American Idol: Revenge of the Troubadours

Hallelujah! They’ve lived the dream of performing on national television, being honored in hometown parades, and making appearances at their local AT&T; stores. After all that glory does it really matter who wins American Idol?

Maybe I’m amazed that it has come down to Crystal Bowersox and Lee DeWyze, although this result has seemed pre-ordained for weeks now. Once Siobhan Magnus underestimated her talent and decided that the only thing she had going for her was a big note that may be responsible for the recent increase in earthquakes around the world, the door opened wide for Lee.

Viewers have loved to complain about this year’s Idol and lots of people have decided that it’s the worst season ever. This is just human nature. Way back when in the days when I wrote about Pope Urban and not Tim Urban, a history professor said that every generation has the notion that they’re the last generation on Earth. We’re hardwired for doom.

This season on Idol has lacked two things: drama and depth of talent. I am virtually devoid of prognostication skills, yet with the exception of the DeWyze Ascension, I had picked the final four back in March. And even then Lee was coming on as a contender.

A few of the Top 12 had their Mini-Moments along the way, but I don’t know anyone who thought of Didi Benami as a serious challenger. Andrew Garcia coasted for a long time on one song, and after a certain point I resigned myself to the idea that Tim Urban would have his run. We just had to be patient and wait for his eventual demise. The single most dramatic moment all season was the judges' saving of Michael Lynche—and considering the competition, he richly deserved it.

Lee benefited from a steady improvement and a growing momentum that boosted his confidence and also led to the sense that he had an Idol-worthy narrative: paint store clerk filled with doubt discovers just how talented he is and becomes a star. The judges, especially Simon, embraced that—and no other contestant had an arc that could compare. And when you look at past winners like David Cook and Kris Allen, the show’s voters seem to love it when someone turns out to be much better than expected. By contrast, Crystal has played front-runner all season. If anything, she peaked at the beginning when it became immediately apparent that she was both authentic and probably the most purely talented of the lot.

Memories are short. Yes, this year lacked an Adam Lambert, a contestant who was going to do something buzzworthy every week, or at least spectacularly crash and burn in the process. But look back and you realize that most seasons on American Idol come down to three or four serious contestants who have a chance to go on to successful careers. Then it’s a bunch of others who are going to struggle once they’re off the show. Anoop Desai? Anthony Federov? Anyone? Anyone?

It wasn’t that long ago that Crystal and Lee wouldn’t have auditioned for Idol. Remember, for years Idol contestants couldn’t even play instruments. This season marks the Revenge of the Troubadours. Both Crystal and Lee are rooted in a ‘70s and/or singer-songwriter sensibility. Today I saw a story on the LA Times website where they identified the soundtrack of their lives. Lee picked Cat Stevens, Simon & Garfunkel, and Pink Floyd. Crystal went with Melissa Etheridge, Jewel, and Ray LaMontagne.

That doesn’t exactly lead to a dramatic clash of styles for the finale, nor did Casey James offer much of an alternative. But after being Biebered and Keshaed and Gagaed by guest performances on Idol this season, all I can say is yes, hallelujah for Crystal and Lee. Because at least they get up there and do what they’re supposed to do: Sing the damn song like you mean it.

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