The Soul Patrol outnumbered the Kat Pack. Experience overcame youth. The man that judge and resident meanie Simon Cowell said resembled a "drunken dad at a wedding" proved more popular than the beautiful and talented girl next door. And that wasn't even the half of it -- over a two-part finale that vacillated between the weird and the wonderful, Taylor Hicks, the prematurely gray 29-year-old soul-shouter from Alabama, beat out Katharine McPhee, a 22-year-old Angelena stunner, for the title of American Idol.
The seeds of Wednesday's result were sown on Tuesday night's show, when -- with luminaries like Ben Stiller, Heather Locklear and Taye Diggs in attendance -- Hicks clearly outshone McPhee in two of three performances. McPhee kicked off the evening's competition with KT Tunstall's "Black Horse and Cherry Tree," a song that could be described as subtly insinuating or, in other words, completely wrong for "American Idol." The chubby-cheeked Hicks then launched into Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City," chicken-strutting across the stage and stretching out syllables to maximum effect (cit-hay-hayy-hayyyy!). The rout was on.
McPhee, something of a surprise finalist, rebounded with a lovely version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," which induced a bout of McPheever in Paula Abdul, who, with her usual masterstroke of intuition, said the performance had made "every little girl proud -- they dream to be you." Hicks countered meekly with Elton John's "Levon." The song, subdued and wordy, was all wrong for the Silver Fox, and Randy Jackson, trying to balance out Abdul's overly sympathetic gushing, correctly called Hicks on a "pitchy" -- slightly out of tune -- performance. (As an aside, that a piece of studio jargon like "pitchy" has entered common usage is testament to the show's widespread success; my grandma cruelly used the word to describe my Passover rendition of "Dayenu.")
Tuesday night's show climaxed when each singer debuted his or her new single. McPhee's "My Destiny" was a piece of prom night schlock that stayed limp when it needed a money shot -- even the addition of a gospel choir couldn't help the song achieve liftoff. Hicks' "Proud of Me" matched McPhee's song gospel choir for gospel choir, but bettered it by giving the singer a chance to do what he does best: Testify! Cowell, who for all his stagy sarcasm is the most astute of the three judges, ended the night on a prophetic note, telling Hicks, "you just won 'American Idol.'" Sixty-three million voters then went about proving him right.
With the competitive part of the show out of the way, Wednesday night's extravaganza actually made for better television. The show saw the return of some fan favorites who'd been given the boot in weeks past: Chris Daughtry, casualty of an unexpected dismissal two weeks ago, duetted with fellow baldheaded over-emoter Ed Kowalczyk of Live; Paris Bennett scatted with Al Jarreau; and third runner-up Elliott Yamin was left hung out to dry by being given the unenviable task of performing U2's "One" alongside that force of nature known as Mary J. Blige. Not that Yamin's mother, Claudette, proudly watching from the audience, cared a whit -- that was her boy up there!
And that sentiment is really what the finale of "American Idol's" fifth and most successful season delivered: the chance to revel in the emotions of regular people. "American Idol" may be carefully staged and choreographed, but the emotions onstage are always wonderfully genuine. Those weren't actors whose eyes grew glassy with pride during the performances of their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters; nothing other than his own unbridled enthusiasm allowed the boyish Kevin Covais to get away with singing a swamp-rock song like "Tobacco Road"; and no professional entertainer could ever live down the spaz attack Michael Sandecki threw when his hero Clay Aiken stepped out from the wings to join him in a surprise duet. With host Ryan Seacrest's prodding ("Are you game?" he asked the rail-thin Sandecki, emphasizing the first syllable of the question's last word), Sandecki began singing, displaying the same relationship to pitch that a drunk has to a straight line. Then, Aiken came out -- rescuing his young fan from embarrassment and sending him into a tizzy at the same time. It was impossible not to smile.
It was harder to conjure a smile during some of the celebrity guest spots that filled out Wednesday's two-hour show. Meatloaf, quivering like jello and waving a red hankie, was thoroughly outclassed by McPhee. Toni Braxton came out from wherever she's been hiding and Dionne Warwick was dusted off to accompany her old partner Burt Bacharach. Prince, who somehow manages to play the role of a funky, middle-aged male coquette, showed up late in the telecast to sing two songs from his new album, after which Hicks and McPhee sang "(I've Had) The Time of My Life." Then it was time to announce the winner.
Envelope in hand, a representative from the firm that "validated the vote," an Englishman with the delightfully officious name of Edward Boddington, strode across the stage and handed the envelope to Seacrest. Hicks and McPhee stood side by side, their lips trembling in anticipation.
Seacrest read the enclosed message: "It's Taylor Hicks!"
Hicks' eyes opened as wide as saucers, while McPhee tried hard not to look devastated. Hicks started to sing "Proud of Me," and a gospel choir quickly joined in. "I'm living the American dream!" he yelled. The camera panned the cheering crowd, settling for a moment on a familiar face. It was David Hasselhoff -- a man who could never be accused of acting -- and tears of joy were running down his cheeks.
-- David Marchese