A welcome dose of cool on 'Idol'

LOS ANGELES — Ryan Seacrest thought he was hosting the second-to-last results show of this "American Idol" season. There he was, suit artfully almost-rumpled and smirk intact, chatting up the Top 3 as they awaited Wednesday night's climactic chop-chop. For a moment, though, did he wonder if he'd taken a wrong turn down Sunset Boulevard and ended up in a UCLA dorm room?

Casey, Crystal and Lee were so chill as they waited to find out who'd be singing for the big prize next week that I was just waiting for one to call for a taco-truck run to satisfy their munchies. The singers' de facto exit interviews with Ryan and their hometown-journey videos, shown soon afterward, reminded us that this was a philosophical bunch of finalists.

None really looked nervous awaiting their fates. Sure, winning would be rad, they agreed, but it's all about the journey, and the journey had been tough and deeply educational, and Crystal Bowersox's doing it for her son and her beloved Ohio, and Lee DeWyze hadn't forgotten working in the paint store, and Casey James was just happy to be alive after that bad motorcycle wreck six years ago.

These heartwarming if by-now-familiar details reinforced the impression that this year's potential Idols were all decent human beings with well-rounded lives ... with little interest in fulfilling the dream of blockbuster pop stardom upon which the Idol mythology had been built.

And you know what? Though it's likely a transitional state, this year's mood of mellow disinterest in diva attitude and ring-grabbing showiness may ultimately benefit "American Idol." It may be jarring for longtime "Idol" trackers, but in a way, the turn away from heroics suits both the continually downscaling music industry and a television program that, though still on top in the ratings, no longer even pretends to claim the center of the pop zeitgeist — partly because there is no bull's-eye left to hit.

Throughout this season, few performances felt like breakthroughs, and plenty were fails that didn't even qualify as epic. This may in part be because, more than ever, the finalists longed for the original material they weren't allowed to perform to the cover versions from which they had to choose. Crystal, now headed to the final with Lee, said she'd been fighting to play her own songs all season, after a snippet of one, "Holy Toledo," aired during her hometown-visit video.

It also may be because they prefer playing music to dramatizing the act of music-making. Casey's unwavering attachment to his guitar sent a similar defiant message, going against the "Idol" grain of crooner-style dramatic readings in favor of singing and playing that felt more idiosyncratic and spontaneous.

Spontaneity might seem like a good move for generating excitement on television, but in fact, successful Idols have relied far more often on carefully planned theatrics, tapping into the grand gestures of showbiz greats including Streisand and Springsteen to hammer home the message that they're growing up before our eyes. What this year has offered instead — especially from the Top 3 but also from fallen favorites such as Siobhan Magnus — is performers who either know themselves well enough not to really desire change or have little interest in adapting to the show's values.

This isn't because the top Idols are "lame" this year. It's because they already have invented themselves. Crystal or Casey are hardly the first "Idol" finalists to enter the contest as fully formed entities. The difference with them and with the majority of this year's hopefuls was that they didn't pretend otherwise.

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