It's easy to make fun of American Idol. There are the judges, filthy rich and full of themselves, so bored that they're passing notes and giggling, especially Sir Simon Cowell, who seems to have already checked out of the show mentally, even if his tightly-t-shirted body is still affixed to its chair. There's groovy Ryan Seacrest, the consummate TV host, smoothly chatting up contestants and building mass tension by moving Idols around like pawns on a chessboard. There are the tiresomely cheerful Ford commercials and tall red Coke cups. As Ke$ha would say, "Blah, blah, blah."
Meanwhile, the cameras pan across the audience, lingering on the TV and movie stars planted there to flog their newest commercial ventures, or on the pretty girls swaying on cue with their hands in the air like seaweed as the tide comes in. It didn't help garner more viewers during Season 9 that the two finalists were 1) the clear frontrunners and 2) less mind-blowingly talented than past Idol contestants like Kelly Clarkson and Adam Lambert.
But, somehow, I cried and cheered harder this week for these two contestants than I have for any other. (Yeah, I know what you're thinking: Get a life.) Why? Because Crystal and Lee are both musicians with big hearts, soulful singers who love their families and hometowns with the kind of embarrassing fervor that makes us all stop and think, "Whoa. Maybe it's not such a bad time to be alive after all."
Crystal is sly and subversive in the best way possible. She went along with the Idol program enough to keep herself from getting kicked off the show. She didn't cut her dreadlocks, but she did pin them up. She let the stylists slick her up with lip gloss and eyeshadow, and even stuffed herself into a gown and heels.
Yet, Crystal has stayed true to her Ohio roots, and is ready to tell anyone who will listen that the recession isn't nearly over for that hardscrabble state. That much was clear during her visit home - and during her conversation with Ryan, when Crystal said that it was only because of American Idol that she has the health care she needs. I cried when Crystal visited her farmhouse in Ohio, thinking about how many farmers, single moms and unemployed factory workers across American are rooting for her. Crystal's victory is something to hope for when everything else is lost.
Lee is that guy who could have sold you paint in the hardware store and wouldn't have gotten impatient if you dithered over colors. He's sexy mainly because he doesn't know that he is. (Husbands and boyfriends don't understand this.) He went home to Illinois; like Ohio, that state ranks among the top ten for unemployment. (Ohio is 40th with an unemployment rate of 11%; Illinois is 43rd; that state's unemployment rate hovers at 11.5%.)
I thought I was done crying after Lee's soul-searing version of Cohen's iconic song "Hallelujah" on Tuesday night, but no. When Lee wept during his homecoming, overcome by gratitude for the flow of support from the people in Illinois who'd gathered to cheer him on, I cried right along with him. He reminded me of all of the parents like Lee's and Crystals, doing their best during tough times to give their kids a future that's about more than just survival.
Whether it's Crystal or Lee who gets crowned on Idol this season, it doesn't really matter. Both artists have given America a reason to cry, cheer, and move on from what's been ailing us.