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‘Idol’ winner kept viewers entertained

Taylor Hicks even overcame the blandness of show's original song
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

He’s 29 years old and looks like he’s Ryan Seacrest’s father. He throws himself around onstage like a marionette being manipulated by drunk puppeteers. The closest comparison to his vocal range are guys like Michael McDonald and Joe Cocker, neither of whom have been on the pop charts in at least two decades.

He’s Taylor Hicks, and he’s

Hicks was announced as the Season 5 winner on Wednesday night, beating out Katharine McPhee in a result about as surprising as former finalist Kellie Pickler mispronouncing a three-syllable word. The Birmingham native was a fan favorite from his first audition, and stayed above the fray throughout the season as the rest of the early leaders faltered. With a distinctive style and memorable voice, he was an easy choice to win the title.

That’s interesting, because the man behind “Soul Patrol” was the one finalist who totally defied convention. In searching for the next star to cast atop the pop-music landscape, the voters picked a winner with a style that’s hasn’t been found in the Top 40 in years.

It was easy to see how the rest of the 12 finalists could find a niche on the airwaves: Pickler and Bucky Covington on country stations, Mandisa belting out gospel, Kevin Covais performing educational videos for the preschoolers watching Noggin, and so on. Hicks’ sound is more classic soul and R&B, which isn’t among the current priorities of the ClearChannel empire. That means it’s not heard on the radio very often.

Perhaps that’s the point. The 63.4 million votes that led to his victory could be read as a signal that maybe not everyone is in the market for cookie-cutter pop music. Maybe the viewers are asking for some variety in their radio diet, rather than just another manufactured Jessica Simpson/Britney Spears clone.

Or it could mean that millions of Americans just like a goofy guy with a Southern accent.

Bloated finale
Hicks was anointed the winner after a bloated two-hour results show that was part music festival, part reunion show, and part really bad comedy routine. The “Idol” talent bookers worked overtime, getting artists like Mary J. Blige, Prince, Live and Toni Braxton to perform in the finale. Amazing what millions of viewers will do to entice musicians looking to sell a CD or two.

Of course, Dionne Warwick performed a couple of songs as well, and Burt Bacharach returned to the program to watch the “12 “Idol” finalists, which shows that somebody’s grandfather still has a big say in who the guest stars are. Still, it offers hope that next season might offer some contemporary musical guest stars, rather than simply going with whatever old-timer feels like stopping by on that particular week.

In between performances from the established stars, the 12 “Idol” finalists, and alums Carrie Underwood and Clay Aiken (Ruben Studdard must have had a prior engagement), there were the usual comedy bits and video montages that serve to stretch out the show so the network can sell more advertising and so the producers can hype the forthcoming “Idol” concert tour.

But while it was nice to see some of the long-departed contestants return (Hey, look! It’s Melissa McGhee!), odds are small that they’re the ones that people are going to shell out their hard-earned money to see. Chris Daughtry has a strong and passionate fan base, judging from all the hubbub and that followed his departure. Elliott Yamin, Paris Bennett, and Kellie Pickler will probably sell a few tickets as well. But neither of the two finalists got this far by sheer random chance.

It all came down to Hicks and McPhee, and Hicks was clearly the more natural fit to join the established stars on stage. His central appeal is his ability to entertain, which is far more developed than any of the other contestants in “Idol” history.  There have been numerous contestants in the five seasons of “American Idol” with more talent than Hicks, but nobody has come close to being as fun to watch.

That’s more than a gimmick, however, as Hicks proved in Tuesday’s final sing-off. Because he can move an audience, he can overcome obstacles like an original song that sounds like it was written in 1947. (“Do I Make You Proud?” Is the show getting its music ideas from the Self-Help section of Barnes & Noble?) That ability displayed the star potential that McPhee lacked, and it proved to be the difference.

In an earlier show, Rebecca Romijn, the supermodel-turned-movie-actress whose posters have hung in a generation of college men’s dorm rooms, requested nothing other than a Taylor Hicks encore. When a supermodel drags her fiancé (actor Jerry O’Connell) to a concert to hear you sing, that’s a clear sign that you’ve made it.

Now that Hicks has got the million-dollar record deal and the coveted “Idol” crown, Romijn is likely only the first high-profile Hicks fan. Not bad for a harmonica player from Alabama.

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