Watch a supremely confident Adam Lambert navigate the final moments of the biggest competition on network TV, and you begin to wonder if this American Idol finalist knows something you don't.
For sure, part of surviving the juggernaut that is Idol involves grace under pressure; keeping cool long enough to deliver the kind of consistently powerful performances that keep the votes coming, week after week.
But I wonder if glam rocker and odds-on favorite Lambert knows something else, heading into his showdown tonight and Wednesday with rival Kris Allen.
American Idol needs a Lambert win as much — or more! — than he does.
Idol needs a new star. In recent months, folks who got kicked off the Idol island early have made more noise than winners, with sixth-place finisher Constantine Maroulis nominated for a Tony award, fourth-place finisher Chris Daughtry accepting a plaque for selling 5 million records on the show and seventh-place finisher Jennifer Hudson overcoming the murder of her mother to bring a well-reviewed new album after winning an Oscar.
The sad truth: Idol has only made lasting stars of two winners in its previous seven cycles (Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood). And critics have harped for a while that winners' qualities — a super-sized, karaoke-style talent for re-imagining old hits and a persona appealing enough to win over both teenyboppers and the grandmothers who dote on them — aren't necessarily the characteristics of a compelling original artist.
A Lambert win might cap the carping from those know-it-alls for a season or two.
Idol needs to look relevant. The problem with being the most-watched moneymaker on network TV? There's nowhere to go but down.
Viewership for Idol has dropped 7 percent this season, while revenues have dipped $4.1 million, according to Reuters. Rivals hope the show, after nearly a decade of ripping up the prime-time landscape, is beginning a slide toward life as a more conventionally popular TV series.
The only way Idol avoids that fate is to regain its status as a phenomenon. And crowning puppy-dog cute singer-songwriter Allen as its next champion hardly accomplishes that.
Idol is facing serious challenges next season. Judge Paula Abdul's contract expires at the end of this season, while Simon Cowell's concludes after next year's cycle. Cowell has spoken openly this year of exiting the show, while Abdul has done the Paula thing — complimenting Idol and new judge Kara DioGuardi one moment, tearing them down the next.
Bottom line: If either of these headline hounds exit the show, Idol will need all the credibility it can get.
Idol can use some gay cred, too. Assuming the Web photos of Lambert kissing another guy are genuine, he may be the first semi-kinda-sorta-openly gay man to win the contest, earning serious attention from fans who keep Celine Dion and Cher in million-dollar mansions.
We've come a long way from the days of Clay Aiken's coy denials. If Idol can position itself at the front of that revolution, it may pick up enough new supporters to make Cowell and host Ryan Seacrest knock off all the awkward metrosexual wisecracks.
If Lambert achieves that alone, he may earn the eternal thanks of a grateful, TV-watching nation.