I knew Taylor Hicks was going to win American Idol the night before it happened. I was up on the third balcony of the Kodak Theater to see the performances America would vote on, in the very last row of a section so remote you had to squeeze through a crawlspace with a flashlight to reach it. The stench and the flies were terrible. At times, I was asked to hold a giant spotlight on my shoulder while the lighting guy had a smoke. And like everyone in the Untouchables section, I spent most of the show on my tiptoes, craning to see the action down below, expecting at any moment to tumble off the superpitched balcony onto David Hasselhoff.

I could see enough, though: When Paula Abdul entered the theater, to the applause of more than 3,000 people, she performed a graceful dance-groove thing through the crowd, waving and spinning in circles, her hair and her rich-hippie gown flowing all around her. It was nice, to be honest. It didn’t seem very high. It seemed — I don’t know, brave and special. She’s a dancer, you know. And as she lilted about like an endangered butterfly, I realized how important she is to the show. However troubled Abdul may be, she brings a femininity that is essential and that has no substitute.

I wish I could tell you about all the celebrities I spotted in the crowd, but I spotted none, unless you count “Copacabana” — a truly strange contestant voted off the show during the Winter Olympics.

But that’s how I knew Taylor Hicks was going to win. Sitting up there in American Samoa gave me a unique perspective on both the audience and the performers.

There were some Kat fans up there in the rafters. There were also some Soul Patrollers (translation: Taylor fans), including two awful bitches who screamed piercingly at all times. (You could actually hear them on the telecast during one of Simon’s comments.) This was the first clue about the show’s outcome: Katharine McPhee fanatics were much like their Idol: polite, composed, a little tepid. Taylor Hicks obsessives were, like Taylor, loud, unselfconscious and very excited to be alive at this moment at this place, oh my gosh!

Katharine looks fancy and diet-y and whatnot, and the audience loves her performance and cheers her on. The judges are complimentary, and everything is pleasant.

And then something happens. There’s a ruckus down below, and it appears that Taylor has chosen to begin singing his first number, “Living for the City,” from within the audience. The tense opening chords begin, and all of us in the balcony are craning, straining to find him, but he’s nowhere to be seen and everywhere to be heard — a child is born, in Hard Time, Mississippi — (where is he?), and then, in a heartbeat, there Taylor is, down in the aisle, doing his crouchy-strutty thing in a spotlight, surrounded by American people just like him and yet nothing like him — because, unlike all of us, he is wearing a purple velvet jacket. And then he’s dancing up the steps of the stage on the eighth notes, still singing, and he’s wearing a purple velvet jacket.

That’s when it dawns on me. Until that moment, Taylor Hicks has always been, to me, a fun diversion from the main plotline: a character actor playing the sidekick in a blockbuster. I’ve never seriously considered that someone so limited in his musical abilities and specific in his appeal could become the main attraction. But apparently something has happened to Taylor over the previous month. It’s as if week after week of Americans voting had filled him, like a battery, with power — star power. There’s an energy in the house I can feel all the way up at the top, and it’s impossible to tell if that energy is emanating from Taylor or from the crowd — or if it’s an alternating current gathering heat as it bounces between the two.

Unlike Katharine, Taylor isn’t down there praying to be liked, crossing his fingers. He’s beyond trying to entertain us; he’s actually entertaining us. That’s what Fantasia used to do, too, and that’s what people want: someone they don’t have to worry about.

The rest of the show passes enjoyably enough; Katharine has her moment on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” while Taylor’s taken down a notch during “Levon.” It doesn’t matter. The show has already been won. As paradoxical as it may seem, every so often the guy with the least versatile talent can also have the most universal appeal. As the judges so often said, Taylor is always himself, which is another way of saying what a friend of mine said: Taylor’s in the competition but not of it. Maybe that’s why people respond to him. It’s not a lowest-common-denominator thing either; it’s just a little mystery. I mean, it helps to have a purple velvet jacket.

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