When Kris Allen was asked by the “American Idol” judges at his first audition if he thought he was the best singer in the competition, he replied by saying “You know, there’s probably people out there who are better than me.”
That was true in Louisville, where he first performed for Simon Cowell and company. It was true in Hollywood, when he advanced to the semifinals. It was true in his semifinal heat, when both Adam Lambert and Allison Iraheta earned more praise and he tagged along as the third singer to earn the assigned spot among the 13 finalists.
But gradually, as the season progressed and Kris found his rhythm, the list of people better than he was grew smaller and smaller, and on Wednesday night he found out that according the “Idol” voters, nobody did it better.
The college student from Conway, Ark. was crowned the season eight winner, beating Adam in the finale. Along with the title, he wins a million-dollar record contract, a trophy shaped like a microphone, and the obligation to work with songwriter Kara DioGuardi to try and turn “No Boundaries” into something that doesn’t cause listeners to frantically change the station when it comes on the radio.
“Are you serious?” Kris asked after hearing his name announced as the winner. “I’m sorry, I don’t even know what to feel right now. This is crazy!”
Simplicity beat showmanshipHe may have been the most shocked person on the stage, which would fit with his personality. But that belied the confidence that seemed to grow as he performed each week, to the point when anyone who thought Adam was a lock to win on Wednesday wasn’t paying attention.
This will be billed as a victory for the underdog, since Kris didn’t have the outsized voice or personality of his fellow finalist. However, he was a deceptively strong candidate all season, only landing in the bottom three once and drawing more and more fans each week.
The season ultimately came down to a study in contrasts between Kris, the acoustic maestro at home with just a chair and a guitar, and Adam, the performer who looked like he was born to strut across the stage in front of a cheering throng with all the bells and whistles a show like “Idol” can offer.
The two finalists seemed to genuinely get along. Each pointed to the other on Tuesday when the phone numbers were being read, as if to suggest they’d vote for their rival. Even on Wednesday, Adam looked gracious in defeat and Kris was complimentary in victory.
But that clashes with how they looked all season when the lights came on and the music started. Their performances Wednesday night once again showed how different they are musically. Kris sang with country star Keith Urban, two men sitting on stools and playing their guitars. Adam performed with KISS, with all the associated makeup and pyrotechnic trimmings.
Though Adam again was more memorable, there’s a reason that Keith Urban is on the radio now and KISS is not. Kris may be more of a down-to-earth performer, but anyone listening to any Top 40 station knows that kind of music is enormously popular. Adam is more fun to watch, but couldn't wrangle enough votes to overcome that.
The finale always has star power, and this year was no exception, as stars of the recording industry made their way to the “Idol” stage to jam with this season’s contestants.
Lil Rounds sang with Queen Latifah, Allison Iraheta with Cyndi Lauper, Danny Gokey with Lionel Richie, and Alexis Grace and Anoop Desai with Jason Mraz. Steve Martin brought his banjo onstage to play with Megan Joy and Michael Sarver. Carlos Santana, Rod Stewart, Fergie and the Black Eyed Peas performed with the Idol finalists, and the surviving members of Queen sang “We Are the Champions” with Adam and Kris.
Of course, that happened because of the relationship between the show and the music industry. “Idol” wants to give its acts credibility by associated them with established stars, and those established stars want the show’s millions of viewers to download their singles and buy their concert tickets. It’s all about the cash, and “Idol” is nothing if not capable of making those associated with the show some serious money.
There was also the final round of product placement, with Kris and Adam each getting a new car as some small payment for going through a season’s worth of those brutal Ford videos.
There were the usual glitches. The microphone didn’t go live for Ryan’s first interview of the two finalists, and the sound and camera cut out briefly during the Black Eyed Peas performance. (The Associated Press reports that singer will.i.am stayed mum rather than sing an expletive.)
There were final curtain calls for the likes of Nick Mitchell and alter ego Norman Gentle. And an encore for Tatiana Del Toro, who “Saving All My Love” for the fourth time and poked fun at herself in something resembling a comedy routine with Ryan.
And there were memorable moments. Bringing back Katrina Darrell to strut around in her bikini was predictable, and having her joined onstage by Kara was also an obvious play. But having the judge wear a skimpy suit of her own was not, and she wins the award for best outfit of the season in a landslide.
But ultimately, the night belonged to Kris, who may not have been memorable in January, but made himself into a superstar by May.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington.