Updated 10:00 PM: You can sum up the American Idol series grand finale very simply: Everyone got to take part in a medley and there were no surprise appearances. The broadcast was at 100 minutes and counting when they brought out original judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson. For the official Idol record, Abdul and Cowell kissed and made up. Randy Jackson looked on. In the end, the show didn’t know how to sum up and/or pay tribute to Cowell—its core villain and, ultimately, its forsaken figure. All the gossipy, backstage intrigue (something Idol had undoubtedly once profited from) fell away on a night that was about the unknown talents who’d risked their hopes and dreams to participate in the first place.
That was as it should be. After 15 years, and through back-to-back, two term presidencies, Idol ended by giving its fans a sort of greatest-hits package of the people it had anointed over its long run. In his own video tribute to open the broadcast, President Obama jokingly credited the show with teaching Americans “what it means to be pitchy.” He then said: “For over a decade, this show has motivated millions of young Americans to vote.” Obama’s hope, he said, was that Idol had made young Americans more likely to engage in the democratic process at the ballot box, instead of just the cell–and now Smart–phone. The context of the phrase “to vote,” Obama seemed also to hint, was changed by Idol. Now the show exits, it is worth noting, with a legacy of being envied and emulated in ratings dominance and with a different kind of American idol, Donald Trump, having a credible shot at being one of two finalists for the White House.
As for the show itself, no past performer became a bigger star, and got more of a showcase on the finale, than that idol of Idols, Carrie Underwood. After appearing in a duet of Tom Petty’s “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” with current judge Keith Urban, Underwood later returned to sing her new single, “Something in the Water.” Shortly thereafter, the two-hour broadcast came to a close with announcement that Trent Harmon, a waiter, would go down as the final winner in the show’s history, besting single mother La’Porsha Renae.
A decade and a half ago, American Idol debuted in the summer after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when Fox ordered the show (based on Lythgoe’s already successful British “Pop Idol”) as part of an edict for aspirational programming around which the country might come together. With Nigel Lythgoe returning to produce the series’ swan song, the mood was commemorative about that aspiration, the tone wholesome, the metaphors intact, from Jennifer Lopez’s “Cinderella” dress to Harry Connick’s duet of “What a Wonderful World” with a young student from New Orleans’ Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, an arts school Connick helped establish after Hurricane Katrina.
Soon after a group performance of Barry Manilow’s “One Voice,” Ryan Seacrest strode onstage, one last time. A bit ensued, with Seacrest interrupted by Brian Dunkelman, his co-host from season one. Dunkelman, of course, will go down in history as the guy who presumably quit a gig that would have made him rich. By contrast, the broadcast glided past Idol’s high school bullying period, the fame-through-shaming of a William Hung (he briefly reprised his off-key singing) or Sanjaya (host Ryan Seacrest made sure to walk by him in the audience). Similarly, judges from Idol’s more recent, embattled seasons gave brief video tributes (Nicki Minaj, Ellen Degeneres, and Steven Tyler) or didn’t appear at all (Mariah Carey).
All the other remembered faces—your Jordin Sparks and Clay Aikens, your Bo Bices, Fantasias and Kellie Picklers–were mixed and matched in a dizzying blast of showcase numbers. All series finales attempt to mark the passing of time in all the years they’ve been on the air, and Idol did this best through the performance of a very pregnant Kelly Clarkson. This, more than any clip package or platitude, drove home the point of the show’s longevity, and the passing of time in a communal experience. It spoke to how Idol not only ushered in the notion that a talent show could become a cultural phenomenon, but the way that in which viewers wanted a bigger say in creating and adopting its heroes.