By People Staff
May 23, 2007 11:00 PM

PEOPLE critic Tom Gliatto thinks America made the right decision.

At the end of two long hours Wednesday, Ryan Seacrest stood onstage at the Kodak Theater with Jordin Sparks, Blake Lewis and a long, awkward-looking man holding a gold envelope which contained the name of the new American Idol. The final night’s performance brought in a record 74 million votes, Seacrest said, then asked the judges to offer their verdict.

Randy: “I gotta say Jordin, baby.”
Paula: (Well, as usual Paula said something sweet, affirmative and noncommittal, and there’s no need to quote her.)
Simon: “Congratulations, Jordin.”

At that point I winced, protecting my fragile heart against the possibility that Blake would win, after all. But it was Jordin, 17, from Arizona. Yay! Me happy. This was already the conventional wisdom after Tuesday night’s show, and it was also the right choice: Audiences will get a fresh, often soaring voice that projects achy sincerity with the right amount of dexterity – unlike Blake’s voice, which can get a little ear-fatiguing in its ability to mimic. In fact, he was given free rein to beatbox with Doug E. Fresh last night: I think I heard everything come out of his mouth except the cry of the lonesome whip-poor-will.

After winning, Jordin was so overwhelmed she had trouble belting out the song that probably won her the competition, “This Is My Now.’

The wrap-up also featured Green Day, Tony Bennett, Gwen Stefani, Gladys Knight and Bette Midler. Kelly Clarkson sang a defiant new rock song that made her sound like Meat Loaf, and a special gag award was presented to (and gleefully accepted by) the audition-round curiosity named Margaret Fowler, that strange, cackling woman dressed in screaming yellow. Last season’s show ended with Prince: This time we got past winners and current finalists in a tribute to the 40th anniversary of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper.

Somehow the electricity wasn’t the same. In a sense, that goes for the whole season. This Idol produced some fine singers – notably Melinda Doolittle, who more accurately should be called exceptional – but the ratings have seen some dips, and somehow everything became defined by that unexpectedly pivotal figure, Sanjaya Malakar. There was always a sense, at least from Simon, that Sanjaya was a Golum come to steal the Ring and corrupt the gold of the franchise: But he was polarizing to a degree that was actually rather exciting. Was he good for the show? Was he bad?

He appeared at the finale and reprised his best number, “You Really Got Me,” with Joe Perry of Aerosmith, and these questions remain unresolved.

But that same little girl was in the audience again, with her face convulsed by tears! Her image belongs in some sort of time capsule. Years from now no one will understand how there could have been a national obsession with Sanjaya – or Paula tripping over her dog and breaking her nose. But we do. We lived through it. And maybe it all made us stronger.