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Five ‘Idol’ finalists all hit different notes

With Kellie Pickler gone, winner won’t be a repeat of last year
/ Source: contributor

“American Idol” owes the voting public a huge debt of gratitude for voting off last week.

That’s not to say that Pickler would have been a disaster had she won the competition. She wasn’t a terrible singer, she tripped over her tongue in amusing fashion each week, and she always smiled and looked charming even when Ryan Seacrest and the judges were calling her an idiot or saying she butchered her song. If the networks ever decide to remake “Three’s Company,” she would be a fantastic choice to play the lovable but dim Chrissy Snow.

However, Pickler would have been the worst possible winner among this season’s 12 finalists, and not just because all the dumb-girl-from-the-country jokes went from funny to mean-spirited somewhere around mid-March. The real problem was that she competed as though she was Carrie Underwood Lite: the newest model of the small-town rural girl looking to shine in the big city.

If Pickler had followed Underwood to a win, however, that would have been a disaster. Back-to-back country singers from middle-of-nowhere America would have made the show too predictable, and as soon as that happens, “Idol” loses whatever edge it possesses. Next season’s auditions would have featured as many blondes with an accent as it always does no-talent attention-seekers looking to get on television, which likely would have caused Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul to get into an actual fistfight on the air. Not that that’s not on the horizon anyway.

On the other hand, the remaining five finalists feature widely different musical styles and personalities. Whoever wins this competition will have a chance at a career that doesn’t slip neatly into the paths of one of the previous winners.

Paris Bennett: Whitney minus Bobby
Bennett is the lone member of the final five who probably didn’t need “Idol” to be discovered. She comes from a musical family, and if she wanted a career in music and was willing to work at it, she’d have probably gotten her shot anyway. The fact that she can sing well is an added bonus, but not absolutely necessary. Ashlee Simpson, anyone?

Her real problem is that she’s a 17-year-old in a competition with veterans, and she talks like she’s perennially taking a hit from a helium balloon. Her singing voice is the equal of anyone in the competition, but she seems like a middle-schooler at the seventh-grade talent show. There isn’t anything Paris can do about either trait right now except try not to answer Ryan Seacrest’s dumb questions with anything other than monosyllables.

Paris has the pipes for a Whitney Houston-esque career minus the craziness and the Bobby Brown marriage — although plenty of people have that same dream and wake up opening for the group that opened for Britney Spears two years ago. Whatever happens, she seems well-grounded, and odds are small that she’ll be limited to booking a bedroom on “Surreal Life 2016.”

Chris Daughtry: Edge? What edge?
If the goal is to find a contestant to go right from the stage to the recording studio, Daughtry is definitely the guy. He could get an immediate job with Creed as the band’s new front man, though it should be pointed out that rock fans haven’t exactly been clamoring for the group’s return. He has a set style, he understands what he’s good at, and he looks like he could beat the crap out of Simon Cowell if he wanted to. Plus he can sing; always a bonus.

That having been said, the persona that Daughtry’s selling may actually be making his post-show career harder. It’s easy to label Daughtry an alt-rocker, because he’s the closest thing “American Idol” has ever had to one, and he sang songs from Fuel and Live very well. But he’ll have a hard time getting the cred to be a true alt-rocker now that he's appeared on the show. He can’t be a screw-the-establishment musical act after spending four months smiling and listening to Paula Abdul swoon all over him, so he’ll probably be more alt-rock lite — the kind of act Top 40 stations consider themselves “edgy” for playing.

Still, Daughtry has a sound that will sell records. That alone means the producers are rooting for him to stick around.

Taylor Hicks: Vegas, baby, Vegas!Hicks’ popularity is 80% about charisma, 15% about the gray hair, and 5% about talent.  That means he’s got a great future as an entertainer, and could perhaps land a permanent spot at any Vegas hotel that doesn’t already feature Celine Dion. He could even join Cirque d’ Soleil — with his on-stage contortions, he’d fit right in with the gymnastics group.

What he doesn’t have is a style that lends itself to pop radio, unless he can single-handedly make fellow old-timers Joe Cocker and Michael McDonald relevant again. Hicks has an old-style voice, but the key to his success is his performing. He’s like the slightly drunk guy at karaoke, whom everyone is watching to see if he’ll belt out a masterpiece or trip over the buffet table.

Hicks would be in much better career shape 30 years ago. He could go on tours with the rest of the stars on the Play-Tone record label singing at state fairs from Bismarck to Boise. As an act, he’s ready for his close-up. As a singer, his future is dicier, but he has to be considered an “Idol” favorite because he’s so much fun to watch.

Katharine McPhee: Most like a winnerKatharine McPhee is exactly what this competition purportedly is all about. She’s the finalist most like a previous winner, in the sense that she sounds a bit like Kelly Clarkson. She’s also attractive, a winning personality, and is developing a stage presence.

The problem is that there are hundreds of pretty women with nice voices who sound a bit like Kelly Clarkson singing for beer money at college bars across the nation, and there’s nothing that makes McPhee stand out from that pack — except that she’s been given a stage, a microphone, and millions of viewers each week. That translates into exposure, which means a record deal and radio airplay, which may well mean stardom (it’s how Fox turned Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie into pop culture icons).

If not for “Idol,” McPhee might be limited to scrounging around for gigs and record deals for years as she kicked around the club scene. Because of the show, she’ll get a kick-start to stardom — but only if she lasts a little longer.

Elliott Yamin: Underestimated and unspectacularYamin has improved more than anyone else over the course of the competition. Nobody besides his mother expected him to last more than a few weeks, and yet there are only five “Idol” finalists left and he is one of them.

If the show was called “American Advanced Degree in Musicology,” Yamin would be a lock. If it were called “American Who Really, Really Wants to be an Idol,” he would also be a lock. And if it were “The Three Judges Tell America Who Its Next Idol Is,” Fox could end the competition right now and fill the next few weeks with reruns of William Hung. Unfortunately for Yamin, none of those is the case.

Yamin’s been solid, likeable, and unspectacular. On “Idol,” that gets him high praise. Once the show ends, it probably means he’ll be placing the “As Seen on TV!” labeling on all of his albums in the hopes of increasing sales. Then again, everyone’s been underestimating him all year, and he still thrives.

This is relatively late in the "American Idol" season, yet a definitive favorite to win it all hasn't emerged. Each singer has had his or her moments. Chris Daughtry’s alt-rocker look and style made him an an early favorite, but his fans haven't seemed as devoted as those of goofy Taylor Hicks. Paris Bennett would seem to have it all, but so does Katharine McPhee, with the added benefit of maturity. And Elliott Yamin remains, as ever, the wild card. This year's "Idol" winner won't look like last year's, that's for sure — but at this point, everything else about the winner is just too early to call.

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