Caleb Johnson auditioned for American Idol in two previous years and got cut both times. On Wednesday, the 23-year-old rocker from Asheville, N.C., won the show's 13th season, beating out 17-year-old Jena Irene for the title.
The season's two-hour finale opened with Johnson and Jena Irene together in the tiny booth where singers were held before first auditioning for the judges last fall. They emerged to step on the stage and perform a medley of Queen's We Will Rock You, No Doubt's Just a Girl and Bryan Adams and Tina Turner's It's Only Love, the final one with flame cannons going off behind them.
That performance was met with a standing ovation from the judges, including Harry Connick Jr., who may not have stood once for a performance this season. "The competition is officially over!" he told Ryan Seacrest. "I can stand!"
Viewers got a foreshadowing of the eventual winner early in the evening when Seacrest asked the audience at the Nokia Theatre L.A. Live to cheer for their favorite singer. Johnson clearly owned the room, the response for him being several decibels higher than cheers for Jena Irene.
Sam Woolf got the first finalist performance of the night, singing the 2012 coronation song Home and Raging Fire with Phillip Phillips.
Jennifer Nettles sang a verse and chorus of That Girl, her single written from the point of view of Dolly Parton's Jolene, then segued into a duet of Miley Cyrus' Wrecking Ball with Jessica Meuse. Meuse looked so stiff and uncomfortable it was like watching Woolf perform.
Johnson swapped lines with Kiss guitarist Paul Stanley on Love Gun, then sang backup on Shout It Out Loud, though someone really should have given Johnson a pair of 10-inch platform boots, too, so he could be as tall as the band. Seacrest brought Johnson's brother, Houston — wearing Paul Stanley makeup — to the stage to meet the band.
The Idol men sang The Man with Aloe Blacc. Blacc sounded a little flat, but C.J. Harris and Dexter Roberts made him sound fine by comparison. Now we know why they tried to avoid pop songs on the show. The Idol women sounded better a little later singing Really Don't Care and Neon Lights with Demi Lovato.
Jena Irene began Paramore's Decode at the piano — when the band joined her, she was the first Idol finalist to look and sound like she belonged onstage with her band. She may not have won the competition, but she certainly won the night.
Both Johnson and Jena Irene got new Ford Mustangs, and, during their hometown visits, invited early inspirations to join them at the finale. Then, the singers got to surprise each of them with a new Ford Fusion.
John Legend sang You and I with a guitarist and a string section backing him, then brought out Malaya Watson, who has had her braces removed since leaving the show and now looks like a completely different person when she smiles, for a duet on All of Me.
Alex Preston blended nicely with Jason Mraz as they sang Mraz's new single Love Someone with audience members waving lights to the rhythm.
Somehow, the Idol team managed to convince Seacrest to perform a few bars of Right Here Waiting for You by Richard Marx (Seacrest's first concert), mostly, perhaps, as a way to set up Marx's appearance.
Darius Rucker shared the stage with the season's two country singers, performing True Believers by himself, then having Roberts and Harris join him for Alright. Lady Antebellum performed its new single Bartender after a brief a cappella intro from Johnson and Jena Irene.
The judges also got to take the stage with Jennifer Lopez performing her new single First Love, and, later in the show, a medley of Cyndi Lauper's True Colors, featuring an oddly tender vocal from Lopez, and Fleetwood Mac's Go Your Own Way, which, frankly, was kind of a mess.
Johnson performed his coronation single As Long As You Love Me as confetti flew, and Seacrest reminded viewers that Johnson's album is slated for an Aug. 12 release and is already available for pre-order on iTunes.