Lee DeWyze didn't get the best critique from American Idol's judges Tuesday night, but after three months of charming performances, he won the popular vote. The 24-year-old former paint salesman from Illinois was named Idol's Season Nine winner at Los Angeles' Nokia Theatre last night. DeWyze appeared stunned after host Ryan Seacrest delivered the news, clutching his knees and thanking the crowd with genuine awe: "It's amazing, thank you guys so much for everything, thank you." Only two percent of the vote separated DeWyze and runner-up Crystal Bowersox, who both emerged from the show's August 2009 auditions in Chicago, where 12,000 hopefuls sang and only 13 were handed golden tickets to Hollywood.
But before Idol looked to its future — a new winner, its first season without founding judge Simon Cowell — the show took a sharp detour to the past, bringing out rock and pop stars from the Seventies and Eighties to sing alongside the season's Top 12 finalists. Alice Cooper joined a zombie-kid chorus and twirled his staff to "School's Out" as guitarist Orianthi doodled along. The Bee Gees hit the stage with Siobhan Magnus and Aaron Kelly for "How Deep Is Your Love" and Michael Lynche dueted with Michael McDonald on the Doobie Brothers' "Takin' It to the Streets." The male contestants introduced a Hall and Oates medley that peaked with "Maneater" and DeWyze sat in with Chicago. Bret Michaels, fresh off a hemorrhage, a stroke and a Celebrity Apprentice win, busted out the Poison ballad "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" alongside fellow golden-locked singer Casey James. The retrospective performances were capped with the two finalists teaming up for the Joe Cocker version of the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends" that featured a shouty assist from Cocker himself.
A trio of female vocalists injected some much-needed energy into the show, starting with Christina Aguilera, who popped up early in the live broadcast with the lady finalists, adding powerful blasts to their cover of "Fighter" and previewing the ballad "You Lost Me" from her new album Bionic. Bowersox performed the '90s anthem "You Oughta Know" alongside Alanis Morissette, who changed one of the song's racier lyrics to the more family-friendly "Would she go down with you to a theater." And Janet Jackson turned the Nokia upside down with a tightly choreographed version of "Nasty" that had the whole audience on its feet — rightfully so. It was the most exciting performance by a landslide.
While Seacrest repeatedly stated the night was about "Crystal and Lee," the show was equally devoted to celebrating itself and one of its most vital personalities: Simon Cowell, who is exiting to develop and judge the U.S. version of U.K. reality-talent show The X Factor. Several reels of footage rolled recalling the acerbic judge's most cutting critiques ("it sounds like a cat jumping off the Empire State Building"), his most egregious moments of flirtation, and his habit of resting his hands on his chest. Dane Cook arrived to sing an undercooked song set to Simon's greatest insults, but the moment was cut short by an overzealous cast-off who tried to seize the spotlight (Idol quickly went to commercial). Ricky Gervais was far more successful in a two-minute spot where he joked about his pal's generosity as he guides young talent to the top ("And you only take 80 percent of their wages — what a guy").
Former judge Paula Abdul, whose off-kilter humor was greatly missed this season, finally returned to the Idol stage for a roast of sorts, which started with a jab at Seacrest ("Ryan, I want my lip gloss back"), wandered into an odd joke about why she'd left the show ("There's a baby backstage with Simon's haircut, and sweetheart, it's your turn to feed him") and even included a shout-out to her "Opposite's Attract" costar MC Skat Kat. Only time will tell if her concluding thought will prove true: "American Idol's not going to be the same without you, but as only I can tell you, it will go on."
Before Cowell got in his final words, some of the talents he's guided took the Idol stage once again. Last season's victor Kris Allen sang "The Truth," Carrie Underwood rocked out "Undo It" and all of the show's past winners (save David Cook, who had a prior commitment) came together to honor their harshest mentor. Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Fantasia, Carrie Underwood, Jordin Sparks, Taylor Hicks and Kris Allen were joined by memorable Idol faces like Justin Guarini, Ace Young, Michael Johns, David Archuleta, Bo Bice, Elliott Yamin, Jason Castro and Melinda Doolittle as they sang, "See what we've all become — together we are one." A few of the show's breakout stars (notably Chris Daughtry, Adam Lambert and Jennifer Hudson) missed the celebration, though notorious cast-off William Hung made time to rap alongside Larry "Pants on the Ground" Platt.
When Cowell finally did take the microphone, he was thankful and gracious, reminding the audience that they, not the judges, hold the show's fate in their hands. "When everyone asks who's going to replace me, the truth is, you guys are the judge of this show and you've done an incredible job over the years."
And then the American public did its work once again: the show took one last look at DeWyze and Bowersox's journeys over a montage set to Sufjan Stevens' "Chicago," playing up their humble beginnings and earnest hopes for a better life. DeWyze was clearly overcome with emotion after being named the winner, but composed himself just enough to reprise his version of U2's powerhouse single "Beautiful Day," which will be his own first official release. He'd struggled to replicate Bono's magic while debuting the song on Tuesday, but found a new source of passion as he sang the final notes of Season Nine and reveled in his own fresh start.