American Idol: Separating The Contenders From The Pretenders

My friend The Owl and I created our own secret society in college called The FUC Club. I may expand on the particulars some other time, but suffice to say that the moniker stands for Fat, Ugly, & Crippled and is built around the basic idea that the world caters to The Pretty People. It is undeniable that…assuming all other factors are as equal as possible…a hottie will beat out an unattractive, overweight, or disabled/disfigured person the vast majority of the time, whether it be in the job market, in the romance department, or just general popularity amongst friends & neighbors. That’s life. This truth is especially prominent in the entertainment industry. Now I know one could come up with a fairly decent list of relatively unattractive individuals who have somehow achieved some level of fame & fortune, and that’s fine…there are exceptions to every rule, but the rule is the rule for a reason.

What I have decided to do is apply this logic to American Idol and give the masses a look ahead at what to expect on the show in the coming weeks. The great thing about this is, there is precedence. Idol is in its 10th season and has produced nine previous winners and a few non-winners that managed to not be forgotten within 10 minutes:


Kelly Clarkson – The original American Idol, crowned at the conclusion of the first season in 2002. Regardless of whether or not Kelly is your particular cup o’ tea she has had a nice career. She’s had a couple of platinum albums, won a couple of Grammys & various other awards, and has received a fair amount of play on the radio over the years. She’s also young & tasty (if you like the brooding, not-quite-goth Joan Jett wannabe vibe).


Ruben Studdard – Ahhh, The Velvet Teddy Bear. He sounds like Luther Vandross but looks like Fat Albert. I think I have more records on my iTunes playlist that Ruben ever sold. Do I believe there is a racial issue here?? No, not at all. I think the bigger problem is that Ruben doesn’t have “the look”. He’s just not the type of hunk that impressionable 13 year old girls…the kind that have made Twilight a worldwide phenomenon…swoon over. I am certainly not advocating the validity of the tastes of junior high schoolers, but they do seem to wield a lot of power in the marketplace.


Fantasia Barrino – Hands down the worst Idol of them all. She looks like a crack ho and has a stripper name. Her music career was DOA and she ended up doing a reality show. Coincidentally her actual life is like a bad reality show too…dating married men, drug overdoses, foreclosure, etc. Here’s the bottom line – everyone loves a good “they dragged themselves out of poverty and achieved something” story…on 60 Minutes. But other than that most Americans find that stuff depressing and just want to be entertained, preferably by someone they can fantasize about while making love to their spouse.


Carrie Underwood – I’m far too lazy to compare numbers and such, but I am calling Underwood the most successful Idol of them all, with respectful apologies to Clarkson fans. A blonde bombshell with a girl-next-door persona is the prototype American Idol contestant. It helps that she can sing, and it’s even better that she decided her niche was in country music where there seems to be more longevity and fan loyalty. She’s won Grammys, American Music Awards, Peoples’ Choice Awards, and just about everything available from the country community, including Entertainer of the Year. Carrie Underwood might be one of the biggest reasons American Idol is still on the air, because she embodies the potential mega-success that every contestant craves.


Taylor Hicks – Is a 30 year old with grey hair and a voice reminiscent of Joe Cocker cool?? Maybe to some, but not enough. I think he’s in a touring company of Grease these days, playing Teen Angel (made famous by Frankie Avalon in the movie). Does that entail doing anything more than singing one song and being on stage for 5 minutes?? At any rate, his music career is non-existent and I have no idea how this guy ever won the competition, seeing as how he beat out atleast 2 or 3 people who have proven to be more successful. Again, like Studdard, he just doesn’t have much commercial appeal to the target demographic. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying it is what it is.


Jordin Sparks – Let’s give Sparks an incomplete. The youngest Idol when she won at age 17, she is still only 21 years old. She has sold her fair share of records, but to be honest her type of teeny bopper R&B-pop isn’t what I typically listen to, so maybe she’s more successful than I realize. Still, I’d be willing to bet that if a survey were to be taken asking people to name famous Idol alums the name Jordin Sparks wouldn’t roll off the tongues of most (even though it is a catchy name). Why?? I personally think she’s rather attractive…but…does she fit the typical mold of “hot”?? Probably not. She’s a little chunky, and probably still a little too…..girlish. But, as mentioned, the jury is still out. Give her a couple years to lose a few pounds and sex up her image and the American public will eat it up. Sad but true.

David Cook, Kris Allen, & Lee DeWyze  –

I think it may be a little too soon to thoroughly analyze the last three Idols. However, I will say one thing. My concern about all of them would be that they don’t stand out. None really fit into my original hypothesis, as they aren’t overweight, deformed, or empirically hideous in any way. However, decent looking 20-s0mething white guys who sing cookie cutter pop music are a dime-a-dozen and easily get lost in the shuffle. Taylor Hicks and Ruben Studdard may not fit the societal standard of beautiful but atleast they are distinctive and one can pick them out of the crowd.


Justin Guarini – The first ever runner-up, which for years has made him the butt of jokes. I didn’t start watching American Idol until the finale of that first season, but I have heard more than a few folks say throughout the years that Guarini was better than Clarkson and should have won. I became a believer a couple summers ago when he performed at a local festival in my hometown and I was quite unexpectedly very entertained. This dude can sing. And he stands out in the crowd with that geri-curled hair that makes him distinctive without having to be weird. I think Justin Guarini could have been a tremendous success, but for whatever reason he just hasn’t reached that level of fame & fortune. And if it hasn’t happened by now it is unlikely it ever will. I am tempted to blame that God awful movie he made with Clarkson, but it didn’t seem to have any significant impact on her fate. Maybe, despite non-existent record sales or commercial prosperity, the fact that we even still remember the guy that finished 2nd nine years ago is positive.


Clay Aiken – Let’s face it…Clay should have beaten Ruben. And for awhile it didn’t matter that he finished second. As a matter of fact, Justin Guarini, for a period of about 3 years, had to be wondering “What the hell did I do wrong that this dude did right??” Aiken has been much more of a success than Studdard and established the precedent that one need not win American Idol to ride the wave to stardom. And despite the fact that his 15 minutes are seemingly up, he has to be counted as one of the top success stories from the show. As far as how he fits into my theorem…well, he’s a flaming homosexual, so the traditional rules don’t necessarily apply, but women love gay men, especially if they can sing, and the only gay men that most straight men really respect are the ones who can sing, so Clay Aiken’s popularity makes sense.


Jennifer Hudson – Can you believe she finished 7th on Idol?? Hudson is a conundrum. In a way she has outshone them all, even the 9 winners. Because (with all due respect to Charlie Sheen), if your name is preceded by “Academy Award winner” you win. However, her success has come outside of the musical arena. She, like new American Idol judge Jennifer Lopez, is more of an actress than a singer now. Hudson also is the obvious exception to my rule. Despite the fact that she has shed a bunch of pounds, is now super delicious, and shills for Weight Watchers, the bottom line is that her success came when she was overweight and not that pretty. Major props.


Katharine McPhee – Kat McPhee is quite possibly the tastiest morsel to grace an Idol stage other than Carrie Underwood. That should spell s-u-c-c-e-s-s, but has it?? She absolutely, undoubtedly, without question should have beaten Taylor Hicks. How in the name of all that is right & holy could this vision of loveliness be defeated by Jay Leno’s stunt double?? But despite her hotness McPhee has yet to become an established star. She’s released a couple of albums, dabbled in acting, and kept her toe in the shallow end of the fame pool. Like so many other Idol alums fans of the show know who she is and have kept tabs on her, but that doesn’t mean a connection has been established with the masses.


Chris Daughtry – Daughtry is right up there with Underwood, Clarkson, and Hudson on the Mount Rushmore of American Idol. Amazingly, not only did he also lose out to Taylor Hicks (and of course Katherine McPhee), but he was eliminated before Eliot Yamin. Really?? Eschewing an opportunity to become the new frontman for rock band Fuel, he instead formed his own band and they’ve had tremendous success. Does Daughtry (the band) cover any new ground not already done better by the likes of Bon Jovi, Creed, Soundgarden, 3 Doors Down, or Nickelback, among others?? Probably not, but they are a fairly enjoyable listening experience. And let’s give the man credit…he found the perfect platform to separate himself from the crowd. I’m a guy and therefore not a good judge, but I assume that most females would say Chris Daughtry is an attractive gentleman, so therefore he proves the theory.


Adam Lambert – I honestly didn’t pay much attention during season 8 of American Idol. I guess I just needed a break. But I paid enough attention to know that everyone…e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e…thought for weeks that it was a foregone conclusion that Adam Lambert would win. However, Lambert is the exception to a completely different rule than The Pretty People Theorem. Remember how I said America embraced Clay Aiken because women love gay men and straight men appreciate gay men who can sing?? Well, that all goes out the window when the person in question is an absolute weirdo. Despite the fact that Lambert didn’t “come out” or really let his freak flag fly until long after American Idol had wrapped, people aren’t stupid. If I’d actually watched much that season I could speak more eloquently on the subject, but there had to be some reason why America chose nondescript milquetoast Kris Allen over someone with far superior vocal talent, and if I may oversimplify just a wee bit, it boils down to little things like if you’re a man trying to win a popularity contest don’t wear eyeliner. Ozzy and Alice Cooper may have gotten away with it, but they weren’t trying to win American Idol.


Okay, so now that we’ve gone back in time and looked at what works and what doesn’t work, let’s take a peek into the ol’ crystal ball and see if we can narrow down the contenders from the pretenders amongst the baker’s dozen remaining in contention for the 2011 Idol crown. Keep in mind that it’s a given that all these individuals can sing, so talent isn’t a factor as much as likeability, charisma, and whatever else seems to make one person more popular than another.


Casey Abrams – Casey is the Taylor Hicks of this season. With his full beard and pudginess he sort of reminds me of John C. Reilly circa 2000 in The Perfect Storm, and maybe a little like Seth Rogen. He’s just the sort of underdog that might develop a following and end up in the top 3 or 4.


Naima Adedapo – This is Fantasia Barrino 2.0. She’s got a name no one will be able to remember or pronounce, and a…shall we say “exotic” look. Enjoy the ride while it lasts sweetie.


Lauren Alaina – The minute this girl came on screen she was my pick to win it all. She’s got the blonde hair, blue eyed All American girl vibe just like Carrie Underwood. If Simon were still around he’d undoubtedly say she is very “commercial” or “marketable”, and make no mistake…that’s what the powers-that-be are really seeking. The producers of Idol almost certainly hate when fans pull crap like voting for Eliot Yamin over Chris Daughtry or Sanjaya Malakar instead of…well…anybody. My concern about Lauren is that she is only 16 years old, which I think is far too young to be thrust into the spotlight. But I don’t make the rules. As it stands, if Lauren Alaina doesn’t atleast make it to the Top 3 I’ll be shocked.


James Durbin – Here is an opportunity for America to make up for Daughtry finishing 4th five years ago. This dude is like Daughtry mixed with a bit of Adam Lambert, which I mean as a compliment. I love the fact that he’s not your typical metrosexual pantywaist. He’s a rebellious rocker that is still palatable to the masses, and he is obviously having fun. My money is on him being there as the finish line comes into view.


Ashthon Jones – Is she a Beyonce wannabe?? Sure looks like it to me. What I am wondering is this – while I may not find such a ripoff appealing, am I alone in that opinion or will the populace lap it up?? Also, will she develop her own individuality going forward?? Will she be given time to do that?? My guess is that she’ll buy herself 3 or 4 weeks as long as her performances are decent, but she’s not a legitimate threat to win.


Stefano Langone – There were about 3 guys in the Top 24 that all looked the same…dark hair, vaguely Mediterranean, nice smiles. I couldn’t really tell them apart. Luckily for Stefano he’s the last one standing. I’m guessing the ladies will fawn all over him, and he may last a few weeks, but he’s not going to win.


Jacob Lusk – Does anyone remember George Huff from the 3rd season of Idol?? Jacob really reminds me of George. He just seems like a genuinely nice guy who is sincerely thrilled to have made it this far. Unfortunately I think he will be amongst the early exits.


Scotty McCreery – Has anyone called Randy Travis and told him we’ve located his love child?? I like Scotty. He’s just a good ol’ country boy. The thing is, at some point in the next few weeks he’s going to be asked to do something out of his comfort zone, like sing a disco tune or something by an 80’s hair band, and that is when I think he’ll falter. His niche is just too narrow to actually go that far at this stage of the competition.


Paul McDonald – Now here is the very definition of standing out from the crowd. This is my pick for this year’s Clay Aiken, meaning he won’t win but it won’t matter. He’s got a future in the music business. The oldest contestant left, he’s still just 26 years old. I cannot put my finger on who his voice reminds me of. Maybe some Rod Stewart with a little James Taylor mixed in?? He doesn’t sound like Michael McDonald but he does look like him a bit, and the two are similar in that when you are listening to Michael McDonald you KNOW who you are listening to, and the same can be said for Paul. Anyway, I’ll be disappointed if he isn’t among the last 3 or 4 competitors.


Thia Megia – Is she pretty?? Yes. Does she stand out from the crowd?? Not really. She might be the first elimination.


Haley Reinhart – This is my sleeper pick. She’s VERY pretty, and I think she’ll grow on people and begin to stand out more and more if given the opportunity. It sounds silly to say, but more than just about anyone I think the length of her “journey” will depend heavily on her performances week to week. She’s not gonna have a built in fan club of sychophants who’ll vote for her no matter how much she messes up, but if she rocks the house time after time folks will begin to take notice. Don’t be surprised if Haley is still standing amongst the final group of 3 or 4. You heard it here first.


Karen Rodriguez – Will the Latino vote keep her safe?? For how long?? Personally I have found her rather forgettable thus far, which is why I don’t think she’ll last all that long.


Pia Toscano – The judges dig Pia, I can tell. She does have a star quality about her. However, unlike Lauren Alaina or Haley Reinhart, who both come across as wholesome and family friendly, Pia reminds me of the villainous tramp on your favorite soapy drama, the one who goes around stealing husbands and letting her bitch flag fly proudly. Guys LOVE that kind of gal, but women are threatened by it, which is where I think Pia will fail. If she can soften her image, and if either Alaina or Reinhart exit earlier than I expect, then maybe Pia can sneak into that top 3 or 4. Regardless, she looks like a winner who may stick around in the public consciousness one way or another long after her Idol days are over.


So 2 months from now, as this season of American Idol hits the home stretch, I think the front runners will be Lauren Alaina & James Durbin, with Paul McDonald, Haley Rinehart, and possibly Casey Abrams & Pia Toscano still in the hunt.

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2 thoughts on “American Idol: Separating The Contenders From The Pretenders

  1. Sam, you consistently impress me with your ability to break down and analyze multifaced subjects like this, or your Top 100 Movies, or your Final Four countdown, or NFL, or whatever. Your writing is well put together… you ought to be getting paid, seriously. You could definitely be laying down some professional website content somewhere… think about it. As for Idol, it’s only mildly interesting after ten years and without Simon. I’ll probably tune out until the top five. But I enjoyed this flashback!

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