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Every ‘American Idol’ has a story

Exploring the singers' backstories: Phil Stacey is Eddie Haskell; Chris Richardson is no Justin Timberlake. By Marc Hirsh
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Thanks to this week’s sort-of surprise non-elimination episode of “American Idol,” viewers are going to have one more week of this year’s top six performers. But after watching them on our screens for what seems like forever (has it really only been six weeks since watchers last pondered the fate of Sundance Head?), how much does the audience know about them, really? There's no backstage footage the way there is on a show like “Rock Star” to tell viewers what the singers are like when the music’s over.

The fact that “Idol” spends so little time thoroughly delving into the personalities of its cast is actually something of a rarity on reality television, which thrives on generating dramatic arcs for its players to navigate. “Idol” prefers spectacle instead. But for the devoted viewer, there are bits and pieces of a storyline for each contestant that sneak through.

Phil Stacey: Gee, Mrs. Cleaver, that’d be swellAt Phil Stacey's audition, judge Simon Cowell bluntly asked the singer which was more important: “Idol” or the daughter whose birth he was missing at that very moment. Phil responded, “Sorry, man, the baby.” It was an auspicious moment in his “Idol” career, as it marked the very last time he failed to take advantage of an opportunity to suck up.

And boy, does Phil suck up. Quite possibly the most obsequious contestant in “Idol” history, he has worked hard to worm his way into the graces of the judges, the mentors, Ryan and the viewers at home. It's a little like watching Eddie Haskell dipped in Neet.

When Ryan gave him the viewer-mail treatment during Gwen Stefani week, Phil immediately looked directly into the camera and chirped “Great question!” A Navy man, he’s also invoked his military service and 9/11, and for someone more calculating, it would simply be pandering. From Phil, it’s nothing more than the glad-handing moves of a guy who feels really, really blessed to be here. Really. He said so himself.

LaKisha Jones: I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you over all that meQuick: think of Jennifer Holliday, Gladys Knight, Carrie Underwood, Fantasia Barrino, Gloria Estefan, Billie Holiday and Donna Summer. Now think of the very first song that comes to mind for each of these singers. You’ve just come up with Lakisha’s set list.

Almost without fail, she picks not only iconic singers (both inside and outside the “Idol” universe) but their signature songs. The result is that LaKisha has painted herself as the most unimaginative contestant of the season.

That’s been playing out weekly during the pre-performance mentor clips, where Lakisha consistently and unceremoniously ignores the suggestions of singers more famous and successful than she is. When Tony Bennett, a man whose singing career began over two Lakishas ago, told her to nix an unnecessary tag to the end of “Stormy Weather,” her entire performance became a waiting game: would she follow the advice or ignore it like all the others? That she paid no attention to the funny old man with decades of experience came as no surprise. She probably can’t hear any of the mentors over all the belting, anyway.

Chris Richardson: Maybe Sudafed would helpThe show has been working overtime to convince viewers that Chris Richardson looks and sounds like Justin Timberlake. Which is true, if by “look alike” you mean that their basic hair formations are identical and by “sound alike” you mean you’ve never, ever heard Timberlake sing even once. But the conditioning seems to have worked, to the point where folks subjected to Ryan’s man-in-the-street interviews had a hard time remembering a contestant by his name until JT was mentioned.

Weirdly, Chris has actually been drained of personality as the show goes on. He started with a rhythmically twitchy performance style, a voice that seemed to reside deep within his nasal cavity and a proud (and very red) father cheering him on.

But only the nasality survives alongside a general good-guy demeanor that was recently jeopardized when he snapped at Simon Cowell for calling his tone into question. That was likely just a stressed reaction to recent events in his home state of Virginia, but talking back to the judges is never a good idea unless your name is Sanjaya.

Jordin Sparks: That’s So JordinThere are plenty of 16- and 17-year-old girls littering past seasons of “Idol” like so many crushed tiaras after a pageant. But despite Randy Jackson’s refusal to let the issue go, Jordin has managed to avoid the dreaded postscript that has dogged just about every contestant of her demographic: “… for a 17-year-old.” She’s followed the exact same progression of strong “adult” contenders: figuring out her strengths, succumbing to a few of her weaknesses and trying to improve week by week.

It’s only when she’s not performing that her age truly shows, with a bubbly, hyperactive personality that viewers can only pray she’ll grow out of. She’s certainly got the “grow” thing down, dwarfing Ryan Seacrest whenever the two are side by side. It’s all the more peculiar considering that she’s neither overweight nor gangly, just constructed to a completely different scale. It’s as though Jordin is the Littlest Giant, here in this realm to bring happiness and, possibly, land a Disney Channel contract.

Blake Lewis: 808 from the 206Blake’s beatboxing prowess got him a ticket from Seattle to Hollywood, but with a label on his back that said “Gimmick.” It was more of the same the next time viewers saw him, anchoring the rhythm of his Hollywood group audition. But it was the setup for a classic “Gotcha!” on the part of the show, when he crooned a strong version of Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know” during the first week of semis with nary a lip fart to be found.

Outside of an unfortunate “Hee-Haw” bit trotted out during “Tell us your secrets” week (thus proving why he was keeping it a secret in the first place), the show hasn’t offered many glimpses into Blake’s backstage life. But he’s been revealed as perhaps the most musically savvy of all the contestants, picking songs from bands like Jamiroquai and 311 that are off the beaten track for “Idol,” but still recognizable enough not to alienate the viewers. Certainly his arrangement of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” showed a keen interest in how music is put together, if you live in 1986.

Melinda Doolittle: Hello my baby, hello my honeyMelinda is an interesting case, because while she’s arguably the most impressively gifted of the bunch, she’s also the remaining contestant who has benefited the most from her backstory. A shy professional backup singer yearning for the spotlight, she grasped the stage with a vengeance as soon as semifinals started. She’s like the Michigan J. Frog of “Idol,” transforming from a ragingly confident performer back into a meek wallflower the second she steps out of performance mode.

That contrast between shrinking violet and spirited entertainer makes for a storyline so clearly defined that the show has actually spent the last few weeks actively trying to put an end to it. Simon flat-out told Melinda to knock it off with the humility last week, and her efforts to do so only underline the trait even further. For someone Simon claimed wouldn’t change with success, she’s ironically the one whose dramatic arc is the most developed.

Marc Hirsh is a writer in Somerville, Mass.