Pop Culture

Recent ‘Idol’ season saw some tune-ups

It seems like only yesterday that Carrie Underwood was the reigning “American Idol” and Taylor Hicks was just some gray-haired geezer Simon Cowell didn’t think was worth sending to the Hollywood round. Now Hicks is the newest “Idol,” and Simon is giving himself credit for predicting it all along, much like he credits himself for the success of the Beatles, U2, and the “Da Vinci Code. ”

The transition from the Underwood era to the Hicks regime signaled a number of changes that show how the show keeps staying fresh while its rivals grow stale.

The winnersThere are two basic character types on “Idol” — up-and-comers making their musical debut, and veterans taking a final stab at stardom. For most in the competition, it’s either their first chance for or their last gasp after a career in music.

Underwood was just 20 when her season began. While it’s doubtful that country music talent scouts find themselves in Checotah, Oklahoma very often, odds are good that her “Idol” exposure would have led to success even if she’d been bounced early. She’s still developing her musical abilities even as she enjoys strong sales figures for her initial album.

Moreover, Underwood looks the part. It didn’t take a marketing genius to look at her and see the possibilities — TV commercials, clothing ads, magazine covers, and all the options given to attractive young women with name recognition. She could have come down with permanent laryngitis the day after the “Idol” finale and still made a good living.

On the other hand, Hicks was 29 before the finals began, and he looked like he could be Ryan Seacrest’s grandfather. While he’s a fun performer and earned his championship, this is not a guy who makes agents and record executives drool with anticipation. Without “Idol,” he’d probably have spent the rest of his musical life bouncing around small Southern clubs. Now he has a legitimate shot at something more.

When the show increased the age limit for contestants before season four, it ensured a group of finalists with a wide range of musical experience. Hicks proved to be the irresistible musical journeyman who grabbed his last chance at stardom and didn’t let go, a refreshing change from the usual fresh-faced but inexperienced winners in the past. "Idol" likely will be a different show going forward because of the age change, and Hicks is only the first winner to embody it.

The styleWhen Underwood's season was airing on Fox, country music with a rock influence was riding a wave of radio popularity. It’s no shock that Underwood knocked off Bo Bice in the final, since Bice was a rocker of a type hasn’t been seen on the charts since the 1970s was still grooving.

But critics who snipe that the show produces cookie-cutter musical stars found their argument bolstered when she won the title. Underwood will probably become the most successful “Idol” winner this side of Kelly Clarkson. But there are an awful lot of singers in Nashville bars and clubs who could probably have done equally well given the same exposure.

This season seemed to offer a similar contrast, with Hicks up against the more conventional Katharine McPhee in the final. But while McPhee was a lot younger and had the face of a stereotypical “Idol,” Hicks managed to personalize his performances in a way that Bice could not during the previous season. Also, nobody performs on stage quite like Hicks does, unless the singer’s being attacked by killer bees or something. His one-of-a-kind persona ensured his popularity wouldn’t wane during the final few weeks, and kept the show from seeing young women win four of the five “Idol” titles to date.

Hicks did more than just sing the best covers of popular music; he and fellow contestant Chris Daughtry were able to put their own spin on established hits as well as anyone in the show’s five-year history. That’s how he managed to join season three winner Fantasia Barrino as one of the two champions who won not because they fit the mold of pop music superstar, but because they were original enough to break that mold and create their own.

The controversies“Idol” is controversial by nature, because it’s among the least transparent of the reality shows. Vote totals aren’t announced, so it’s easy for fans of a voted-out singer to believe any rumor that claims shenanigans took place.

During the 2005 season, such minor details were the least of the show’s problems. Former contestant Corey Clark alleged that he had an affair with judge Paula Abdul while on the show, which created a cloud that hung over everything during the show's final weeks. In addition, a phone-number mixup messed up one week’s results and led to a second, unscheduled opportunity to vote. Previous seasons had seen contestants kicked off for a variety of reasons, so it’s not as if this broke any new ground. But it did make the program seem amateur — can viewers really trust the show to tabulate the votes when it doesn’t even bother to proofread its captions?

At first, this season seemed to be off to a similar start, with the Brittenum twins given the boot after the Hollywood round because of . Besides that, however, virtually every controversy was an Internet-related rumor of little consequence. Chris Daughtry didn’t credit the band Live for inspiring his cover of Johnny Cash’s “Walk The Line”? “Saturday Night Live” made fun of Taylor Hicks? Call in the FBI!

No reality show is more plugged in to the latest rumors and innuendoes as “Idol.” This season, even minor buzz earned a mention on the show, ranging from stories that Kellie Pickler’s persona was more act than fact to Ryan Seacrest’s dalliance with Teri Hatcher. In fact, next season’s trend among “Idol” haters may be to try and start rumors and get them to appear on the show, since the whole Vote For The Worst phenomenon has probably seen its 15 minutes of fame expire.

The musical establishmentWhen “Idol” began, established musical acts greeted the premise with skepticism or derision. Indeed, the show barely made it onto the air in the U.S. despite being a smash hit in Britain.

This last season appears to be the tipping point where even established musicians finally acknowledged that whether it’s hot or hokey, millions of people watch “Idol” each week, and presumably some of them buy records. The result? The finale actually demonstrated some star power, featuring performances from the likes of Mary J. Blige, Live, Toni Braxton and Prince.

The season four finale was long on time-wasting filler, and mainly served to be a two-hour vehicle to sell ads. This year's finale also catered to sponsors — this is “Idol,” after all — but managed to sprinkle in a pretty good live concert in-between.

Of course, the show still has a way to go. It would have been nice for Blige to acknowledge that Elliott Yamin was on the stage with her, and it was a little inappropriate that Braxton chose to bump and grind with Hicks to a song like “In the Ghetto.” But making fixes like that is what season six is for.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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