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Is it fair of ‘American Idol’ to let pros compete?

Should Doolittle, Sligh, Glocksen and Rogers even be allowed on show? By Marc Hirsh
/ Source: msnbc.com

According to its own self-generated mythology, “American Idol” is the grand dream machine. Through this simple singing contest, ordinary people with a burning desire to subject others to as much Whitney Houston and Stevie Wonder as will fit in their lungs can realize their fantasies of becoming megastars.

But the seemingly unstoppable frontrunner status of Melinda Doolittle threatens to topple the neat little story that the show has been trying to sell its audience for six seasons now.

The reason is simple: she’s a professional, a onetime backup singer for artists like Aaron Neville and CeCe Winans and a veteran of stage productions of “Nunsense” and (ironically enough) “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.” Singing for a living isn’t her dream of the future, it’s her career right now.

Doolittle’s not the first contestant to use “Idol” as a stepping stone instead of a shortcut. Taylor Hicks had long been slogging it on the road and released two CDs on his own before trying out for the fifth season. Season four’s Mario Vazquez had sung backup for Michael Jackson and Phoebe Snow, while season three’s Jennifer Hudson once worked as a singer on Disney cruises.

But the fact that Doolittle is bulldozing her competition raises the important question of whether her professional experience gives her an unfair advantage.

To hear some tell it, the fact that someone like Doolittle or ousted (who sang backup for Christina Aguilera and Anastacia) can even audition besmirches the purity of “Idol.”

Is ‘Idol’ for amateurs or not?Even though Rogers was the first of the 12 finalists to get the boot, it’s easy to see where that attitude comes from. After all, there's a rule against contestants having existing record deals or management contracts. It's a short leap from that rule to the assumption that, just as the Olympics used to be, “Idol” should be where amateurs come to shine.

That attitude is bolstered by the way that the show presents itself as an express route to success. All that’s necessary is talent and a dream, “Idol” says. We will provide you with everything else you need in order to become the star you always wanted to be.

It’s a powerful myth, one that takes on the sheen of a fairy tale. (Probably a mix between “The Frog Prince” during the audition stages and “Cinderella” from there to the finale, with scattered hints of “The Pied Piper” that nobody likes to talk about.) And it has deep roots in the popular consciousness, fitting neatly into an American tradition which celebrates entertainers who were discovered at soda counters and while walking their dogs.

More importantly, it also makes for a more dramatic story to turn a waitress or a bank teller into a singing sensation than to turn an in-the-trenches singer into a slightly more popular one.

In short, “Idol” isn’t supposed to the contestants’ big break, it’s supposed to be their only break, the one shot for karaoke kings and queens to get their foot in the door of the music business that would otherwise be closed to them.

But this year seems to be overrun with contestants who aren’t simply waiting for the fairy godmother of “Idol” to turn them into recording artists. When she first auditioned last season, Gina Glocksen was shown singing with sub-riot grrl band Catfight. Chris Sligh fronts Half Past Forever, who seem to be getting a head start on writing this year’s winner’s song with the title of their album “Take A Chance On Something Beautiful.” (Interestingly, the Amazon.com page lists the album’s release date as March 13, 2007, which would seem to violate the “no current record deals” requirement.)

And those are just the ones who made it to the voting stages of the show. One of the singers cut early in the Hollywood rounds was Jory Steinberg, a child star in her native Canada who had a song on the soundtrack to “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” There are undoubtedly others who were never on camera long enough for their professional resumés to come to light.

Does that turn “Idol” into a lopsided competition? Perhaps. But more to the point, so what? If the show becomes overrun by pros, then maybe the amateurs should consider honing their craft instead of waiting for a singing competition to save them from having to pay their dues. For people who do nothing but dream about a career in music, the shift towards contestants with professional backgrounds might well be a valuable wakeup call.

And for those with the talent to hold their own against singers with far more experience, “Idol” could very well be far more valuable than ever before.

Take Rogers. Even if his professional experience couldn’t keep him in the contest for very long (or from losing his place in “You Can’t Hurry Love”), it served him well in his jovially resigned acceptance of his elimination. He smiled, he thanked everyone for the opportunity, he apologized for not doing his best. In short, he treated it as a failed audition and simply steeled himself for the next one.

It was a nice object lesson for those poor eliminated singers who must face Paula Abdul chirping that they should hold onto their dreams and keep at it. Until now, they might not have known exactly how to go about doing that. Heck, Paula may not have known either.

But Doolittle, Rogers, Sligh and others offer up solid examples of how these singers can shape their careers and build on the show's momentum. Because on one level, the show is right: “Idol” is a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Nobody else is going to give them such a fast track to stardom. And once it’s over, it’s time to work.