When Simon Cowell announced his impending departure 16 weeks ago, I wrote that he’d done more than judge America; he’d taught America how to judge. (I also repeated myself, as academics are wont to do—also, we use words like “wont”—in an interview with the New York Times on Tuesday.) For nine years he’s been our tutor in taste, our coach in consumer choice, our dean of democratic decision. And now, as this season’s cast declared last night—while dressed like Britney Spears: the early years or refugees from Dead Poets Society—school’s out.
The finale really did resemble a 128-minute commencement, complete with pomp and circumstance and lasers (what, your college didn’t have lasers? Or Alice Cooper?), a nostalgic alumni reunion, that Goodrem graduation song, and an emotional retirement send-off for our master teacher. Our precious, prodigal Paula capped the campus vibe with her Lulu allusion; “To sir, with love,” she concluded her opening remarks for Simon, adding a salute and a kiss. And no matter what you think of the end results, I think we aced the final exam.
We picked the perfect top two. I can’t remember another time the competition came down to two singers who began so differently, but ended so evenly matched. Until the Idol theme music struck up at the Village Idiot on Tuesday, I was heretically sure that Lee would win. But that last performance show gave me pause and a renewed Ohioan hope that the game had changed. Simon Fuller’s song choice for Lee had been surprisingly questionable (the suicide staple “Everybody Hurts?” What was he thinking?), “The Boxer” was too melancholy for the occasion, and Crystal, back at her Bowerstock best, was more compelling and self-assured than we’ve seen her onscreen in weeks.
On the other hand, you can’t go wrong with U2, and Lee’s upcoming single “Beautiful Day” is the same song that made Kurt Nilsen the World Idol in 2004 … and thank you, thank you, thank you, producers, for finally abandoning the odious original song requirement! Crystal’s single selection was brilliant, too, and reminded us what kind of singer she’s always been. The gorgeous Patty Griffin ballad “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)” was particularly inspired, full of soul and gravitas, and built on the same civil rights theme we heard from Kris Allen and Adam Lambert last May. (Bizarrely, it was because I was singing that exact song very loudly that I nearly missed my exit on the way to the Idiot on Tuesday—it’s been my car-karaoke signature tune ever since Kelly Clarkson performed it with Jeff Beck on the first “Idol Gives Back.”)
I wasn’t the only one who thought Crystal might take the title, after all. I’ve already written a lot about how her success has brought folks together here in Ohio, but I have to say it was genuinely heartwarming this week to see the Village Idiot packed with a crowd nearly five times the size I saw in March. (“It’s like rooting for our home team in the championships,” said John Schafer, who co-owns the Idiot with his wife Nikki.) People were squeezed into corners, and filled the standing-room-only space on the very stage where Crystal used to play Mondays. Bartender Jason Szczuvlewski told me that the bar/pizzeria has become something of a pilgrimage site recently, attracting weekly callers and visitors hoping for an unlikely Crystal sighting. His sister Jodi, a regular at the weekly Idol watch, mused that the last four-hour vote would really be a competition between Chicago and Toledo, “whichever one’s got a bigger heart.” But even now, I don’t think there’s any doubt about the size of Toledo’s heart, still swelling with pride for Crystal despite the outcome. After a very anxious Lee heard his name called (didn’t he look like was in danger of toppling, or maybe hurling, into the audience?), the throngs watching at the Huntington Center kept on cheering for Crystal, unfazed, and Fox Toledo flashed its “Congratulations, Crystal!” screen all night anyway.
Even so, the moment must have surprised at least one prematurely celebratory Crystal fan. During the last minutes before Telescope delivered the envelope, my friend (and one-twelfth of the Twelve Irish Tenors) Branden messaged me that Wikipedia had already recorded Crystal as the winner. I made a screencap of the Idol page at 9:55. Then I made another at 10:08, after the confetti had fallen at the Nokia and the name highlighted on the website had been corrected to read “Lee DeWyze.” A “Dewey Defeats Truman” moment for the digital age! But it was all a very near thing. Ryan told us that less than 2 percent—the narrowest margin, I think, since Ruben and Clay back in 2003—is all that kept Crystal from winning. I’m not worried; Crystal’s going to be all right. After all, when I started up my car to go home last night, the radio was playing (like it is practically every time I start up my car) a ubiquitous single by last year’s runner-up.
So Lee and Crystal are both moving on up, and Simon’s just moving on. As he said on Wednesday, you’ve got to know when to leave the party. Yep, when everyone starts singing “Pants on the Ground,” and William Hung shows up to help out, that’s a good cue to leave right now and find another party. I’ve been so privileged to be at this one, though—it’s had some really good music—and I’m beyond grateful to all of you for reading. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to start thanking Jesus or anything.) Now applaud yourselves for a job so well done, even Professor Cowell is pleased with it. Congratulations, America, class of 2010!