Sparks' time to shine

The 17-year-old prevails in an 'Idol' finale packed with big names.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV/Media Critic
Published May 24, 2007

Once again, American Idol has pulled itself back from the abyss.

Not because Wednesday night's winner Jordin Sparks is destined for greatness -- though the 17-year-old's poise and talent certainly heralds wonderful things to come.

No, Idol's bacon was saved because a victory for beatboxing runner-up Blake Lewis would have shattered the show's thin convention that the massive reality series is a singing competition.

Instead, 74-million voters picked an amazingly precocious vocalist who -- as the show's youngest winner ever -- certainly offered the best story.

Still, a slight pall of disappointment marred Wednesday's finale. This felt like a show drowning in its own importance, weighed down by an oppressive need to prove itself the biggest, grandest, most influential talent showcase of all time.

Blame the action-packed final episode, so stacked with big-name performers, past winners and current finalists that the program spilled over its 120-minute running time, likely spoiling the ending for thousands of fans using their TiVos to catch the madness.

This was a cavalcade of glitz with two goals: to keep viewers from realizing how long they'd have to wait just to see who won, and to remind all us Idol haters out there just how important the show still is.

Sparks and Lewis started well, dueting on I Saw Her Standing There -- a pairing that also signaled Idol's victory in a long struggle to get Beatles songs on the show.

One thing you learned, watching finalists such as Melinda Doolittle trading spine-tingling gospel lines with former employers Bebe and CeCe Winans and Lewis kicking off an impressive beatbox duet with seminal rapper Doug E. Fresh, was how much Idol's pop-ified format has held some contestants back.

Even chrome-domed Phil Stacey, who seemed like such a stiff during the competition, rocked the Smokey Robinson hit Ooo Baby Baby (helped by a skin-tight vocal arrangement for the top six male finalists by a member of Take 6).

Of course, there were gaffes: finalist Sanjaya Malakar teamed up with Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry to prove without a doubt why he deserved to hit the bench before the Top Five. And Bette Midler's raspy rendition of Wind Beneath My Wings probably left Idol's young audience wondering whose grandmother sneaked onstage.

Sparks' victory also brought cheers at the Wild Wing Cafe in Carrollwood, where the teen's godmother Christa Watson convened about 50 fans. Tonight, Watson said, America didn't just gain an idol, it "inherited a great role model."

Not bad for a show which continues to dominate the pop culture landscape after six seasons. Maybe next year they'll trust that track record enough to cut back on the pageantry and just let their contestants shine.

Times staff writer Amber Mobley contributed to this report.