Over the years, “American Idol” has been fairly successful at producing winners who staked their own claim within the spectrum of popular music. Kelly Clarkson was a straight-up pop singer. Ruben Studdard and Fantasia were both R&B, but the gender split (and the latter’s more pronounced gospel influence) let them each carve out their own territory. Carrie Underwood was the show’s envoy into the country charts, while Taylor Hicks carried the torch for Adult Contemporary.
But the days of minimal market overlap could be over. With Wednesday night’s thoroughly predictable victory of teenaged belter Jordin Sparks, the show’s one-of-everything approach finally ran out of steam. Sparks’s win forces “Idol” to face a problem it has never had to deal with in its previous five seasons: an Idol we’ve already had.
It was probably inevitable, the crowning of a Duplicate Idol, though stronger showings by Melinda Doolittle, Lakisha Jones and especially runner-up Blake Lewis might have staved it off for at least one more year. But Sparks’s coronation strikes a note remarkably similar to Clarkson’s original “Idol” win all the way back in aught-two.
That’s not to say that Sparks is as strong a singer as Clarkson. For one thing, Sparks was inconsistent throughout the competition, capable of moments as sublime as her chill-inducing performance of “I Who Have Nothing” on British Invasion Night and as painful as her (admittedly disastrous) take on Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer.” While some viewers nicknamed Clarkson “Yelly” for her occasional tendency to equate “volume” with “greatness,” she was far less hit-or-miss.
But if Clarkson was a better singer (and performer) than Sparks on the show, the centers of their comfort zones were nearly identical. Both singers eventually came to favor big Celine Dion/Christina Aguilera-style power ballads, each adding a down-to-earth quality that kept them from becoming simple technical exercises. Listening to Sparks’s fine version of “You Don’t Know What It’s Like,” it was easy to imagine Clarkson choosing the same song on Bee Gees Night.
From there, it seems like a short walk to marketing Sparks as Clarkson redux. And the marketing question is an important one. One of the recurring themes of this past season, amongst both the judges and the viewers, has been the question of how to package the contestants so that they would sell. It was one of the reasons Chris Richardson got tagged with patently false Justin Timberlake comparisons early and often. Contestants who resisted such things ran the risk of ending up like Gina Glocksen, whose downfall was arguably set in motion when she defied the judges’ “rocker” tag by singing songs like “All By Myself” and “Alone.” If “Idol” is going to sell the singer, it has to know exactly what it’s selling.
In that respect, Sparks was a cipher for a very long time. She started the voting rounds with Tracy Chapman’s bluesy “Give Me One Reason” and followed it up with Pat Benatar and two themes from cartoon movies. One week she was an intense melodrama queen, the next she was stomping around the stage singing No Doubt. By settling into a Clarksonian groove of showstopping ballads, she gave her future management team not only something concrete but something it knows how to sell.
For a show seemingly concerned with dominating the widest swath of the charts it can get, covering the same ground all over again with Sparks could be a problem. But the fact is, there may not be anywhere else Sparks could be marketed. “Idol” is nothing if not interested in mass popularity, and the only major genres that remain untouched by the show’s winners are rock and hip hop. (Chris Daughtry's success in the former notwithstanding, he didn’t win, though try telling “Idol” that.)
But Sparks’s track record with the former is spotty, and she’s given no indication that she’s interested in the latter. That makes it unavoidable that “Idol” would have to return to the well with Sparks. And while her performance of Martina McBride’s “A Broken Wing” revealed a voice that could sit comfortably alongside less-twangy country singers like Faith Hill, following in Clarkson’s footsteps was clearly the path of least resistance.
If her win courts redundancy, however, there are advantages that Sparks has over Clarkson. Her age is one. At 17, Sparks is the youngest winner in the show’s history, which potentially makes her the most malleable Idol ever.
Her inexperience is a factor there, as she’s basically still a high school student without the same sort of real-world responsibilities and frustrations faced by the next two youngest winners, Clarkson and single mother Fantasia. As a result, she might not know how to fight for what she wants (or even know that she can). It’s also possible that she doesn’t know what that is yet.
That could make Sparks as much of a dream client for her new management company as Carrie Underwood was. But where Underwood arrived perfectly prepackaged, Sparks is essentially unmolded clay, a raw (but real) talent whose lack of seasoning is at once her greatest liability and her prime asset.
The other key advantage of Sparks being the new Kelly Clarkson is that it gives “Idol” one more Kelly Clarkson than it currently has. With her heavier and more rock-influenced second album “Breakaway,” the season one winner broke from the style she honed on the show. Then she broke from Idol completely, quietly distancing herself from the show almost the moment her contract expired. It was hard not to get the impression that her recent appearances on the “Idol Gives Back” broadcast and Wednesday night’s finale were no different from that of Gwen Stefani or Annie Lennox, just another superstar willing to help out and maybe promote her new record.
With Clarkson having gone all Miss Independent, a Sparks win becomes all the more attractive. It allows “Idol” to renew its Kelly Clarkson lease after watching it expire. It remains to be seen what direction Sparks’s career will take in the long term. But at the moment, for the first time in the show’s history, the winner already fits the crown.
Marc Hirsh is a writer in Somerville, Mass.