Unlike a lot of my A.V. Club colleagues, who live in and around big cities, I live in Conway, Arkansas, a small town about 30 miles north of Little Rock. Conway’s not super-small. We do have a population of over 50,000, and three colleges: one Baptist school, one private liberal arts institution, and one large-ish public university (where my wife teaches). Still, we’re not a suburb of Little Rock either. Conway is a town-town, with a little four-block downtown area that few people spend much time in, surrounded by a sprawling collection of strip malls and chain restaurants and mega-churches—all with constantly full parking lots. Oh, and we have to drive across the county line to buy alcohol, though we can get liquor-by-the-drink in restaurants with a club license. That’s where I live.
But Conway does have one current claim to fame that few other communities can boast: We’ve got our own honest-to-goodness American Idol contestant. Kris Allen—a former student at The University Of Central Arkansas—made it through the first rounds of AI and through Hollywood Week with almost no camera time. Then he surprised everyone—the judges included, I think—by cruising into the finals with his smooth rendition of “Man In The Mirror” in the semis. Every week since, Allen has defied expectations. Early on, he came off like a wimpy pop/R&B guy, singing Michael Jackson and Michael Bublé, but throughout he’s remained one of the most consistently excellent contestants vocally, and he’s continued to add more shading to the kind of musician he’d like to be. He’s a laid-back guy with a great voice, a facility with multiple instruments, and maybe a few too many music theory classes under his belt. Fellow Idol Adam Lambert has gotten a lot of credit for his radical re-arrangements of songs, but Kris has been just as daring in his own way, whether he’s crashing and burning with a funk-fusion version of Don Henley’s “All She Wants To Do Is Dance” or scoring with a Latin-acoustic take on Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard For The Money.” And even if he weren’t a Conwegian, Kris would’ve earned my respect for his performance of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s “Falling Slowly” a few weeks ago, which demonstrated that he had a broader and more up-to-date musical base than a lot of AI competitors do.
So it’s fair to say that I’ve become something of a Kris Allen fan, even though—as with most of the Idol contestants I’ve rooted for over the years—I doubt I’ll ever buy any of his albums. It’s nothing personal; it’s just that the sort of John Mayer-y light-rock Kris seems likely to record isn’t the kind of thing I generally listen to for pleasure. For me, American Idol is a lot like the Olympics. I may become deeply invested in curling or pole-vaulting or what-have-you every four years, but I don’t seek those sports out in the interim. Similarly, I watch Idol every year, but my interest in the singers on that show pretty much dies once the credits roll.
Nevertheless, I’ve been enjoying driving around Conway over the past month and seeing “Vote For Kris” messages up on bank signs, storefronts, car windows and even T-shirts. Outside of this weekend’s upcoming Toad Suck Daze, Kris Allen is the biggest thing going on in my sleepy town. And so, swept up in that spirit of civic pride, last night I walked the two blocks from my house to the big Idol watch party being held at UCA’s basketball arena, the Farris Center.
I’m not sure what I was looking to get out of the experience exactly. Mainly I was curious to see who would show up, and how they’d react to the show. For some reason I was expecting a few hundred college students; instead the party drew a couple thousand locals of all ages, all waving placards printed up by our town’s newspaper, and cheering on the Chick-Fil-A cows as they danced to Kris Allen songs during the commercials.
I thought Kris was good last night, singing a version of “The Way You Look Tonight” that started slow and croon-y and then gradually built up some swing. This week’s mentor Jamie Foxx heaped praise on Kris, saying he’d love to record with him someday, and Randy Jackson was enthusiastic too. But while Kara and Paula raved, Simon Cowell was more measured, perhaps sandbagging Kris a little by saying that he wasn’t sure the kid could win it all. Oftentimes, late in an Idol season, Simon starts trying to influence the voting a little more, to get the final he wants. I think Simon wants an Adam Lambert/Danny Gokey final, because he knows Adam will win that match-up going away, and Simon is high on Adam. I’ve actually grown to enjoy Adam too, but he’s maybe too much of an oddball to win against a humble, crafty everyman like Kris—and I think that worries Simon immensely. Naturally, when Simon said, “It was good, but…,” the Farris Center erupted in nervous boos.
I have to say, it was very cool to hear my neighbors boo, and cheer, and get whipped into a frenzy by the local radio announcers MC-ing the event. One of the reasons why I like Kris Allen is that throughout the competition he’s remained recognizable as the kind of guy I might see around town. In fact, at one point during the show they cut to Kris’ wife, who was sitting next to a guy I used to see behind the counter a few times a week at Smoothie King. Other connections: My son is involved with a theater group that meets at the church where Kris has led worship in the past, and the burly guy who sat behind me at the watch party talked about the different people he knows who’ve had Kris sing at their weddings.
Conway’s a nice little town, but we haven’t exactly been a fame-factory. Prior to Kris Allen, the most well-known person who’s spent any significant time here is probably Scottie Pippen, who played basketball at UCA before becoming Michael Jordan’s right-hand man with the Chicago Bulls. So perhaps everyone here has a little more riding on Allen’s success on AI than we should. All I know is that watching the special taped video message from Conway’s City Council—all decked-out in their “Vote For Kris” T-shirts—and hearing the crowd shriek every time Kris appeared on the screen, it was hard not to get swept up in the moment. When the burly guy behind me heard the first three judges talk about how good Kris was last night, he said, “It makes me wanna cry.”
I feel ya, dog.