For much of season nine, MTV News' panel of experts felt pretty confident predicting that Crystal Bowersox could (and should) win the competition. Even going into Tuesday night's finale, and especially after it, when MamaSox delivered a vocal knockout blow to the clearly nervous Lee DeWyze, our prognosticators felt like the former busker from Northern Ohio would be the next Idol.
But after DeWyze pulled out a victory — by an unrevealed margin of votes — the response was pretty universal: Yeah, we thought Crystal should win but figured that Lee would.
"I thought Crystal would win, but I can't say I'm that surprised," said veteran "Idol" watcher Michael Slezak of Entertainment Weekly. "Crystal was a bit polarizing. For everyone who thought she was fantastic, there were clearly more who disliked her or felt the judges pushed too hard for her, thought she was too laid-back or seemed to flinch at the construct of being presented as the American Idol. That whole idea of her not embracing being foisted onstage and covered in confetti and being made to sing a song like [last season's panned winner's single] 'No Boundaries' made it tough to get behind her for a certain segment of voters."
For that reason, Slezak suspected that as other contestants were voted off, their votes likely migrated to Lee. And though the humble paint clerk from Mt. Prospect, Illinois, stumbled on the final night of competition, he was able to eke out a victory.
"If you look at the top 12, [Lee and Crystal] were the most consistent, talented singers," he said of the vocalists, who first met when they both auditioned in Chicago last August. "The main problem with Lee was that, on the final night, he choked. But maybe by that point, 14 weeks in, voters had already picked their camp, and that performance didn't matter."
MTV News' "Idol" expert, Jim Cantiello, predicted at the beginning of this season that, despite noise from producers and judges about this being a "girl's year" after two straight male winners, he was confident a female would not come out on top. "The demographic of the voters has dramatically shifted, so the days of getting another Jordin [Sparks] and Carrie [Underwood] seem to be over," he said, alluding to reports that the majority of hard-voting "Idol" watchers these days are teen girls.
"Perhaps, like Melinda Doolittle, Crystal entered the competition as the clear front-runner and peaked too soon," he added. "The judges kept talking about how far Lee has come, and it appears viewers connected to that message, versus basing their votes on the quality of performances. It makes for much more dynamic reality television when someone 'blossoms' under the tutelage of the show and then gets rewarded for it."
He said the other possible explanation is that, along with a laid-back attitude that might have been interpreted as nonchalance, the hype over the rumors that Bowersox almost quit the show at one point — which she quickly refuted — might have turned some voters off permanently and shrunk her support base.
Dismissing the much-vaunted "young girls" theory, in which detractors claim the show's results have been skewed by an army of power-voting tweens who go for cute, unthreatening male competitors over female singers, was Professor Robert Thompson, director of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.
"The last three seasons, it's probably true that it's gone from being a singing competition to a popularity contest," he said. "But this one was such a weak season because of who we ended up with that the only way to stay interested was to root for the singers based on popularity, because there were none where you would have said, 'This person is one of greatest singers I've heard.' "
Thompson predicted Bowersox would win, but because he said there really isn't any objective way to gauge which singer the majority of the audience is supporting, he said he should have fully expected Lee to win based on the recent voting patterns. "I'm not surprised," he said. "If you had a season where you had some really knockdown, good singers like Fantasia or Ruben Studdard, I think they could still overcome the fact that they are not pretty, unthreatening young men."
MJ Santilli, webmaster of "Idol" fan site MJsBigBlog.com, picked DeWyze to win, though she hoped her guess was off. "Don't get me wrong: He seems like a nice enough dude," she said. "And, I've heard his pre-'Idol' material, and it's actually pretty good. I may even buy his record when it's released this fall. But in terms of this contest — and I have to judge Lee by what he did on the 'Idol' stage — Crystal Bowersox deserved to win. Lee is easily the worst live performer to ever win the title. He's not only uncomfortable onstage, but he has problems staying in tune."
Following such a sleepy season, where ratings were down 9 percent and the finale was down 19 percent from last year, barely besting the final show of the 2002 debut season as the lowest-rated finale ever, Santilli said she was just happy it was over.
"I understand why Simon and company were pushing for Lee," she explained. "He has a more current feel than Crystal's Lilith Fair vibe, which is at least 10 years out of fashion. Lee's voice records beautifully and will sound great on the radio. They can fashion him as an adult-contemporary rocker along the lines of, say, Kings of Leon."
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