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Pop Culture

Carrie is what ‘Idol’ is all about

The country girl with heart beat the Southern rocker with soul.

Not a surprise, since Carrie Underwood was the odds-on favorite to be this year’s “American Idol” from the moment she auditioned way back when in St. Louis. A sweet, wholesome small-town girl with a strong voice, big dreams, and no real performing experience prior to the competition, she truly is what the show is all about.

The “Idol” producers could not have drawn up a better contestant if they’d tried. She was straight out of central casting, and Carrie and the producers milked that image for all it was worth throughout the competition.

It was tough to see the footage of her at home on the farm in Checotah, Oklahoma, riding with her grandfather in a parade through town and racing home to play with her animals, and not feel like she was destined to win. Who could root against her? It would be like booing ice cream and apple pie.

The judges loved her. The audience brought down the house for her. And the voters burned up the phone lines when she sang her country songs, and even forgave her when she strayed into other genres with less impressive results.

Bo Bice, on the other hand, came through the auditions a distant second to Constantine Maroulis on the rocker meter, never mind the other 22 semifinalists. But once the voters actually got to hear him sing, he quickly joined Carrie among the favorites. With the exception of one week when he landed among the bottom two, he got stronger every week as the competition went on, making up ground on Carrie by the day.

Clive Davis, chairman and CEO of BMG International, predicted that Bo would win — or, to be strictly accurate, that they’d have a great time making a record together, which still could easily happen. Paula anointed him the favorite as well.

But Simon and Randy demurred, and in the end both swayed Carrie’s way. A pretty face with a great voice singing a more popular style of music is awfully tough to beat, and Bice came a little bit short of doing so.

America got it rightThough the season had its share of controversy, and some contestants were voted off a lot earlier than expected (how Nadia Turner and Constantine Maroulis got the boot before Scott Savol and Anthony Fedorov may be one of those unexplainable phenomena, like exactly what happened to Michael Jackson’s face), ultimately everything worked out.

“I’d like to congratulate America again for getting it exactly right,” Simon Cowell said before the winner was announced. In case anyone had forgotten, a series of medleys during the two-hour results show made it clear that while this season had more talented contestants than ever before, the two best made it to the final round.

While both Carrie and Bo earned their spot in the final twosome, and each judge gave some version of the “both of you are winners” speech, there can be only one “American Idol.” Carrie gets that honor, along with a million-dollar record deal, a new car and a Marquis jet card.  Bo, meanwhile, has to be content with just his own new car and a slightly longer wait to get his own recording contract.

Carrie’s not yet the performer that Bo is right now, but give her all the credit in the world. She was the one to beat all season long, and apart from a couple of glitches in the early weeks of the final round, sang on Tuesdays like she was performing before a crowd of dozens in Oklahoma instead of millions of people watching on television.

God bless the broken road
It’s easy to look back now and say that she had an easy road to get here; but she had that easy road because she didn’t beat herself. There’s no reason Lindsey Cardinale couldn’t have filled that same role, coming from small-town Louisiana, except for the only reason that really counts; she didn’t sing as well when the chips were down.

There’s no reason Scott Savol couldn’t have been an equally compelling choice — heck, the “daddy said I’d never amount to anything” angle could have been as great a storyline as “Idol” has had in a while. But he didn’t sing well enough and was far less likeable.

Mikalah Gordon was an early favorite, and then went from lighthearted and fun to serious and dull quicker than anyone could have imagined. Nadia Turner went from being a steak in a competition of hamburgers to being musical wallpaper. And so on.

Underwood did not falter, because she knows what she does well. She doesn’t make performing into brain surgery, she just sings country pop and tries to move around onstage as little as possible. It will be easy to fix the latter; maybe Paula Abdul can hook her up with some of her choreography moves.

As for her style of music, well, it’s pretty hot right now — certainly hotter than Bo's preferred Southern rock. She’s the country ingénue who beat pop music in its own contest, which has to buy her some respect in Nashville.

Country or pop? Carrie can chooseSimon predicted early on that she’d win the competition and sell more records than anyone in “Idol” history, and there’s no reason to doubt him.

She’s young, has a built-in fanbase and a popular sound, and should be around for a long time. The only question is whether she’ll do better on the country charts or the pop charts.

Bo Bice has the right to feel a bit peeved at the results, although he seems like he’s too laid-back to care. He clearly was a better performer than Carrie throughout the season. He’s more confident in his abilities — his a capella performance a couple of weeks ago is one Carrie would have had an incredibly tough time pulling off — and works the crowd like the veteran rocker that he is.

But Bo Bice really isn’t what the show is designed to showcase, and he doesn’t fit the stereotypical “Idol” role. He may have been plucked from small-town Alabama, but it’s not like he hadn’t had an opportunity to succeed in the record business. He’s been in bands that have had some success; it just ultimately never worked out.

He shouldn’t have to worry about his career any more. The members of Lynyrd Skynyrd may be Bice’s idols, but they would probably be grateful to have him tour with them. Clive Davis will be giving him a call right after Carrie signs on the dotted line, and he may have to wait in line. Five hundred million votes were cast this season — the most in the show’s history — and it’s not like Bice’s family back in Alabama had the tools to cast all of the millions of votes that came his way.

He has talent, a large following, and the ability to wear multiple pairs of sunglasses in a single TV episode. He’ll do fine.

“American Idol” isn’t about talent — well, at least it’s not only about talent. It’s about image and packaging as well. It’s not the zero-sum game that “The Apprentice” is — in a few months, any viewer will be able to go out and buy both of their albums if they choose — and the loser here doesn’t actually lose a whole lot. Bo may not have the Marquis jet card that Carrie does, but he doesn’t seem like a guy who’s sweating about having to fly Southwest Airlines instead.

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