Did America Get It Wrong?
For weeks, now, Adam Lambert has been proclaimed the preordained holder of the American Idol crown. He fit the bill, too: powerful vocals, huge personality, determined glint in his eye. Adam singing a cheesy victory song with confetti raining down around him at the Nokia seemed a foregone conclusion.
Then Ryan opened the envelope and read the winner’s name: Kris Allen. The guy from Arkansas, the boy next door, the “dark horse” takes home the crown.
How did it happen? Even before the confetti began to fall online message boards were throwing accusations around: “Did people not vote for Adam because he might be gay?,” “They must have messed up the tally!,” etc. Shall we shut the door on the accusations straight away? America voted. America got what it wanted.
Surprisingly, perhaps, for Simon Cowell, America doesn’t want Whitney, Celine, or Mariah anymore. Paula Abdul might be shocked to learn that glam rock is no longer in style. Randy could be mistaken in thinking that vocal ability is all it takes to make a star. Kara may be surprised to discover that “artistry” has been redefined in recent days.
I’m not trying to put anyone down. I love classic rock and glam rock. I recognize the powerhouse vocals of the divas of the late 20th Century. I state unequivocally that Adam Lambert is an amazing vocalist.
But I think America has chosen from its heart, rather from nostalgia or homage to ability. The past six months have been tough ones for this country. The economy is in bad shape, the promised change is not as quick to arrive as the voters expected it to be, friends and loved ones are still in danger in Iraq and Afghanistan. American Idol has played its role admirably this season. It has been an escape.
For a season that so many found difficult to “get into,” Idol has, in recent weeks particularly, become a nail-bitingly close competition between remarkably different contestants. The final five could not have been more individually unique: Matt, the jazz singer; Allison, the rocker; Danny, the crooner; Adam, the glam; and Kris, the boy with his guitar. Yet their performances on Rat Pack night were almost equally good. There wasn’t a let-down in the bunch. Matt went home, but it wasn’t because of “My Funny Valentine,” the jazz classic. Allison the rocker went home in Rock week, singing Janis Joplin’s “Cry Baby” with a passion that rivaled the original. Danny left after crooning “You Are So Beautiful.” Each went out on a high note.
The same could be said of Adam. While I found his vocal stylings awe-inspiring from the get-go, I have to say I struggled to be an Adam fan. His pattern of back-and-forth manic-and-maudlin performances got dull after the first few. He is a man of extremes: screaming (perfectly on pitch) the lyrics to “Whole Lotta Love” or delicately handling “Tracks of My Tears” in a falsetto, Adam rarely used the middle ground. But in his final performances, he found the center, singing “A Change is Gonna Come” with a strong, full, restrained voice. Even so, Adam didn’t take the crown. America voted for Kris.
When his name was read, Kris seemed shocked. “Adam deserves this,” he said. “I’m sorry.” He was right. That said, he deserved it no less himself. Both men had week upon week of solid performances. Both men had a slight misstep (Adam with “Ring of Fire,” Kris with “All She Wants to Do is Dance”), both an “off” performance (Adam’s “One,” Kris’s “The Way You Look Tonight”).
The difference between the two is the difference between the entertainer and the everyman. Adam is entertaining. No matter whether you loved him or hated him, you watched, just to see what he would do next. Every performance was expertly crafted, so well that the stitches were invisible, but crafted nonetheless. His confident attitude assured us we were in the hands of a proficient. Kris, on the other hand, is everyman. He picked up his guitar or sat down at his piano just like he would in your living room, with gentle, but complete, authority. He understood that he couldn’t compete with the belting power of Adam, or Allison, or even Lil, so instead he imbued his performances with a quiet, moving passion. His humility, so annoying to Simon Cowell, made everyone else smile; his genuine surprise at his success brought joy to everyone watching.
America chose the everyman. With Adam, a distance was created: he was the performer, we were his audience. We reveled in our role, for who doesn’t like to be audience to a great performance? But we didn’t intimately connect with this entertainer, who, after all, seems by all accounts to also be a really nice guy. He was confident, but never cocky. He was polished, but grateful for good advice. He pointed the spotlight upon those who helped him and those he worked with. All this and a great voice, yet Adam’s not the American Idol.
Instead, the American Idol is the guy who said, “Don’t cry, Momma,” when mothers around the country are shedding tears over how to pay next month’s bills. He’s the guy who sang about hopefully pointing a sinking boat toward home when families are trying to keep from drowning in their troubles. He put aside the band and the back-up singers and invited us to join him as he sang. Instead of his audience, we were his listeners, and we heard greatness in the quietude.
2009 is the year that a little movie about choosing love over money took home the Oscar. 2009 is the year that Kris Allen became the American Idol. Both things you wouldn’t expect in a country looking for escape.
Did America get it right? Did the best man win, or even the better man? Let’s set aside the superlatives. They don’t seem to matter at all this morning. Both Kris and Adam deserve their moments of glory. If 19 Entertainment has any foresight at all they’ll give both record deals, because America still loves the diversion of the entertainer, even when our heartstrings are tugged by the decent humility of the everyman.