Seventeen-year-old Scotty McCreery, of Garner, N.C., tonight became the 10th person to be named an "American Idol."
McCreery, a deep-voiced country singer whose eerie resemblance to Mad magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman was probably as lost on his younger fans as some of the older performers on the two-hour finale, beat 16-year-old Lauren Alaina, of Rossville, Ga., another country singer and the youngest performer ever to make the finals of the Fox powerhouse.
The battle of the teens seemed to signal that the show's voter base, which had long skewed Southern, had finally wrested control of a process that hadn't produced a true star since country singer Carrie Underwood won in Season 4.
And thus ended the 10th season of "American Idol," a show that promised opportunity -- not just to its contestants, who vied for a record contract and a high-profile launch, but to its viewers, whose prize was to be there at the moment a star was born -- but more and more served up a shared experience of mild disappointment.
It's as if the show's become the equivalent of the food in a company cafeteria, a commodity that nearly everyone disdains in equal measure but not to the point where they're willing to pack a lunch to avoid it.
Season 10 had started out as promisingly as any season in double digits could be expected to: The two new judges, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler, quickly seemed to form a collegial bond with sole survivor Randy Jackson. After a few seasons of Simon Cowell's foul moods, Paula Abdul's odd flights of content-free commentary, Randy's dawging it and Kara DioGuardi's relentless chin-thrusting, the new trio struck a happy note in those early auditions.
Tyler, the wild card, proved just wild enough to be entertaining and just creepy enough with some of the female contestants to remind us that he was a rock star from the era when that meant something.
Lopez managed to suggest an encyclopedic knowledge of the show by appearing to recognize a contestant from an earlier season, then cemented her image as a woman of sensibility -- not to be confused with sense, of course -- by threatening to quit rather than hurt people's feelings.
Maybe she should have.
Because once the freak-show portion of the proceedings ended, it became clear that the judges weren't so much interested in judging as in being judged. Critiques were toothless and the show's insistence that each hopeful have a "moment" -- like the genuine one that Fantasia, for instance, had the first time she sang "Summertime" -- left viewers at home wondering what was in the judges' cups that got them so gosh-darn excited about so many so-what performances.
By Tuesday night, as they seemed to be physically trying to pull both finalists across the finish line, it was clear that the judges, too, didn't much care if Lauren or Scottywere the next "American Idol, "America" having eliminated most of the singers they'd hoped to see in the finale (all of whom, of course, were "in it to win it").
All that was really left was to try to persuade millions of us there was enough of a contest here to make it worth tuning in one more time to see it happen (and, while we were waiting, to marvel that Tom Jones was performing on the same stage with Lady Gaga and Bono, even if it wasn't at the same time).
The two-hour show, which brought back the lucky Top 13 to push the upcoming "Idol" tour, sported the usual pro-am duets -- Scotty with Tim McGraw, Lauren with Carrie Underwood, Jacob Lusk with Gladys Knight, Haley Reinhart with Tony Bennett -- and one fun pairing: Casey Abrams and "Kung Fu Panda" star Jack Black that didn't save the evening, but saved those few minutes, at least.