The opening moment of the “American Idol” finale was dripping with irony. Considering that this was the most culturally polarized competition in the show’s history, it was amusing that finalists Adam Lambert and Kris Allen were both dressed regally in white. This, of course, underscored the greatest irony of all: that Adam Lambert, whose devastating talent all but guaranteed his win, instead lost the competition to Kris Allen, a sweet-faced, small-town folk singer. In what had to have been a disappointment to the show’s four judges and to legions of Lambert fans across the country, the finale proved “American Idol” isn’t really about talent.
Over the season, the “Star Wars”-style combat of good versus evil, dark versus light, played out like a culture war: Lambert, 27, the Jewish rocker from San Diego with clear-eyed ambition for Hollywood fame, and Allen, 23, an evangelical Christian from Arkansas who plays acoustic guitar and does missionary work. In a pop contest starring these opposites, talent inevitably became secondary.
Dark knight Lambert has raven hair, wears dark eyeliner, black nail polish and leather trench coats. His style simultaneously recalls classic rock stars, serial killers and vampires, and beyond his trademark flamboyance, he possesses a sexual ambiguity he was clearly not interested in dispelling: When photos of him dressed in drag and kissing other men leaked on the Internet, he responded with indifference: “I am who I am,” he said.
Allen, by contrast, is clean-cut and pristine looking. He wears T-shirts and jeans, sings sweetly and leads worship services at New Life Church back home. Allen is the all-American boy, as inoffensive (and unexciting) as vanilla cream pie.
If the “Idol” contest had been truly about talent, Lambert would have been the crowning glory of all eight seasons. But the majority of the reported 100 million votes went to Allen, leaving many of the show’s fans dumbfounded. Before announcing the winner, host Ryan Seacrest’s face fell a little. Simon Cowell may have seen this coming, because, not long before, he had told Lambert on the show, “If you are not in the final next week, it will be one of the biggest upsets on this show.” In the moment, still, Lambert’s loss didn’t seem to stop Cowell from looking crestfallen, a blow of defeat for the talent purist who insists that “Idol” is about finding the brightest star.
In the end, the nation’s conservatives changed the game by voting their conscience, not their common sense. And in the end, the majority of “Idol” viewers proved they don’t really care about finding a star. All that matters is that they get to worship their Idol, the one who is most like them.