Pop Playground
American Idol: The Hit Factory



well, well, well. The exaggerated growth curve of television would tend to suggest that by its fourth season, any show is going through its adolescence—and American Idol is certainly growing up in public and hitting an uncomfortable puberty this season, isn’t it? From Paula-gate to the transposed on-screen phone numbers, not to mention that usual dredging up of criminal pasts (courtesy of website The Smoking Gun) and lest we forget, the mysterious pulling out of finalist Mario Vasquez (who many had picked to win it all), it’s been an action-packed 4 months. As it happens, in fact, the off-screen hubbub and rumors have often been more entertaining than the show itself. Of course, it doesn’t help when the best pure entertainers of the final 12 are voted out before we’re even down to half that number (unless your idea of entertainment is Scott Stapp manqué, that is). This season’s been more of a bad karaoke year than the three which came before it, and I honestly can’t see either of 2005’s final two (the winner will be announced May 25th) having enduring recording careers—I mean, what in the world will Clive Davis do with Bo Bice, force him into a Maroon5 record? [Heaven forbid Carrie Underwood wins the prize—country is not one of Clive’s strengths.] That’s not necessarily the case with some of AI’s past winners, and even non-winners, however.

Nashville Star is AI’s would-be country cousin, started by USA Network in the wake of AI’s success. If Idol can crown new pop idols, the thinking went, why couldn’t we do the same for country music? Its success is still debatable; we’ll see if the third season winner, recently crowned Erika Jo, gets many radio spins past a few weeks’ worth of curiosity. I couldn’t even tell you who won last year (research says it was nonstarter Brad Cotter), but I can definitely name Star’s inaugural champ, Buddy Jewell, who just dropped his sophomore album, Times Like These. He spun a trio of hits off of his debut, and seems to actually have the right stuff for a career in Nashville, a vaguely bland traditionalist (but at least he’s a traditionalist, right?) with a marvelously resonant voice and a gift for writing decent-to-better songs. Did I just describe Jewell or Alan Jackson? Anyway, much less ink has been spilled on Josh Gracin, an AI finalist during that show’s second season who seemed to get more publicity for being an active-duty Marine than for his fine voice or boy-you-wished-was-next-door looks. Lyric Street, a country quasi-indie which knows how to nurture artists (two words: Rascal Flatts), signed Gracin, and was rewarded earlier this year with his first #1 country single, the fun “Nothing To Lose.” Sounding as if straight out of the John Michael Montgomery songbook, “Lose” is a sturdy, punchy, uptempo sing-a-long record destined to become a country radio recurrent a la Chad Brock’s “Yes” and Montgomery’s own “Sold” (which “Lose” is most reminiscent of). He’s a clean-cut kid, smiley and mediagenic, and he’ll be around for a while.

Of course, everyone knows the final two from Idol’s second season. There’s the “velvet teddy bear” (ick, what a phrase), champ Ruben Studdard, who’s got a pleasant soul (read: black) voice, not much material, no crossover, and a massive weight problem. Sadly, if his cholesterol doesn’t kill him, his generic songs will, unless he can craft a third album (his second was last winter’s gospel record I Need An Angel, which still hasn’t gone gold) packed with 12-14 “Sorry 2004”s; I wouldn’t bet on it. As for Clay Aiken, I’ll say this: I knew Paul Anka, Mister Aiken (my Mom was a fan), and you’re no Paul Anka. And Paul Anka wasn’t that great to start with. Sure, he’s got a decent voice—duh, he was an American Idol finalist. His debut album was an exercise in tepidity that made Josh Groban sound positively edgy. Flashes in the pan can be created on that bedrock, but lasting careers cannot. One more album, tops, before he’s forced to go indie and continues to sell to a small but devoted niche of people I never want to meet. I could make an easy Justin Guarini crack here, too, but I’m not feeling that cruel. As for Kelly Clarkson, well, what else is there to say about her? On just her second album, she’s already to a point where the phrase “American Idol winner” is no longer necessary in front of her name. “Since U Been Gone” is the consensus pop-rock single of 2005 from tween girls to indie-rock snobs, and her Breakaway album shows there’s more where that came from. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if she outlasts the likes of Avril and Ashlee at this point.

Poor little Diana DeGarmo. The inexplicable runner-up last season, her album came and went without making any kind of splash; she made barely a ripple at Radio Disney, and has already been reduced to appearing on American Idol week on Family Feud. Hopefully, she can yet get back to enjoying her teen years. Trust that you won’t see the woman who beat DeGarmo as a game-show contestant any time soon. Fantasia (née Barrino) may have the longest career of any finalist yet. About half of her debut, Free Yourself, is somewhat paint-by-numbers R&B; (and now that we’re past the first album, can we cut the covers? I mean, “Always On My Mind”?), but the other half is fairly gorgeous. My chief fear with Fantasia was that her bosses would try to smooth out her rough edges, removing all of the southern-soul character from her gloriously Otis-esque voice (well, Otis as a woman, I mean). But to my surprise, that wasn’t the case; you can hear her Carolina grit on the majority of songs on this album. Single “Truth Is” is a lovely, simple, sad song accented by the crackly sound of a record playing, and from there the good stuff just gets better. “Baby Mama” spotlights Fantasia proving that you can take the girl out the ghetto…—and does so in a manner which shows that she’s not going to make a record that’s not essentially her. J Records is very wisely not even attempting to cross Fantasia over, instead concentrating on making a base for her at R&B; radio (particularly, adult R&B;, where “Truth Is” was #1 for 13 weeks and follow-up “Free Yourself” is already top 10) off this debut album. It appears to be working, too—“Baby Mama” went top 20 at R&B; radio as an album track while “Truth Is” was ensconced in the top 5. She’s platinum-plus now, with an easy two more singles (at least) to work off this album yet. Fantasia’s future? Hope she’s got a good pair of shades.

American Idol really proves nothing apart from the fact that Americans love text-messaging democracy; think how many people might have voted for president last year if they could have done so via cell phones. There are talented singers in each season’s batch of finalists, some of whom will eke out careers of varying success, some of whom will go back to their lives with only the occasional television appearance to remind them of what once was. The cream tends to rise to the top, anyway; from this season, I fully expect to see albums from Mario Vasquez and Nadia Turner before year’s end, just as I expect to not be bothered by the mention of Anthony Federov’s name much past the show’s finale. If either Bo or Carrie makes a good album, I’ll be pleasantly surprised, but I don’t expect it. And next January, the process starts all over again. Welcome to the new hit factory, while it lasts.


By: Thomas Inskeep
Published on: 2005-05-25
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