The Idol finale is always a trip and a lie. It convinces you with subtle, thorough trickery that every episode has been this captivating. “Here’s LeAnn Rimes! Patti LaBelle! All your favorite contestants arranged onstage in a Hands Across America stance performing with legends!” It’s an emotional, star-studded overload and a searing conclusion — every single season.
My theory is that the finales are what keep fans coming back to Idol. They’re too gigantic to ignore, even if you don’t care about Trent Harmon meeting Bo Bice or whatever other wild antics are promised. Once again, for the 16th time, we were subjected to an intense, melancholic, triumphant finale (with a too-cynical-by-half bit from Jimmy Kimmel thrown in, plus a longish gag about an alpaca) and now we’re all alone with a new winner with nothing to show for our season-long devotion. Actually, we do have one thing: Caleb Lee Hutchinson’s impression of Lionel Richie was scary in its precision and I will never forget it. Rich Little is quaking.
Usually I rank the performances in every episode. Today, for the final recap of the season, I’ll run through them in chronological order since it’s hard to measure the work of Darius Rucker against the craft of Kermit the Frog. Very different recording artists if you ask me. Grab your most rhinestoned blazer and listen in as we join Caleb, Gabby, and Maddie on their trek to the final reveal and, surely, a sizable Macy’s gift card.
Lionel Richie and the Top 10: “All Night Long”
Oh man. Guys, I know Lionel has spent this entire season yipping, “I’m a fan! Keep it up!” and shooting finger guns at every finalist in sight, but you can’t hate him. He’s working his same silhouette from 1981, he’s got incisors bigger than my thigh, and he’s having a smiley old time. He’s incapable of cutting criticism and tonight, I’ll allow that. We have no Top 40 songs like “All Night Long” anymore and I was mom-dancing on my ottoman to his performance like my stationery store just went out of business and I’m gonna make it anyway! Thanks for the senselessly optimistic good times, Lionel.
Nick Jonas and Jurnee, “Jealous”
Whoa, maybe “Jealous” should’ve been a duet this whole time? Jurnee approached the stage in yard-long boots, strutted around the five-foot-eight pile of biceps and TopMan outerwear known as Nick Jonas, and made this song so much lighter and sultrier than the radio cut. It sounded like that new Charlie Puth/Kehlani song “Done for Me,” which is — I’m surprised to report — hot as fire. Jurnee seemed liberated, like the weight of this carnivalesque death match was finally off her shoulders. This show was never a perfect fit for her, but this moment was. Satisfying.
Luke Bryan and Gabby Barrett: “Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset”
I don’t remember much about Luke’s solo performance. He was a tower of denim, like a Pier 1 couch from 1998 standing on end. Then Gabby dropped in and together they made purdy noise about believin’ people are good. It was sweet but nothing, another reminder that country artists on Idol or anywhere else don’t have to innovate to be considered viable. I guess it was nice to see Luke sleepwalk for a couple of minutes instead of sleep talking through another confused, vague critique? It must be said that Gabby drew our attention away from Luke during every line of that performance, and it felt special watching her make a moment out of such a low-key number.
Gary Clark Jr., Cade Foehner, and Dennis Lorenzo, “Bright Lights”
Or: Sinister Purr feat. Growl and Another Growl. Cade Foehner’s “rock” “look” still makes me laugh. He’s up there thrashing and yowling but his hair and blazer are pure Laura Branigan. Meanwhile, it remains painful how gifted Dennis Lorenzo is. He sank in the competition for no good reason, even after weeks of exhaustingly soulful, clever performances. God willing, he and Jurnee will start an Ashford & Simpson–type duo, swaying to and fro and cooing “Solid!” like they mean it.
Kermit the Frog and Maddie Poppe: “Rainbow Connection”
Here’s my problem with “Rainbow Connection”: There aren’t that many songs about rainbows? I reject the premise of the song from the get-go! I’ll reiterate that “It Goes Like It Goes” from Norma Rae is a better, more insightful tune about the simple struggles in life and it deserved the 1980 Academy Award for Best Original Song. That aside, this was cute! Maddie’s gift is delivering soft-spoken sadness without being cloying or overwrought. She’s not twee. She’s alt-twee. Like she owns a ukulele but prefers the autoharp. Staying sincere without sappiness is a major accomplishment when ABC is staging you in a medium shot with Kermit the Actual Frog. She nailed it. Only problem: That … didn’t sound like Kermit the Frog. That sounded like Kevin the Frog. It was uncomfortable enough that I’m not going to slay you with my favorite Muppet Show performance, Lesley Ann Warren performing “Just the Way You Are” with Rowlf. All better!
Darius Rucker and Caleb Lee Hutchinson: “Wagon Wheel”
Lovely, really. Maybe even great. One problem: When you hear someone like Darius Rucker sing, you get so much lived-in emotion, adult sensibility, and maturity. It threw into sharp relief how much Caleb’s voice is, more than anything, an affect. He’ll grow into it and earn the bourbon-soaked sadness he deserves, but for now it feels more like bourbon-scented body wash he bought at Target to impress a girl.
Bebe Rexha and the Top 3: “Meant to Be”
Bebe Rexha is one of five women in 2018 pop who look like Mila Kunis, and I’m still sorting out where she lands in my ranking of that subgenre. Below Rita Ora? Above Jessie J? Who knows. Really, we got three minutes of these crooners chirping, “If it’s meant to be, it’ll be!” and seeming content about it. A nice amuse-bouche before the first elimination of the night.
FIRST ELIMINATION: Gabby Barrett
Uh, whoa. Here’s a fact: Before this episode, Gabby had twice as many Twitter followers as both Maddie and Caleb. Seemed like she was the one sure bet in the final two, but it looks like she was outmaneuvered by a sly towhead and a Friend of Kermit. Kind of brutal! Gabby’s catalog on the show was impressive and even inspired at times — who can forget that simmering cover of Prince’s “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore”? — but her arc on the show peaked a couple of weeks early, which reminds me of Adam Lambert’s fate in season eight. You’ve got to prepare for that deadly Kris Allen “Heartless” cover in the eleventh hour, Gabby!
LeAnn Rimes, Layla Spring, and her little sister Dyxie Spring: “Blue”
Remember Layla Spring? She is most known for having a name you exclaim. Layla Spring! See, now you remember. She also had a little sister named Dyxie who boasted a creepy camera awareness that still haunts me. Idol invited these two cupcakes back to have some adorable Funfetti fun with “Blue.” It was nice. But then LeAnn Rimes emerged as a surprise addition and here’s the thing about LeAnn Rimes: She is a heart-stopping vocalist. It’s no joke when LeAnn is on the stage. I needed Layla and Dyxie to jump in their Cozy Coupe and pedal back to Three Big Spoons, Arkansas, or wherever they’re from once LeAnn started in on “Blue.” What a beautiful voice. Just a beautiful voice. “Can’t Fight the Moonlight” is my LeAnn track of choice, but her balladry is timeless. Could’ve listened to that all night. Using the power of the Con-Air soundtrack, I just might!
Katy Perry and Catie Turner: “Part of Me”
I’ll give these two dames credit for turning “Part of Me” into a salable duet. Their bonkers humor is comparable, but they kept the shticky vaudeville to a minimum as they tore into Katy’s hit, which is best remembered for rhyming “me” with “me.” I much prefer the danceable cut in all its pluckiness, but this was a cool look for Catie Turner, who might’ve performed Gangnam Style moves to “Swish Swish” if we let her out there alone.
Yolanda Adams and Michael J. Woodard: “What the World Needs Now Is Love”
Remember when American Idol would have Burt Bacharach–themed weeks? The Idol producers had a juggernaut on their hands and what did they do with that power? They forced teens to sing “Message to Michael.” I love it, but it’s shocking. This performance was a bit slight, but both performers had fun bouncing off this simple melody with soul. Yolanda even gave you cute gestures (“Mountains and hillsides! Enough to climb!”), much like Jackie DeShannon during her ‘60s performances of this gem. Trivia: Did you know Jackie DeShannon co-wrote “Bette Davis Eyes”? Stand a little taller today with that fine nugget in your pocket.
Caleb Lee Hutchinson reveals that Maddie Poppe is his girlfriend?!
WHAAAAAT. I fell out of my chair and screamed, “MADDIE LEE POPPINSON” at no one in particular. Caleb announced their courtship so unassumingly, he acted like we were stupid for not figuring it out. And you know what, Caleb? We aren’t stupid. We’re HAPPY for you and only slightly wondering if it’s a stunt. But congrats!
Caleb Lee Hutchinson and Maddie Poppe: “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World”
This mash-up didn’t work, even though both contestants’ vocals were lilting and sincere. If anything, it seemed like a play to trick children into believing “Rainbow Connection” was right when it claimed there are “so many songs about rainbows.” No, Kermit, there’s only this song. This is propaganda and you know it.
Ada Vox and Patti LaBelle, “Lady Marmalade”
Mocha-choca-YOUR HOMOSEXUAL KIDS HAVE GAGGED TO DEATH. Ada Vox emerged from behind a curtain dressed, of course, like a volcano of Halloween-store paraphernalia. Tinsel and eye shadow tumbled off her in a pyroclastic flow. She started scat-singing those nonsense “Marmalade” syllables we so love (with some French thrown in), and then Patti LaBelle shimmied downstage, pointed at Jupiter, and sent us there with vocals that NASA must regulate on a daily basis. The chorus got away from both of them, which makes sense considering this performance was not grounded in reality. Then, in a frightful conclusion, Patti threw up her arms, ululated at the devil, and out–Ada Voxed Ada Vox right in front of America. Patti did not come to play. She came to twist space and time like a party balloon and wear it as a hat. God. I still give the edge to Ada’s duet of “Defying Gravity” with Lea Michele as the season high point, but Patti inhaling several audience members and nearby tables while singing about French prostitution is in a comfortable second place.
And the winner is … Maddie Poppe
Justice! Jubilation! Relief! A little bit of an anticlimax! Why? Because Maddie herself said, “I don’t care who wins” when it was announced that she and Caleb were in the top two. Wig, I felt that. Maddie knows that winning a reality show isn’t the key to vaulting forward in the music industry, not in 2018. If you watched Sunday’s Billboard Music Awards, you’re aware we have a reigning American Idol named Kelly Clarkson. Maddie knows she isn’t destined for an overthrow any time soon. But with her commitment to delicate balladry and the occasional oddball song choice (“Bare Necessities”? “Brand New Key”?), Maddie’s arc on Idol has been an artistic success. Not once did she pick a song just to appease the laziest voters. Not once did she seem uncomfortable engaging an audience. Not once did she seem, well, desperate. This is an unusual win for Idol that may change the direction of the show going forward, an ideal scenario considering the average TV viewer can’t figure out why this is back on the air.
The fact is, I love American Idol’s commitment to competitive schmaltz. It’s not self-important like The Voice and it’s not ancient in presentation like Dancing With the Stars. It’s a confused little former phenomenon trying to peddle talent in a universe where you’re introduced to a new voice in every retweeted, re-Tumblr’d Facebook post. We’ve got new voices around us all the time, so why do we need this midnight-blue technodrome to spew 16-year-old rodeo callers at us? My answer is this: I don’t know. But I’m going to keep watching in the hopes that one contestant will find the novel spin on this Y2K-era Gong Show reboot and its insane legacy. Maybe it’s Maddie! All I know is we’ve come too far not to get another Moment Like This.