Season 9 Finale: In Defence of Kris Allen
May 26th, 2010
I’ve got a lot to say about this season of American Idol and the future of the franchise without Simon Cowell, but I’m going to be saving those for a Jive TV column in the coming days. However, since that piece will be more wide-reaching than tonight’s results, I want to comment briefly on two things.
The first is that, in case you didn’t notice it, Idol got a rare insurrection from quality music when Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago” was used to soundtrack the package of Lee and Crystal’s auditions in Chicago and their Idol journey. I would highly suggest you look up Sufjan if you have not been privy to his music in the past, as “Illinois” (the album on which the song is featured) was truly a revelation for me.
The second is that I think people are falling prey to an easy but ultimately false analogy when it comes to tonight’s results. Kris Allen was, in fact, the eighth American Idol, and there are plenty of arguments to be made that Adam Lambert deserved to win that season, but I think we need to make a distinction between “relatively” undeserving winners and undeserving winners.
[That's more or less a spoiler, but I figure that if you read this blog and have been watching enough to understand that it's a spoiler, you probably found out already, so come back after the break and I can defend Kris Allen some more.]
I am not really a “fan” of Kris Allen, but in the context of American Idol he was a quality contestant: he was willing to play around with arrangements, he picked songs which suited his voice and which didn’t offend my sensibilities, and he remained humble and confident throughout the competition. Yes, in the same season Adam Lambert staked his claim as the most original Idol contest of all time and likely deserved to win for taking the risks he did, but Kris Allen was a deserving winner of a theoretical American Idol competition independent of Lambert’s performance.
We cannot, just so we’re clear, say the same thing of Lee DeWyze, unquestionably the worst winner in the series’ history. Now, I would actually rather listen to DeWyze than Taylor Hicks – the new American Idol equivalent to Sophie’s Choice, right there – but at least Hicks was good at what he did even if I have absolutely no interest in it. By comparison, DeWyze is wholly unoriginal, woefully off-key, and worst of all has absolutely no charisma. When the show gave him U2’s “Beautiful Day” as a single, it was the worst thing they could have done to him: already a weak performer, the comparison with Bono of all people was the death knell. At least if DeWyze had been saddled with one of the series’ usual sappy ballads they could have hid his inability to sing on-key beneath the treacle, but here is a good song from a great band being massacred in front of twenty million people.
And Kris Allen was never that terrible, or even below average: sure, he emerged from the semi-finals based entirely on his looks (since they did the weird semi-final setup where contestants were put through to the finals based on a single performance), but after that point he brought it to the table and became a contender. By comparison, the show manufactured Lee into a contender, eventually succeeding in their goal to create a competitor for Crystal Bowersox, she of the powerful voice, engaging stage presence, and professionalism. However, they did not have the technology available to get Lee to avoid looking like a deer in the headlights, nor could they teach him how to properly sustain a note without mangling it to death.
Lee DeWyze will have some hit singles and get some radio play, and in some ways he’ll be better off now than he was in the competition: he won’t have to sing songs where he has to sustain long notes if he doesn’t want to, and no one can see you stare blankly and avoid eye contact when you’re on the radio. And perhaps you could even say that Crystal Bowersox is better off without the pressure of being American Idol, able to chart her own path towards music industry success on (relatively) her own terms.
But I think we need to resist the comparison to last year’s results, both because Kris Allen deserves more respect and because every season of American Idol is different. Last season, Adam lost because he polarized the audience and Allen was a more wholesome alternative: this season, the judges were forced to turn Lee Dewyze into the underdog everyman in order to make it seem like anyone was even in Crystal’s league. More than in any past season, Lee Dewyze was not so much plucked from obscurity as he was plucked from obscurity and then placed on a pedestal a good six or seven weeks before contestants are traditionally put into that position.
I’m not suggesting there aren’t comparisons to be made: you could argue that Adam and Crystal were victims of subconscious (or potentially conscious) discrimination by the voting public for being gay and an unwed mother, respectively, and the similarities between DeWyze and Allen (both white, both playing guitars) continue a trend that goes back to David Cook’s win the year before. However, I feel like Lee DeWyze has done enough damage, and the idea that his performance would retroactively turn Kris Allen into a comparative performer in the eyes of America is enough of an injustice that I would use it as a framework in which to publicly vent my frustration with just how terrible I think Lee was last night.
Perhaps the more positive thing to do would be to write about how Crystal Bowersox was robbed, or how the American public got it wrong, but Simon was right: America is the real judge of this show, and they’ve made their choice. I thought Crystal was fantastic, and was consistently better on tonight’s show as well, but that can’t be changed: Kris Allen’s reputation, however, hangs in the balance, and someone had to do something about it.
- Interesting that the Idol finale would skew quite so…old. Hall & Oates, Chicago, Joe Cocker, The Bee Gees, Michael McDonald? The show’s demo ratings were bad enough this year, so I don’t quite get those decisions. Throw in Alanis Morissette and Christina Aguilera, who have both faded from the public eye, and an overlong lip-synching Janet Jackson, and you have an Idol finale that could have seriously taken place a decade ago if not for the previous Idol winners (Allen, Underwood). I’m sure kids had their pants on the ground back in 1999, as well.
- The one major difference is that Bret Michaels’ wouldn’t have gotten a standing ovation for walking onto the stage: I was glad the show didn’t actually make note of his recent health troubles upon his arrival, allowing the moment to just speak for itself, although I wonder if some viewers might have been really confused by the audience’s reaction to the lead singer of Poison.
- I note the anachronistic nature of Alanis Morissette above, but I was so very pleased that Crystal didn’t have to keep singing “Ironic” and got to rock out on “You Oughta Know” instead.
- Paula Abdul making her return to send off Simon was nice (I’ll talk more about Simon’s departure in the column), but Abdul’s terrible comedy act was one of many uncomfortable moments (see also: Dane Cook) as the judges tried to simultaneously roast and celebrate Cowell. Abdul is no comedienne, and the way she turned the show into the Paula Abdul show was a stark reminder of how Ellen, at the very least, has the decency to keep the grandstanding to her own talk show. The only person who pulled it off was Gervais, and only because it was pre-taped – live, it would have been the Golden Globes all over again.