WHIRLING through pop's history faster than a time-traveling phone booth, this year's "American Idol" finale was Blake & Jordin's Excellent Adventure. Tony Bennett actually sang, after pleading sick a few weeks ago -- awesome! Sanjaya rocked out with Joe Perry -- heinous! Doug E. Fresh gave Blake a beat-boxing lesson. Green Day showed him what good fake-punk hair looks like -- totally rad! And the suits at Apple Corps finally loosened up their grip on the Beatles catalog and let the Idols have a go. Dude, Simon must be so stoked!
The fresh-faced pair at the center of this maelstrom seemed to enjoy the ride, right up to the moment when Ryan announced Jordin's victory. No regrets; for these two, there's nowhere to go but up.
More than any other final "Idol" pair, Jordin Sparks, the ballad-hugging drama club kid, and Blake Lewis, the closest thing to a hipster that "Idol" has ever seen, present a vision of America's future. It's not just the oddly matronly ingenue's youth or the beat-boxer's embrace of a "contemporary" style that relies on hip-hop and new-wave moves dating from the 1980s. It's a matter of where they're from.
Tonight, the South lost its claim to the "Idol" crown. Given that a youthful generation of "Idol" voters put Jordin and Blake in the top spots, the triumph of the Sun Belt and, just behind it, the Pacific Northwest, speaks to realities beyond this competition.
Jordin, ascendant in every way, calls the Sun Belt home. Glendale, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix, belongs to one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the nation. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, pundit Michael Barone noted that Phoenix will soon overtake Detroit in size, helping turn the region into the new American heartland. Full of young families, gleaming upscale malls and arena-sized mega-churches, such cities present a vision of wholesomeness unburdened by the sins of history.
Jordin herself worked at a mall -- the Westgate City Center -- and sang on the worship team at Calvary Community Church, one of the fastest-growing congregations in the country.
A grounding in contemporary Christian "praise and worship" music helped Jordin develop a vocal technique that's highly empathetic, tuneful and pleasant -- in a word, "inspirational" -- while still seeming mainstream. Free of the traditional-gospel trappings that made Melinda Doolittle and LaKisha Jones seem old to some, yet still full of the conviction of a true believer, Jordin's best performances were touched by the same nondenominational grace that Carrie Underwood delivered in "Jesus, Take the Wheel" and Fantasia Barrino found in "I Believe."
What makes Jordin more modern than those "Idol" divas (and a bit like Kelly Clarkson, though she has nowhere near the vocal talent) is her ability to stay free of categories. She can do country, she can do Whitney-esque giant pop, she can do rhythm and blues, though that's not her forte. What she does best is make the distinctions between those genres pretty much irrelevant.
It's worth noting that Sparks is also the first biracial "Idol" winner, which, along with her youth and her particular brand of devotional training, makes it all the easier for her to avoid the stereotyping that can weigh an "Idol" down.
Blake, on the other hand, is unmistakably white: Not only does the Welsh-German-Irish 26-year-old look totally right in blond highlights, he's from Bothell, Wash., a Seattle suburb whose population is almost 90% white. The irony of a kid from this racially homogenous zone finally bringing hip-hop to the "Idol" stage was fairly delicious, if predictable: Given the unadventurous tastes of the "Idol" judges, who responded to the mom-rock of Chris Daughtry as if it were the Sex Pistols, only the vanilla hip-hop of BShorty could have broken through.
Yet Blake, like Bothell, also belongs to tomorrow. He came of age as the Pacific Northwest was shifting away from working-class regionalism and toward techie cosmopolitanism -- from the garage rock that culminated in Nirvana to the smart pop exemplified by Death Cab for Cutie. He proudly associates himself with a Northwest underground scene that's multiracial; its stars include rapper Geologic, who is Filipino, and Gabriel Teodros, the son of an Ethiopian immigrant mother and a white father -- politically progressive and musically adventurous.
Blake's ease in blending musical styles and his interest in the technical side of performance make him a typical Northwest music nerd. As a beat-boxer, he's a lot like a software engineer: precise and creative and, in his own sweater-vest rocking way, cool.