‘American Idol’: Why the winner won

05.26.10 9 years ago 57 Comments

For the sake of viewers on the West Coast, I’m not going to reveal the winner of “American Idol” until after the jump. But if you click through, you will be pretty immediately spoiled on who won, and my thoughts as to why. And don’t forget to read Dan Fienberg’s minute-by-minute recap of the finale

On Tuesday night, the final “American Idol” performance night of the ninth season, Lee Dewyze came out for his first song looking visibly nervous and the judges complained about his low energy level. On his second song, he took a large part of the melody behind a woodshed and strangled it, and the judges said that they loved his passion even though he never hits all the notes. His third vocal was even worse than the first two, and Simon Cowell – who after song two told Lee he expected a “10 out of 10” for the third, but who was clearly trying to be gracious in his final critiques of the series – barely discussed the performance at all and instead talked about how Lee symbolizes the power of the show.

So that’s three mediocre-to-bad performances on the night that allegedly would decide who won this season. Ladies and gentlemen, your new “American Idol” champion… Lee Dewyze!

Look, we all know “Idol” isn’t a singing competition. It’s a fanbase competition. That some seasons have been won by the best singer is more of a happy accident than a sign that the audience votes based on talent. But viewers pick their horses early, sometimes based on how well they sing, sometimes based on relatability, personality, cuteness, shared geography or what have you.

Lee had several big advantages over Crystal Bowersox, even though he wasn’t as good a singer or remotely in her league as a stage performer. (The judges kept talking up his improvement over the season, but he had the same deer-in-headlights quality on Tuesday that he had back in the semi-finals; the only part of the false underdog narrative that had any truth was that he got a better haircut and wardrobe.)

First, he’s a white guy who plays the guitar, and that seems to be the way the voters are trending of late, based on previous wins by Kris Allen and David Cook. This was supposed to be “the year of the girl” according to the judges and producers, but voters instead got rid of the women early, until Crystal was the only female contestant in the final five. Women won three out of the series’ first four years, but only one (Jordin Sparks) has won since, and the way the votes have gone lately, it feels like it may be a long time before the gender flips. And Lee was also more likely to pick up stray votes from fans of Casey James, Aaron Kelly, etc., than Crystal was. 

Second, Lee’s growly brand of rock is far more current and mainstream than Crystal, who like several previous “Idol” also-rans (Bo Bice, Melinda Doolittle) would seem to be more at home in the music scene from several decades ago.

Third, Lee seemed to want it more. The show kept pushing his story as the paint store clerk with big dreams, and if he was often uncomfortable on stage, he always came across as happy and eager to be there. Crystal, great as she was, had a too-cool-for-school vibe she had to fight, and one that wasn’t helped by a story from midway through the finals that Ryan Seacrest had to talk her out of quitting the show to be with her family.

Crystal wiped the floor with Lee on Tuesday night, but by the time we get to the finale, performance quality matters not at all. Two years ago, Cook underwhelmed with his final performances compared to young David Archuleta, yet big David destroyed little David in the final vote. And last year, the judges were so unimpressed by Kris Allen on the penultimate night that they all but suggested he deserved an award for participation, yet Allen beat that season’s more talked-about Adam Lambert.

This season has been so terrible that it feels appropriate for Lee to win in spite of his lousy showing on Tuesday (and his general inferiority to Crystal). But his win should also (even though it won’t) once and for all get the judges, the producers, and America to admit that how well you sing plays a very small part in how well you do on “American Idol.”

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