For an "American Idol" season so flat and lifeless, the end sure rocked: Ex-bartender David Cook virtually body-slammed teen prodigy David Archuleta in a surprising landslide, capping an energized finale filled with big stars and polished performances.
All that, and the imperious Simon Cowell was reduced to apologizing to Cook for casting him as an also-ran to Archuleta the night before.
Turns out Cowell's critique of Tuesday's performances had limited influence: Cook, 25, from Blue Springs, Missouri, swamped Archuleta, 17, of Murray, Utah, by a margin of 12 million votes out of the record 97.5 million cast by viewers.
Cook was overcome with emotion, bending toward the stage after his name was announced. When he stood up, his eyes were filled with tears, the second time in as many nights that the scruffy, grainy-voiced belter had broken down.
"The ride here has been pretty nuts," Cook said to a roomful of reporters backstage. "You couldn't write this — or maybe you can."
For the final performances Tuesday, Cook refused to bow to the conventional during his three-song set, with Collective Soul's "The World I Know" as his pick for a closing song. He also sang U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and the power ballad "Dream Big," his choice from the songwriting competition's non-winning finalists.
British judge Simon Cowell declared that those choices had sunk him, and told Archuleta that he'd scored a "knockout" in the boxing-themed performance finale.
But just before the winner was announced, Cowell uncharacteristically backtracked. He offered Cook an apology and said that the competition "wasn't quite so clear cut as we called it" — even letting on that, for the first time, he felt either finalist would have been a worthy winner.
Watchers had complained all season that, while the talent was solid this year, the entertainment quotient dropped — and ratings had too, for a season average of about 8 percent. But the final contest turned that tide, with viewership for Tuesday's show up 3 percent over last year, the network said Wednesday.
That provoked a frenzy with a record 97.5 million audience votes cast by phone and text. Last year's total vote count was 74 million.
While Archuleta was showered with praise by the judges all season, online bookies and observers kept the faith with Cook. One Web site, which tracks busy signals on the separate phone lines dedicated to each contestant, projected him the winner correctly Wednesday morning.
By strict "Idol" standards, being rebellious turned out to be worth the gamble for Cook, whose hip and scruffy style and ability to work the camera with a soulful gaze also proved to have overwhelming appeal.
Archuleta was the prodigy who consistently dazzled the show's judges and thrilled screaming young fans. He would have been the youngest-"Idol" ever if he'd won, beating last year's winner Jordin Sparks by mere days.
The teenager seemed to find the attention the show brought him overwhelming, often appearing to be speechless in the face of praise, but he was consistently professional onstage, with dulcet tones and poise that belied his shyness and tender age. He also became the focus of controversy when his father, Jeff, was reportedly getting too heavily involved in his son's rehearsals and asked by the show's producers to back off.
Archuleta made the most of his smooth voice Tuesday with Elton John's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," the inspirational ballad "In This Moment" and a reprise from earlier in the season of John Lennon's "Imagine." After learning Wednesday that he'd lost, Archuleta appeared cheerful and unfazed, praising Cook and gushing in teen-speak about performing with Bryan Adams ("That was really cool," he said, giggling).
"I just believe I made it this far. I didn't think I would make it past the first round, for Pete's sake," Archuleta said.
Asked about his plans, the teenager said he will try to keep education in the mix because of the uncertainty for anyone of a lasting music career.
"People can have a few years of performing" then have to turn to something else, he said.
During the show, viewers got songs from runners-up including Syesha Mercado, who dueted with Seal on his song "Waiting for You," and a solo on "Hallelujah" by dreadlocked Jason Castro.
Other "Idol" contestant and name-brand pairings: Cook with ZZ Top, Archuleta with OneRepublic, Bryan Adams with the top six male singers and Brooke White with Graham Nash.
"Brooke looks so much better than Crosby," Nash quipped backstage, referring to bandmate David Crosby.
The Jonas Brothers got the stage to themselves for a performance. George Michael wrapped up the night, and was joined onstage by all 12 finalists for a medley of his hits.
Cook said it was an honor to share the stage with Archuleta, who Cook said has more talent at 17 "than I know what to do with at 25."
What does Cook think the "Idol" win will bring him?
"I actually walked into this with no expectations and I'm walking out of it with no expectations. This show is a springboard," he said, "but it's still a crapshoot."
AP entertainment writer Derrik J. Lang in Los Angeles and AP writer Jennifer Dobner in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.