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Kris Allen beats Adam Lambert

More voters go for nice over glamour.

May 21, 2009|Ann Powers | POP MUSIC CRITIC

Minutes before Kris Allen was announced as the new American Idol, he and Adam Lambert sang "We Are the Champions," the 1977 smash by the rock band Queen. As the pyrotechnics sizzled and a large choir (including this year's other "Idol" finalists) backed them up, those two unlikely partners in bringing back heat to the long-running series had one last laugh together.

It was Lambert's moment. It felt like his victory. Ever since he auditioned with an a cappella version of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," fans of the fiery-voiced Southland native had been clamoring for him to sing a Queen song. And here he was doing it, leaning on guitarist Brian May's shoulder, fitting right into the spot originally occupied by Freddie Mercury -- one of the most sensationally gifted frontmen in rock history. Allen seemed delighted to be his wing man. And then, in a surprise that really wasn't a surprise at all, he grabbed away the spotlight.

Well, sort of. When Ryan Seacrest announced Allen's victory Wednesday night at the Nokia Theatre, the sweet-natured troubadour actually seemed a bit distressed. "It feels good, man, but Adam deserves this," he said.

Did Lambert? Many critics -- including this one, openly and with heartfelt enthusiasm -- thought so. But Allen has his undeniable strong points. In terms of the music industry, he cuts a more contemporary figure than Lambert: Many stars now (specifically rock-oriented, male ones) tend to do better when they draw themselves to scale, offering songs that make fans feel warm and connected, not blown away.

Think Jack Johnson. Dave Matthews. Jason Mraz, who performed on the "Idol" finale. And on the country side, Keith Urban, with whom Allen did a spirited duet early in the show.

This approachable kind of pop figure is one that often naturally emerges from the "Idol" competition. David Cook, last year's winner, is cut from this natural-fiber cloth. Performing "Permanent," the song he has dedicated to the brother he recently lost to cancer, Cook epitomized what Allen will likely soon become -- a crowd favorite, empathetic and touchable.

Lambert is another matter altogether. His two shining moments in the finale came during that Queen song and in an equally explosive turn with the pioneering pop-metal band KISS.

For a medley of songs with the latter, including "Detroit Rock City" and "Beth," Lambert wore wiry black wings that updated KISS' signature silver-and-greasepaint style.

Lambert took this chance to claim his place within the lineage of classic rock, a form that seriously needs a new star like him to refresh it. Sinking his painted fingernails into those worn-out Guitar Hero favorites, he renewed them.

But he still lost. Does it matter?

Pop's many sides

As a whole, the finale argued otherwise. This two-hour-long immersion in mainstream pop's confetti pit happily asserted that one kind of music -- or personality -- cannot define or dominate American taste.

This was the variety show of the season, "Ed Sullivan" on whatever Manny Ramirez has been taking.

It had the Black Eyed Peas performing their new carnivalesque cyber-funk single "Boom Boom Pow" with a bunch of faux androids, and Cyndi Lauper playing dulcimer while she and "Idol" finalist Allison Iraheta sang the achingly intimate "Time After Time."

It sought to please baby boomers with turns by Carlos Santana and Rod Stewart (who got the finalists' parents dancing in the aisles) and hip-hop heads with one from Queen Latifah, who sang her new single, "Cue the Rain," with finalist Lil Rounds.

It featured crass humor -- the lowest point came when judge Kara DioGuardi cruelly demolished joke contestant Katrina "Bikini Girl" Durrell by out-singing her and then ripping off her dress to show her own hard body -- and genteel tenderness, via (of all people) comedian Steve Martin, who played banjo as Idols Michael Sarver and Megan Joy sang his own sweet song, "Pretty Flowers."

The show was a breakneck run through the vast landscape of current popular song. Though utterly fragmented and sometimes almost incoherent, it was thoroughly enjoyable.

More tellingly, it showed what pop is now: not a unifying force, but a thousand points of florescent light, with each style captivating some fans, alienating others and casually enjoyed by most of the millions.

This is the world Kris Allen and Adam Lambert enter now, as newly minted pop stars. It's a world that loves a nice guy, clearly, but which has room for a challenging one too.


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