'American Idol': Season 8

Call it what you like — guy next door vs. “guyliner,” Pat Boone vs. Elvis Presley — but the season eight finale produced one of the biggest upsets in “American Idol” history. Even the winner, 23-year-old married small-town crooner Kris Allen, seemed surprised.

“It feels good, man, but Adam deserves this,” Allen said after his coronation on the Nokia Theater stage, with more than 28.8 million viewers tuned in.

“Adam,” of course, would be Adam Lambert, 27, a flamboyant performer from San Diego with a musical theater background. Speculation about his sexuality swirled through much of the season, and shortly after the finale he disclosed that he was gay in a Rolling Stone cover story.

Sexual orientation notwithstanding, Lambert certainly left an impression, according to USA Today music writer Brian Mansfield.

“In the same way that (season seven winner) David Cook changed the model for a successful contestant in the way that he arranged the songs, Adam Lambert redefined the staging of the songs,” he says. “There wasn’t anybody else who took quite the hand in the production of the numbers — what he wanted in terms of lighting, staging and where the cameras needed to be to catch him.”

New York Daily News music critic Jim Farber appreciated Lambert’s sense of humor.

“Adam really got the joke of it, and had a sort of wink to the audience,” he says, adding that Lambert’s musical stylings were impressive, including his take on the classic “Ring of Fire.”

“Johnny Cash’s version was faster and a very different kind of arrangement, but this one had a rollicking kind of country arrangement despite the dark subject matter and was done as a slow ballad that just completely changed the whole tone of the song,” Farber says.

Allen, of course, was no slouch. He turned the weekly themes to his advantage, coming up with arrangements to match his talents to a range of songs. During one notable performance, for example, he turned “Heartless” inside out, and that impressed Rodney Ho, an “AI” blogger for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“It was so out of the blue in the sense that it’s a rap song by Kanye West, and here was Kris Allen, a white-bread dude from Arkansas, slowing it down and giving it a singer-songwriter take on a very angsty version,” he says.

Several changes were made to the format of the show: 36 semi-finalists instead of 24, 13 finalists instead of 12 and fourth judge Kara DioGuardi was added to the panel. A judges’ save also was introduced, a rule change that marked a dramatic shift from previous seasons, says Katherine Meizel, author of “About the Idolized: Music, Media and Identity in American Idol.”

“The whole premise of ‘American Idol’ has always centered on offering a feeling of power to viewers,” she says. “This new order, with the judges’ save, shifted the balance more explicitly toward the judges.”

They put that power to use to veto the elimination of Matt Giraud, who returned for disco night with a cover of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive.” He safely made it through that episode, but was gone for good the following round.

TOP 5 HIGHLIGHTS

  1. Musical chairs on the panel with the addition of a fourth judge, Kara DioGuardi, and the exit of Paula Abdul at season’s end.
  2. Introduction of the judges’ save.
  3. Adam Lambert’s “Mad World” performance earns a standing ovation from the often critical Simon Cowell.
  4. The show had strong religious overtones, with several contestants — including Kris Allen, Felicia Barton, Matt Giraud, Danny Gokey, Scott MacIntyre and Michael Sarver — involved at their churches.
  5. Kris Allen and Adam Lambert combine for a rendition of Queen’s 1977 hit, “We Are the Champions,” just before the new champ is crowned.

WINNER’S UPDATE
While Kris Allen happened into “American Idol” by tagging along with his brother to an audition, life since winning the season eight crown has been anything but accidental. “Live Like We’re Dying,” his first CD, went platinum, and he promoted it on tours with several acts, including Barenaked Ladies, Maroon 5 and Keith Urban. These days, Allen finds himself in Los Angeles, working on a follow-up. “The first one happened really fast because that’s the nature of the beast,” he says. “With the second one, I’ve been able to spend some time on it.” Now 25, Allen is mapping out which direction the yet-to-be-titled CD will take. But this much is sure: He plans to write or co-write all of the tracks. “It’s mostly going to be a mix (of genres), but not a mix that people won’t understand,” he says. “I grew up listening to a lot of different kinds of music — whether it was R&B, country, pop music or rock — and it’s all going to be in there because that’s the way this generation is. People my age or younger listen to everything.”

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more