This has been the most unpredictable season of “American Idol” in the show’s five-year history. The remaining eight finalists result in probably the deepest field “Idol” has ever had. And unlike past seasons, there hasn't been one finalist who's grabbed universal acclaim from the beginning and carried it through to a win.
Previous seasons have seen contestants like Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken, Fantasia Barrino and Carrie Underwood sail through the finals with barely a hiccup. By the second or third week last year, it was apparent that Underwood could show up onstage dressed like a mountain climber and singing a traditional Albanian folk song, and she’d have still been a lock for the finals. No one in this year’s group that has that kind of a margin for error.
Every finalist has already been in the bottom three at least once except for three, and none of them come with any kind of guarantees. Chris Daughtry’s sound is far from the normal “Idol” contestant and may not allow him to pick up the needed votes along the way, Kellie Pickler’s act is divisive enough that she’s already the target of Internet campaigns urging viewers to vote for her as the worst candidate, and Taylor Hicks is more showman than star.
It's possible to make a case for any of the remaining eight to become one of the final two contestants (OK, so in the case of Bucky Covington and Ace Young, that case may involve the rest of the competition being kicked off the show for partying too hard with Barry Manilow and Kenny Rogers). But some of the possible scenarios would make for some compelling television.
Simon’s Nightmare: Elliott Yamin and Bucky CovingtonTheme: Hip-hopSpecial Guest: Eminem
As the competition goes on, Simon’s level of bitterness tends to rise against those he doesn’t think have a musical future. The comments cease being amusing, and start to resemble those one might here from a drunken sailor heckling at a mediocre Portuguese nightclub. It’s only natural that sitting next to Paula Abdul every week makes him crankier by the day, but the real reason is probably because he works for the company that will produce the winner’s first album.
A Yamin-Covington final might cause him to slip over the edge into senility.
Everybody loves Yamin — even Simon, so far. He seems like a nice guy, a singer with a good voice and sincere desire to please the judges. But is anybody going to rush out and preorder an Elliott Yamin album? Probably not. That means viewers can anticipate Simon’s comments getting more and more critical the longer Yamin hangs around.
As for Covington, how he’s still in the competition is a mystery right up there with crop circles and fresh sushi in Nebraska. Something is fishy with the phone banks in North Carolina, because Covington has the star potential of a flashlight running low on batteries, or maybe Nicole Richie.
The theme may be a stretch, and the odds of Eminem appearing on the show are zero percent. But who wouldn’t want to see these two try and be playas?
The Low-Stakes Final: Chris Daughtry and Paris BennettTheme: No. 1 hitsSpecial Guest: Creed
As “American Idol” gains popularity, even the also-rans wind up with significant fan bases and recording contracts. But at this stage in the competition, Daughtry and Bennett would win the Most Likely to Succeed award regardless of how they finish, despite the fact that they’re in different stages of their musical careers.
Daughtry’s been the best combination of singer and performer thus far. His style may not be for everyone, but he’ll get a record deal even if he’s voted off this week. If nothing else, the possibility of moving his alternative sound closer to the mainstream will cause some record labels to salivate.
As for Bennett, she’s just 17 and is as poised onstage as someone who’s been performing for years — which isn’t much of a shock, given her family’s experience in the music industry. Bennett was in the bottom three last week and isn’t a favorite to win the competition at this point, but if she wants to become a pop singer, someone will make sure she gets that opportunity within the next few years.
Simon said a couple of weeks ago that Creed wouldn’t be caught dead performing on “Idol.” Considering the band broke up a couple of years ago, that’s a pretty safe bet, but it probably wouldn’t be difficult to get everyone in the band besides former singer Scott Stapp to commit to a performance. And if Daughtry impresses them enough, he could find himself the frontman of “Creed 2: The Sequel Nobody Wanted.”
The GQ/Glamour Final: Ace Young and Katharine McPheeTheme: Love SongsSpecial Guest: None needed (Paula Abdul’s already on the show)
Looks aren’t everything in “American Idol,” but they sure don’t hurt. The show’s a popularity contest more than anything else, and studies have shown that people tend to like attractive people more than unattractive ones. How else to explain the popularity of the Backstreet Boys or Britney Spears?
Face it, if Young looked like Bucky Covington, he’d have been out of the competition before the Hollywood round even began. He has a wide vocal range, but nowhere near the power of most of the remaining contenders. He can, however, croon into the camera with the earnest stare of a man looking to impress his girlfriend at a piano bar, and judging from the “Will You Marry Me” signs that have appeared in the studio audience, he has no shortage of volunteers for that particular role.
McPhee has a better shot at winning on her merits. She has the kind of voice one would expect from someone whose mother is a vocal teacher, and with , she and Bennett are fighting it out for the most powerful female vocalist in the competition. McPhee also clearly has an “American Idol” stylist who is generally good at accentuating her looks, and she also has the kind of engaging personality that allows her to snap at Simon without looking like a sore loser. Then again, if Kellie Pickler wears onstage, she could join this group as well.
Next Stop, Las Vegas: Taylor Hicks and Kellie Pickler.Theme: Showtunes.Special Guest: Siegfried and Roy
Hicks and Pickler are two of the favorites, but let’s be honest — that’s more due to marketing and hype than anything else. From their first auditions, they have been the best at creating stage personas and sticking to them.
If and stood on stage crooning like Ace Young does every week, he’d be a perennial member of the bottom three. But that’s not the case — he’s the grey-haired harmonica-blowing rocker who just might be crazy. The way he races around onstage most of the time makes him look like a nightclub act already.
Pickler sings well when the theme lends itself to her voice (in other words, whenever she can sing a country song). But much of her appeal comes from both her compelling backstory and her status as the dumb country girl who ain’t never seen things like salmon before. If she were an honor student from Vassar singing the way she does, she’d have joined semifinal loser in the solid-but-unmemorable list of also-rans.
This would actually be a very entertaining final. The winner would get the record deal, while the loser could headline at the Mirage.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.