On Wednesday night Lee DeWyze became the ninth winner of “American Idol,” capping its evolution from talent competition to makeover show.
At the beginning of the season Mr. DeWyze was fidgety and reserved, a coiled singer who could unleash the occasional furious note but not without seeming slightly embarrassed about it afterward.
Crystal Bowersox, this season’s runner-up, was a demure, rigorously unflashy singer whom Simon Cowell once likened to a subway-station busker. For weeks she was the favorite, then failed to continue outdoing herself. Meanwhile Mr. DeWyze traveled the space from shy underdog to world killer, forcefully ascendant enough to overcome Ms. Bowersox, who during Tuesday night’s final showdown easily outsang and outcharmed him, to no avail.
What she couldn’t do was out-narrative Mr. DeWyze — a former paint-shop employee, as Mr. Cowell frequently noted. As with last season’s winner, Kris Allen, Mr. DeWyze gave the impression of needing to be nurtured, an on-stage introvert who rarely appeared comfortable. So disconnected was he from many of the songs he chose that it felt as if he was singing transliterations, making sure to get the syllables right but not the feeling that linked them together.
Mr. DeWyze is the third consecutive “Idol” winner — after David Cook and Kris Allen — specializing in middlebrow, nominally anguished, featureless rock, an odd turn for a show that openly seeks big-tent pop stars, and has almost never found one.
Wednesday night’s season finale felt like a series finale. It was the last night for Mr. Cowell, the anchor of the show’s judging table and easily its most magnetic force. Next year he will be the executive producer and will appear on a new singing competition, “The X Factor,” also on Fox.
One of Wednesday’s moments of unintentional comedy was the billing of Mr. Cowell, in a clip shown from an early episode of “Idol,” as “U.K. Record Executive.” Addressing a room of hopefuls, he said, “One of you here today is going to be the most famous person in America, the American Idol.”
At the time it seemed like lunacy but now seems prescient, thanks in large part to Mr. Cowell, who is not only the “king maker” Ricky Gervais described him as in a video tribute, but also an astute marketer and molder of image. His pathological truth-telling proved to be addictive — great television, if not always a guarantee of recording career success for the show’s winners.
This season, one of the show’s least impressive, marked the emergence of the normally prickly Mr. Cowell as an unexpected father figure. Throughout Tuesday’s final competition he bathed Mr. DeWyze, who was having a rough night, in affirmations. After his second number, the R.E.M. song “Everybody Hurts,” Mr. Cowell told him, “When you come out for your last performance, I want a 10 out of 10, because you’re capable of it.” After Mr. DeWyze fumbled U2’s “Beautiful Day,” which will be his debut single, Mr. Cowell didn’t even bother with a critique: “You’ve worked hard, you’ve remained a really, really nice person throughout, and I genuinely wish the best for you. You’re a great guy.”
Equivocate much? Over the last decade that has not been Mr. Cowell’s preferred mode, but this season, announced as his last before the first episodes were broadcast, he has appeared uninterested and was sometimes mute. And often, when he was giving critiques, the band interrupted him and played him off, like a longwinded winner of a Best Sound Editing Oscar, not the most significant pop music figure in recent television memory.
Unfortunately, this was the season that could have benefited from Mr. Cowell’s acid tongue the most. The finale was a battle of two recent alternative-pop eras: the rootsy feminism of the early-to-mid-1990s and the bruised post-grunge of the late 1990s and early 2000s, modes that haven’t been gone long enough to have fully faded from the pop consciousness.
The result was a showdown that felt vaguely distant and, even during Ms. Bowersox’s high points, largely unremarkable. Week after week she bested Mr. DeWyze, who often appeared to be singing songs to himself. (Was it an inside joke to have him sing the opening bars of “With a Little Help From My Friends” — What would you do/If I sang out of tune?” — given his season-long struggles with pitch?)
Other contestants with particular charm had been eliminated long before the finale: the gloriously theatrical and unerringly odd Siobhan Magnus, the failed pop savant Andrew Garcia, even the shoulder-shrugging goofball Tim Urban. (Surprisingly, Wednesday night’s most redeemed contestant was Katie Stevens, an early star this season, who appeared emboldened by her early dismissal from the competition.)
And tragically, this year’s most memorable and lasting performance may have been the novelty song “Pants on the Ground,” performed by Larry Platt in an audition. He appeared on Wednesday’s finale, naturally, alongside another one of the show’s great oddities, the tuneless William Hung.
It was no stranger a duet pairing than many of the night’s other performances, which matched this season’s contestants with the favorite musicians of their parents’ generation. The male pop stars brought out for these duets — Joe Cocker, Alice Cooper, the Bee Gees and more — had an average age of about 60. The women — Christina Aguilera, Janet Jackson, Alanis Morissette — skewed younger, but, apart from Ms. Aguilera, were not current pop threats.
The juxtapositions were jarring, though by now they are an “Idol” tradition. Wednesday night was about Mr. Cowell, though, filled with slapdash tributes notable mostly for the appearance of the former “Idol” judge Paula Abdul with whom he often jousted — “Through all the ups and downs of our relationship, he actually taught me to be very strong, and for that I’m grateful,” she said — and for early clips of Mr. Cowell, when his hairstyle and sartorial choices merely seemed like poor taste, not trademarks.
“The show goes forward,” Mr. Cowell said, not appearing regretful in the least. “It will be different.”
Certainly, with him gone, its legacy will be dissected and analyzed, a process made easier by Wednesday’s show, which was an all-season class reunion of champions and misfits, including performances by all prior winners, except David Cook, who was …where, exactly? It revealed “Idol” history to be a mixed bag: Kelly Clarkson is a bona fide pop star, albeit a reluctant one. Carrie Underwood is one of the most important figures in country music. Others have appeared on Broadway, in reality shows and, when invited, on “American Idol” season finales.
Mr. Cowell engaged in false modesty, or deflected the blame. He said to the audience, “When everyone asks, ‘Who’s going to replace me, who’s going to be the next judge?,’ the truth is you guys are the judge of this show, and you’ve done an incredible job over the years.”
The star power of the “Idol” judging table is now left in the limp hands of Ellen DeGeneres, who began this season promisingly but quickly retreated behind a haze of lazy puns and peculiar metaphors.
It’s probably no coincidence, though, that she recently announced that she’s forming a record label, with the recent YouTube sensation Greyson Chance as her first artist. In one fell swoop she becomes a record industry force on the “Idol” judging table (alongside Kara DioGuardi, who is a songwriter and an A&R executive for Warner Brothers) and also a modern, flexible talent scout, latching on to a newer, fresher way of finding stars. It probably beats sitting behind a table on some old clunky television show beginning to buckle under its own weight and with a captain that just jumped ship.
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