Tuned In

Idol Watch: The Pro and the Underpuppy

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Spoilers for last night’s American Idol finale after the jump:

Well, I called it. I can’t say I was actually confident in my call, but I did call it. And let me be clear: while Adam may have been my guy, it was no travesty that Kris Allen won American Idol. He was a sweet guy with good musical taste and a pleasant croon who could connect intimately with the audience. His coffeehouse style was too decaf for me, but that’s just personal taste; he still had a style and knew what it was. And he had those eyes. I know that sounds like faint praise, but it’s not. That’s pop-star appeal. American Idol is a pop-star contest. QED. 

But why did Kris win over the guy whom critics, oddsmakers and essentially Idol itself had been calling the favorite for weeks?

Well, for starters, it’s not entirely clear Adam was the favorite. If dialidol.com is to be trusted, for instance, Kris outpolled Adam some weeks. 

But that was the perception, and, very likely, a big factor in Kris’ favor. American Idol, I’ve said before, likes singers who tell a story—not just through their songs, but who tell the meta-story of their journey on the show. Kris was the underdog—the underpuppydog—who went into his audition telling the judges he was probably not the best singer out there. Over the season, he grew in stage presence and seeming confidence, creating a narrative of a sweet guy next door blossoming before our eyes. 

On the other hand, through no fault of Adam’s, Idol practically did all it could to make him War Admiral to Kris’ Seabiscuit. From Katy Perry’s “Adam Lambert” outfit to Adam’s staging and the final duet selection (you do not pick Queen because Kris Allen reminds you of Freddie Mercury), I was an Adam fan and even I felt like his coronation was being pushed on me.

Add that to the fact that Adam started off polished—”too professional,” some detractors said, pointing to his theater experience—and his talent may have been kind of a liability. No arc. People like to root for the tortoise over the hare; there is a sense, maybe, that if your gift seems to come easily to you, you must not be working hard. And vice versa: Kris is very gifted himself, but in contrast, came off as the guy struggling to overcome long odds.  

Then again, there was simply the music. Adam was easily a stronger singer, but he was also histrionic and provocative, and thus a love-hate contestant. Maybe you loved his showmanship and vocal dynamics; maybe you thought he was cornball and gave you a headache. But there could not have been many Idol fans who didn’t have a strong feeling about Adam one way or another.

Kris, on the other hand, defined likeable: pop fans could like him because he sounded like John Mayer, indie fans could like his choosing a song like the obscure “Falling Slowly.”

I almost hate to bring it up, but it’s going to come up in the aftermath: was America not ready to vote for an Idol who was (at least reputed and implied to be) gay? (I have a feeling pundits across the country are repurposing the “Why Obama Lost” columns they never got to use.)

As I’ve written before, I doubt it. I can’t say it didn’t make any difference: in a tight vote, by definition, everything makes a difference.

But were there many people out there who voted against Adam because of it? Actually, that’s not the question. The question is how many people who would otherwise have voted for Adam voted against him because of it. That would seem to be a smaller group, simply because the set of people who would let homophobia determine their Idol vote—and I hope it’s a small one, anyway—likely includes culturally conservative voters who wouldn’t like flamboyant, gender-bending glitter rock even coming from a straight guy with eyeliner. 

I suppose there is an indirect way this could have hurt Adam: if Idol voters like a story, and if Adam were, for the sake of argument, playing coy with his sexuality (as opposed to the married Kris), then there is by definition a part of his story that he’s not sharing. This might have added to the sense that Adam was distant and withholding—that he was calculated and ironic where Kris was open and earnest—and thus not connecting as well as Kris.

Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it was just their music that created the impression. And their music, in turn is a reflection of them: all of them, not just their sexuality. In the end, performers—and their fans—are complicated, and it’s not really so easy to separate one aspect of them from the others. Liking a pop singer is finally a gut decision, and Kris got to more voters on a gut level than Adam did. 

That’s the thing about pop music, for better or worse: It is popular. Therefore, a pop music contest is self-justifying. By definition, your gut is always right. This week, America’s gut wanted Kris, and I’m fine with that.

But I’m also glad we had surprising, showboating Adam the last few months, to give us a punch in that gut.