The two-hour-plus "American Idol" season nine finale cut off pretty abruptly Wednesday night, before newly crowned victor Lee DeWyze had even finished his take on U2's "Beautiful Day" - with a swift break that I suspect also spelled the end of "American Idol" as we know it. The show has hit bumps and survived transition before, thanks in part to a format that's proved remarkably enduring, but I'm having a hard time seeing how it can move forward without its most defining and essential persona, departing judge Simon Cowell - especially once the televised singing competition that will have the acid-tongued Brit on its judging panel, the X Factor, makes its U.S. debut in the fall of 2011. I mean, who hasn't threatened to break up with "AI" before (see: after season six)? I know I have - but it kept pulling me back in. I'll be curious to see what it has to offer next year, but also really, really skeptical that it can hold my interest, or the wider viewing audience's, for that matter. Based on the History of Idol Cycles, AI-10 ought to be better than this dismal installment, but I have to think that Simon leaving throws off that pattern completely. But, as Simon himself said, maybe it's just time to move on - everything runs its course, it's been an impressive run and I suspect he could be proven very wise for leaving when he did.
Anyway, in other news, Lee won! With "won," in this context, apparently meaning "inspired legions of teenage girls to pledge their devotion despite his obvious and fairly major shortcomings." But this night wasn't really about that, was it? I mean, despite Seacrest's hilarious assertion that "Tonight is about Crystal and Lee," which came at about 9:52 p.m., after a good 25 or so minutes in which Crystal and Lee had been neither seen, heard or mentioned. No, the "AI" powers that be knew what the big story was last night. Indeed, an Idol finale has arguably never been less about the contestants than this one, and perhaps deservedly so, in light of the subpar season, the eventual winner and Cowell's looming departure. In a weird way, that made it feel more like a series finale, what with all of the tributes to Simon and the past winners and finalists emerging onstage to serenade him. Even Randy refrained from his usual top o' the hour booing to instead applaud Simon and give him a standing ovation.
Though various figures on the broadcast gamely tried to reassure us that the show would go on without Simon, it came off to me like they were trying desperately to convince themselves that it could. I mean, how forced did that early segment featuring Seacrest and Randy feel, as they attempted to act like it was some great thing that it'd be just them now, minus Simon. Come on, guys: We know otherwise, and so do you. In the same segment, Simon tried to explain his own appeal, prefacing his remark by saying that it was going to sound arrogant, but that it was because he was the only one who knew what he was talking about. But it isn't arrogance if you can back it up, and for most of the show's run, he did - even as he seemed to coast a little bit (senioritis or lame duck-itis, perhaps?) the last couple of years.
In that context, especially, it was interesting to see a very brief clip later in the night that showed Cowell addressing contestants during Season One. At a time when none of them had ever heard of him or the show, he stood up and said that one of them would become the most famous person, the American Idol. The prediction didn't fall flat, because the show caught on (thanks, Kelly Clarkson!). Yet a few minutes later in the program, he says that he feared the show would be a failure and that he'd be kicked out of the country. I don't know if that's false modesty or not, but it's an interesting contrast that he might have felt that anxiety even when putting on a blustery face for the contestants. (Also, I had totally forgotten that he had more or at least wilder hair then - which was really weird to see, and a strange reminder of how long ago the show debuted. Eight years, egads!) Following a video tribute medley to the tune of "My Way," he said, "I've had the best 10 years of my life, so I genuinely mean this: I'm going to miss you. Thank you." The feeling is likewise, buddy.
Alas, all of this transpired on a night that also named probably the least deserving winner in the show's history, and I say that having watched all of them. To paraphrase Taylor Hicks' winner's single, THAT DID NOT MAKE ME PROUD. And, in fact, speaking of the gray-haired leader of the Soul Patrol: He may have turned into a partially-unwarranted punch line at this point, but anyone who watched Season Five could I think at least understand why and how he won (I know I did). The Davids and Kris and Adam last year were also better matched. By contrast, I have a much harder time explaining Lee's win, except by resorting to the "a lot of ladies who voted, especially tweens, just didn't care that Crystal was objectively way better." I don't want to unfairly tar my fellow female viewers with too broad a brush, but 50 years of pop history proves that musical merit is not always the first thing on early-teen audiences' minds. I'm not sure how this tide didn't play as much of a factor in the show's earlier seasons - maybe the voting audience was broader, or more diverse? - but it sure seems to have taken hold the last three years, when Crystal has been the only girl in any top two, and all of the winners have been not-totally-dissimilar, nonthreatening, guitar-strumming white guys (no disrespect to the very talented David Cook and Kris Allen, mind you). While two might not be a pattern, three straight winners from this vein is a trend, and one the show ought to confront if it moves forward - because it won't be much of a competition if girls have no chance of winning. (Incidentally, voting and eliminations are something the X Factor handles differently, to perhaps guard against this.)
That said, I think the judges also bear some responsibility for so strongly promoting the "Lee is growing so well!" narrative. Look, he stood out from the start, albeit in a very weak season, had some good performances, and seemed like a very nice guy. But he routinely struggled with pitch problems, had trouble articulating himself and didn't improve musically or confidence-wise nearly as much as the judges let on - which Tuesday's face-to-face battle with Crystal made abundantly clear. That led the judges to eat their words, but by that point, the Lee train had already left the station and was steaming down the tracks - apparently with momentum that even a seriously subpar final performance night couldn't halt. Though kind of embarrassing, it's also kind of a fitting and telling result - that such a weak season wouldn't even end with the best person winning. Anyway, it's all in the books now, and both Crystal and Lee will have to ply their trade on the open market. Will either become the next Kelly or Carrie? Highly unlikely. But the gracious, talented Crystal should be fine regardless, while Lee should be able to move ahead with true confidence, in the wake of his endearingly disbelieving reaction when the results were announced.
As for the rest of the night, well, it wasn't exactly as much of a big ol' celebration of the year that was - at least, it didn't seem to have that feel, unlike other finale nights, including last year's - because, well, come on. Was the year that was really worth celebrating? (Unsurprisingly, Seacrest mentioned during the show that they're already offering discounted tickets for the upcoming Idol tour. See you there - not!) Instead, there were painful reminders of missed opportunities - a Didi Benami sighting, for instance, and the prematurely booted Janell Wheeler serving as the correspondent at Crystal Central in Toledo - and a lineup of mostly paleolithic guest artists that didn't exactly constitute a major argument in favor of the show's relevance. Oh, what could have been! And, for that matter, what will be? A question for another time, I suppose. Here's how it unfolded:
- "School's Out," the top 12 (dressed like schoolboys and schoolgirls, Hogwarts-style!), Orianthi, Alice Cooper and some backup folks in zombie makeup. (Unintentionally hilarious moment: Lee not dancing, even amid some weak attempted choreography.)
- Farewell to Simon, segment one
- "Trust," Kris Allen :-)
- "How Deep Is Your Love," Siobhan, Aaron and the Bee Gees (Barry and Robin Gibb).
- "Takin' It To The Streets," Michael Lynche and Michael McDonald. (Potential highlight: When Big Mike introduced McDonald and McDonald, unlike the other performers, reciprocated, saying, "Big Mike Lynche, everybody!" Finally, a nearby person Lynche probably couldn't pick up - sorry, Seacrest.)
- "Simon Says," Dane Cook, backed by a bunch of infamously terrible former contestants. Well, he tried, but let's face it: Simon's words are better in the original form, which is why the show could be in trouble without them.
- "Beautiful/Fighter," female finalists, doing quite the fine job, leading into...
- "You Lost Me," Christina Aguilera, performing her new single, a ballad that gives me concern about her new album. Also, she forgot her pants, apparently? Because let's be real, tights with sparkles on the front of them? Not pants. But, on the bright side, at least we were spared a "Genie in a Bottle" duet with Andrew Garcia.
- Ricky Gervais, via satellite, with a mildly diverting (and, definitely, better-than-Dane Cook, but, um) tribute to Simon.
- "I Can't Go For That/Maneater," male finalists, before being joined by Hall & Oates for "You Make My Dreams." Aaron Kelly on "Maneater"? Oooof.
- "Ironic," Crystal, followed by a duet to "You Oughta Know" with Alanis Morrisette. She rocks this, but ha, they changed the line "would she go down on you in a theater?" to "would she go down with you to the theater?" Family-friendly zone ahoy! They trade lines, then sing together, with satisfying results. (Then again, "Jagged Little Pill" was the first non-New Kids on the Block album I ever owned, so...)
- "Undo It," Carrie Underwood, wearing an uber-tight black and silver outfit, singing a kicky track co-written by Kara. Her stage presence and vocal confidence has improved so much since she was on the show!
- Kris Allen presents the top two with new Ford Fiestas, featuring their designs from earlier in the season. They all seem a little embarrassed to be there. And...we get a recap of the year's Ford commercials.
- "Every Rose Has Its Thorn," Casey James with Bret Michaels. So, this actually sounded really good - it's like Casey could finally relax, be himself and jam, with help from a fellow rocker with long blond hair (although it didn't seem like they even introduced Michaels, did they?). And is it just me, or is the Poison frontman showing up everywhere now that he's apparently defied death, surviving a massive brain hemorrhage? Winning the "Celebrity Apprentice" on Sunday, showing up on the Idol stage Wednesday! He wasn't on "Dancing With the Stars" or "the Biggest Loser," too, was he?
- "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?/medley/25 or 6 to 4," Lee DeWyze and Chicago. Yes, Lee is from Chicago, so I see that connection - but otherwise I'm not as sure about this pairing, as cool as it was to see the trombone, sax and trumpet onstage (ok, yes, we played this in high school jazz band, but, still). Anyway: Boy, did this go off key, with some wheezy, laconic, underenunciated moments.
- Farewell to Simon, yet another installment
- "Pants on the Ground," General Larry Platt with - oh NO - William Hung joining him at the end. This was not as good as the original, but damn, General Larry has some serious dance moves for a dude in his 60s. The breakout hit of Season Nine, which says a lot.
- Paula Abdul's recollections of Simon: "Simon was loud and proud, telling everyone how they sucked," she says, explaining her first day of work as an "Idol" judge. Ha, and that's why he was AWESOME! As I watch, though, I wonder: How is she this lucid talking about the past? Where was this Paula on the show? She then comes out onstage in a hot pink strapless minidress with a puffy skirt, and it is around this point that she starts performing as if she's at a roast, which I guess she sort of is? She praises Simon. She cracks jokes. She walks around the stage. But why are we here, again? Is this still a finale? Is someone supposed to win tonight? As she goes on, she begins to seem a bit more like her loopy self. She also notes that "AI" will not be the same without Simon, "but it will go on." She begins to seem a bit more like her loopy self. She says that American Idol will not be the same without Simon, "but it will go on." Well, maybe? This leads into more clips of Simon, including a gem of a rejected aspirant proclaiming, "That guy can shove it!" Which leads into - well, not immediately -
- "Together We Are One," a ballad that brings all of the previous Idol winners (Kelly! Ruben! etc!) (except David Cook, alas, for reasons that went unexplained) together to sing, joined later by a huge line of previous finalists (Allison Iraheta, Bo Bice, Kimberly Caldwell, Elliott Yamin, Justin Guarini, Constantine Maroulis, Michael Johns - the list goes way on, though with no Daughtry or Jennifer Hudson, from what I could tell). I wasn't familiar with the song and at first feared it was the substitute for the lame Idol coronation single, but no, it's actually a British-Australian track from 2006 that was also performed as a group number during top five week in season five. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)
- Aaaaand it's at this point that the night just turns into a Simon Cowell tribute hour, not that I blame them. He comes up on stage and says that though people ask him who will replace him, and who will be the next judge, "The truth is, you guys are the judge of this show, and you've done an incredible job over the years." See: For all of the caricaturing, he was never a villain - just a class act who totally knew what he was doing.
- "Nasty" (!) and other songs, Janet Jackson. Though she may not have been singing entirely live, judging by the disparity between her spoken and sung parts, she did sport a fierce short haircut and perform amid green lasers galore. And while I cannot explain why she was performing here in 2010, in the Slot Previously Held By Prince, I suppose I will take her '80s gems when I can get them.
- Montage of Crystal and Lee, starting from their auditions in Chicago. In case we did not get the point of their "journeys," words like "Ordinary people, ordinary lives" flash across the screen.
- "With a Little Help From My Friends," Crystal, Lee and Joe Cocker. Yes, this is the song that starts, "What would you do if I sang out of tune?" Well, if you're a Lee voter, disregard that and vote for like crazy for your guy anyway? Ha, I kid. Anyway, Crystal looked like she was having a total blast during this one, and she again outsung Lee. While Cocker was a bit rough - I mean, not in his traditional, that's-just-his-voice way, but in a "he's straining more now than in the past" fashion - one cannot dispute Crystal's label for him, which is "living legend."
- "Beautiful Day," Lee. Despite the fact he's choked up, he actually sings it better than he did Tuesday night - before being abruptly cut off, that is. Cue the news -and the hand-wringing, and the speculation.