In the pantheon of poor predictions in world history, you can now add my name. Hey, everyone needs to be known for something.
Back when the 36 American Idol semifinalists were announced in February, I took a stab at rating everyone based on their likelihood of eventually taking home the crown. Way down in 34th place, ahead of only the two semifinalists who had no previous airtime at all, I had this to say about someone named Kris Allen: "He's too bland to be memorable." After the field had been reduced to eleven, I predicted Kris would finish ... uh, tenth, saying "it would be a miracle if he's still around in a month."
It didn't quite work out that way, as Kris is now the eighth American Idol, defeating season-long frontrunner Adam Lambert. As my earliest comments on him prove, his success has overturned everything we knew about how Idol stars are made. The show has always singled out its major contenders early on and promoted them from the time of their audition, making Kris the first true longshot to ever win, and the first who is completely out of place on the sort of bombastic ballads that have always been the Idol stock in trade.
How to explain this victory? Unlike the biggest fluke winner prior to this season, Taylor Hicks, Kris had neither a dynamic performing style nor an instant gimmick like Taylor's gray hair. I suppose there are two major factors at work here, the first being that Kris seized the mantle of being the most musically inventive performer in the finals. The only other finalists who frequently played an instrument, Scott McIntyre and Matt Giraud, were too weak as singers to plausibly win the competition, leaving fans of that approach with Kris as their one option. Essentially, it was the David Cook playbook, and one has to wonder if merely getting up and singing will ever be enough to win Idol again.
The other thing favoring Kris is that he wasn't Adam, who in the end proved to be too polarizing to pick up the new fans he needed in order to win, despite a run of excellence that ranked with anyone in Idol history, and a finale night that saw him fronting both KISS and Queen and not looking a tad out of place. As to why Adam, who was every bit as soft-spoken and pleasant as Kris, proved to be so polarizing, that will be the one Idol topic anyone is going to be talking about until the tour starts. Certainly there were those who disliked his flamboyant performing style and upper-register pyrotechnics, in the same way Fantasia's gospel stylings made her anathema to many fans. And there's little question that those who delight in tweaking authority had begun to resent Adam's backing from the Idol machine and the media.
But it can't be overlooked that much Idol commentary all season long had pointed toward a May culture war showdown, with Adam representing the side that's west coast, secular, hedonistic, and (presumably) gay. Midwestern widower and Christian music director Danny Gokey had been Adam's presumed antagonist for this showdown, but after he was ousted last week, Kris became slotted into the "red state" role (it must be said, without Kris's apparent acquiescence -- he and Adam seem to be sincere friends, much more so, ironically, than Kris and Danny). The likes of Bill O'Reilly became interested in Idol, and not because he cares anything about music. This is the sort of fight that can never favor the person in the Adam role, regardless of talent. Perhaps some day that change is gonna come, but not on American Idol in 2009.
America might have an inexplicable call on its winner, but the season finale proved to be a decent show as these things go, and the time overrun was an almost reasonable seven minutes. It's always good to see the defeated finalists again, both those who left too soon like Alexis Grace and those whose musical future is mostly in the past like Megan Joy (who teamed with Michael Sarver on a wacked-out folk duet accompanied by Steve Martin on banjo). The production numbers were their usual cheesetastic selves. A particular lowlight was Michael and Danny taking the lead on Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy," the answer to which is NO.
Kris's performing highlight came when he was teamed with Keith Urban on "Kiss a Girl." Despite his Arkansas roots, Kris had not done country all season other than Grand Ole Opry week, but he more than kept up with Urban, raising hopes he might someday venture into the more progressive segment of the country scene. As for Adam's KISS medley, he is far and away a better vocalist than Paul Stanley or Gene Simmons, and he made it the highlight of the night -- I say this as someone who never enlisted in the KISS Army. And as for my very special Season Eight favorite, Allison Iraheta proved her awesomeness yet again by teaming with a dulcimer-playing Cyndi Lauper on "Time After Time." I had figured this as a lazy choice by the producers -- "Say! Let's team the girl with fuchsia hair with someone who used to have that color hair!" -- but the women made subdued magic.
Before we run out of time for this finale and this season, I also have to mention Kara DioGuardi showing up Katrina "Bikini Girl" Darrell, who had received one of the facetious Idol awards for bad behavior, complete with her new breasts. Kara not only outsang Bikini Girl on "Vision of Love," but flashed her own bikini bod in the process. And I hate to say this about a legend, but Rod Stewart should never sing in public again -- his voice is that awful. That he did an easy listening version of "Maggie May," a song from the perspective of a college student, only made matters seem more pathetic.
Kris celebrated being named the winner by sheepishly saying that Adam should have won, which is fitting for someone who does seem genuinely modest and who was always being criticized for lack of swagger by Simon Cowell. He then had the task of singing the coronation disaster "No Boundaries" again. Nothing good in life comes without a price.
So what happens now? Adam might not sell a lot of CDs, but he'll never have problems selling tickets when he performs live, whether in theater or in concert. And as for Kris? In keeping with his status as the most mysterious Idol of them all, predicting his future seems almost impossible right now. People like him, and if he hooks up with great songwriters (or can write himself), he has a chance. But he's never shown the star quality inherent in the term idol, and I doubt he'll start now, despite the title.