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Hicks’ victory good for Idol’s long-term health

Grown-up winner, instead of cookie-cutter cutie, appeals to wider audience
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

He probably won't be the kind of star that Kelly Clarkson is and Carrie Underwood appears on the verge of becoming, but the success of Taylor Hicks is sweet music to the "American Idol" producers' ears.

It's not just because of the 63.4 million votes, or 36 million viewers who watched the finale. Nor is it because, no matter how much he's now trying to take credit for predicting the winner, Simon Cowell voted against even bringing him to the Hollywood round because he figured anyone who looked and sounded like Hicks had no chance of winning. And it's only a side benefit that he helped lead the show toward a season so popular that this year's finale featured live performances from the likes of Mary J. Blige, Live and Prince instead of two hours of interviewing Hicks' fourth-grade teacher and McPhee's homecoming date.

Regardless of how many records he ultimately sells, Hicks' victory is important because it ensures that the show won't lose much ground in the seven long months before a new season begins in 2007. He's fun, he's exciting, he'll promote the show for every television station with a 50-watt signal and some rabbit ears ... and he's something far different than the usual cookie-cutter contestant. In other words, he's not a young woman destined to appeal mainly to the teenage set, which means "Idol" actually stands a chance of increasing its fan base and expanding its audience demographics down the road.

Most shows get stale long before the five-season mark, but "Idol" bucks that trend by becoming more popular every year. As ratings for "Survivor" decline and "The Apprentice" drifts further into "what night is that on again?" territory, Simon and company sail on with a reality ratings bonanza. Unlike the petulant Brit's metaphors, the program improves with age.

Part of that is that, stylistically, each season's winner has been a radical departure from the past. Pop diva Kelly Clarkson begat the Velvet Teddy Bear, Ruben Studdard, who in turn led to Fantasia Barrino and her big voice.

Then came country star Carrie Underwood, and finally Alabama grandfather Taylor Hicks. Apart from perhaps Studdard and Barrino, there's no way any of the above would be natural pairings for a concert tour were it not for their "Idol" connections."

But while the winners were stylistically different, they looked awfully familiar in other ways. Three of the four champions were young women.

Clarkson, Barrino and Underwood couldn't even toast their victory with champagne (legally). McPhee's just 22, and acts onstage like she's a nervous high-school senior getting primped for prom, so she'd have fit right in.

That would have been a problem, particularly in a season where the two season-long favorites were men (the other being Chris Daughtry, the darling of Internet conspiracies everywhere who came in fourth because the phone people, judges, producers and network executives wanted to see him lose. Oh, and also because not enough people voted for him).  Had Hicks fallen to McPhee in the final, it would have meant only one male champions in five years, and would probably have begged the question of whether any man other than Bruce Springsteen's long-lost son could win.

That's not to say that Hicks was a no-brainer, but it's also a far cry from last year's final that featured an older rocker who fell just short of the crown. Bo Bice had a lot of followers, but it was hard to quarrel with the selection of Carrie Underwood. There was no doubt that the archetypal country girl from Oklahoma could walk from the Season 4 finale right to the recording studio and become an instant star. In fact, that's pretty much what happened.

McPhee has a nice voice and a definite future in the music business, but she's also nowhere near as ready to take center stage as Underwood was. Nor was she as comfortable onstage as Hicks or Daughtry, or even Elliott Yamin by the end of the competition. She may yet become a star, but it will take work.

Because of that, it's a good thing for Fox that she didn't win. Paula Abdul said in a pre-show interview that McPhee had a chance because of the teenage girl voting block, but had that block carried the day, it would have caused problems.

"Idol" can't be a show that just decides which young woman will get a record deal, or it risks losing audience share quickly. There's already enough Britney Spears on the radio to satisfy an ambivalent nation — do we really need more where that came from? More to the point, would anyone other than teenage girls watch if that turned out to be the case?

Hicks won't need that kind of hand-holding. He's 29 and he knows what he does well — take ordinary songs and “Taylorize” them into something that gets the audience rocking. His personality has already been mocked on "Saturday Night Live" and on Internet message boards everywhere, but who cares? He's the least-bland “Idol” winner in history, and that can do nothing but help the show.

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