The fifth season of American Idol will come to a close with the crowning of a new champ on Wednesday night, and I for one will be distraught. This season my casual Idol fandom became a full-fledged addiction. I knew things had taken a turn for the worse when I started weaseling out of dinner party plans because I couldn't bear the thought of missing Queen week. Of course, I'm not alone. Idol's already stratospheric Nielsen ratings soared higher this season, and last week more than 50 million votes were cast in the balloting that set tonight's final showdown between Taylor Hicks and Katharine McPhee. Once, pop's A-listers turned up their noses at the show, but this season Mary J. Blige, Prince, and Bruce Springsteen agreed to let their songs be performed, and Stevie Wonder and Rod Stewart showed up to tutor the competitors, a gig that has become one of the most coveted in the business. (Lord knows what sordid backroom deals were struck to win a star turn for Kenny Rogers, who evidently celebrated by visiting Jocelyn Wildenstein's surgeon.) And Season 5 has already succeeded in catapulting one unknown to the top of the charts: the Canadian singer-songwriter Daniel Powter, whose year-old song "Bad Day" rocketed to No. 1 in the Billboard Hot 100 after repeated airings during the farewell montages when contestants are sent packing.
Last Wednesday night, Idol's producers decided to gloat, trotting out music mogul Clive Davis to reel off a staggering list of album sales—"Kelly Clarkson, 10 million units; Ruben Studdard, 2 million units; Clay Aiken, 3 million units"—totaling 33 million records to date by Idol winners and also-rans. Davis, who has overseen the debut CDs of Idol's first four victors, gave a little speech chiding "skeptics" who had questioned the show's potential to break new stars, which got it about half right. After the first season, only a few crackpots dared doubt Idol's marketplace muscle, but the show was widely scorned as evidence of musical values in decline—a noble and lively American art had been reduced to a karaoke contest with, as Matt Feeney wrote in Slate in 2004, "an abiding aesthetic of kitsch optimism."
Today, most of those critics have quieted down, and not just because they've succumbed to Idol's goofy charms, such as Simon Cowell's baffling critical Esperanto ("Katharine, that performance was almost a moment") or the spectacle of Paula Abdul's slow descent into madness. The fact is, season by season, song by song, the show has gotten better. Five years after its launch there's little doubt: The music on American Idol is often very good, and American Idol is good for popular music.
Consider the track record. Carrie Underwood (the 2005 idol), Fantasia Barrino (2004), and Kelly Clarkson (2002) have all recorded solid-to-excellent albums, none of which sound remotely amateurish or karaokelike. (Only Studdard, the 2003 champ, released a dud.) More surprising are the toughness and eccentricity of those records. Underwood's chart-topping country single "Jesus, Take the Wheel" is a ballad about a young mother's spiritual crisis and near-fatal car accident, and Fantasia's hit "Baby Mama," is an even grittier depiction of single motherhood. Clarkson won Idol on the strength of her feathery Mariah Carey-style melisma, but she has since moved out of what Abdul would call her "comfort zone." Her 2005 smash, "Since U Been Gone," which placed third in last year's Village Voice's Pop & Jazz's critic's poll, was an angsty breakup ballad with an irresistible hook and a galloping hard-rock chorus. All the qualities supposedly drowned in the ooze of Idol's "aesthetic of kitsch optimism"—regional peculiarity, lyrical realism, the jolt of a well-struck power chord—are present in these singers' big hits. Fantasia's Free Yourself even includes three collaborations with Missy Elliott, arguably the current pop star most committed to enlivening hit radio with sonic surprise and general freakishness. Idol has not only produced successful recording artists, it's produced interesting ones.
In the first couple of seasons, critics (including yours truly) complained that Idol was too immersed in one style—that it was a Mariah impersonation contest, with vocalists vying to outdo each other's acrobatic gospel "runs." But as the show has evolved, the singing has gotten more stylistically diverse, and more adventurous. Today, Idol is an occasionally revelatory, often garish, but always engrossing collision of genres and traditions. This season's finals featured a couple of country singers; a twee boy-soprano whose voting block of pre-pubescent girls and their grandmothers kept him in the running for a while; and a large-lunged gospel diva who was eliminated at least a few weeks too soon. The most compelling character was The Rocker, Chris Daughtry, who, despite his knack for turning every song he touched into joy-killing post-grunge dirge, earned admiration for his fine chops (I never heard him hit a bum note), and what Cowell rightly identified as his refusal to compromise. During Barry Manilow Week, when contestants were required to tackle songs from the 1950s, Daughtry shocked everyone (and probably bummed out Manilow) with a solemn rock arrangement of Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line," and in the weeks afterward everyone seemed to catch the spirit: Bongo players and acoustic guitarists appeared flanking singers at center stage, and even the most uptight contestants started taking little risks with arrangements.
Tuesday's final presents a stark choice. McPhee would seem to be a record executive's dream candidate: a classy, pretty girl from Los Angeles who can really sing. But there's only a few record executives out there, and many millions of Idol voters, and I suspect that they, with guidance from Simon, Randy, and Paula, will choose Hicks, the prematurely gray-haired doofus who has spent the past several weeks jerking across the Idol stage like a spaz while belting out classic R&B covers. There's something vaguely unsettling about his shtick: Although he's not black, he calls his fans "The Soul Patrol," and although he's neither black nor blind, he insists on lurching backward when he sings like his idol Ray Charles.
Still, I'll be rooting hard for Hicks. I wager he'll win in a walk, as well he should: He's just a more interesting singer. A Hicks victory would be the ultimate answer to critics who've slammed Idol for its plastic pop-music values. (Bar Band Singer Bests Pop Princess!) And it would continue the Idol voters' streak of choosing talent over beauty—think of pretty boy Justin Guarini falling to Kelly Clarkson, who despite the best efforts of a battery of stylists still looks more like a Dutch mastiff than Jessica Simpson. No matter what happens, it's destined to be a riveting few hours of television. If you're one of the last American Idol holdouts, I urge you to tune in. There will doubtless be at least a couple of great performances—and maybe even a moment.