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Idol Watch: Hello Idol, Goodbye Simon

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Spoilers for the finale of 2010’s American Idol, after the jump:

Let’s get the unimportant stuff out of the way first: Lee DeWyze won American Idol, and Crystal Bowersox lost. Although I’d picked Crystal to win earlier in the season, for the past few weeks it had become clear that Lee was the favorite to take the show, dominating the vote with a hardcore following of young phoners and texters, who kept him on top even after the judges basically called last night a knockout for Crystal.

I’m sure Crystal fans are crying foul—and I definitely preferred her to Lee—but the fact is, American Idol is not the Super Bowl. It is not won or lost on the last game. You are not morally obligated to vote for the person you believe sang best on the final night; it’s completely legitimate to vote for someone because you preferred them the rest of the season.

The only qualification for becoming American Idol is: more voters want you to be the American Idol. Lee won, Q.E.D. And Crystal has done herself as much good as she would have by winning, anyway. Ask 100 people who won Idols season 2 and 8, and I’m guessing a majority will say Clay Aiken and Adam Lambert.

So that was that, and we can now all wait until we’re able to buy a workmanlike cover of “Beautiful Day” on iTunes. Hurrah. The bigger news in Idol-land, though, was the departure of Simon Cowell, whose leaving made the season finale feel more like a series finale.

Don’t get me wrong; I believe that Idol will continue of the air for a few years—maybe for many years. But it feels like Idol as we know it is done—and maybe none too soon, as Simon leaves on the heels of perhaps the least exciting round of competition ever.(He’ll be back, and still in business with Fox, with the seemingly quite similar The X-Factor in 2011.)

So Idol saw Simon off, with a string of tributes that demonstrated both what a force he has been on the show, and what a freakshow Idol has been over the years. Dane Cook came onstage to sing some of Simon’s insults set to music, then was joined on stage by several famous rejects who had been dissed by Cowell—one of whom grabbed the mic in what he himself called a “Kanye moment.” This in turn led some other rejectees to try to grab the mic from him, as the camera awkwardly cut away, leaving them to wrestle over the fame totem like hungry hyenas scrapping over a bone in some ill-maintained zoo.

Paula Abdul even came out to say goodbye to Simon, giving a speech that veered between corny jokes (“There’s a baby back there with Simon’s haircut and sweetheart, it’s your turn to feed him”) and self-deprecation (the show won’t be the same without Simon, “but as only I can tell you, it will go on”). Her appearance was a reminder that, loopy as she could be, she brought personality and unpredictability to the show—mixed with moments of lucidity—that Idol has not been able to replace.

The kicker was a grand sing-off by dozens of former Idols (including, if my count is right, every winner but David Cook). Rows and rows of aspirants came on stage in white shirts, a beatific lineup that made me think they would open a door and lead Simon into the light, as on the finale of Lost.

It is actually, quite a thing that in a few days, we should lose Lost, 24 and at least the Simon Cowell iteration of Idol: it’s as if suddenly, the 2000s are truly and permanently ended. With American Idol already in a sort of identity crisis, and Ellen DeGeneres not really filling Cowell’s shoes on the bench, it will be interesting to see whether the show can get its old edge back, or find a new one. This show can make a new Idol every spring, after all. making a new iconoclast is not so easy.