves and the show, but so many have been exceptional (Kelly and Tamyra from the first season, Clay and Kimberley from the second, Fantasia, George Huff, LaToya London, and Jennifer Hudson from 2004). This year, ghastly didn’t even enter into it. Even Lindsey Cardinale, the first to be voted off, deserved to be a finalist.

In fact, during 2005’s first finals episode — with the top 12 performing on the main stage for the first time — I was utterly confounded as to who to root for. I love getting pissed off as my faves leave the show, and overexcited when they remain. That’s part of the fun of Idol, to yell at Simon when you disagree with him, only to remember how much you love him when his next observation mirrors your own. It’s hard to make this clear to non-Idol watchers: it’s just a whole lot of exciting fun.

It wasn’t probably less fun this season, as every finalist was gifted. Instead of figuring who to love and who to hate, I had to come to terms with the voting process. Eventually, I didn’t really care who left, so long as Bo stayed (if you can’t have a contestant to hate, you’ve absolutely got to have one to love above all else). My newfound grace didn’t stop me from feeling outraged that “America” could vote off Nadia Turner, this season’s most inventive performer, all big hair and punked out clothes, screaming her tunes like a superstar. When she was booted, I stormed out of the room proclaiming my absolute hatred for the whole sordid business (granted, it wasn’t my first time: Jennifer Hudson’s ’04 exit springs to mind). After a cup of tea and a time-out, though, I was back, repeating my Idol ’05 mantra: “At least it wasn’t Bo.”

As we now know, it eventually was Bo, slighted in favor of Carrie Underwood. How did a longhaired 29-year-old rocker in vinyl pants make it to the Idol finale stage? Was somebody reading my dream journal? Bo fit my criteria from previous seasons: I liked his voice and he could string a sentence together without too much prompting from Seacrest. Sort of a Travis Tritt, Allman Brothers, Eddie Vedder cocktail, Bo also signaled a shift for the program that is usually derided for its pop leanings. And no matter what musical genre he was assigned week to week, he managed. During Broadway week, he even made “Corner of the Sky” (from Pippin) into a halfway decent rock tune. He received more praise from Randy, Paula, and Simon each week than any other contestant. “You look like you’ve been doing this for 20 years,” Simon told him after his performance of “Drift Away” in week one, and he was right.

To stand out in a pack of standouts, Bo, as well as Carrie, needed that little something else. Simon might call it the “x-factor,” but for me, it’s about connection — from the singer to the song to me. Bo and Carrie both had it. Their performances weren’t perfect on the final night, but they were perfect: charming, gorgeous, talented. Say what you will about American Idol. If it gives voices like theirs a world stage, I say keep on coming.