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American Idol Season 8 Commentary

It’s almost June, and already there’s a lot I don’t remember about 2009. I don’t remember who won Best Picture at the 2009 Academy Awards, but I remember the tributes to Heath Ledger. I don’t remember who won the 2009 Miss USA pageant, but I do remember Carrie Prejean. I don’t remember who the new senator from Illinois was, but I remember Rod Blagojevich (and his hair). And I predict that in one year, I’m not going to remember that Kris Allen won Season 8 of American Idol. But I’m never going to forget Adam Lambert.

As always, this season of American Idol started with the auditions. Producers promised there would be less snark this season in the auditions, and there was. It wasn’t completely snark-free, however. New judge Kara Dioguardi proved that she had a mean streak, as the “Bikini Girl” incident proved. There were also the usual montages of judges suffering through singer after terrible singer. And then there was Nick Mitchell. Perhaps the only comedy performer in American Idol history to make it to the semi-finals, the truly inspired antics of Norman Gentle should guarantee that he’ll achieve at least C-list celebrity status.

But this year, the usual hyperbole that “this season is going to be the best ever” actually came true. The first show featuring the top 13 finalists set the tone. Jasmine Murray and Jorge Nunez were the first two to be cut despite the much-ballyhooed Judges’ Save. But more importantly, America got its first good looks at the raw vocal power of Allison Iraheta, the inexplicable charm of Danny Gokey, the quiet humility of Kris Allen and the superstar performances of Adam Lambert. All four put in consistently good performances, and to no one’s surprise, they were the final four.

American Idol and controversy go hand in hand, but this season was quiet on that front. There were no major surprises in the voting, except possibly for Alexis Grace’s early elimination. Joanna Pacitti’s sudden replacement due to “very personal connections” with American Idol senior staff raised a lot of questions, but nothing earth-shattering came of it. There was finally an official admission that group performances were lip-synced, though anyone with a good eye and ear could have known that. Even scrutiny of Adam Lambert’s sexuality by Fox News on The O’Reilly Factor couldn’t raise a stir simply because Adam was just too talented for it to matter.

As it turned out, the biggest shock came at the end. Allison Iraheta, the young woman with the enormous voice, came in fourth. Danny Gokey, who had been riding a wave of popularity since the semi-finals, was third. And Kris Allen, the soft-spoken acoustic guitarist from Conway, Arkansas… won. Adam Lambert, the odds-on favorite from the very start, was left in second place. No one seemed to be more surprised than Kris, who even admitted immediately that Adam should’ve won instead. Adam’s over-the-top performances might not have been for everyone (as the voting proved), but they were far and away more polished than any of his competitors.

There are already questions about whether Kris Allen’s conservative Christian background might’ve been the reason that he won over the decidedly non-conservative Adam Lambert. Unfortunately, that appears to be exactly the case. But don’t feel sorry for Adam. On the last performance episode of the show, viewers got a preview of what the next American Idol would be singing: an insipid ballad co-written by Kara Dioguardi, “No Boundaries”. It’s been panned by critics, former producer Nigel Lythgoe, and even the Idol judges. Simon Cowell brushed the song aside, Kara just seemed embarrassed, and even inveterate optimist Randy Jackson tried to sidestep it. To anyone who feels like Adam got cheated, consider this: Kris is going to be forced to perform this song until he can find an attorney to break him out of his contract.

With sleaze like the infamous Byzantine Idol contracts hanging over this show like a buzzard, it’s no surprise that despite the new Judge’s Save, great performances and other format changes, the series is still in freefall in the ratings. Just listen to the departing Idol contestants, or for that matter anyone asked about who would win. None of them ever said how great it was to be an American Idol. The eliminated all said they’d be all right, and the guest mentors all said that it doesn’t matter who wins. This isn’t just optimism, it’s fact.

And no wonder. Despite all the pre-season talk from corporate bigwigs about how this season would focus more on the contestants, the camera was still hogged by Ryan Seacrest’s glib prattle, Paula Abdul’s Joycean critiques, and Simon Cowell’s complete and utter disrespect for anything and anyone around him. American Idol resembles the dance marathon from “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” more and more each year, and like those marathons, Idol takes one step closer each year to the graveyard of exploitive entertainment.

But make no mistake. American Idol will be back next year. And the year after that. And the year after that. As long as Americans are still willing to watch young, talented singers get chewed up and spit out by a cold, calculating music industry juggernaut – and as long as creator Simon Fuller can make money from it all – American Idol will be back. This season, executives claimed that American Idol would be more about the contestants than the judges. Hopefully, that’ll actually happen next season. Viewers finally seem to be sick of Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul, and as long as the show keeps treating the real stars of the show like raw materials, America will continue to abandon the show in droves.