George Michael
Credit: F Micelotta/Getty Images

Inside the Nokia Theatre last night, reading the buzz of the live audience on hand for the American Idol finale, I was struck by how the most electrifying moment of the night came courtesy of an imperious Brit… and how the most surprisingly unelectrifying moment of the night also belonged to an imperious Brit. In the former case, I’m talking about Simon Cowell, who had everyone on the edge of their seats. In the latter case, I mean George Michael (pictured), who, despite the buildup, had everyone sitting rather complacently on their bums. First, Simon…

There may not have been a more interesting moment in the history of the show than Cowell’s declaration just before closing time, when he sought to add a postscript to his remarks on David Cook from the previous night. As you may recall, Tuesday night, he’d seriously dissed Cook’s final number as a dud before declaring David Archuleta’s a “knockout.” Anybody who’s come to rely on Cowell as the show’s voice of reason had to suddenly wonder what kind of Kool-Aid (or spiked Coca-Cola, going by the none too subtle product placement) he’d been imbibing. It was bad enough that he was belaboring the evening’s seriously painful boxing theme. But a safe and obvious reprise of “Imagine,” one of the most overplayed songs in music history, as a KO? Really? As a typical rock critic with certain anti-corporate-rock biases, I never imagined I’d see the day where an Idol contestant would prompt me to say, “You go, guy! Way to show your independent spirit and stick it to the man with that rebellious Collective Soul cover!” — yet, weirdly, these are the kind of outrageous thoughts that American Idol brings us to. Love the song or not, Cook had made a choice that was completely appropriate for him, and a graceful way to finish off his competitive legacy on the series. Cowell had clearly — as the English like to say — lost the plot. But on Wednesday night, he apologized to Cook, saying that upon a review of the tape, “it wasn’t quite so clear-cut as we called it,” adding, “I think I bordered on disrespect with you.” In acknowledging how stupid he’d been — and just in the nick of time, moments before the big announcement about America begging to differ — Cowell suddenly reasserted himself as a smart, if not brilliant, cookie.

That moment made for great television… and of course, conspiracy theories immediately started to rumble. Had Simon been tipped off about how the vote had gone, explaining the face-saving mea culpa? Probably not, although there’d been plenty of signs for Cowell to read; inside the Nokia, the initial roar when Cook’s name was announced was considerably louder than the applause for Archuleta, despite the odds favoring an Archie win. But the theories got wilder from there. Some observers conjectured that, because Cowell had seemed to favor Cook earlier in the season, he made a last-minute call for Archuleta to triumph just (a) to add more suspense to the show, (b) because he was setting up some reverse voting psychology, purposely instigating an anti-Simon backlash that would work in Cook’s favor, or (d) precisely to set up this very apology, knowing that it’d be a classic watercooler moment. Not since the Zapruder film… But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes an “I screwed up” is just an “I screwed up,” especially when you’re a Svengali who realizes he’s about to be on record as having picked a loser. Oh, I’m leaving another rationale for Cowell’s capitulation to good sense — actual humility — but, you know, some explanations do defy credulity.

Now, for the other British royal on the show, George Michael. I watched his performance back later, on the west coast TV broadcast, and it seemed okay. But inside the Nokia, his rendering of “Praying for Time” just about sucked all the air out of the room for a few minutes. I think part of it had to do with the fact that this was the final slot for a potential superstar to bless us with an appearance; Idol producer Nigel Lythgoe had famously promised that “the biggest star in the world” would be on hand, and there was a deflating realization that Michael was who he meant. Yes, the guy is still big overseas, but Lythgoe does understand that American Idol is set in the titular location, right? The ex-Whamster could have still pulled a galvanizing performance out of the bag (even with the cold that he complained to Ryan Seacrest about afterward), maybe even with the epic-length ballad he chose to sing. But there was something about the way that the show’s top 12, who’d been performing a Michael medley, were made to run off stage right as Michael was coming out, like commoners being hustled out of a backstage area by bodyguards right before a legend deigns to enter. It felt as if Michael were saying he was too good to even share visual space with any of these kids, when every other star who’d appeared on the finale indulged in duets or at least let ’em sing backup. Intentional or not, the exclusionary move felt unbecomingly regal for somebody who, in this country, at least, is long gone from the charts and has some hearts to win back. Combine that with the choice of a decidedly slow-burning song, and it almost didn’t matter that he pulled off a fairly decent rendition.

Some other thoughts from inside the hall…

addCredit(“George Michael: F Micelotta/Getty Images”)

As I said, the cheers were louder for Cook’s initial introductionthan for Archuleta’s. But even then I wasn’t convinced that it would bea rout for Cook, because Archuleta actually led as far as numbers ofsigns in the audience. “Archleta is My Enchilada!” read one.”ArchuGonnaLettaMeWin?” read the tortured syntax of another. When thedynamic duo first came on stage a minute or two before the show wentlive, the audience was instructed to be completely silent — a toughorder, since an emcee had just spent 20 minutes trying to pumpeverybody up to scream as loudly as possible. The two Davids came outboth dressed in white, looking like hospital orderlies. They both did alittle bit of jogging in place while staring each other down, and someof us thought, dear God, did they take all that boxing crap theprevious night seriously? They touched knuckles right before thecameras came on, but, thankfully, that was the end to any impliedpugilism for the evening.

For a while, I thought “blinding whiteness” might be the theme ofthe finale, instead — between the sheer number of blondes whosurrounded the correspondent reporting from the Archuleta rally in SaltLake City (so that’s where all those Village of the Damned kidswent to grow up) to the solid white outfits worn by the top 12 andCarrie Underwood at various points. Then there was the berobed guru,Pitka, played by Mike Myers in an extended plug for his new movie thatwas remarkably devoid of anything resembling comedy writing. (Myerslooked into the camera and predicted “David” would win — wow, how hadanyone not thought to make a joke of that before?)

The finale’s first real highlight, then: the duet between Seal andSyesha. For a few moments, it sounded as if they and the band might allbe picking different keys for the melodically tricky number, but therewas serious chemistry on view, and the promise of a career for thethird-place finisher. Then the excruciatingly darling Jason Castro cameback for another dreadlocked moment in the sun. Since very few coverversions on the finale went by without the star originally responsibleeventually stepping out from the wings, I was hoping Castro’s repriseof “Hallelujah” would be a cue for Leonard Cohen to come out for aretrospective medley, but this was not to be. (Neither did theproducers agree with me that it would be a great gag to reunite thelate-’80s duo David + David in honor of this show’s matching Davids.)The title “She Works Hard for the Money” clearly didn’t apply toAmanda, at least when it came to her obvious lack of enthusiasm forchoreography. It almost didn’t apply to Donna Summer herself, who hadto be helped down the stairs at interminable length by a couple of malehandlers, as if she were Mae West in her delicate 80s. But, though shestayed immobile at center stage — and although, like almost every otherguest star, she flogged a new single no one cares about — Summer was infine enough voice. I looked for any signs of panic on Brooke’s face asshe had to participate in a medley that included a song aboutprostitution, but saw none.

Carly and Michael were in terrific fettle on the hottest duet of thenight: “The Letter.” It almost felt like rock & roll — something Iwouldn’t say of this show very often — and was strong enough it made mewish “The Letter” wasn’t one of the shortest hits in the history of thetop 40 (though the Idol producers would have found a way toabbreviate it if it wasn’t). Then, and I do so hate to disillusion youhome viewers, the monitors showed a pre-taped Jimmy Kimmel monologue,because apparently it wasn’t worth taking the night off from his ownchatfest to appear live on The Show That Is Officially Much Bigger Thanthe Oscars. Kimmel got a point for summarizing the festivities as “theculmination of 19 weeks of karaoke singing,” then lost two forresorting to a Sanjaya gag. Back to the music, Cook fronted ZZ Top for”Sharp Dressed Man,” and did reasonably well, though he sort of seemedto be somewhere else, mentally; surely the producers could havedisguised that and scored some comedy points by putting a fake beard on him, no?

Biggest in-house cheers of the night came for the Jonas Brothers —no surprise there. Then came the evening’s most stultifying moment:OneRepublic, failing to remind us why “Apologize” was ever such aninexplicably massive hit. When Archuleta came out to sing a duet partwith Ryan Tedder, the charisma factor went up about twelvefold — a goodsign for his career, a bad one for theirs. Jordin Sparks did “One Stepat a Time,” and well, but everyone only wanted to chat about her dress.Electricity factor (I hate to say): close to zero. Then Carrie did”Last Name,” and the voltage went off the meter. This may havesomething to do with the fact that, here as at the ACMs a few nightsearlier, the oft-chaste star was suddenly rockin’ the cleavage — andthe leggage, too. This particular all-white getup, basically aminimalist mini-dress with a train, was probably supposed to be anamusing takeoff on a Vegas wedding dress, per the amusing lyrics. Butif she wants to wear it at every television appearance she makes forthe next 10 years, even while singing about Jesus commandeeringnavigational instruments, I don’t suppose she’ll run into many maleobjections. And then, of course, in the show’s penultimate segment,came George Michael with his aviator glasses, the last of thesuperstars to remind us that the season finale basically amounts to astar-studded Idol Gives Back without all those pesky famines.

Finally, we had the coronation of David Cook, who promises to beChris Daughtry without the annoying scowling. I think part of theappeal of both Davids this season, for women, apart from their actualtalent, is that they perpetually look like they are on the verge oftears — happy tears, reflecting the joy that you, their belovedintended, have brought into their formerly lonely lives — withoutlooking like they might actually weep, you know, copious tears.But when Cook actually did let the saltwater fly, it was a nice releaseof the tension we’d all been feeling, as we embraced the fact that,against the odds, a rocker-ish dude finally won American Idol.Never mind that, in a few months, we’ll all be complaining that we’veheard stuff like his before and we already have a Nickelback. For now,I thought, wiping the confetti out of my hair, let the honeymooncommence, and God bless his Collective Soul-lovin’ soul.

UPDATE: My colleague Shirley Halperin informs me that David Cook’s coronation song, “The Time of My Life,” is already No. 1 at iTunes.