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Clock strikes midnight for ‘Idol's’ Cinderella

Elliott Yamin is sent home in close voting
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

The clock finally struck midnight for Elliott Yamin.

Yamin’s Cinderella run ended on “American Idol” on Wednesday, as he became the unlucky third-place finisher in a competition where only two people make the final. He received 33.06% of the vote this week, but second place pulled in 33.26%. That’s a difference of about 100,000 votes among the 50 million cast, which would lead to demands for a recount if this were a political election or if the person voted off was Chris Daughtry.

Taylor Hicks and Katharine McPhee move on to next week’s finals, with the winner getting a million-dollar record deal and the loser a very short window to use their sudden fame to work out the best deal they can before everyone forgets about them.

Though Ryan Seacrest didn’t announce the order of the top two finishers, Hicks will be the favorite heading into the finals. He seems to have captured a thirst for a Vegas-style old time rock and roller that Americans didn’t even know they had. McPhee brings sex appeal and snappy dressing to the equation, as well as a strong voice that sometimes shines and sometimes lets her down.

Yamin had only the voice, but until now he really hasn’t needed much else. The dirty little secret of “Idol” is that a contestant doesn’t need to knock the competition’s socks off to go far — just stay steady enough not to finish last. Being an early favorite may win praise from Paula, but it doesn’t mean a long stay in the competition. Just ask Mandisa.

Yamin's secret was that he never had a terrible week that would cause his supporters not to vote. As he stuck around and improved every time out, his network of fans grew accordingly.

Most importantly, those fans included the three judges. Yamin made the tactical decision to sing songs that showcased his voice even if they caused the studio audience to turn to their neighbors and ask “what in the heck was that?” The judges ate it up. It was a huge risk on his part, because one Simon snark is enough to send someone in that position home.

That almost happened to Yamin on numerous occasions — he spent more time at the bottom of the standings than the Chicago Cubs. But the fact that he often was in danger actually may have helped keep him in the competition. Because Yamin was never secure, his fans were never tempted to take a week off. And while other contestants fell apart under pressure (Kellie Pickler) or were unable to adjust to changing demands from the judges (Lisa Tucker), Yamin had a knack for doing just enough to stay safe.

The problem with Yamin has always been that he’s lacked pizzazz. At the end of the competition, it usually comes down to who has the potential to be a star. It’s easy to imagine Taylor Hicks on a VH1 “Behind the Music” special in a few years (“Then came the pivotal moment of Hicks’ career — when he decided to dye his hair grey).” McPhee’s personality may lend itself to an “E! True Hollywood Story” down the road (“Skeptics said she would fail, but her decision to star in ‘Charlie’s Angels 17: CharliePalooza’ paid off.”)

Yamin just doesn’t come across as interesting enough to fill that kind of niche. He always had the voice to succeed, but he was more Everyman than Superman.

Hometown heroesBefore the results were announced, the three competitors got the traditional heroes’ return to their hometown, complete with keys to their cities, brass bands, and politicians trying to look hip and failing miserably.

Hicks went back to Birmingham, where they love the governor. He received the complete star treatment: High-school cheerleaders about one-third of his age yelling “We Are! Soul Patrol!,” the key to the city of Birmingham, and a meeting with governor Bob Reilly to discuss the situation in Darfur. Or, you know, pop music. Of course, he also had to endure a TV weatherman calling it “A Taylor-made forecast for you,” — probably the nine-millionth time he’s heard that joke.

McPhee had the shorter trip, just heading down the freeway to Hollywood, but was the only one dissed by her governor. Perhaps Arnold Schwarzenegger was too busy trying to figure out if it’s politically expedient to pull a Terminator on the state legislature. Instead, the mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, proclaimed “Katharine McPhee Day.” This came after her appearance on “Good Day L.A.” where she planted the seeds to take Jillian Barberie’s job in a few years.

Yamin’s return to Richmond, Virginia tugged on the most emotional heartstrings, in part because he was the underdog and in part because the producers sent him back to the pharmacy where he used to work. When someone at the store gushed about how nervous she was to meet him, Yamin tried to set her at ease by saying, “I’m just the same guy who used to work here.”

That was the problem. It’s possible to see Yamin as a singer (or as a baseball player, given his strong first pitch at the Richmond Braves game). But it’s also easy to picture him working at a pharmacy.

While he’ll likely lose sleep ruminating about the close finish, first place isn’t sitting on easy street either: at 33.68%, the margin over second place is still barely more than 200,000 votes. That’s a thunderstorm in Birmingham or a sale on Rodeo Drive away from skewing the hometown vote and determining next week’s winner.

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