Lovable Taylor Hicks is crowned the new Idol at the end of a bizarre ''American Idol'' season finale featuring Meat Loaf, Prince, Mary J. Blige, and Clay Aiken's double

By Michael Slezak
July 03, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Taylor Hicks: Fox
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The ”American Idol” finale: Taylor triumphant

Maybe five months of churning out the American Idol TV Watch column has turned my center all soft and gooey. Or perhaps, as a child of the ’70s, I harbor a deeply suppressed longing for the TV variety shows of my youth. Then again, it could be that everything simply looks better in the righteous glow of Taylor Hicks’ well- deserved triumph over the inconsistent Katharine McPhee. Whatever the case, tonight’s Idol finale — which played out like the Freakiest Variety Show on Earth — was as surreal as it was satisfying. (In other words, I l-l-l-l-loved it.)

I call the finale surreal because, well, consider what got packed into a mere 120 minutes: Season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken — rocking a baffling brown mop top — gamely offering a subdued ”Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” as his tone-deaf doppelgänger (Michael Sandecki, who got booted during the audition rounds) provided backup; the finalists sharing the stage with artists as disparate as Live, Al Jarreau, Meat Loaf, and Dionne Warwick; a trio of amusing montages mocking the show’s judges; painfully unfunny attempts at comedy by host Ryan Seacrest; a random performance by Prince; a tribute to Burt Bacharach; and, yes, an appearance by David Hasselhoff. All that was missing was Cher in a Bob Mackie gown.

And I describe the last Idol episode of 2006 (what are we gonna do with our lives?) as satisfying because Taylor’s distinctively gravelly vocals, irrepressible joy in performing, and gawkily uncommercial persona make him a hard-to-fault season 5 champ — even for a guy like me who spent the season rooting for the third- and fourth-place finishers, Elliott Yamin and Chris Daughtry.

Taylor’s victory is likely to bring a smile to the faces of what I’d estimate to be 75 percent of EW.com readers, who flooded our message boards on Wednesday with praise for the gray-haired dude from Alabama.

”Taylor is so, well, ‘counter-Idol,’ ” wrote Normie. ”Who would play Katharine McPhee PacMan or spoof her on SNL? Taylor is also a sophisticated, savvy musician who knows when he is going over the top and when to lay off it. He deserves to win.”

Other readers were more effusive. Ren claimed it wasn’t hyperbole to refer to Taylor as a national treasure, while Sher argued he could be the next Elvis. Tam, meanwhile, predicted that ”Taylor will be a much more fun American Idol winner than Katharine. I’m already looking forward to seeing him on the talk show circuit — it’s going to be a hoot.”

Still, I think my favorite reader prediction for tonight’s finale came from someone named Coyote, who weighed in as follows: ”The Coyote predicts Taylor to win. Why? Coyote’s girl saw and heard Taylor for the first time last night. She said ‘I’m getting goose bumps.’ That’s enough for Coyote to know that the Soul Patrol head honcho is the victor.”

Now, of course, we have to wonder if Taylor will be able to succeed on today’s tough-to-crack Billboard charts. Based on the way he blew Toni Braxton off the stage during their ”In the Ghetto” performance tonight, I’d say, ”Heck, yeah.” (By the way, can anyone explain why Braxton attempted to turn their duet about inner-city poverty into a sexy-flirty romp?)

That said, given the depth of talent in season 5, it’s quite possible more than one of Taylor’s 11 fellow finalists will give him a run for his money in a post-Idol world. While I doubt I’ll ever catch the McPheever and rush out to buy a Katharine CD, a healthy number of EW.com readers predicted that the comely Californian (who’s in a neck-and-neck battle with Fantasia in our new steel-cage poll) may make like season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken, who moved more discs than Ruben Studdard, the man who beat him for the top spot. And perhaps Katharine will, as long as she vows to shun the woeful song that the Idol producers foisted on her, ”My Destiny,” and never again teams up with Meat Loaf, who, frankly, was so wobbly on ”It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” that he wouldn’t have gotten past a Paula Abdul audition.

As I see it, though, Taylor’s toughest competition will most likely come from Chris, Elliott, and possibly Paris Bennett, all of whom proved Idol-worthy in their brief moments in the spotlight tonight. (Surprisingly, Lisa Tucker sounded pretty tuneful tackling ”Alfie,” too; Kellie Pickler’s food segments with Wolfgang Puck, however, suggested she’s pinning her showbiz hopes on getting a job as a wacky co-host.)

I just about burst an artery when Elliott was joined by Mary J. Blige on U2’s ”One,” seeing as I’ve been advocating that he cover the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul all season. It’s too bad that MJB, clad in her diva sunglasses, seemed determined to relegate the funky Virginian to backup status; he fared much better, and appeared far looser than he had all season, belting out ”A House Is Not a Home” and ”Tobacco Road” during the group medleys. If there’s any justice in a music industry that’s made Britney Spears a superstar, someone will sign Elliott to a big fat deal before the summer’s out.

As for Chris, I’m positive he’ll be signed by a major label, just as I was positive he could hold his own onstage with Live’s lead singer, Ed Kowalczyk, as they tackled the band’s ”Mystery.” He’s got so much charisma there’s not much I can’t imagine him doing — except maybe surviving this summer’s Idol tour and all the cheesy group numbers that come with it.

Which, when you think about it, might make Taylor a better choice as Idol. After all, any 29-year-old man who can sell ”Do I Make You Proud?” just as easily as ”Try a Little Tenderness” and ”You Are So Beautiful” probably deserves to be king for a day.

What do you think? Was the right person crowned American Idol? Which contestant do you think will have the most long-term success in the music business? And what was your favorite moment during the wild and wacky season finale? Lastly, if you’ve enjoyed EW.com’s coverage of Idol this season, then bookmark our TV Watch home page, and check back throughout the summer, as we cover Big Brother, Entourage, Project Runway, and the hottest new shows.

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.
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