Since American Idol‘s eighth season kicked off in January, audiences have been fixated on charismatic Adam Lambert, a contestant unlike any the show has seen in its run. His reworkings of songs like Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” were seductively imaginative (like ’em or hate ’em), and though his creative adventurousness recalled last season’s victor David Cook, Lambert boasted two new qualities for Idol: star power and a certain unknowability. “There’s a ‘boy who fell to Earth’ quality about him, like David Bowie’s Lady Stardust come to life,” Rob Sheffield writes in our current issue.
So how did Lambert, who was favored for the win and captured the fascination of a nation, lose the competition? (We noted there were five ways he could go wrong.) Was it song choice, confidence, the impact of Danny Gokey’s voting block? Perhaps other factors influenced the vote — there have certainly been an assortment of ugly statements left in our comments section — but we’ll focus solely on the performance, rather than outside politics surrounding the final two singers. (Also see What’s Next for Adam Lambert and look back at his Idol run in photos.)
• Too little rock, too late
Lambert blew viewers’ minds — and recruited unlikely classic-rock fans — with his throat-shredding renditions of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” and Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild.” But as we feared, he held back on the rock & roll histrionics on Tuesday’s final performance show, opting instead for the understated “Mad World.” When he took the stage with Kiss at the finale, he was clearly in the zone, but audiences didn’t get a glimpse of that spectacle the night the votes were tallied.
• An early and often judges’ favorite
Being the judges’ pet doesn’t always pay off. As David Archuleta learned last year, earning praise week after week might be instantly rewarding, but it ultimately mobilizes opposing singers’ fanbases to hit the phones. Everyone gets out the vote for the underdog, but the leader sometimes falls behind in the votes. Adam was strong and steady throughout the competition while Kris grew with each week — a quality that appeals to voters who like to feel ownership over a young star’s rise.
• An extreme persona, but Idol skews conservative
Idol isn’t afraid to embrace an innovator like Cook, but the show overall tends to reflect the tastes of a majority of its audience — past winners Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Hicks, Ruben Studdard et al. were all understated in appearance and performance. Lambert, however, had an extreme stage persona and a wilder taste for rock & roll fashion. While he remained upbeat and down to earth in his interviews, his otherworldly onstage presence may have turned off as many viewers as it attracted.
• Handcuffed by final three song selection
Because he was known for turning songs into spectacles, Lambert was at a disadvantage Tuesday night by the coronation song “No Boundaries,” which he couldn’t rework or rock out. Show creator Simon Fuller chose soulful selections for both Lambert and Allen, which didn’t play to Adam’s vocal strength. So he had only one shot — his own pick — to demonstrate his true artistry.
• Kris performed strong all season long
Kris Allen is a gifted vocalist and arranger, and while he didn’t instantly stand out in the Idol pack, he worked hard to keep his performances creative and forge an emotional connection with the audience. His version of “She Works Hard for the Money” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” were two of the season’s best, and he struck a chord with a diverse swath of fans.