On the American Idol stage in Los Angeles last night, the show’s season finale was ostensibly nothing more than two talented and likeable guys singing amidst a made-for-television pop-culture circus. Around the country, however, almost 100 million votes were cast in what coincidentally morphed into a cultural proxy war.
In the Red State corner, underdog Kris Allen: a former church missionary, married-at-23 Arkansas country rocker who sang his duet on the show with Keith Urban, wearing scuffed blue jeans. In the Blue State corner, favorite Adam Lambert: an ambiguously sexual, theater-loving California glam rocker, who sang his duet on the show with KISS, wearing winged leather armor. Fair or not, American Idol last night offered a democratic snapshot of the country’s cultural attitude five months into the age of Obama.
Click the Image Below to View Our Gallery of Ambiguously Gay Idols
And a funny thing happened on the way to a Lambert coronation. The dimpled one with the pretty blond wife and mellifluous voice beat the provocative one with the scary talent and Rocky Horror pipes, prompting a predictable cascade of headlines expressing anger, outrage, shock.
No one was more shocked than I was. I had spent the day crunching a proprietary set of Daily Beast data that didn’t just portent a Lambert victory, but rather a blowout. Our source for the raw numbers, VoteFair.org, has established a strong predictive record when it comes to American Idol. Rather than just have people mark off their weekly favorite, the site requires respondents to rank all candidates, top-to-bottom, which results in richer data, and it blocks people from voting more than once, undermining any Chicago ward-style ballot stuffing. VoteFair logged almost 3,000 votes leading up to last night, more than statistically significant, and had Lambert crushing Allen, 60.2% to 39.8%—a forecast we published shortly before the show aired.
So what happened? The first theory to creep up last night was that Lambert lost because he’s possibly/putatively/probably gay. The New York Times devoted an entire article last month to the question of whether an openly gay person can win American Idol. But the idea of a gay Wilder Effect—named for the black Virginia governor who consistently underperformed his poll numbers—seems doubtful. As with almost every Idol survey, VoteFair crunches its numbers electronically—that means no need to impress the interviewer.
A better argument can be made that we had a moment—when 100 million people vote for something, it’s bigger than a singing contest—that harkens to back to Nixon’s Silent Majority speech 40 years ago. “There’s a certain restiveness in Americans in times of uncertainty,” top Democratic pollster Doug Schoen told me minutes after the Allen vote. “People may well make decisions that aren’t obvious and clear. They’re opting for a choice they think is safe, less risky.” In other words, with the economy roiling, the role of government shifting, the banking and auto industries in freefall, the definition of marriage in flux and a health-care overhaul on deck, many feel good dialing and texting on behalf of an aw-shucks strummer from Conway, Arkansas. Bob Dylan and The Jefferson Airplane made headlines in the '60s, but Pat Boone and Henry Mancini sold more records.
Nixon’s theory—that minority groups seem larger because they’re more vocal—could help explain the discrepancy between the poll and official results. VoteFair’s respondents opt-in to the survey, a process that requires self-selected dedication, versus an easy phone call while caught up in the moment. While predictive with a larger group of choices (when a small group of devoted backers can advance you), the mile-deep zeal among the self-described “Glambert” groupies couldn’t match a shallower but mile-wide fan base when going head-to-head.
There’s some good news in our data for those hoping to avoid a repeat of Nixon-era divisions. Yes, the Blue State/Red State correlations largely held up: 11 of the 12 states that delivered Lambert the most votes, based on the Daily Beast’s projections, went Democrat in 2008, while Allen overperformed in the Republicans' states. But it was interesting to see how relatively competitive Allen ran in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, while Lambert held his own in Texas and Georgia. The red and blue states might indeed already be Obama-era purple states, when it comes to music.
There’s also some good news for Lambert. Richard Fobes, who runs VoteFair, says that this year’s contest reminds him of the polling he saw when Clay Aiken was on American Idol six years ago—a passionate fan base that won it for him every week until the finals. Like Lambert, Aiken was rumored to be gay (he’s since confirmed it), and he too lost in the head-to-head finals to a pious contestant less talented than he. He’s gone on to sell some 10 million albums. In music, there’s always another vote on the horizon, and this one is counted in dollars.
Randall Lane is the former editor in chief of Trader Monthly, Dealmaker and P.O.V. Magazines, and the former Washington bureau chief of Forbes.
Isabel Wilkinson, Stephen Brown, Nash Landesman contributed to this article.