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Are ‘American Idol’ finalists quickly forgotten?

Sure, plenty of non-winners release albums, but most fade away. By Marc Hirsh
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Did you miss the last season of “American Idol”? Want to relive it all over again? Or maybe you just want a do-over. Well, you’re in luck. With 2006 ending with a flood of product not only from Idol stars past (Ruben Studdard, Fantasia, Clay Aiken) but from a number of finalists from the show’s most recent iteration, it’s like getting the chance to decide the contestants’ fates all over again.

Former rollerskating carhop Kellie Pickler’s “Small Town Girl” kicked things off on Halloween, with albums by screaming rocker (or is it rocking screamer?) Chris Daughtry and giggly runner-up Katharine McPhee scheduled for release on November 21 and 28, respectively. And whose album is that showing up a full week after McPhee? Some guy named Taylor Hicks. You may remember him. He actually won.

Things used to be different. The winners once had the field all to themselves, thanks to contracts (required by all the contestants before they even made it in front of the cameras) that reportedly gave the show’s management company control over who could release material and when.

In other words, the losers used to actually lose. As in all things, season two runner-up Clay Aiken was an anomaly, beating to the marketplace by two months (perhaps to quell the complaints of Aiken’s fans, who still cry foul about their boy losing). But for the most part, “Idol” made sure that the winners were the first ones out of the gate.

Hicks isn’t getting the same courtesy. The prematurely gray Joe Cocker disciple spent five months knocking off his opponents with a series of violent twitches and loud whoops. Isn’t it a little unfair that now he has to compete with them all over again?

Maybe not, since the history of the franchise suggests that it won’t be much of a competition. For all of the talk about how “Idol” opens doors in the music industry for all contestants, and despite the insane fervor that greets them while they’re on the show, the actual real-world sales impact of the non-winners is remarkably low.

There are exceptions, of course. Josh Gracin and Bo Bice have scored gold records, and Kimberly Locke had a hit with “8th World Wonder,” which topped the dance sales chart. And then there’s Aiken, who, as the only non-winner with a multiplatinum album (2003’s “Measure Of A Man”), has outsold every “Idol” alum except Grammy-winner Kelly Clarkson and recent Carrie Underwood.

But that’s about it. Winning is, as Paula Abdul would say, key important. Just ask those past contestants who once looked like sure things. It’s hard to remember now, but at the start of the first season, Clarkson was barely a blip on the show’s radar. Instead, the smart money was on a win by either swoony mophead Justin Guarini or pitch-perfect Tamyra Gray.

Neither one has made good on their potential or lived up to the adulation that they received at the time. Guarini’s first album, released a scant two months after Clarkson’s, stalled at #20 and couldn’t sell enough to go gold, and a followup came and went without notice. Meanwhile, Gray’s stock had dropped by the time she released her lone album to date, which blipped the charts and then vanished.

Here's to the winnersThat’s how it’s gone ever since. Some singers (like perky belter Diana DeGarmo and still-learning jazz throwback John Stevens) snagged major-label deals, while others (like Tamyra sequel Latoya London and alleged Abdul paramour Corey Clark) ended up on indies. And, having been showcased for weeks on end in front of millions of people on the most popular show on television (and, in Clark’s case, on a high-profile episode of “Primetime Live” weeks before his album’s release), they sank like a stone.

It’s baffling, to be sure. “Idol” thrives on its viewers whipping themselves into a frenzy as they cheer on and vote for their favorites, sometimes announcing their dedication by banding together under a cutesy nickname (like Claymates, Yaminions and Soul Patrol). Beyond a certain point, even the ejected contestants are receiving millions of votes. Every summer, the top ten finalists are taken out on tour, mobilizing fans and keeping the fires burning.

So why do successful recording careers elude almost all of them? A recent hints at an answer. The singer was, for better or for worse, one of the standouts of the fourth season of “Idol,” a self-satisfied, ultra-theatrical smarm factory who desperately wanted to be a badass rocker. His fiercely devoted fanbase couldn’t prevent him from being kicked out in sixth place, an event that caused Abdul to bawl magnificently on national television.

That was a year and a half ago, and the “Voice” article reads like a cautionary tale for “Idol” contestants buying into their own hype. Maroulis seems to have never gotten over his ejection, and his plans to return to the public spotlight are so single-minded that they would more accurately be described as “plotting.” He broke up his band, Pray For The Soul Of Betty, and proposed modeling contracts and sitcom offers never materialized. Even his current Broadway gig, in “The Wedding Singer” (where his costumes are still labeled with the name of the actor he replaced), smacks of the sort of C-list stuntcasting that results in Brooke Shields playing Roxie Hart and Sally Bowles. (It happened.)

What the article suggests is that Maroulis (and, by extension, the dozens of “Idol” finalists to date) has the career not of a recording artist but of a former reality show star, with all of the fleeting fame that that implies. There’s no doubt that the show gives its contestants opportunities that they never would have had available to them otherwise: DeGarmo, Gray and Frenchie Davis have all performed on Broadway; Jennifer Hudson is about to make her film debut in the upcoming “Dreamgirls”; and Kimberly Caldwell is a correspondent for the TV Guide Channel.

For most "Idol" finalists, however, not only does the window for those opportunities fade quickly, so does the hysteria of their fans. That’s a warning that should be heeded by Donny Hathaway disciple Elliott Yamin, who was eliminated in third place this year by the slimmest of margins. The Yaminions may be clamoring for an album from their boy, but Maroulis and Guarini both serve as object lessons in the fickleness of the clamorers. If their fans couldn’t maintain their enthusiasm long enough to provide them with even short-term success outside the context of the show, who’s to say that Yamin will fare any better?

And there’s certainly something to be said for the fact that, without “Idol,” contestants like Yamin, Pickler and even McPhee might never have gotten the chance to set foot in a recording studio at all. (Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is another question.) But all that does is puts them roughly on par with the thousands of other struggling performers trying to make it in the music industry. Even with the cachet of the show behind them, success is not guaranteed. For that, it seems, you need to be a winner.

Marc Hirsh is a writer in Somerville, Mass.