NO MATTER HOW the votes stack up after Wednesday's finale, and no matter what happens from here on out, this season of "American Idol" boils down to one singular sensation.
It's all about Adam Lambert.
Fans of Kris Allen can go ahead and protest. Who knows? Their cutie-pie underdog might even pull off the upset.
But it doesn't matter. Adam Lambert rules.
No other contestant in "Idol" history has dominated America's favorite show and the buzz surrounding it like the charismatic raven-haired rocker from Southern California. Even viewers who previously shunned "Idol" tuned in every week specifically to see what kind of thrilling twist Lambert, 27, would bring to an otherwise familiar song. Bursting off our screens, he became the epitome of the term "good TV."
- 'Idol' panel: It's too close to call
- On the scene: 7,000 watch the show live in L.A.
- Slide Show: Kris Allen
- Slide Show: Adam Lambert
- Slide Show: Adam vs. Kris showdown
- Live Chat: Tell us what you think about Adam and Kris at noon Wednesday.
- 'Idol' panel: And the winner should be....
- Chuck Barney: Lambert rescued 'Idol'
- Vote: Who should win?
Meanwhile, the judges, led by Simon Cowell, have had a huge (and sometimes unbecoming) crush on him. So have the denizens of cyberspace, who gleefully wallow in full-blown Adamania.
"He's like an atomic blast," wrote a commentator on our TV blog. "He's intoxicating," said another.
What might be most surprising is that Lambert's popularity spans the genders and ages. "I am a 67-year-old grandfather, and even I can see that Adam is far and away more talented and gifted than any of the others," wrote one of our posters. A 57-year-old woman echoed those sentiments. "There has never been a contestant who measures up to his range, style, and pure talent," she wrote. "I adore him ... I wait each week to see what he will do next. ('Idol') must feel that they really hit the jackpot this year!"
Breaking the mold
The fact that Lambert's rise shattered almost everything we have come to expect from the show only bolstered his allure. He was an eye-popping, jaw-dropping surprise. And for a show that has leaned so heavily upon formula and stock archetypes for eight seasons, surprise is a very cool thing.
As Time magazine music writer Josh Tyrangiel pointed out, "Idol" has become a reliable star factory "largely because the talents it produces — Kelly Clarkson, Chris Daughtry, Carrie Underwood — respect the conventions of its genres. They are nice singers who sing nice songs nicely."
In other words, they played the game.
But then along came Lambert, an in-your-face, button-pushing game-changer. With his Goth looks, his painted nails, eyeliner and black leather, his relentless flirtation with the high notes (some call it "screeching") and his shameless theatricality, he tossed a firecracker into the cozy "Idol" clubhouse. Adding some extra sizzle has been the whole "Is he gay?" issue.
On stage, Lambert has been the ultimate shape-shifter. One week, he'll wring every ounce of emotion from Smokey Robinson's woeful ballad "Tracks Of My Tears." Another week, he'll rock the house with a turbocharged take on Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love."
In vivid contrast, low-key Allen sneaked up on everybody while leaning on mostly stripped-down arrangements and acoustical stylings. Understated, but rarely underwhelming, Allen was regarded in the early going as little more than a sparring partner for his flashier rivals. From the start, it appeared that Danny Gokey — not the shy kid from Arkansas — would be duking it out with Lambert in the finale.
Like Lambert, Allen gained a reputation for reinventing songs. His recent rendition of Kanye West's megahit "Heartless" was a risky venture that paid off, convincing judges it was better than the original.
But can he win? Don't put it past him. There's a theory that Gokey supporters will embrace Allen, the singer closest to their guy in style and presentation. And during last week's elimination episode, host Ryan Seacrest emphasized that only 1 million votes separated the leaders, out of 88 million cast. (Who topped the balloting was not revealed).
It's also certainly apparent that Lambert — a lightning rod if ever one was — is not appreciated by everyone in the "Idol" universe. Some fans have delivered venom-laced Internet posts that deride the singer's assumed sexual orientation and his offbeat fashion choices. They say he screams more than he sings and that he's a "horrible role model."
And then there's the possibility of a Lambert backlash. Here's a guy who landed on the cover of Entertainment Weekly all by his lonesome when two other "Idol" singers remained in contention. A guy who has been compared to Elvis Presley and Freddie Mercury before ever putting out his first album. A guy praised by Rolling Stone as the performer who "single-handedly saved the 'Idol' franchise."
The hype has been so slobbery that it gets to be embarrassing.
Toss in the fact that Simon and company all but handed the crown and scepter and the Adamaniacs might have reason for concern. If "Idol" fans (and voters) resent anything, it's having an preordained contestant shoved down their throats.
But does it really make a difference who gets showered in confetti Wednesday? Lambert has already seized the season and made it his own. He has already gained legions of devotees. Most impressive, he breathed new life into an iconic, but wheezy show.
And on our score cards, he has already won by a knockout.
Kris Allen might get lost at times in all the hoopla surrounding Adam Lambert, but the 23-year-old native of Conway, Ark. does have a legitimate shot at winning the "American Idol" title. Here's why:
Live from LA
Our Readers Judges Panel looks back at the season and talks about tonight's faceoff. Page 2
Live from L.A.
news.com/aei/category/tv. for dispatches from tonight's final showdown at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles. Also, follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/chuckbarney.