American Idol has a lot in common with the country it's named after — a swift rise, fueled by lofty populist ideals and naked aggression, world conquest, such giddy heights, then the tragic skid into despair and and it's all somehow Fox's fault. The end of the Idol empire should have been a much bigger deal. It should have been an event. But instead, last night's farewell episode just kind of dribbled away, like the final season overall. "Let's do a Bowie tribute, except instead of Adam Lambert or Fantasia, we'll have five folkie bros with matching acoustic guitars bore the living fucklights out of us all" — yeah, that's the kind of brainstorm that might help explain why Idol was finished. It was as dreary as everything "Starman" was rebel-rebelling against in the first place.
(All five guys looked and sounded miserable, and their voices would have fit much better with a Merle Haggard tribute — but gosh, how were they supposed to learn and sing a Hag song with only 24 hours notice? What do you think this is, live TV or something?)
Still, the finale was meant to sum up why the show once mattered so much, and it worked. The farewell episode demonstrated why it was time for it to go, but it also evoked the glories of Idol past, back in the day when it first came along to fill the Justin Guarini-shaped hole in America's heart. Even President Obama showed up, in a strange introduction where he gave the series credit for getting people excited about voting. "Not all of us can sing like Kelly Clarkson," he said. "But all of our voices matter." (Though let history show that our Commander-in-Chief could sing "Let's Stay Together" better than Justin did.) "This show reached historic heights, not only because Americans watched it, but because you participated in its success. And the same is true of America." Given how splendidly democracy is currently working out in the U.S. of A, no wonder Idol's going off the air.
It wasn't a gradual decline — as soon as Paula Abdul left, the magic was gone. You could always count on Paula. Say what you like about the "Forever Your Girl" kid, she was excited to be there, getting up to dance or weeping her lashes off or just gushing her own special Paula-ese. You could trust her to tell Jordin Sparks, "You are in great, great vocal voice tonight!" Or inform Melinda Doolittle, "It's awesome when you're fantastic!" Or assure the greatest Idol singer ever, Adam Lambert: "Adam, you dare to dance in the path of greatness!" While the other hosts would get that shellshock-fatigue look in their eyes, Paula's gung-ho enthusiasm and vocal voice never flagged. She dared to dance in the path of ridiculousness.
Even without Ms. Abdul, Idol would have been cheeseball and tasteless. But it was Paula who guaranteed it could never be anything less. Week after week, it brought the full pageant of American absurdity, as nobodies stumbled onstage to act out their show-biz fantasies. Sometimes that meant pitchy little ducklings turning into swans before our eyes, like Kelly Clarkson or Jennifer Hudson or Carrie Underwood. Sometimes it meant loathsome creeps. Sometimes it meant a blind dude in a Loverboy headband crooning "I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)." And once it meant Ryan Seacrest trying and failing to high-five said blind dude. Ruben Studdard belting "Sweet Home Alabama" in a glitter disco jumpsuit. Teenage girls singing Bonnie Raitt ballads about banging married alcoholics. Idol had it all.
Things just got grey after Paula split — even Ryan's "This!" wilted a bit. That's no knock on the replacement judges; you just couldn't recreate the chemistry of the original three. Simon Cowell — so mean! Randy Jackson — so trying-too-hard! Paula — so hey there's a cloud shaped like a kitten, or maybe that was a dream, where were we? Plus Ryan seething on the sidelines. Who can forget the night Ryan blew up after Simon called him "sweetheart" — as in, "You do the links, sweetheart, I'll do the judging"? Now that was live TV.
And when Idol had an actual creative force on its hands, there was a night-by-night excitement — especially in 2009, the season Adam kept ripping shit up, with his "Mad World" and his "Feeling Good" and whatever the hell he was doing to "Ring of Fire." And as the "American Dream" retrospective special this week showed, the Simon/Paula personality clash lurched into a weird running debate about our national values, right from the Season One auditions, with Paula making the valiantly nonsensical statement, "I don't think anyone should be told they can't do anything, no matter what!" Simon frowns at that.
Paula: "America is about celebrating the effort of. . ."
Simon: "Oh, don't give me that American rubbish, Paula. That is rubbish."
Last night's finale dug up plenty of rubbish from Idol's heyday. So many familiar faces and voices — stars like Jordin Sparks and Katherine McPhee, non-stars like William Hung and Brian Dunkleman, even the "Pants on the Ground" guy. I never thought I'd be so happy to see Taylor Hicks again, but damn if he didn't bring back that "Soul Patrooool!" magic, doing his convulsive dancing and playing a harmonica solo in a fuschia smoking jacket to "I Knew You Were Waiting For Me." He's become the Doobie Elder he was always meant to be — he earned every silver strand of that Michael McDonald hair.
Alison Iraheta, Ruben Studdard and Constantine Maroulis sounded as great as ever. Sanjaya rocked his mohawk (instead of singing — whew). Bo Bice showed that he is buttoning his shirts more often these days, while wearing a flat-top (and singing for Blood Sweat & Tears IRL). Carrie Underwood sang a just-plain-hideous version of "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" with Keith Urban. Danny Gokey's dancing evoked his infamous "Dream On" shriek, a sound still used as punishment for shoplifting in some countries.
For some reason, the song selection was weighted toward also-rans singing depressive late-night booty-call ballads, and if the goal was to summon up the abject depths of human misery, wow, mission accomplished. Bizarrely heavy moment: Pia Toscano, still a talented young person with her whole life ahead of her, doing one of the ghastliest songs in human history, "All By Myself," without noticing or being noticed by the six other Idol alums standing next to her onstage. "All byyyy myself!" Pia sings, with a great big frozen toothy grin, because that's what singers do. "Don't wanna be! All by myself! Anymore, anymore, aaaaanymore!" None of the singers acknowledge each other's presence in any way. Jennifer Lopez is jumping up and down, maybe selling it a trifle hard. And then cue a shot of a forlorn-looking dude clapping alone in the audience — oh hello, Sanjaya. Jeez, that was bleak. After that I needed something to lighten the mood, so I re-watched this week's episode of The Americans.
We also finally got the long-long-long-awaited reunion of the original three judges: Paula, Randy and Simon eyerolling through his dramatic surprise-yeah-right entrance with his deep V (even his chest hair is sarcastic). Talk about a letdown: Paula sounded downright coherent, and who wants a coherent Paula? But there was a nice spontaneous outburst when she told Simon, "Guilty as charged … not!" It was poignant since the popularity of "Not!" overlapped with Paula's singing career. There were taped bits from other ex-hosts, including Steven Tyler (nice glasses!) and Ellen DeGeneres, who cleverly namechecked Kelly Clarkson's fourth-best hit, "My Life Would Suck Without You" (which means Dr. Luke got more airtime in the finale than Adam Lambert did).
Nobody could honestly claim American Idol will be missed — it'd be more accurate to say it's already been missed for a few years. In a way, it's the ultimate irony that the show's goodbye week, which should have been such an epochal real-time event, got completely overshadowed by the finale of The People v O.J. Simpson, even though everybody already knew how it ended. Ryan Seacrest's last words were "goodbye — for now," which means either he was in denial or he flubbed what was meant to be a bombshell teaser. Either way, it was a clumsy end to an instantly forgotten season. And oh yeah: They also crowned the new winner, almost as an afterthought. Trent somebody. Good luck, Trent — try to make some friends along the way, okay? The world can be a cruel place. Just ask Pia Toscano.