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On ‘American Idol,’ get your hook ready

Show likes to package its singers early and often
AMERICAN IDOL: Taylor Hicks performs April 25 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on AMERICAN IDOL.  
AMERICAN IDOL: Taylor Hicks performs April 25 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on AMERICAN IDOL.  FOX-TV
/ Source: contributor

As Simon Cowell is fond of reminding both the singers and the audience at home, “American Idol” is not just a singing competition. On a show where the performers battle for viewers’ hearts and minds, having a strong hook is just as important as having a strong voice.

That’s a lesson that current and future contestants can learn from the allegedly sheltered gollyness of Kellie Pickler, shown the door last week after making it from week to week less on the basis of her singing than on her backstory — a mother who abandoned her as a child, a jailbird father with a drug problem, a grandfather who’s probably still waiting for his sandwich. An outsized personality or a compelling background is no guarantee for “Idol” success, but a performer who has neither risks anonymity.

When the judges select the top 24 to compete in the semifinals, they’re not simply choosing singers to compete in a talent competition; they’re also casting a television show. Like any television show, personality counts: there are stars, secondary characters and one-time special guests.

And like any television show, sometimes a minor character’s popularity will exceed expectations. The current top five consists of four contestants groomed for stardom from the beginning of the season and one unexpected fan favorite who has been written into the cast; this season's Urkel.

Taylor Hicks: Hicks’ tics
Taylor Hicks may not have always had Simon Cowell’s support, but the show’s editors loved him from the start; however far he made it, this man was clearly fascinating television. Right from his first appearance at the Las Vegas auditions, three things stood out: his prematurely gray hair, his Michael McDonald voice and the fact that he’s a great big spaz.

That all guaranteed that the camera would follow him through the Hollywood rounds, but it was his promotion to the semifinals that etched his character in stone. Playing a harmonica while entering the Room Of Judgement would have been enough, but Hicks took the idiot-savant schtick into hyperdrive by breaking into song while apparently going into full-body dry heaves. Taylor’s backstory has never been more complicated than “has a band,” but Hicks’ tics are plenty.

Katharine McPhee: Bombshell meets dork
Katharine McPhee’s performance of “God Bless The Child” in her San Francisco audition led Simon Cowell to call her “current … what is happening today.” His statement was baffling then (when, exactly, does he think “today” is?) and has only become more so once you consider that the songs she has performed thus far are, on average, 38 years old.

An early stab at a backstory showed off McPhee's slightly pushy stage mother/voice coach, but it wasn’t enough to set her apart from the surfeit of pretty, raven-haired singers in Hollywood (see also: Gina Glocksen, Brooke and Leah Barrettsmith, Tyra Schwartz). She finally found her hook when, upon making it to the semis, she kissed all three judges on the lips, declaring Randy’s to be especially luscious and cementing her persona as a giggly, bouncy dork trapped in the body of a 1940s bombshell.

Chris Daughtry: For a rocker
Chris Daughtry’s personality and backstory were introduced in the Denver audition episode and haven’t budged an inch. Just like Chris! Inspired by Bo Bice’s successful run to last year's final two, Chris apparently felt comfortable in the knowledge that he could turn everything he touches into a Creed song. Daughtry's version of Joe Cocker’s cover of “The Letter” anticipated the mini-controversies that would erupt when he dodged the themes of both Stevie Wonder night and 1950s night by seeking refuge in the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Live. Simon Cowell, meanwhile, expressed for the first of many, many times that he liked Chris’s voice and was intensely creeped out by the lack of emotion signaled by the cold, dead eyes that threatened to make you contemplate the void. I’m paraphrasing.

Chris’ audition is also where we met his wife, sweet but worryingly self-loathing as she wept about tying him down with a marriage and stepkids at the tender age of 25. But since the prospect of his marriage collapsing under the weight of its own insecurity never panned out, the best the show was able to do, story-wise, was show him becoming fast friends with Ace Young, allowing Seacrest to compare them to Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. That this was also the closest “Idol” could come to giving Ace a personality says a lot about both of them.

Paris Bennett: Talented teen
Despite plenty of exposure through every step of the process, 17-year-old Paris Bennett remains, in a very real way, an enigma. She crossed genres dramatically and effortlessly in her North Carolina audition, with performances of “Cowboy Take Me Away” and Carmen McRae’s vocalese version of “Take Five,” which could very well have been the most technically difficult song ever attempted on the show. Since then, Paris has melted into a mess of contradictions: a devastatingly confident performer who’s hyper-emotional; a child with, as Simon Cowell has pointed out, a Minnie Mouse speaking voice and a penchant for songs seemingly chosen for their nursing-home appeal; a girl who changes her hair and clothing so radically from one week to the next as to be occasionally unrecognizable. In other words, she’s a teenager.

All signs point to Paris as an insanely gifted singer without the slightest idea of what to do with herself yet. That lack of a specific persona has somehow become her persona. As for her backstory, it was revealed several weeks ago that she had intended to become a gynecologist rather than follow her family (including grandmother Ann Nesby from Sounds Of Blackness) into the music business. It is not clear what any of us are meant to do with that information.

Elliott Yamin: Stealth contestant with the illness factor
This year’s stealth contestant, Elliott Yamin apparently wasn’t expected to make it as far as he has. The show treated him as an afterthought until his popularity could no longer be ignored. (Hey, it worked for Steve Urkel and the Fonz.) The only remaining contestant whose audition hasn’t been shown, Elliott first appeared in Hollywood as the sole person to weather Terrell Brittenum’s extended on-screen hissy fit during the group auditions and emerge unscathed, as Randy Jackson publicly declared him to be the best singer of his group. Simon Cowell would later see Randy’s rave and raise him a hyperbole by calling him potentially the best male singer in the history of the show.

The revelation that Elliott’s mother, Claudette, had been admitted into the ICU for an unspecified reason the day he arrived in Hollywood had the dual result of providing him with a sorely needed sob story and making the Brittenum twins look even more like bullying, insensitive drama queens. (She has since been released, and appears to be fine.) Since then, the show has taken the theme of the physical inferiority of the Yamins and parceled out similar tidbits every few weeks: He’s 90% deaf in one ear! He’s a diabetic! He’s allergic to everything! He sweats and cries! The result is that Elliott has been presented as two minutes from falling into complete physical decay. If you don’t vote for him, he just might die.

What Elliott demonstrates is that everyone has a hook, but “Idol” is selective about which ones will see the light of day. Remember Melissa McGhee? She possessed a story of nearly Picklerian proportions, with her parents’ combined 50 arrests over the last 25 years. But since McGhee was sprung on the audience at the start of the semifinals as a total stranger, not one word of her juicy family history ever made the air (newspapers in her hometown of Tampa were happy to fill in the gaps).

Would Melissa have lasted beyond the first week of the finals if she had received the same amount of early airtime as Kellie? It’s hard to say. Would Kellie have lasted as long as she did if she got the same amount of attention as Melissa? Almost certainly not.

But the country girl's departure leaves something of a personality vacuum. The question now is whether the remaining contestants have what it takes to make up for her absence or whether that Pickler-shaped hole will remain through the rest of the season. In the weeks remaining, expect to see the performers’ personalities expand to fill the newly available space and mobilize their fans in the home stretch. By now they must surely realize that if they can't come up with a hook of their own, there is one waiting in the wings with their name on it.

Marc Hirsh is a writer in Somerville, Mass.