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‘Idol’ seeks new champion, forgets Sparks

Jordin Who? Reality show steamrolls over winner in rush to start all over again. By Marc Hirsh
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

This year’s seven-city "American Idol" tryout tour is in full swing by now, with San Diego and Dallas already out of the way and Omaha, Atlanta, Charleston, Miami and Philadelphia to come by the end of August. If the past is any indication, tens of thousands of wannabes, gonnabes and don’t-get-your-hopes-up-bes will assemble wherever pied piper Ryan Seacrest and his magical hair surface. Except for those for whom acting like an idiot to earn three seconds on television is a laudable goal in itself, they all want the same thing: to win “Idol” and become a priority for 19 Entertainment, the management company behind the show.

There’s one more person who might ask for the same: Jordin Sparks. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because she not only competed on the last season of “Idol,” she actually won. (Feel free to visit the show’s official Web site for confirmation.) Not that Sparks has a lot of time to feel like she’s already in the process of being replaced. She’s probably too busy with the “Idol” concert tour (this week: the Midwest!) and what are presumably wheels in motion for her debut album.

Still, it’s been just under three months since Sparks’ coronation, and her crown hadn’t even had enough time to warm up to her body temperature before Seacrest announced that auditions would be starting up again soon. The message, had Ms. Sparks been coherent enough at the time to notice it, should have been clear: even before the show had managed to do a single thing with the current Idol, it was already thinking about finding the next one.

The same thing happens every year. Each season ends the same way: with confetti, tears, a lousy song and an open invitation to replace the person supposedly being celebrated right then and there. For a show that lives for giving the winner his or her grand, dramatic moment (to the point where it makes them sing quite explicitly about it), “Idol” sure doesn’t seem all that interested in letting it go by without derailing it.

Sparks failing to fly?

But even though the auditions have always trod closely on the heels of the winner’s victory lap, it seems particularly worrisome this year. It’s still too early to tell, naturally, but “Idol” doesn’t seem to be boosting Sparks the way it has with previous winners. For one thing, there has been a curious dearth of actual product to come from the show. Last year, the compilation CD featuring the top twelve contestants was released the same week as the season finale, which was actually a few weeks late compared to previous seasons’ albums. Even the still-figuring-it-out first season saw an album on the shelves within weeks of Kelly Clarkson saving us from the tyranny of the words “American Idol Justin Guarini.”

This year, however, there was no CD. Instead, “Idol” sold downloads of studio versions of the contestants’ songs for the first time (perhaps following the lead of “Rock Star,” which offered the live performances on its website from day one). iTunes eventually listed a Season 6  Greatest Hitscompilation” with a sequenced track listing, but with every song from this past season still available, it amounted to little more than a suggestion. (And a lousy one at that… Who in their right mind would pick “As Long As He Needs Me” as either representative of Melinda Doolittle’s “Idol” arc or the high point of her time on the show?)

But regardless of how much that may have been a gift to the fans (who didn’t have to make do with a single song from their favorites), it did something that never happened before, at last not this early in the game: it pitted the winner against the singers she was supposed to have bested, and it allowed it to happen immediately. Where previous “Idol” winners essentially had the playing field to themselves in the months following their coronations, Sparks found herself competing with the season 6 contestants all over again.

Making the entire catalogue of the season available for download also runs the risk of making the winner’s debut album distinctly anticlimactic. Anyone with an internet connection and a credit card can already assemble a Jordin Sparks album with her 10 available songs. Whether that will help her (by keeping her fans’ interest burning) or hurt her (by prematurely satisfying their thirst for her material) remains to be seen. But potentially more damaging is the fact that runners-up Blake Lewis and Melinda Doolittle each have the exact same amount of material ready for purchase right alongside of her.

It’s entirely possible that “This Is My Now” failed to crack even the top ten on Billboard’s Hot 100 — the only coronation song not to do so — because it’s the worst one yet. (It peaked at #15, while Ruben Studdard’s “Flying Without Wings,” the only other coronation song to miss the top of the charts, hit #2.) But it’s also possible that by throwing everything out into the open and letting the marketplace sort it out, “Idol” managed to shoot Sparks in the foot and undo the one-winner myth that the show is based upon.

In a year when fourth-place Chris Daughtry is far outselling both winner Taylor Hicks and second-place Katharine McPhee (and when also-rans Elliott Yamin, Kellie Pickler and Bucky Covington are making substantial chart inroads of their own), it’s not particularly surprising that the winner seems to be becoming less and less important to the “Idol” franchise. That’s not to suggest that Sparks is getting nothing out of the deal. She just may not be getting a whole lot more than anyone else.

That’s probably something that’s far from the minds of the folks auditioning this month, who probably just want to make it through a verse of “Unwritten” without their voices cracking. But to those trying out for the chance to usurp Sparks’s throne next May, it might be worth considering. Because even if you win, “Idol” won’t wait for your moment in the spotlight to be over before looking forward to the moment when it gets to start up this whole mess all over again.

Marc Hirsh is a writer in Somerville, Mass.