Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Thoughts on the American Idol Finale

In many ways, this year's finale was an odd repeat of last year's: the earnest heartland guy overcomes the splashy stage kid for the crown. Last year it was Cook over Archuleta; this year it was Allen over Lambert.

Lambert was a much stronger competitor than the lightweight Archuleta, and would have made a worthy winner this year. He was made for television -- his histrionic goth/vampire vibe, his faux sincere mugging at the judges' constant praise, his risky interpretations and his vocal pyrotechnics were ratings gold for Fox. In a lot of ways, his theatricality was more reminiscent of David Cook, who has proved to be a mediocre recording artist now that he's standing on his own. Lambert was not my favorite -- I thought he always over-sang his songs. I think people who thought he was robbed of the title need to listen to him without looking at him.

A lot will probably be made of "America not being ready for a gay American Idol." I think that's mostly nonsense. Lambert's sexuality was never an issue in the competition (no more than Allen's background as a worship-leading neo-Christian). On TV, he read more glam than gay, and I think he suffered in a zeitgeist that doesn't value glam as much as authenticity. In a different America (a time of Bowie, or Boy George), he might have won hands down.

Allen can certainly sing. He is not nearly the "star" that Lambert imagines himself to be, but he plugged away all season and rarely missed the mark by much. I thought the pairing with Keith Urban during the finale was genius; Allen held his own, vocally, and you could imagine a crossover niche he could fill in the music industry after that performance. He was much less well-served by the horrible theme song "No Boundaries" penned by the relentlessly annoying new judge, Kara DioGuardi.

The finale also demonstrated that the best two contestants were in the final. In performance after performance, the eliminated contestants showed their limitations. The three numbers featuring the finalists -- Allen with Urban, Lambert with KISS, and Allen & Lambert with Brian May of Queen -- were the highlights of the evening.

As an entertainment franchise, Idol is a juggernaut. The steady string of industry talent on stage this season (Kanye, Flo Rida, Miley Cyrus, Slash, not to mention the parade of B-listers in the finale) is testament to the self-reinforcing nature of Idol. Fox & Freemantle aggregate huge audiences, the sponsors (Coke, Ford, etc.) drool over the kind of reach that no longer exists in network television, the industry talent lends legitimacy to the contestants, and that talent is motivated to show up by the potential of performing to the huge TV audiences. It's a perfect marketing virtuous circle.

Idol's ability to generate stars is somewhat less certain. In terms of sales, only two of the show's seven winners have generated any real heat: Season One winner Kelly Clarkson in pop and Season Four winner Carrie Underwood in country. Two other contestants have had great careers launched by the show: Jennifer Hudson, who won an Oscar for Dreamgirls; and the amazing Chris Daughtry, the North Carolina auto mechanic whose post-Idol record became the fastest selling rock debut in history. Oh, and Clay Aiken, whatever you want to make of him.

I am a sucker for reality TV that dramatizes creative people at work (i.e., Project Runway, Top Chef). Idol has clearly gotten a bit ponderous and self-reflexive lately, and it takes itself oh so seriously. But at its core, it's about talent and performance and character cast up in the tense high-wire act of live TV and popular voting. I don't see our appetite for that kind of entertainment going completely away any time soon.