‘American Idol’ Goes Out on a Pitchy High Note

The American Idol finale was a fan’s dream: super corny, nostalgic, and ultimately spellbinding. Very moving and very silly, it was everything that made the show great.

Ray Mickshaw/FOX

This. Was American Idol.

It was, as President Barack Obama said in his opening address for the finale (yes, all of our favorite singers were there), the show that transformed television. It was the show that made talent competitions vital to our weekly entertainment and our wide-eyed dreams.

It was the show that united the country in the democratic process of electing our pop stars—and inaugurated quite a few big ones, too, all of whom joined our commander-in-chief in appearing on Thursday’s night’s finale.

It was the show that weathered an array of talent competition copycats, the kind of pop-culture scandals that only shows this influential ignite, and years of accusations that the juggernaut once soaring on ratings high notes was wheezing its way towards irrelevance—in the end giving the middle finger (by way of choreographed jazz hands) to anyone who doubted its impact with Thursday’s overstuffed, super-cheesy, and blissfully nostalgic trip down memory lane.

Seven billion votes, 1 million auditions, 13 Grammy wins, 54 nominations, 15 winners, and that monumental medley by Kelly Freaking Clarkson later, American Idol is over.

The show’s swan song was true to the spirit of Idol: self-righteous, cringe-worthy spectacle saved by a handful of jaw-dropping, core-shaking moments of talent.

With appearances from just about every Idol veteran you care to remember—and helpful title cards to identify those you don’t—it was tantamount to porn for fans of the show. (Yaaas, Melinda Dolittle, sing! I see you, Carly Smithson. Diana DeGarmo, you’re looking cute!)

It was both a triumph of production and laughably overproduced. No one does heavy-handedness better than American Idol. This is a compliment: Give me Fantasia Barrino and a soulful anthem. Bring out that gospel choir. And the fire! And that sweeping camera shot! Emotionally manipulate me, Idol, I am yours.

It’s fitting that this glorious celebration was as chock full of bombast as it was, to use the infamous Idol word, pitchy.

Heck, it even had one more surprise up its sleeve, with an unexpected win for Sam Smith-in-training Trent Harmon over long-coronated frontrunner La’Porsha Renae. Maybe two surprises, depending on how you interpret the ominous “for now…” that Ryan Seacrest threw in after his final goodbyes as the show’s credits rolled.

It was a ridiculous, wonderful farewell, to a wonderful, ridiculous show. A show that, for all its influence, is ending its run as a time capsule for a type of entertainment that doesn’t gel with today’s easily distracted audiences. Who has time for earnestness anymore?

But if you have ever loved American Idol over its 15 years, if you have passionate feelings about Ruben vs. Clay, if you know what the words “Constantine Maroulis” mean, then this two-hour and six-minute show was for you. Which is to say, it was for all of us.

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It was an eyebrow raising nod to the sincere weight of this show’s impact on our nation that President Obama opened the proceedings. He made good-humored points about how the show motivated a jaded population to vote, a gracious nod given the long-running prediction of our country’s doom rooted in the statistics that more people voted to elect Taylor Hicks American Idol than voted in any American election.

What resonated, though, was his point that it taught us to participate in success. “Not of all us can sing like Kelly Clarkson, but all of our voices matter.” Hammy? Sure! But this is American Idol. It’s a safe space for hamminess. Maybe I was already emotional from having rewatched Kelly Clarkson sing “A Moment Like This” while confetti rained down on her 13 times today in preparation for Thursday night’s finale, but I found it effective.

Also effective: the past contestants! Bring on all the past contestants. (Good lord, though, there were a lot of them.)

Some were true delights, like watching Kimberley Locke from Season 2 sing “Eighth World Wonder” with the same assured serenity that made her such an early joy in this series. Or Jordin Sparks, the most underappreciated of the Idol winners, command the stage with—OK, sure!—former judge Kara DioGuardi and then Season One runner-up Justin Guarini.

Each successive finalist revival was a crescendo of wistful excitement. Tamyra Gray! Alison Iraheta! Pia Toscano! Pia, you still sound great. Tom Hanks and I are still in your court.

These are people who were crucial parts of our lives for four months of a year, the subject of watercooler debates so intense 12 Angry Men seemed cordial in comparison. Then they were just gone forever. Except today! Today they were back, and they all sounded great!

Oh, they sounded great as those Idol producers cruelly choreographed them into painful group numbers that were only salvaged by their contagious glee for just being on the stage again, singing their gee-golly hearts out. These numbers could not have been sillier. They were triumphant.

The highs of the night were in the rafters, like when Kelly Clarkson, performing in a pretaped bit because she was imminently giving birth, sang a medley of her biggest hits and slayed it. Slayed it while so, so pregnant. She has a lot of hits!

Say what you want about the regrettable WGWG years, the White Guys With Guitars, but these fellas, guys like David Cook, Kris Allen, and Phillip Phillips, were among the most musically interesting singer-songwriters in the business. Idol was often derided as a pop factory, a karaoke competition breeding cookie-cutter, shallow singers. Paying tribute to David Bowie, these fellas refuted that stereotype once again.

It was nothing short of a pleasure, too, to see Fantasia show off how prodigiously talented she is on the Idol stage again, singing with her “diva” colleagues from Season 3, Jennifer Hudson and LaToya London. (I voted for LaToya that year, for a hint of how strong my spidey sense for future stars is.)

They sang “Bridge Over Troubled Water” together, 90 seconds of nirvana that I will play for myself every morning as an affirmation. Whoo-ee, that was a season, with these women.

A reunion of the country contestants (Lauren Alaina, Kellie Pickler, and Scotty McCreery among them) was cute-as-a-button fun, while the “shredding,” so to speak, by the rockers was icky as they always were on this show. Rock and Idol was always an awkward fit, save for that studly Judas himself, Daughtry.

Carrie Underwood got a big ol’ showcase to sing a big meh song, though looking hotttt while doing it.

There was a lot of time devoted to the judges. Steven Tyler, Ellen DeGeneres, and Nicki Minaj all sent hilariously rambling hostage videos that looked more like those “best wishes to the happy couple!” testimonials videographers force your drunk uncle and aunt to record at weddings than an authentic homage to Idol.

Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and, in a surprise appearance, Simon Cowell reunited, reminding you of how much magic they brought when they were together.

Truth be told, though, the current table of Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, and Harry Connick Jr. give the original three a run for their money. What they lack in sibling needling they make up for in thoughtful, musically sound critique, palpable warmth, and a seemingly genuine investment in the contestants.

Plus, there’s no denying their teach-by-example talents, as all three proved taking the stage Thursday night. Lopez, in particular, gave a show-stopping performance worth tuning in for on its own, shaking her booty in her “Let’s Get Loud” finale until the roof threatened to blow off the theater. It was, as Idol is during its best “Moments,” thrilling.

Oh yeah, they also crowned the final Idol.

We all thought that La’Porsha was going to win, because we were all told that La’Porsha was going to win.

Perhaps overhype was her ultimate downfall. Or perhaps her often-contained range and predictability proved less exciting than Trent Harmon’s rafters-reaching vocal gymnastics and stereotypically Idol “journey” of improvement. Or perhaps more tween girls vote for this show than anyone else, and that’s more Trent Harmon’s sweet spot.

Does it really matter though?

Falling,” Harmon’s victory single, is probably the best and most radio-friendly winner’s single in years. (Though we’ll always look fondly on the grotesquely sappy ballads about rainbows and dreams choked out through the tears of the winners.)

But the fact of the matter is that no show, not Idol or any of its competitors, has produced a viable commercial superstar in years, thus ultimately betraying its purpose as the Search for the Next Superstar and rendering its existence useless. Hence Thursday’s Idol farewell.

More tragically, in 15 years La’Porsha and Harmon won’t have a two-hour special to come back to and sing a Motown medley to and have a handful of people at home think, “Oh, yeah. Them. Those guys.” And then tell the computer chip inside their brain to Google what the stars are up to now, or however technology will work in the future when the youths who watched Thursday night’s show and had no clue whatsoever why everyone was cracking up at this man called Brian Dunkleman are all grown up.

So maybe Idol doesn’t matter. But Idol mattered. It mattered a lot. I loved it, and I loved this glorious mess of a final episode.

And, Ryan Seacrest, if that “for now…” after the goodbye at the end hints that the show is coming back in some capacity and this Thursday night nostalgia orgy was all for nought, I’ll take back everything I’ve ever said in praise of your underrated hosting abilities.

Fallon out.