If there’s one thing “American Idol” has proven over the past two seasons, it’s that the best contestant doesn’t always win.
Whether it’s because fans think their favorite singer doesn’t need the support or because their rivals draw a crowd with faster dialing fingers, this marks the second year in a row that the singer best equipped for popular music stardom has been eliminated before the finale.
Melinda Doolittle was clearly the most talented of the remaining contestants, and also the most consistent. Paula Abdul compared her weekly performances to a vocal master class. Doolittle evoked images of Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, and Gladys Knight at various points in the competition.
But on Wednesday night, she turned back into a backup singer. The results of Tuesday night’s competition left her with the fewest number of votes among the three remaining finalists, and therefore Jordin Sparks and Blake Lewis will be singing in the finale, and Melinda will be returned to the background.
For the moment.
Chris Daughtry was the favorite to win last season before his shocking exit and fourth-place finish. He went on to get himself a hit record, and so far has been the most successful of his class. Melinda may well wind up in a similar situation, as the power of the pocketbook may not prove to match the power of the text-messengers.
Ryan, Judges shockedThe results seemed to floor Ryan Seacrest, even though he knew before anyone else.
“One of our best singers ever, Melinda Doolittle,” he said as he read the bad news. Soon after, he added: “You’ve got a lot to do in the future. A lot of good things are going to happen to you.”
That sentiment was echoed by all three judges. Simon looked particularly stunned, especially since it was a repudiation of his statement Tuesday night that he expected to see her in the finale.
“Congratulations to you two,” he said mechanically to the finalists before turning and telling the third-place finisher. “My commiserations to you, Melinda, because you are one heck of a singer.”
The archival footage shown as she exited revealed how far she’d come from her first audition, where she looked the part of the scared and unconfident vocalist used to staying in the shadows, unsure as to whether she was really good enough to make it as a headliner.
She soon made those doubts seem foolish, and that turned out to be the problem. It didn’t take long for her to shed the frumpy clothing and look the part of a musical star, and she always was comfortable on the stage in front of the bright lights. Melinda became so good so fast that viewers considered her a professional singer, someone who didn’t really fit in with the rest of the untapped talent.
Her personality remained more constant, which seemed more at odds each week with the talent the viewers were singing. After a few weeks, even Simon commented that she needed to lose the look of surprise when the judges said nice things about her, since that happened every single week.
That’s not to say that the two finalists got this far because somebody pulled their names out a hat.
Co-favorite for quite some time
Jordin Sparks emerged as a co-favorite alongside Melinda in recent weeks because at her best, her vocals are almost as good as Melinda’s, and she’s also 12 years younger. The age difference is no small thing.
Younger women have traditionally done better on the show than their rivals, and the oldest women ever to make the finale remains Katharine McPhee last season at the ripe age of 22.
The 17-year-old also has a personality that wins fans. She laughs off criticism and cries with joy each week when she advances. She’s the proverbial girl next door, if that girl had a dad who played in the NFL and a voice good enough to end any complaints about loud music emanating from the house.
While Blake Lewis’ vocals haven’t always won raves, he’s something a little different than most “Idol” men, and that has served him well. Watching Blake is a like watching a high-wire act. His vocals start safe, but then he starts beatboxing, and it’s hard to tell whether he’ll exit to a standing ovation or a bunch of judges scratching their heads in confusion.
Though Blake qualifies as “edgy” only in contrast to the generically wholesome singers that traditionally make the “Idol” finals, he’s always stood out from the crowd because of his willingness to take chances. His weekly mash-up arrangements are something new for the show, and it’s been enough to earn him a shot at the title.
Both finalists looked surprised that Melinda was the one going home.
She didn’t have the youthful exuberance of Jordin, or the more innovative style of Blake. She was just a really talented singer who came prepared every week, never looked to be in serious danger, and apparently lulled her supporters to complacency.
In a sense, Melinda proved to be too good for her own good.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.