How Kris Allen won ‘American Idol’

05.21.09 8 years ago 10 Comments

Ray Mickshaw/FOX

On Wednesday, February 25, the second group of the “American Idol” Top 36 performed. Smack-dab in the middle of the group was a singer we’d never seen previously in the auditions or, really, the Hollywood Rounds. He performed “Man in the Mirror.” 

My first reaction to Kris Allen, on the record in our archives for all to see: “Who? How did this guy get into the Top 36, judges? This is embarrassingly middle-of-the-road, karaoke, talent-show. It’s less than middle-of-the-road. At least Nick Mitchell was joking and found ways to get away from his vocal liabilities. Kris just sings earnestly, without distinction or self-awaress, blending into the background before my eyes. Generic. He couldn’t make the Top 12 on “Canadian Idol.”

I… ummm… I’m sorry? And, in retrospect, I should probably clarify that Kris Allen was, in every way, qualified and capable of becoming “Canadian Idol.”

[More after the break.]

In my defense, I should have known something was up. Kris wasn’t the worst singer in his group or in the Top 36. But something about his performance that night rubbed me rather violently the wrong way and I tore into him with a vitriol which may, just possibly, have seemed out of proportion. I was ranting about mediocrity! Who does that? Even if you’re as filled with general cultural discomfort as I tend to be, it’s best to save the ranting for the true evils of the world.

Although I was stunned when Kris advanced the next night into the Top 13, it’s possible that I ought to have instantly recognized that what rubbed me wrong about Kris from the beginning was that America was going to love him.

Kris Allen’s appeal wasn’t only difficult for me to quantify. He almost single-handedly destroyed the credibility of the DialIdol website, usually one of the most apt “Idol” results barometers. There were weeks Kis was comfortably at the pit of the DialIdol rankings, which usually means a trip home. In those weeks, he didn’t even make the Bottom Three. The question of where those extra votes were coming from is an open one. If you want to say “Teenage girls text messaging,” I’ll accept that, but I still think there’s more to it.

Adam’s support, on the other hand, was always visible. The judges loved him. The media loved him. The judges tried swaying America to love him. The media tried to sway America to love him.

And guess what? He finished second on “American Idol.” Ryan Seacrest never gave the vote discrepancy on Wednesday’s finale, so it’s a safe bet the margin of victor was comfortable, but even if he lost in a rout, Adam finishing second on “American Idol” is a good sign that America really did love him. They just may not have loved him as much as the more vocal pundits.

Now all of the people who crowned Adam the winner weeks or months ago will have to sit down and type out columns which will boil down to “Why did America Hate Adam Lambert,” because it’s easier to turn his loss into a sign of America’s hatred for him, rather than its love for Kris Allen. 

So what are we going to say?

Not surprisingly, most writers are going to boil their arguments down to an issue when was never mentioned on the show for a single second and one which I’m hesitant to bring up myself.

Adam Lambert may very well be gay. This is something he hasn’t confirmed or denied in any way publicly. In contrast, I know Kris Allen loves women, blonde women. One blonde woman in particular. I don’t know anything about which Jonas Brother is Allison Iraheta’s favorite, nor do I know which member of the Maxim Hot 100 would be favored by Anoop Desai. They haven’t told me. I haven’t asked. And nobody in the media cares. 

They (We?) do, however, seem to want to make a test case of Adam, a test he hasn’t submitted his name for, at least not thus far, to give him a narrative of our choosing. And at least in the Internet circles I frequent, on the boards and blogs I read, there’s been almost no direct commentary on his sexuality. Instead, everybody has used very thinly veiled code-words. Adam’s “flamboyant.” Adam’s “theatrical.” Adam’s “glam.” Adam “wears an awful lot of pancake makeup and guyliner.” All three of those things could also have been said about Constantine Maroulis, who presumably was straight and yet has found a way to become a Tony nominee this year. They also could have been said about Danny Noriega last year, probably the most openly “flamboyant” and “theatrical” “American Idol” contestant of recent years. There was a lot more discomfort about Danny last year, though that discomfort had more to do with a desire to shock that was more finely honed than his ability to sing.

Adam never said a word about his sexual preference nor did he reveal anything of substance about himself, despite weekly clip packages and interview segments. Kris wasn’t all that much more forthcoming. I don’t know who either of them voted in the last election. I don’t know what they think about gay marriage, which is even less relevant to being American Idol than it is to being Miss USA.

Music is absolutely political, but “American Idol” resolutely is not. It’s no more or less political than a race for seventh grade president, which is to say that nobody’s talking about abortion rights, a flat tax or tort reform. They’re talking about throwing a dance and maybe lobbying to make the lunchroom serve pizza more frequently. Those elections are about popularity and giving people exactly what they want.

And the fact that what people want isn’t Adam Lambert has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with… well… what they want. The past couple “Idol” winners, Kris now included, have made an active push to be contemporary. Kris sang “Falling Slowly.” Kris sang “Heartless.” Adam did “Mad World” and “Cryin’,” but those weren’t his standout performances. That wasn’t where he lived.

When it came time in the finale to pair singers with appropriate Special Guest Stars, Kris got Keith Urban and he could just as easily have been allowed to sing with Jason Mraz as well. You could have put him with John Mayer or with any number or emo-type rock bands. Kris may not be the contemporary that I (or you) necessarily embrace, but he’s of a piece with more than a dozen recent chart-topping acts.

Adam is not. The judges were stupid to call him contemporary in the beginning and they were stupid to do it several times throughout the competition, but maybe they just wanted the audience to believe it. Adam is not and was not contemporary and we saw that whenever he did something like “Whole Lotta Love,” where the segue into anthemic ’60s or ’70s or even ’80s rock was as natural as getting out of bed in the morning. When the producers got Adam his Special Guest Star buddy, he got Kiss and it was excellent in every way except for a key one: It wasn’t contemporary in the least. When Adam and Kris did their lone Top Two duet, they paired on Queen’s “We Are the Champions” and, again, singing within the parameters of that classic rock song, Adam gave Kris a smackdown. It wasn’t close and the producers knew it, giving Kris the bland verses and letting Adam bust loose on the choruses. You could send Adam out on the road tomorrow with various members of Queen and other replacement parts and audiences at stadiums around the world would love what they saw, but you know what it wouldn’t be? Contemporary. 

Red State versus Blue State? I actually read reputable journalists at reputable papers suggesting that conservative votes might give Kris Allen the crown, thwarting the intentions of liberal-minded Adam Lambert fans. Bunk-o-la. Well, unless somebody wants to go and give a deep demographic study of “American Idol” voting results, which would be completely impossible, since FOX, like the Oscars, doesn’t release detailed vote tabulation. So I don’t know if Kris is huge in Utah and Alabama and Alaska and if Adam draws most of his support from Massachusetts and urban California. That could be the case. I don’t know and I’m not about to start making statistics up just to hear myself pontificate.

Kris’ ability to make his music comfortable and middle-brow was the sort of thing I’d compare to a James Taylor, to a Jackson Browne. Unless I’m misremembering, James Taylor and Jackson Browne are Blue State sortta guys.

Kris appealed to a very simple desire to have every song, regardless of the genre, churned out into likable, unintimidating cheese. Adam appealed to a desire to make every song, however strange, sound like some sort of wounded primal yell. America likes comforting and bland. It’s got nothing to do with Red or Blue. Just with edgy versus smooth. America goes back and forth on being liberal or conservative on the political spectrum, but we’re a reliably smooth nation musically. Yes, you can always find excellent and edgy music on the periphery, but “American Idol” is not a peripheral show. 

That’s at the heart of why Kris Allen won, not some vast homophobic conspiracy and not America not being ready for a personality like Adam. America is very much ready for a personality like Adam. What I would have given, tonight, to have Adam’s Special Celebrity Guest be Rufus Wainwright, a consummate performer who’s “theatrical” and “flamboyant,” but also fairly successful. But only “fairly successful.” He’s not “American Idol” successful. As we learned tonight, “American Idol” successful is Rod Stewart, whose voice is so shot he can barely sing a note. The platform of “American Idol” isn’t built for a skill-set like Adam Lambert’s and the fact that he made it to the Top Two is a reflection of what a frequently awesome talent he is.

But Kris Allen isn’t bad. In fact, calling him a “Canadian Idol”-style “American Idol” might be both damning, but also complimentary. He’s right-down-the-middle. He sang country. He sang rock. He sang Kanye West. And he made them all sound pleasant and identical. Are you a guitar fan? He plays the guitar! Are you a piano fan? He plays the piano! If Americans were more prone to liking flute solos in their music, I have a hunch that Kris would figure out a way to play the flute. The boy aimed to please and looked like a CW star, or, at the very least like an old FOX star from the days of the original “90210” and “The Heights.”

With the exception of the awful coronation song, he had barely a single pitchy moment the entire season. He also had barely a single memorable power note or vocal flourish all season. He wasn’t the anti-Adam, more like the anti-Matt Giraud, who kept forcing his limited voice into places it couldn’t go. While Adam was loved by many people, liked by some and hated by lots, Kris was loved by some, liked by nearly everybody and hated by virtually nobody. That’s the path to “American Idol” stardom this season and I happen to believe that it was a reaction in Kris’ favor and not against Adam.

Oh yeah and maybe people with more aggressive dialing fingers just preferred Kris’ voice to Adam’s voice on Tuesday night. Crazy, I know. But what’s the fun in telling that narrative?

But that’s just me. And I’ve been wrong before [see above]. What do you think?

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