It doesn’t matter who wins American Idol. America is going to cast a vote over this week and the next, and it’s going to seem like it’s a vote for singing, for cheery, sparkly pageantry or for lazy, languid, laughing bros, but the vote is hollow. Final Idol rankings haven’t mattered for years. Leah LaBelle just went from an Idol punchline to Pharrell protegee that critics fawn over (granted, maturing several years had a lot to do with that.) Second-placers regularly outshine their winners, and people like Lee DeWyze, Kris Allen and Taylor Hicks can market music almost entirely to stannish fanbases that largely coalesced before the final two, their victories mostly amounting to scratch money and Wikipedia trivia. At this point on the show–well before it, in fact–Jessica, Phillip and Joshua could revolt and stage a three-part arrangement of Lou Reed and Metallica’s Lulu for the show’s two hours, and the vote count would be roughly the same as it was for tonight’s.
Winning, in other words, is irrelevant. The key to doing well on Idol is not to outdo anybody else but to carefully cultivate a fanbase, like Twitter agar, and to persuade label folks that your particular mix of oldies covers can be transmogrified into a modern career. It’s less like a singing competition than a gaudy, sponsored, slapdash Victorian debutante ball. It’s the music industry, in other words, and if you’d like to know how the top three will fare in music society, best look to an artist doing the same for himself. To Justin Bieber, perhaps. They have so much in common! Like Justin Bieber, they resemble scrubbed-clean Madame Alexander dolls. Like Justin Bieber, they “[exist] inside what amounts to a series of interconnected skyways“: Idol mansion, Idoldome, Idol-funded and Idol-edited visits to hometowns who momentarily care about nothing but Idol. Like Justin Bieber, they may or may not be allowed to drink a beer while on this show. Like Justin Bieber, entire battalions of songwriters are scouring the world like oyster hunters in search of suitable album tracks.
Unlike Bieber, though, nobody remaining on the show could ever be called a “swaggy adult.” Even just “adult” is pushing it, and “swaggy” is right out. (As it should be.) The upper echelons of Idol contain are three children and zero swag. And yes, the exact rankings are pointless, but it still seems somehow meaningful that as its appointed top three aspiring artists, America has chosen a hydroponically-grown talent-show lifer, an ailing, apathetic male pinup and… well, and quite possibly the most talented singer the show’s seen this season. Because for all Idols’ infinite, colorful streamers of bullshit, every terrible decision and mean-spirited joke and ratings grab and imagination failure and act of producer sabotage and sluice channel of gossip sludge the show’s dragged us through, last night it finally succeeded in what it claims is its purpose: to find one person, and allow one moment, where we felt like we were watching the birth of a star. Sure, it’s entirely possible Fox will zap that star from the Idol cosmos tonight, but let’s not be bitter about that just yet. We have other targets for our cynicism.