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IMAGE: Diana DeGarmo
Fred Prouser  /  Reuters file
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msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/26/2004 12:35:56 PM ET 2004-05-26T16:35:56

“American Idol” isn’t just a contest — it’s a reality show. If that weren’t the case, there would be no interviews, no at-home footage, and no shots of loving family members looking on. This show is about an entire package. You don’t vote for a contestant, but for a whole story.

And hands-down, the better story in the final two is that of Diana DeGarmo, the sixteen-year-old who auditioned in her furry pink beret, swearing that she wore pink and black at all times. She looked like a refugee from a Little Miss pageant and, more disturbingly, she grinned all the way through a happy, upbeat version of “Chain of Fools” — really not a happy, upbeat kind of song. She seemed a little too chipper about being part of the chain.

But as the season progressed, Diana obviously worked hard to overcome the criticisms hurled her way by Simon, who consistently told her that she was too young, that she didn’t belong in the competition, and that she didn’t have what it would take to win. And once she (and the rest of us) survived her unfortunate rendition of “Do You Love Me?” during Motown week, things began to improve. When she got to “Turn The Beat Around” on Latin night — a night when, admittedly, everyone else was so hideous that looking good was not difficult — Diana at least moved up from looking like she belonged in a children’s pageant to looking like she belonged in a teen pageant.

Over Diana’s last few performances, even Simon, who previously treated her as little more than a freaky novelty act, had to acknowledge her as a force to be reckoned with. Going into the final four, however, she faced what appeared to be the insurmountable obstacles of not only Fantasia Barrino, whom she will meet in the finals, but also the mysteriously devoted following of an apparently boot-proof Jasmine Trias and the power of La Toya London — a better singer than either Diana or Fantasia.

But Diana persevered. She tore into disco night — a night that could have made her look extraordinarily bad — and acquitted herself well. Her take on “No More Tears” was markedly free of the “Chain of Fools” problem of uncalled-for merriment. La Toya went poof, Jasmine finally took the exit she had avoided for too long, and Diana found herself in the final two alongside the much noisier, flashier Fantasia, who has ridden an uninterrupted wave of unanimous sucking-up from the judges since her very first audition.

Even putting aside Diana’s more impressive struggle to stay in the game, there’s another reason why she should win: Fantasia’s voice, frankly, is unpleasant to listen to. There is a strange phenomenon in music known as She Is Wildly Talented But I Can’t Stand Listening To Her Sing, and that is the category to which Fantasia belongs. You can’t miss the power of her voice or the flourishes she’s capable of. She’s substantially more advanced than Diana, speaking in terms of sheer power and technical facility. Fantasia also has a lot of personality, particularly if you like loud. But the fact remains that her voice is more impressive than it is pleasing. The tone is grating and not hospitable to melodies, and for all the rips at Diana’s youth, something about Fantasia’s voice has a distinctly irritating little-girl quality of its own.

Finally, Diana has far more potential to improve. Fantasia has maxed out at this point. The way she sounds now is the way she will sound five years from now. Diana, however, is on an upward swing that shows no sign of slowing down. What weaknesses remain in her voice, particularly in the area of the ability to interpret music with subtlety, are precisely the kinds of things that get better with time and exposure to audiences.

Diana deserves the crown. She put down the pink hat, she picked up her game, and she most likely has more up her sleeve. They’re both over-the-top and too loud by half; the competition ought to go to the one of them who still may learn to put on the brakes occasionally.

Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.

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