Tonight ‘American Idol‘ crowned its ninth winner, the often-abashed paint salesman from the Chicago suburbs Lee DeWyze. Although you’re forgiven if you didn’t think that was really the point of the final Season Nine episode; the two-hour show, which had its high points and low moments and just plain weird bits, often seemed more devoted to the departure of the acid-tongued British record executive Simon Cowell than it did to the close of the competition.
Yes, tonight was Simon’s last show, and with his exit came a bunch of tributes. Some utterly failed, like Ricky Gervais‘ unfunny monologue or the video package that hinted at a tryst between Simon and fellow judge Randy Jackson. Another was torpedoed to hilarious effect — the so-called comedian Dane Cook‘s “poor man’s Adam Sandler” routine, in which he put past Cowellian insults to song, mercifully ended early because of the microphone onstage being commandeered by the 2007 rejectee Ian Benardo, who then decided to extemporize on his long-simmering ire at Cowell. That was followed by a quick, awkward cut to commercial.
And then there was the return of Paula Abdul, whose exit during the offseason seems even more in hindsight like a harbinger for this growing-pains-filled year of ‘Idol.’ She was given the opportunity to meditate on her time behind the judges’ table with Simon, and it was sweetly teary-eyed, if a little rambly. But that’s our Paula, no? This led into a sung tribute from most of the notable ‘Idol’ contestants from years past — inaugural ‘Idol’ Kelly Clarkson kicked it off, and was quickly joined by six of the seven remaining previous winners and other ‘Idol’ contestants of yore like Melinda Doolittle, Michael Johns, and Constantine Maroulis. (Among the missing notables: David Cook, who had a commitment at a charity event; Adam Lambert, who was reportedly on “vocal rest”; Jennifer Hudson; and Chris Daughtry.) It was tough to resist contrasting the old folks to the Season Nine hopefuls who gamely participated in medleys of hits by the likes of Hall & Oates and Christina Aguilera earlier in the program, which was also marked by an announcement that tickets to this year’s ‘Idols Live’ tour were currently available at discount prices.
In keeping with the old-variety-show nature of ‘American Idol,’ a large chunk of the finale’s special guests were people who, to put it politely, have been working what’s called the nostalgia circuit in recent years. It makes sense in some ways; the sort of pop star that ‘Idol’ promises to create was just something that was more possible back in the days before satellite radio and the Internet and cable and all those other distractions that drew peoples’ disposable income away from pop records. But opening the ‘Idol’ finale with a performance of an Alice Cooper song that’s more than a decade older than both of its remaning contestants? Even though Casey James looked like he was having his happiest ‘Idol’ moment ever when introducing Alice to the stage, it sure seemed like a weird way to ring in a show that chides its contestants for not being “contemporary” enough.
Cooper’s croak aside, there were some pretty great performances from the pros who mingled with the hopefuls. Bret Michaels‘ duet with Casey James on “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” had me cringing because of his recent health scares, but once the song was over without incident, I breathed a sigh of relief and realized that I’d enjoyed it. Janet Jackson brought a lovely performance of her understated new single “Nothing,” which appears on the soundtrack to ‘Why Did I Get Married Too?,’ to the stage; Christina Aguilera’s solo turn on “You Lost Me,” a weary ballad from her forthcoming album ‘Bionic,’ was also compelling. (It should probably be noted that the low-key nature of both those songs would have probably been dinged by Randy “Please Keep Me Awake By Yelling” Jackson should they have been performed in the context of the competition.) Alanis Morrisette’s cleaned-up-for-family-hour reprise of “You Oughta Know,” which was performed as a duet with Crystal, got this observer to sing along with her TV for the first time all season. (Surely I wasn’t the only person who thought that Crystal’s performance of “Ironic,” which preceded Alanis’ arrival onstage, would have worked even better as a Ford ad that paid homage to the song’s car-centric video?) Daryl Hall and John Oates and Michael McDonald were all complete pros, even if the contestants they were paired with paled in comparison.
What an odd thing that the newly crowned ‘Idol’ had the most unfortunate vocal moments of the night. During a performance of the heartfelt lite-rock staple “If You Leave Me Now” with Chicago (because, you see, he’s from Chicago), Lee seemed to be engaging in an off-key-off with the band’s singer. And Lee’s season-long aversion to pitch came up again when he and Crystal performed “With A Little Help From My Friends” with Joe Cocker, only this time a lot more awkwardly. Lee, for some reason, was given the song’s opening line — you know, the one that goes “What would you do if I sang out of tune?” It was almost as if whoever devised the segment was waiting for a million bloggers and Tweeters to yell from their couches, “You’d vote for him to become the next ‘Idol,’ of course!”
And vote for him they did. As Ryan Seacrest held the envelope containing the results in his hand, pausing for dramatic effect, Crystal mouthed Lee’s name, giving away her knowledge that even though she’d pretty much been the front-runner all season it was the now-former paint salesman with the glazed eyes and the sometimes-shaky voice who was going to take home the prize. There are many theories about why — some people think Lee’s “relatability” helped him win, others think his season-long ascent from the depths of that awful early-season Owl City cover aided his rise in viewers’ eyes, others felt people bristling at Crystal’s season-long front-runner status a la Adam Lambert last year, still others cling to the idea that male contestants are a lock to win the show from now until whenever the rules get changed to limit mass texting from overheated women.
Whatever the case, Lee won, which was probably an outcome that few people saw coming back in February. Sure, this isn’t the first time that an ‘Idol’ victor wasn’t technically the greatest singer in the Top 24, or even in the Top Two. But it can be asserted that Simon’s constant refrain regarding the guiding purpose of ‘American Idol’ — “it’s a singing competition,” he’d say in his snippy, almost-singsongy British accent whenever someone turned in a vocal that wasn’t to his liking — seemed to finally exit the ‘Idol’ building completely at the very same moment that he did. Even if it wasn’t always true, at least the illusion of capable singing being rewarded persisted through this season, during which the producers seemed to have chosen its Top 24 by “type” as much as they did by pure chops. Perhaps, then, a wan version of a U2 song that only brought to mind how much the person singing it seemed small when compared to the larger-than-life Bono was the only way Season Nine could have ended.