"WHAT does it look like when the No. 1 show reaches its critical mass?" said Ryan Seacrest as this year's "American Idol" finale began Wednesday night. "THIS!"
And there they stood, the oddest couple to grace a soundstage since David Bowie and Bing Crosby bonded beneath Christmas tinsel and sang "The Little Drummer Boy." Though they share a given name, finalists Archuleta and Cook embody two strains of pop that could be fairly compared only in a competition like this. For most of this century, in fact, scruffy rock dudes like Cook have considered sugar pop purveyors like Archuleta mortal enemies. But not on "Idol" -- a Top 40 lovefest designed to heal such divides by touting universal qualities, like "originality" and "making it your own."
With Cook crowned king, it would seem that "Idol" voters have embraced classic rock as this year's universal language. But reality is not so simple. The problems "Idol" faced this season, which a very fine finale almost washed away for two energetic hours, reflect the dissolution of any kind of unifying force in pop, even one that can be maintained for the length of a television program.
"Idol" relies on a belief in what the venerable rock critic Robert Christgau has dubbed the "monoculture" -- in pop, that means a sound and style most everybody hears and likes and thinks is important. This idea was always only part of pop's reality, and in recent years it's become very difficult to maintain: Blame identity politics, the Internet or niche marketing, but the era of blockbuster artists singing for all of us seems to be over. Panic over the monoculture's death is aiding in the music industry's slow collapse, making rock- and soul-bred parents fret over their seemingly superficial kids, and preventing even popular songs (like the huge hit OneRepublic performed Wednesday night with Archuleta) from seeming anything but ephemeral.
As a paradigm dies, the romantic side of human nature reaches for some last thread of it to love. "Idol" is that thread -- 97.5 million votes were cast for Cook and Archuleta, Seacrest announced. They must be at the center of pop's universe!! They deserve our passion, our faith.
What does it mean, though, that Archuleta's and Cook's own sensibilities are so disparate that they can't sing a duet without discord? Their personal camaraderie can't overcome the flat feeling that arose when their voices combined. Even splitting a power ballad by Nickelback's Chad Kroeger -- a blandly ecumenical songwriter if there ever was one -- their harmonies grated.
In fact, every group number the final 12 contestants performed in what was (in part) a long advertisement for their summer tour reflected this season's mood of friendly friction. Chikezie's soul man moments clashed with Kristy Lee Cook's country twang. Ramiele Malubay's disco-flavored sensuality was buried by the big waves of rock belters Michael Johns and Carly Smithson. Even the Davids lost their footing in the group sings, unable to settle into their particular grooves.
The would-be Idols did fine when left to their own devices. Jason Castro again showed why Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is always deserving of another revival, and Brooke White made a sweet duet partner for her folk-pop elder, Graham Nash. Smithson and Johns brought the house down with a stomping take on the Box Tops' soul-rock classic, "The Letter." And both Davids seized their spotlight moments, the rocker comfortably hamming it up with ZZ Top and the pop boy crooning gorgeously as OneRepublic played that forgettable hit.
"Idol" has always celebrated the breadth of the Top 40, making room for soul queens -- Syesha Mercado, standing up to Seal's hip-shaking invitations, can count herself among them now -- and beat-boxing white boys, treacly balladeers and country barn-burners. This finale's star-studded guest list made the argument for such well-processed diversity. Bryan Adams, Donna Summer, Gladys Knight, guest of honor George Michael -- all share one thing, the ability to translate a niche sound for the largest audience possible. (Up-and-comers the Jonas Brothers fit in there, no matter how Disney-fied their sound -- teen pop is a niche too, just a very well-marketed one.)
It's a welcoming definition of greatness that has room to call all of these performers legendary. Certain snobs abhor it, but many millions have found it captivating for seven seasons now. But the "Idol" model still turns on the ultimate belief in one star to rule us all -- the final "Idol," anointed and armed with the collective wishes of the show's judges and mentors, ready to conquer an empire.
Such empires, if they ever really existed, are no more. We live in fractious times, in music as in religion, lifestyle and politics; we rarely sing the same songs, and the few we do share are the old ones. There is no real critical mass, no matter how many times frantic dialers hit their cellphone buttons Tuesday night.
At least David Cook belongs to the rare special interest group that still considers itself an embodiment of the norm. Meat-and-potatoes rock, which Cook clearly loves and believes in, hasn't ruled the zeitgeist for a while, although it can still move large quantities of product for a few hard-working Joes, like unofficial Idol champ Chris Daughtry and Nickelback. Yet its fans pride themselves on loving "real," "meaningful" music -- the kind you can pass down to your kids, or sing in a crowd at a state fair. So maybe Cook will dominate, after all -- just in a smaller arena than he may have once imagined.
And what of "Idol" itself? Rumors are buzzing that the show will benefit from a major overhaul next season. It's hard to know how to mend, or at least acknowledge, the deeper contradictions that afflict not only "Idol," but the mass-culture oriented industry it supports. "For me, this whole thing has been a progression," Cook said the night before he won everything, during a moment when it seemed like he'd lost. It seemed like such a healthy attitude. If only the producers of "American Idol" could embrace it.