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American Idol Finale Recap: A Winner Is Crowned, But It’s All About Simon

Last night’s musical extravaganza finale of American Idol culminated with the revelation that the winner of season nine was actually none other than Simon Cowell. At least that’s how the episode played out: By the time Seacrest announced it was time to crown a new Idol with seven minutes left in the show, it was a much needed reminder that we weren’t just watching a farewell tribute to the show’s most infamous judge.

You have to hand it to the Idol producers for pulling together a variety of A-list singers and making the two-hour season finale the most consistent results episode of the year, even with this year's underwhelming talent pool. Of course, the finale worked so well because it had a greater purpose than announcing whether America preferred Crystal Bowersox or Lee DeWyze. Simon Cowell — the man whose unfaltering cruelty in the face of musical mediocrity arguably made Idol a phenomenon — sat at the judging table for the last time.

The shocker was how entertaining all the montages, interviews, and tributes were. While reliving stupid publicity stunts like Simon kissing Paula and Simon waking up in bed next to Randy was wholly unwelcome, it was fun to watch choice clips of Simon being a real wanker to the various idiots who have tried out for the show over the years. And it was nice to be reminded of a time when his hair was only slightly square, as opposed to being cut with the use of a level.

Paula Abdul returned to the Nokia as well. After enduring Ellen’s variety of food-related metaphors this past season, Paula sounded positively lucid while speaking about her love for Simon. It was surprising how palpable the mutual affection and respect between the two of them was: Simon genuinely seemed glad to be with her one more time.

Even crazier, Paula was funny while still remaining comprehensible: She joked about Seacrest stealing her lip gloss, and her comment about “eight years of sitting between two men with bigger boobs than me” was priceless. She even alluded to emcee Skat Kat! Of course, Paula is still Paula; she wore a Bratz-style pink prom dress and spoke slowly as if operating on no other timetable than her own.

Also swinging by to pay homage were all the former Idol victors (except David Cook, who tweeted he had some charity conflict). Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Hicks, Jordin Sparks, and Kris Allen joined forces to sing lyrics like, “See what we’ve all become, together we are one.” Other assorted Idol contestants filed onstage a bit later, including Justin Guarini with his clown wig and some guy who looked like Tiny Tim.

Paula then pulled the British Grinch onstage for the emotional climax of the night when — in spite of his legendary cynicism — Simon got misty-eyed and admitted he never expected to have, you know, emotions over leaving a show he’s been with for nine years. He assured us that the show would go on without him because, “The truth is, you guys are the judge of this show, and you’ve done an incredible job over the years.” (Watch below.)

We could have just patted ourselves on the back and called it a night right there, but no, the whole "who actually won season nine?" question had to be resolved.

The answer? The everyman paint salesman Lee DeWyze is the new American Idol, proving that three mediocre performances on the final night really don’t matter as long as you’re enough of a tabula rasa for people to project whatever persona they fancy onto you. (That being said, Seacrest stated there was a less than 2 percent difference between the voting tallies, so it’s not like America exactly dissed Crystal.)

Although Crystal is a more technically proficient singer and interesting artist than Lee, it was hard not to switch allegiances the moment Lee began crying before the winner was even announced. Clearly, this whole Idol thing is more than he ever could have imagined a year ago, and truthfully, he needs the top spot more than Crystal does. She is a fantastic, authentic singer who has made a name for herself and can probably count on her natural talent to propel her forward from here. With Lee, on the other hand, you get the sense that he needs this victory to really make his career, not just because he’s a lesser vocalist, but because he's less self-assured and driven.

It’s difficult to imagine DeWyze the paint salesman having the hustle and ambition to make himself a rock star — whereas Crystal conceivably could have eventually scored an album on her own — so in that sense, it was nice to see him win Idol. Justifiable? Perhaps not, but as mentioned in last week’s recap, Idol is a democracy, not a meritocracy, so if you have a problem with the results, take it up with the Jay Leno–lovin’ voters who backed him. But enough on Lee. There’s no sense in hating on a humble, likable guy with a fine voice. It’s not his fault he’s more accessible.

Assorted musical and situational highlights:

• As trying as it was to endure more group performances — and as miserably neutered as the top twelve sounded singing “School's Out” — it was pretty fabulous to have the man himself, Alice Cooper, join them onstage with whip in hand. Naturally, Siobhan had midriff bared in spite of the Catholic school outfits they all sported. Orianthi on the axe was none too shabby, either.

• Siobhan and Aaron sounded great while singing the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love.” At least until Barry Gibb joined them. Stayin’ Alive? Check. Stayin’ in tune? Negative.

• While Michael Lynche duetting on “Takin’ It to the Streets” with Michael McDonald is not exactly the kind of performance anyone needed to hear, you gotta hand it to the Doobie Bro for mentioning Big Mike’s name twice. Classy and considerate.

• Apparently Dane Cook is still an A-lister? The whole world doesn’t hate him yet? The guy is like Gallagher but with words instead of watermelons. And while Ellen was able to feign amusement at George Lopez's awful routine during "Idol Gives Back," she could muster no such faux appreciation for Cook.

• Cook brought out a handful of memorably miserable audition singers as part of his ostensibly comedic stage show. Ian Benardo (also a So You Think You Can Dance audition train-wreck alumnus) yanked the mike and started repeating, “I’m replacing you, Simon Cowell!” until the camera panned hard right and they cut to a commercial break. Weird … who would have thought bringing a bunch of talentless fame whores on live national television would be a bad idea?

• Christina Aguilera graciously stopped by to demonstrate what a real powerhouse vocalist does onstage. Although if you’re gonna dress up like an understudy for Cabaret, prance around a bit!

• After the top twelve girls sang with Xtina, the boys joined Hall & Oates for a feel-good mash-up of their hits. Andrew still can’t sing; Tim still has that fabulous hair.

• Crystal got to sing with Alanis Morissette because she’s one of her idols. Lee got to sing with Chicago because, well, he’s from Chicago. And possibly lost a bet.

• Carrie Underwood’s new single, “Undo It,” is co-written by Kara. Hee-haw.

• Crystal and Lee learned that their reward for enduring weeks of promotional Ford videos is a brand-new Ford Fiesta with the decals they designed a few weeks back. Lee’s response: “This is sick!” Crystal’s response: “I like sunflowers.” It's very important to have your car match your back.

• When Casey started singing “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” there was a visible rush of excitement in the audience. And indeed, it was pretty awesome to see Bret Michaels singing onstage alive and well, even if he was a bit strained vocally.

• And come on, you knew this was coming: Larry Platt returned to perform his cautionary tale about low-hanging trousers, “Pants on the Ground.” The Idol producers sucked all conceivable fun out of it by surrounding the aging civil-rights activist with dancers whose pants were — genius time! — around their ankles. Although bringing out William Hung to join him was, in their favor, genuinely bizarre.

• Janet Jackson stopped by to do the following: (a) sing like Michael Jackson in her new song, (b) lip-synch to her classic dance number “Nasty,” and (c) incite some very arrhythmic clapping from the people in the front row.

The penultimate performance of the night was Lee and Crystal going all Wonder Years and joining Joe Cocker on “With a Little Help From My Friends.” The final sloppy moment of the night occurred when Cocker started growling his lines and absolutely no one chimed in to provide his backup vocals. Noting the faux pas, Crystal immediately stepped in to help him out, but it took Lee about three measures to figure out he was supposed to do more than stand next to them holding a mike while they sang. And when he did join in, his muffled growl was nothing next to Bowersox’s soulful vocal runs.

Well, there’s our new American Idol: reasonably talented, fairly out of touch, and not too far above average. But apparently America wouldn’t have it any other way.

Other Recaps:
Entertainment Weekly's Michael Slezak wishes Lee the best: "Here's hoping Lee continues to 'show growth,' to wash off that patina of nervousness that's always seemed to creep up for a few weeks when he's faced with a new and scary obstacle."
Television Without Pity's Jacob applauded America for "breaking with convention after nine seasons by rewarding someone specifically and explicitly for their mediocrity."

Photo: Vince Bucci/FOX