Inside the American Idol Studio

The weird vibe at the show’s finale.

Fat Man and Little Boy: The bomb that is American Idol

It was not like going to a rock concert.

The Universal Amphitheatre was close to its capacity crowd of 6,189 for yesterday’s broadcast of the American Idol season finale; and if the place was not, as sweet-and-sour host Ryan Seacrest joked, “jam-packed with Hollywood freeloaders,” it also wasn’t exactly packed with true fans. I tried to pick out people who looked like they had no link with the entertainment business, but practically everyone had gotten their ticket by working some kind of connection.

One guy I talked to had dressed the part of the true fan as well as anyone there: He wore a temporary tattoo of the American Idol logo high on his left shoulder and a vintage Paula Abdul concert T-shirt with the sleeves ripped off. (“I got it on eBay for, like, 15 bucks. Nobody was bidding on it.”) But he turned out to be part of a radio crew from Philadelphia, in Los Angeles to cover the show. He had been at the previous night’s taping as well, and he said he actually preferred watching at home. “It’s not as intimate in person. You’re a little more removed from it here.”

With four minutes to air, Nigel Lythgoe, American Idol’s co-executive producer and de facto audience warm-up guy, made sure the crowd at Universal understood the limits of intimacy they would be allowed with the judges and performers: “no hugs, no kisses, no autographs.” Then he started playing the crowd like a light switch: “Who’s for Clay? … Who’s for Ruben?” until a robotic voice interrupted: “One minute to air. …” For the next two hours, the crowd’s energy rose and fell strangely. A few songs got a rise from the audience—they screamed for Kelly Clarkson’s high notes, and when Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard sang their respective theme songs (“Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Flying Without Wings”), the place exploded.

But during other numbers, like the medley tribute to American Idol’s guest judges (Olivia Newton-John, Neil Sedaka, et al.), the Amphitheatre was weirdly quiet. Everyone was standing up—because that was the only way to see the stage, because everybody else was standing up—but almost no one was clapping or grooving. (Later that evening, watching the show’s broadcast at home, I had to wonder why the crowd sounded just as crazy during this song as it had during the songs where the crowd actually made noise.)

In the commercial break that followed, Lythgoe was clearly feeling a little cross with all of us bumps-on-logs. “Try and stop looking like you’re too hot,” he said. “And make yourselves look alive. Breathe.”

Lythgoe took questions from the audience during some commercial breaks. For Paula: Did you want to kiss Simon? For Simon: Did you want to kiss Paula? For Randy: Weren’t you jealous about Simon kissing Paula? On the surface, these what-are-you-really-like questions seemed only natural: After all, American Idol purports to offer a sped-up, interactive look inside the star-making process. But really, those questions were irrelevant. American Idol eliminates the element of mystery from stardom, with its message that a star is not a special person with secret passions but a piece of equipment that can be melted down and reconfigured whenever the powers that be think of a new way to sell soft drinks. Take a look at American Idol’s credit sequence, which features a quicksilver cyborg—transformed from male to female and back again by animated force fields that slice through its body—making a glorious, pointless march across an imaginary America.

Over the course of the evening, Seacrest announced state-by-state results of the voting, which had closed the previous night. Savvy viewers probably figured out the final outcome when it was revealed that Florida went for Ruben. When the victory was finally announced, the audience whooped it up. Ruben accepted his Idol-hood with another rendition of “Flying Without Wings,” the only performance of the night that had the confident, cool quality of a real rock star.

After the confetti guns emptied their rounds on the audience, the music in the Amphitheatre ended abruptly as soon as the final credits had rolled. Stagehands started dismantling the judges’ podium immediately. Why wait? The American Idol finale wasn’t for the piddly 6,000 who came to the Universal Amphitheatre, it was for the 38 million people watching at home. Like a political convention, this event was mounted for reasons that had little to do with the event itself.

I went outside to the souvenir stand, where Kimberley Boloven, a pretty 12-year-old girl, was buying an American Idol T-shirt for $20. Her sister, who lives in Los Angeles, got her into the show, but for Kimberley the satisfaction of nabbing a hot ticket was clearly secondary to the deep connection she felt with Clay. She held a big homemade poster that said, “Northville, Michigan [heart] CLAY!!” I asked, “Did you come all the way out here just for this?”

She wheeled around and looked at me with tears in her eyes. “Yes,” she said. “And he lost.”

“Are you glad you came? Was it better than watching on TV?”

She wiped her eyes and took a deep breath. “It’s a lot more exciting to be here. You feel like you’re a celebrity, too. Because we were screaming and he was mouthing ‘thank you.’ To us. Right to us. You feel like you’re inside it.”