"American Idol" did all it could to keep Sam Woolf around for as long as possible. Weeks ago, when the voters had been ready to dismiss the talented teen from Bradenton, Fla., the judges had used their one and only save on him, because, Harry Connick Jr. had explained, "we think he needs to be in the competition."
Given that Woolf's performances had been uneven – those impervious to his oft-discussed cuteness might even say unexciting -- it was hard not to conclude that the show was crassly trying to use the kid as bait to attract the desirable teen-girl demographic. Again and again, the "Idol" producers, judges and host had tried to press Woolf to embrace the role of "heartthrob." But it was never for him.
"I don’t know. I just don’t think I was placed under that category before this competition, so I don’t think I should be placed under it now," Woolf said recently of his discomfort with the "heartthrob" label. "It's a good thing, I guess, but it's sometimes -- I don’t know."
Finally, this week, after one last desperate attempt by the producers to prolong his presence on the show, Woolf was finally sent home – without even so much as a highlight reel to remind him of his time on the "Idol" stage.
At the outset of Thursday's elimination show, Ryan Seacrest had promised viewers "an unprecedented turn of events that none of the idols will see coming" as well as a "shocking twist" and also "lots of surprises."
What could that mean? You might have wondered. Was one of the three frontrunners -- Jena Irene, Caleb Johnson, or Alex Preston, all of whom had performed very well this week – in trouble?
After all, a departure by Woolf or Jessica Meuse would hardly qualify as a shocker. The voters had already tried to send Woolf home once, and though Meuse has a terrific voice, she has been struggling to overcome her dead-eyed, disembodied delivery all season long.
Or maybe, you may have thought, no one will be sent home?
Here's what happened: After Keith Urban performed his new single, "Good Thing," Seacrest handed the Top 5 contestants ballots and said they had a choice. They could either vote to keep everyone around for one more week and not send anyone home, though two singers would then be sent home next week – or they could vote for elimination night to proceed as usual, with the singer who got the lowest votes going home this week and next week's low-vote-getter going home as well.
A "Yes" vote meant keep the group together; a "No" meant someone would go home. The voting was to be anonymous, or at least as anonymous as a five-person vote could be. Oh, and the decision not to send anyone home had to be unanimous, a mere majority would not do.
Three "Yes" votes were read. Would it be a clean sweep? Meuse was shaking her head. She seemed to know something. And she was right: Two contestants had voted "No." Someone would be heading home, and that person was Woolf.
The judges were apparently shocked – shocked! "I'm surprised," Jennifer Lopez said after the votes were read. When Woolf's departure was announced, Urban's head sank to the table.
Woolf, though, seemed rather unsurprised. For all we know, he may even have been a little relieved. His final song on "Idol," a reprise of his take on Imagine Dragons' "It's Time," seemed to underscore the words in the title. It was, finally, Woolf's time to go.
The song's lyrics also seemed pointed. "Now don't you understand / That I'm never changing who I am," Woolf sang.
Try as "American Idol" had to turn this sweet young man, who is genuinely serious about music (he's been offered admission to the Berklee College of Music in the fall), into a cheesy teen heartthrob and to keep parading him across the stage as teen-girl bait, he was never changing who he was.
Good for Sam Woolf. Now go out there, kid, toss off that ill-fitting heartthrob label, make some good music, and make your grandma and grandpa proud.