"American Idol" is not, despite the many protests of Simon Cowell, a singing contest. That should be obvious from the way the singers' performances are occasionally preceded by videos that delve into their likes, dislikes, families, jobs and so forth. If it were purely a singing contest, why should we care about what kind of people they are?
Instead, "Idol" is a popularity contest, and while the singers' vocal skills play a part in keeping the contestants around, so do their personalities. Not their real personalities, of course. This is reality television, after all, where the mere presence of cameras alters the behavior of the people being filmed.
And so, as with every year, the departure of the show's designated goat (that would be horse-seller Kristy Lee Cook) is as good a time as any to take stock of our cast of characters. Who are these six people, as far as "Idol" is concerned?
Lord knows "Idol" has been burned by teenage male contestants in the past, from out-of-his-depth crooner John Stevens to in-on-the-joke-in-ways-"Idol"-didn't-even-prepare-for Sanjaya Malakar. So it's surprising how much the show has indulged "Star Search"-tested David. Heck, Randy Jackson couldn't shut up about Jordin Sparks' age last year. But in this post-Hannah Montana world, Archie is the first serious teen-boy contender to grace the "Idol" stage.
Unfortunately, he seems to have the worst taste in music of any 17-year-old in history, wrapping his once-paralyzed vocal cords around over-earnest message songs such as "Another Day in Paradise" and "You're the Voice." Worse, he's deferential to a fault, waiting for the judges' comments as if he's been called to the principal's office. That robotic good-kid routine is the type of thing that falls away with maturity, but it's hard not to get the impression that David is an investment that "Idol" is cashing out way too early.
This year's Little Miss Sunshine came onto the show as something very close to a joke audition: Brooke's job as a nanny and admission that she had never seen an R-rated movie made the show practically drool at the prospect of corrupting her. But her self-accompanied version of Carole King's "Beautiful" in Hollywood suggested that she wasn't as sheltered and naïve as she seemed.
Since then, Brooke's gotten her frizzy hair under control, but everything else about her seems to have become frazzled. After a few strong early performances, babbling Brooke made a habit of engaging the judges during her own critiques, which came across as either poorly timed conversation or back talk. Nor does it help that Simon seems to bring out her nanny tendencies, resulting in her occasionally scolding him as if he were a misbehaving child. With the pressure of the contest getting to her, Brooke appears to be in the worst emotional tailspin of the remaining contestants.
One of this season's cavalcade of tearjerker auditions, Syesha pointedly ignored her father's reluctance to discuss his alcoholism on national television. Thus inaugurated her flair for the dramatic (she's an actress, after all), resulting in moments like when her voice shot in Hollywood, she communicated through a series of handwritten signs and pouts. In the video where her parents talked about her as a child, there was look in her mother's eyes that might as well have said, "Seriously, America, we know. We love her, but we know."
As befits her drama queenery, Syesha has shown a fondness for big, showboaty diva material that demands the adulation that she seems to feel is her due. She even rewrites history to better celebrate herself, as when she talked about making Mariah Carey's "Vanishing" her own. Never mind that this immediately followed a clip of Mariah telling her exactly which notes to sing. It's Syesha's world. Everybody else just listens in it.
David CookFor someone constantly praised for making "risky" choices, David's performances have been awfully interchangeable: Take a seemingly ill-fitting song, Nickelback it up a few notches and let the applause roll in. But in a season when everybody fell into their respective ruts early on, nobody blinks at sidestepping the themes anymore, and he's openly acknowledged all of his borrowings.
That hasn't stopped Simon from working through the thesaurus for new ways to call him arrogant, hitting "smug" and "pompous" so far. (A self-proclaimed word nerd, David has to appreciate that.) But unlike so-called "rocker" predecessor Chris Daughtry, David hasn't ever tried to show that he's too cool for "Idol," as evidenced by his enthusiastic dorking out during the group performances.
And he's quietly sat on his brother's battle with cancer, despite Ryan Seacrest's attempts to exploit it for sympathy votes. It's been enough to turn a guy with a comb-over and an admittedly freakish baby head into the show's unlikeliest sex symbol ever.
Carly SmithsonRight from her audition, with the story of how visa difficulties nixed her chance to compete during season five, Carly has worn the mantle of someone trying not to blow her second chance. But there are second chances, and there are second chances. It quickly got out that the one-time Carly Hennessy was at the center of one of the music industry's most notorious failures of promotion, with more than $2 million spent on an album that moved a reported 378 units. It is impossible to stress how much that three-digit number is not an exaggeration.
Thus did Carly become the season's first punching bag, and as the only contestant who truly knows how precarious this business actually is, she seems to approach every performance as though it could be her last. The resulting whiff of desperation surrounding her can't be helped by the way the judges occasionally forget she even exists. Despite their praise, Randy once said "whoever did Heart before" (it was Carly), while Simon asked, "What's the Irish girl's name?" (Carly again!) Not a confidence booster, that.
Jason CastroJason started out as a complete blank. Literally. His first appearance on "Idol" came a month into the season, when the judges let him through to the semifinals. But the strangest thing has happened, especially considering his popularity this deep into the contest: Jason has remained a blank. He's admitted that he's not particularly comfortable with or adept at interviews, and in his performances and interactions with Seacrest and the judges, he's had the low-key, easy-going affability of a genial stoner.
With little discernible personality beyond what people project on him, Jason is in many ways the show's purest contestant because the audience isn't voting on anything but the music. And that's because, as far as "Idol" has shown us, there isn't anything to Jason but the music. Well, maybe the eyes.
None of this means that the performances don't matter, of course. But "Idol" loves to talk about a contestant's "journey," and it's the rare exit video that includes even a single note from the eliminated performer. There will be time in the sing-out to showcase his or her vocals. Until then, the show is simply tipping its cap to the completed storyline of yet one more ejected reality show character.
Marc Hirsh is a writer in Somerville, Mass.