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‘American Idol’ Tracker: Battle of the Davids

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Wednesday night, the final night in the Idoldome, saw at last the journey reach its irreducible core. After all the ups and downs, what the season was about was what it had seemed to be, what many hoped it would be for these last weeks –- the battle of the Davids, David Cook vs. David Archuleta. Syesha Mercado, having dodged so many bullets for so long, was finally dispatched at the very respectable No. 3 slot on a night as tear-jerking as any the show has yet produced.

There are two crucial episodes in each ‘American Idol’ season. The first is the Green Mile -- the show at the end of Hollywood Week in which the remaining 50-some aspirants learn one by one if they have been accepted into the Top 24, an entire episode of pure razor’s edge dramatic tension as each is hurled to the entertainment heavens or plunged forever into the abyss of anonymity.

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The second crucial episode is the one in which the surviving Final Three return to their hometowns; the triumphal marches showcase in stark tear-jerking Technicolor the noblest heights of the ‘Idol’ phenomenon. Here is where it sinks in that a mere four months ago, Archuleta, Mercado and Cook were, in fact, a high school student, an aspiring actress and a bartender, and now, they go back home for the first time, their lives utterly and irrevocably changed.

For all the shots taken at ‘American Idol’ this season, for all its ratings tremors, off-nights and tragic early losses of favorites (such as the greatest performer in ‘Idol’ history, Carly Smithson), when its contestants come home, the entire town turns out for a massive parade.

Just to put that in perspective, America by and large does not honor people with parades any more. For those who think this has become just another TV show, please note: The finalists on ‘Survivor’ don’t get a parade when they come home. Nor do the finalists on ‘The Bachelor,’ ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ ‘American Gladiator,’ ‘The Biggest Loser’ or ‘A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila.’

The stars of ‘Lost’ and ‘CSI,’ such as the stars of ‘Speed Racer’ and ‘Iron Man’ might get hounded for autographs when they come home, but a public undergoing an intense love/hate relationship with Hollywood-generated celebrity would not laud them like heroes. And in any event, they don’t go home. The majority of the entertainers whose faces adorn the covers of our magazines are there more to be reviled then worshiped. There are no parades when Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan come marching home.

Newly ascendant rock bands and pop stars certainly don’t get parades when they come home. With the fragmentation of music, they probably would not even be recognized outside their tiny demographic niches.

Politicians not only don’t get parades when they go home, they probably have to hide their faces from a substantial portion of their hometown slice of polarized America. Even the president of the United States (perhaps especially the president of the United States) doesn’t get a parade when he comes home.

Heroes of the Iraq war may not be spat upon, but they are not exactly celebrated either. Go ahead, try and name one. Astronauts have become humdrum. Inventors don’t leave their cubicles long enough to receive a parade.

A triumphant sports team receives a parade, but its members, like solo athletes from golfers to Olympians, so quickly license their likeness to every product in sight (our adulation of them is so harshly enforced by the marketplace), that a parade quickly becomes superfluous.

Which leaves ‘American Idol.’ Only this show can harness a broad enough swath of the nation to command crowds of this size. And whatever their futures may hold, while they remain in the rigorously protective ‘Idol’ bubble, only these young people, nearly at the end of this epic, awe-inspiring journey, with one foot still just four months out of their roots, inspire the sort of unembarrassed, non-ironic affection that leads to masses of citizens weeping in the streets at the very sight of them.

Were ‘American Idol’ to go away, would our culture have anything left to weep for?

For the last time in Season 7, I left the Idoldome on Wednesday night; in the parking lot, the disembarking tweens from the crowd were still shrieking themselves hoarse over what they had seen. Between the presence of the entire original 12 and the drama of tonight’s show, there was an air of carnival-like jubilation on the lot, a sense that after a season that at times has felt rocky and uncertain, the show was now firmly on track for what could be an extremely exciting finale –- and certainly one with the most uncertain outcome since Fantasia vs. Diana.

As I walked out, I saw the giant elephant doors to the Idoldome were hanging uncharacteristically open. Within moments, less than an hour after the show’s end, workers carried out and set down on the parking lot pavement the judges’ table, the hanging logo and the death couches, all bound for the Nokia Theatre, home of next week’s finals. I gazed back into the rapidly dissembling Idoldome, for these last few months the scene of so much drama. When these couches had been brought on stage, the name David Cook was barely known, certainly never mentioned as a contender for the crown.

And I looked on to the two velour-lined couches, sitting so innocently on the asphalt, and thought about all the agony that had been experienced on them in that room for these seven years. Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken, Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry, Jennifer Hudson had all known sheer torment on these couches, as had so many others whose names are barely remembered today. A TV show, I thought, may be as much a matter of smoke and mirrors, of positioning the lights in a certain way and of a thousand little tricks as any business on earth, but whatever the craft behind it, I saw that as long as the Idoldome can be rebuilt on another day, our nation will still have one last cause for a parade.

-- Richard Rushfield


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