'American Idol': A Retrospective Rock critic Ken Tucker looks back on American Idol's most recent season, when Adam Lambert and Kris Allen vied for the top spot. He says the wrong aspiring idol won.
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'American Idol': A Retrospective

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'American Idol': A Retrospective



'American Idol': A Retrospective

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A new American Idol was crowned last week. Kris Allen won in what was considered an upset victory over Adam Lambert. Their contrasting images, Allen, the smiling boy next door versus Lambert, the musical and image risk taker, got rock critic Ken Tucker watching and thinking about the competition in ways he hasn't before.

(Soundbite of song, "Black or White")

Unidentified Man (Singer): (Singing) My baby on a Saturday night. Yes we're one and the same. Now I believe in miracles. And a miracle has happened tonight. Oh, but, if you're thinkin' about my baby, it don't matter if you're black or white. Ooh, yea, yea.

KEN TUCKER: Depending on which season of it we're talking about, I usually consider "American Idol" either a waste of time or the spawn of the Devil. I don't cotton to a show that evaluates pop music voices in cliched critical terms. Too many "Idol" performances either condemned as quote unquote "karaoke" or praised as masterpieces. I also have little use for a competition that by its painfully conventional standards of pitch, tunefulness and image would never have allowed, say, Little Richard or Bob Dylan or Kurt Cobain into its top 40 finalists, let alone hand him the top prize.

But now that Kris Allen has become our new "American Idol" I find myself thinking all of the more about the runner-up, Adam Lambert. I started watching him during the final months of the show when hardcore fans had made his name unavoidable in casual conversation. At first, I had a typical reaction to someone who is doing something different. I was baffled by his performance. All those winks at the camera, those lip curled sneers, those tight leather outfits. Who did this guy think he was, the 1968 Elvis? But then my indignation melted away and I became fascinated.

His confidence was unlike anything I had seen on "Idol" or for that matter from anyone since Bruce Springsteen, probably the last top tier rocker who still thinks music can unite the country. But Adam Lambert is of course no gruff, man-of-the-people type. His ever changing spiky haircuts, his heavy eyeliner, and his light leather bondage ensembles. Here is the guy who knows his own inner David Bowie, his Lou Reed, his Elton John and his Bette Midler. On "Idol" Lambert was drastically rearranging songs, bending them to his will to power.

(Soundbite of song "Ring of Fire")

Mr. ADAM LAMBERT (Singer): (Singing) Love is a burning thing. And it makes a fiery ring. Bound by wild desire, I fell in to a ring of fire. I fell into a burning ring of fire. I went down, down, down and the flames went higher. And it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire, the ring of fire. The taste of love is sweet...

TUCKER: By contrast, the fellow who eventually won, Kris Allen, fits a more conventional mode, a cross between a soft-voiced teen pop star and a sensitive singer-songwriter who, given the rules of "Idol," wasn't writing his own songs. He sang well. He is ordinary-guy handsome and above all he is not threatening or polarizing. He became, among all the finalists, the least objectionable choice, which is probably what got him the "American Idol" title.

(Soundbite of song "No Boundaries")

Mr. KRIS ALLEN (Winner, "American Idol"): (Singing) Seconds, hours, so many days. You know what you want, but how long can you wait? Every moment last forever. When you feel you've lost your way. What if my chances were already gone? I started believing that I could be wrong. But you give me one good reason to fight and never walk away. Here I am, still holding on. With every step, you climb another mountain. Every breath, it's harder to believe. You'll make it through the pain, weather the hurricane. To get to that one thing. You think the road is going nowhere…

TUCKER: That's Kris Allen singing "No Boundaries" as though he is completely hemmed in by them. By contrast, Adam Lambert is a fascinating mixture of characteristics. On "Idol" he was unfailingly polite, frequently using time other contestants used to plug themselves, to instead credit the show's house band. Instead of quailing before the judges or sassing them back, Lambert looked each one in the eye with a warm smile and a delightful calmness as if to say, there is no comment you can make that will dissuade me from what I want to do here. Which is to make you question everything you think you know about music.

Which is also why many weeks the judges responded to an Adam Lambert performance with variations on, I'm speechless, and I don't know what you just did but I love it. Me, I started thinking, a gay Elvis Presley, this is exactly what America needs right now. I should say at this point, as the New York Times put it, Mr. Lambert has not stated his sexual orientation. But between YouTube footage of Lambert in glam rock musicals and the flamboyance of his gestures and song choices, he represents a gay sensibility considerably more inventive and exciting than that of say, Clay Aiken.

The night Lambert lost, a friend immediately emailed me that this vote was the delayed Red State backlash to Barack Obama's victory. He was joking, somewhat. It's too bad that the one contestant who really could have done something with the title, expanded our notions of what a mass audience, family friendly TV idol could be, was denied that tantalizing opportunity. I'm sure Lambert will have some sort of career after his defeat. It's just that I also believe it would have been a lot more interesting career if he was also spending the next year as the kind of "American Idol" this steamroller of a TV show was designed to crush.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

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