Let’s be honest: “American Idol” needed this one. Real bad. The once-unconquerable reality singing franchise is entering its twilight years (and not the hot, sexy vampire kind) and Wednesday night’s (May 21) bloated two-hour finale was the perfect chance for America to pick a winner that might re-energize the show whose average viewer was born three years after the Beatles formed.
It was the usual hurry up and wait for the results, filled with nearly a dozen duets, medleys and, once again, eyebrow-singeing thunder from Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Kiss.
But instead, America went the other direction and chose 23-year-old classic rock lover Caleb Johnson. The thickly maned southern man muscled his way through the season with a series of performances that brought back the heyday of 1980s hair metal and 1970s hesher rock and clearly America was ready to get down and boogie with him.
That left 17-year-old Jena Irene — whose mix of crowd-pleasing EDM beats and Paramore-style pop rock seemed primed for top 40 radio — in second place and “Idol” with a tough hill to climb finding a spot for meat-and-potatoes lung-buster Johnson in a market where straight-up rock is a dying breed.
The finalists, who are supposed to go to Jena’s prom together, hugged it out and Caleb could only say, “This is crazy. This is crazy.” He celebrated his win by singing a bit of his head-banging coronation anthem “As Long As You Love Me” in between a group hug with his top 10 compatriots.
Here’s what else happened in the lead up to the big moment:
Caleb and Irene opened the show with a his-hers medley of Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” (his) No Doubt’s “Just A Girl” (hers) and the Bryan Adams/Tina Turner duet “It’s Only Love.”
Sam Woolf wobbily jammed on “Home” by season 11 winner Phillip Phillips, who took over to energetically jam on his new single, “Raging Fire,” reminding viewers at home that it wasn’t that long ago that “Idol” could still mint a star.
Demi Lovato was joined by the female finalists for “Don’t Really Care/Neon Lights” and, spoiler alert, you could see why Irene totally earned her spot in the finale. Jena later joined her heroes in Paramore for a stellar solo piano run through their single “Decode” and the uptempo smash “Ain’t It Fun,” looking totally in her element during both.
And of course John Legend killed it with “You & I,” which producers gracefully let him sing solo. Eighth-place finisher Malaya Watson held her own on Legend’s perfect love song “All of Me,” which is about all you could really ask of her.
Judge Jennifer Lopez took the stage yet again this season to vamp through her bland new pop single, “First Love,” while wearing electric blue glittery lingerie dripping with fringe that jiggled in all the right places. The shameless plug was redeemed by a song-ending salsa breakdown during which the former Fly Girl showed off her still-considerable dance moves.
Paul Stanley didn’t get into the Rock Hall because of his perfect pitch, but we’re gonna go ahead and say it: Caleb might have stolen the show from pyro-loving greasepaint rockers Kiss during their two-fer “Love Gun/Shout It Out Loud.”
Darius Rucker got the short stick when he had to sing “Alright” with seventh placer Dexter Roberts and sixth placer CJ Harris, who were superfluous, at best. And… Lopez was at it again near show’s end, joining Urban, Harry Connick Jr. and mentor Randy Jackson for cutesy covers of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way.”
Caleb’s album will be out on August 12, so we’ll see if America is still feeling the heavy metal thunder in less than three months.