Give "American Idol" credit for knowing itself. Everything this show does, it does big, from the shower of confetti as winner Jordin Sparks sang her coronation song to the "Sgt. Pepper" medley that preceded it: a slew of past "Idol" winners, an abundance of black satin and silver lamé, and guitar licks courtesy of Aerosmith's Joe Perry.
Indeed, by the time Sparks dug into a soppy ballad called "This is My Now," the whole question of a contest seemed an afterthought: an anticlimactic ending to a season that seemed, at some point, to wear out its welcome. Some "Idol" fatigue is inevitable after a slog from January to May. But this year, the show seemed to wear its maturity on its sleeve; its bigness is becoming both a blessing and a curse.
Self-awareness can be channeled into good, and "Idol" is understandably proud of its spinoff record sales and its new role as a charity leader. But the show's familiarity is starting to feel a bit stale; even the judges seem to have lost their free will and turned into collections of tics. (By the end of the season Randy Jackson's musical advice was nearly lost amid a shower of "yo's," Paula Abdul kept struggling with sentence structure, and Simon Cowell could barely fit in a negative word before the crowd heckled and he shouted, "Shut up!")
Given that, last night's two-hour finale, practically judge-free, felt like something of a relief. The "Idol" producers do know how to put on an extravaganza. And the largely irrelevant question of the winner has been replaced by a mystery show case of stars who have drunk the "Idol" Kool-Aid. This season's Formerly Too Cool For Idol Award most likely goes to Green Day. Bette Midler singing "Wind Beneath My Wings"? Less of a shock.
We also learned that Tony Bennett can still entertain, regardless of the state of his vocal cords, and that Smokey Robinson has apparently discovered Botox. We were reminded that Taylor Hicks is actually not a bad performer. And we got unequivocal proof that runner-up Blake Lewis would be fine; I'll gladly take him trading beats with Doug E. Fresh over another performance of "This is My Now."
And then there was Perry, who joined Sanjaya Malakar onstage for a rock-god reprise of his mid-season shoutfest, "You Really Got Me." It was one of the sweeter "Idol" inside jokes last night, down to the fans that blew wind through Malakar's hair and the crying girl in the audience. Malakar played it with class, enjoying every minute, as he should. (This will last for awhile, but not forever.)
Less charming was the effort to remind us of the months-long audition sideshow, with a series of "Golden Idol" awards that drew back some of the mocked and mentally disturbed. The low point of the night was probably the moment when Ryan Seacrest pointed to the giant "Idol" screen to reveal a picture of a "bush baby," the tiny monkey Cowell had compared to an auditioner named Kenneth.
Kenneth was on hand, of course, and seemed unfazed, describing a string of post-"Idol" appearances at such venues as "Super Bowl Media Day."
"You know, Simon, if you hadn't said what you said, I wouldn't be where I'm at," he said. That's how big "American Idol" is by now. Even if it hates you, you have to love it back.