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American Idol Season 13 Finale Recap: We Did It!

Tonight! American Idol season 13 limps across the finish line like a poorly trained marathoner, wracked with sobs and bleeding out of its toes, and thanks to a contact at Fox who has apparently not read any of this season’s recaps, I AM THERE! L.A. Live is positively on fire with excitement, by which I mean metal barriers and confused security people. 

The audience warm-up guy is really going to town as I work my way to my seat, and the audience (which consists disproportionately of children, like really, really young children, like just graduated from Radio Disney children) is eating it up. They go bananas at the mention of every upcoming special guest-star; even “Jason Mraz is in the house” gets a Beatles-on–Ed Sullivan reception. And then he says the best thing I’ve ever heard: “We gon’ SELFIE all NIGHT. It’s gon’ be NUTS.” And you know what? He just might be right.

He also asks who’s on whose team, and the Caleb cheers far outweigh the Jena ones. I am afraid for [the person who I just last night decided is] my girl.

The show opens with our top two doing a medley of “We Will Rock You” and “Just a Girl,” which is a little insulting (boys rock, but girls are just girls?), but the enthusiasm is infectious. And when they reprise their duet of “It’s Only Love,” two things are clear: (1) they are evenly matched, and (2) Idol thinks we remember the duets from this season much more fondly than we probably do.

Our judges make their entrance, Harry and Keith looking fly in a velvet jacket and casual eveningwear, respectively, and Jennifer in a glittery silver dress. Ryan says they look great, “especially with that sparking centerpiece in the middle.” Yikes; women really have to take it on the chin in this finale.

So do fans of music. Sam Woolf kicks off the Idol/celebrity duet portion of the evening with a remarkably bloodless take on Phillip Phillips’s “Home.” P-squared joins him, then launches into his new single, “Raging Fire.” It’s the second time I’ve heard this song on American Idol! It’s also the second time I’ve heard this song.

During the commercial break, a willowy, bell-bottomed nymph with a luxurious mane takes the stage, and our seats are too far back to tell who it is, but we figure it’s gotta be Steven Tyler, because who else has a figure like that? Well, it turns out Jennifer Nettles has a figure like that. She also makes the most batshit-crazy performance faces I have ever seen, and I have seen Este Haim. It is a stark contrast with her dead-eyed duet partner Jessica Meuse. They are the Goofus and Gallant of faceography in their duet of “Wrecking Ball.” Watch and learn, young Idols.

After we all sit and watch the video of Jennifer’s performance of “First Love,” which I will Edward Snowden it up and tell you was pre-taped the night before, out comes KISS, to the apparent delight of all the children in our section. I was a young boy at the mid-'70s height of their fame, and I don’t mind telling you they scared the bejeebers out of me. That’s how defanged and cuddly they are now: Even the kid with the Elmo backpack in front of me is loving it. Caleb joins them and looks like he’s in heaven. And then his superfan brother Houston comes out with his face painted like the Starchild, and I’ll be damned if the whole thing isn’t totally heartwarming. The 6-year-old version of myself would be so relieved at how the KISS story turns out. Also, throughout their performance, Harry Connick, Jr. does the best Carlton dance I’ve seen since 1992.

Aloe Blacc sings “I’m the Man” with the boys of the top 13, and more than anything, I’m happy to see Ben Briley looking well. (And looking exactly the same: backwards hat low on the head, casual trousers.) Next up, according to Mr. Seacrest: “My buddy Demi Lovato!” All the kids know all the words to “Neon Lights,” and of course Ryan Seacrest is proud of being buddies with a 21-year-old woman. All of the women of the top 13 join her, save for MK Nobilette, whose Twitter feed reveals she is out sick. Bummer! I really wanted her to underwhelm me tonight.

Seeing a show like this in person, you really notice how much it’s made for people to watch on television. The sound is made for the production mikes, the silent commercial breaks send everyone’s energy crashing (except the kids, which is why I won’t have kids), and Seacrest and the judges never address the audience. I’m not judging — they’re surely all being prepped by producers in any spare moment — I’m just saying.

And then Jena’s “Decode” sends us into her duet with Paramore, which I will call the high point of the night. “Ain’t It Fun” is one of my favorite singles of the year, and Hayley and Jena’s voices blend perfectly. Giant yellow balloons rain down on the crowd and everyone sings along; it’s a pure and joyful moment. Until the commercial break, when a squadron of production assistants rushes into the crowd with pins and pops all the balloons, then it’s just delicious.

Malaya and John Legend sing the duet of “All of Me” that was probably meant for MK and John Legend, but that’s the way it goes. Malaya sounds good; really, once the competition jitters are no longer a factor, all of these kids are competent performers. We go right to commercial after this performance, and Malaya playfully throws an arm around John as they walk offstage. She’s going to be just fine.

Alex Preston and Jason Mraz duet on a song called “Love Someone” that a Jason Mraz Song Generator app spat out earlier in the afternoon. We’ve been instructed to wave our new Idol light-up key fobs in the air for this performance and this performance only. Do you see me? I’m way in the back, considering law school.

I guess Randy has been trying to get Ryan to sing this season? It’s the first I’m hearing of it, but apparently it’s going to happen tonight, and it’s going to be a song by the first person Ryan saw in concert: Richard Marx. I’m certain it’s going to be some shitty fake-out, but sure enough: Ryan Seacrest sings a little bit of “Right Here Waiting.” And you know what? If he took a lesson or two, he’d be pretty good. He’s just fine as it is, but his face indicates he’s not committing too hard. And then the curtain rises and there’s Richard Marx, and they do a duet, and it’s sort of fun, and OF COURSE RYAN SEACREST’S FIRST CONCERT WAS RICHARD MARX.

Darius Rucker does a duet with CJ and Dexter, and then Lady Antebellum gets the plum no-duets final guest-performance slot, and it hits me: Country is the dominant force in the American recording industry now. Rock is a mess, pop is for kids, EDM is strictly a live experience; to the degree that people are buying anything, people are buying country. The good news about that: Country is ascendent just before something really great happens. (The moments just before MTV and Nirvana, for example.) So, you know, here’s hoping.

And then the judges and Randy go and do a group medley of “True Colors” and “Go Your Own Way” that actually sounds good and looks enjoyable and why didn’t they do this a long time ago? If they’d tried it in the first live episode and then dangled that carrot in front of my face for the last 13 episodes, the hope might have carried me through.

And then Caleb wins. He sings his winner’s single “As Long As You Love Me,” which was written by Justin Hawkins of the Darkness and sounds like it. And his brother comes and picks him up again. I will tell you this: Caleb might handle fame well, but Houston Johnson is going to be a nightmare.

But not as much of a nightmare as the programming executives at Fox. The Idol franchise didn’t crash and burn this season so much as vanish in the Indian Ocean, and there are going to be some tense meetings in the coming days. I swear there’s life in this show, and if they’d strip away the pomp, dim the searchlights, and get back to their core mission of discovering and developing some engaging new talent, I believe they can find it. I just don’t know if I’ll be there.

Thanks for enduring this season with me. Your comments have challenged me and made me laugh, and the simple idea that anyone was bothering to read this kept me going through more hours than I care to count. You’re good people.

And you deserve a better show.