As “American Idol” heads into the homestretch, the 11-week period in which the field of finalists drops from 12 to one, it’s apparent that the women have the early lead on the men. But that could change in a hurry.
For all of Simon’s admonitions that “this is a singing competition” — something in his contract must require him to say that twice a week — it’s not quite that simple. If the goal was simply to find the best singer and give them a record deal, there wouldn’t be theme weeks, and we’d never see anyone trying to cover a Broadway show tune or 1950s song. They would let everyone sing the styles they were comfortable with, and the voters would pick whoever sounded the best.
But that would be a lot less entertaining.
At this point, the viewers know that LaKisha Jones and Melinda Doolittle can belt out rhythm and blues vocals with the best of them, Gina Glocksen can rock, Blake Lewis can beatbox, Chris Sligh can banter, and Sanjaya Malakar can’t do much of anything besides hula. The winner may be determined by whether Jones can sing country songs, Doolittle ’90s rock, Glocksen and Lewis Broadway standards, Sligh some ’90s grunge, and Malakar — well, anything.
“Idol” is about getting the contestants out of their comfort zone as much as it is finding the best talent. The theme weeks, the harshness of some of the judges’ comments, the weekly pressure to perform doesn’t always make for great music. But as the ratings prove, it’s always good TV.
LaKisha Jones, 27, Fort Meade , Md.: The judges love Jones, and with good reason. She’s been great every week, has one of the most powerful voices in the competition, and comes across with the outgoing personality that helps win votes. Moreover, it’s hard not to root for a single mom looking for her big break. She has both the talent and the intangibles to make a serious run at the crown. Best-case scenario: She’s second to none in terms of talent, though Melinda Doolittle is right there with her. Worst-case scenario: Doolittle and Stephanie Edwards have similar vocal styles, so any decrease in performance will be very noticeable. Prognosis: Jones is the early leader in the clubhouse.
Melinda Doolittle, 29, Brentwood , Tenn .: Doolittle has been a backup singer throughout her musical career, but is taking advantage of the spotlight. Like Jones, she’s been a star since her first audition, and also appears to be gaining confidence every week. She began the competition with a body language that indicated she wondered if she belonged, but she’s shown that she can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the competition. Best-case scenario: Like Jones, Doolittle comes up with big performances every week. She’s experienced in singing before crowds, and it doesn’t look as if the bright lights scare her. Worst-case scenario: Also like Jones, she’s one of three strong R&B singers in the competition, and all are very good. Any dropoff will be hard to overcome. Prognosis: Doolittle is a good bet to last a long time, and could easily win it all.
Best BoyChris Richardson, 22, Chesapeake , Va.: At his first audition, the judges compared Richardson’s looks to Justin Timberlake. While he’s not there yet in terms of vocals, Richardson is the closest thing the men have to a pop music star in this competition. He looks the part, and for very brief stretches he sounds the part. That’s not enough to beat the top women, but it does make him the leader among a mediocre field of men. Best-case scenario: In his ideal world, Richardson gets the swooning-girl vote and enough of the rest of viewer support to win it all.Worst-case scenario: Time may reveal Richardson to be more Ace Young than Justin Timberlake, and he therefore exits in the middle rounds.Prognosis: Richardson makes it into May as the last man standing.
Chris Sligh, 28, Greenville , S.C.: Singer, personality, or both? Sligh’s been the hit of the men so far, with the personality and confidence to tweak the judges and the voice to make him immune from too much criticism. He also said in an early heat that he was trying to think strategically in order to win. It sounds like he thinks he’s playing “Survivor,” but really, isn’t he? The ultimate ambition is to outsing, outlast and outvote the opposition, after all. His musical choices have been the least mainstream of the performers, which helps because he’s not being compared as much to the original, but also won’t leave him much margin for error if he falls flat. Best-case scenario: Taylor Hicks won it all last season. Why couldn’t Sligh?Worst-case scenario: “Idol” voters rarely favor the same type of singer in back-to-back seasons. Is Sligh too close to Taylor Hicks’ act to make it into May? Prognosis: Sligh makes it into the final six, and there’s widespread outrage when he’s eliminated.
Wild CardsGina Glocksen, 22, Naperville , Ill.: Glocksen’s best-case scenario is to be thought of as a female version of Chris Daughtry: The rocker who maintains her voting bloc well into the competition. She’s not as far along as Daughtry was at this stage last year, but she’s the only woman in the competition with that vocal style, and that will help. She’s also scoring well with her banter with host Ryan Seacrest, and personality plays a role in how long people stay. Best-case scenario: Glocksen makes it through the early rounds, stays alive as the early leaders pick each other off, and sneaks into the final three. After that, it’s anyone’s ballgame. Worst-case scenario: She tries to sing ballads, or softer songs, and gets eliminated early. Or she keeps on rocking and gets voted off anyway because there aren’t enough rock fans to make any contestant a winner (see: Bice, Bo and Daughtry, Chris). Of course, there are enough rock fans to make Daughtry’s album No. 1 on the best seller-list. Prognosis: Glocksen makes it into late April or early May before falling in heartbreaking fashion. But her margin for error is small enough at this stage that she could go a lot sooner.
Blake Lewis, 25, Bothell , Wash.: Lewis walks the line between gimmick and good. If he’s a beatboxer who also sings, that will get old relatively quickly. If he’s a singer who adds a little beatboxing riff every couple of weeks, that may be the edge that keeps him around until the end. The judges can’t seem to make up their minds what they want out of Lewis. Can the voters? Best-case scenario: Lewis is strong enough that he outlasts the rest of the men and makes it into May. He then rides the Taylor Hicks personality train all the way to the title.Worst-case scenario: The beatboxing gets old, and Lewis is sent packing early. Prognosis: Lewis makes it into the final six, and gets to sing for the “Idol” charity drive.
The Master of StrategeryPhil Stacey, 29, Jacksonville , Fla.: Stacey has done a lot to endear himself to voters; he’s a military guy by trade, he has a cute baby daughter whose birth he famously missed to audition, he comes across as a nice person and he’s a decent vocalist. However, based on last week’s rendition of LeAnn Rimes’ “I Need You,” he’s not nearly as good as he thinks he is. If he plays to his strengths, he could last a long time but another misguided attempt like that last one will put him in the bottom three early. Best-case scenario: Stacey could last a long time if he picks the right songs. His vocals aren’t any worse than the rest of the men, though that’s damning with faint praise. Worst-case scenario: He overreaches again, picks a song that doesn’t play to his strengths or that he can’t handle, and gets voted off early. Prognosis: A middle-of-the-pack singer, Stacey will last a few weeks before being voted off.
Not Living Up to His PotentialBrandon Rogers, 28, North Hollywood, Calif.: Like Melinda Doolittle, Rogers entered the competition experienced in singing background vocals but not as a lead performer. Unlike Doolittle, he hasn’t been able to find his rhythm on center stage. He might be the most talented male vocalist left in the competition, but he’s running out of time to show it. Best-case scenario: Rogers returns to the form he showed at his first audition and rockets to the top of the list of male contenders. Worst-case scenario: Another bland performance gets him kicked off opening week.Prognosis: Rogers can’t get it together in time to make it out of March.
Trying to Outlast CurfewJordin Sparks, 17, Glendale , Ariz.: Sparks has been very good so far, particularly in the last semifinal round where she rocked out to lead off the show. She has the talent to go far, and a fun personality that won’t hurt. But in the recent past, teenagers have had a tougher time maintaining their level of performance than the more experienced singers. Best-case scenario: It’ll be a long time before Sparks is voted off on talent alone, giving her a great shot to build up support. Her father was an NFL cornerback and probably has good advice on dealing with pressure and media scrutiny. Worst-case scenario: The judges’ advice can be wildly different week-to-week, which has tended to mess with the confidence of the younger women. Can Sparks handle the strain?Prognosis: Sparks could last a long time, but the real test will come when she gets her first random criticism from the judges on her song choice, or the admonition to “act younger” or “stop looking like a teenager in a talent show.” If she can surge through that, she’ll be fine.
The Who?Haley Scarnato, 24, San Antonio , Texas: OK, it was a cheap shot of Simon to say he didn’t remember her name (although the fact that he also didn’t recognize songs by 311 and Pearl Jam may mean he just has some short-term memory issues), but Scarnato hasn’t done anything yet to set herself apart from the field. Randy said that she lacked the “Yo” factor — Jackson-speak for a sense of pizzazz. It’s tough to go very far without it. Best-case scenario: Scarnato at least looks like a pop star, and isn’t a terrible vocalist. If she can skate through another week or two, she may catch her footing — the weakness of the guys makes that entirely possible. Worst-case scenario: She’s clearly the worst of the six women left in the competition, and has a long way to go to pass them all. Prognosis: Scarnato doesn’t have much of a chance.
The New Kevin CovaisSanjaya Malakar, 17, Federal Way, Wash.: It’s the in “Idol” history that Malakar is still around. Every season, one teenage male lasts a lot longer than his talent should allow, because he’s a nice guy and callers feel sorry for him. Last year, Kevin Covais had to outlast a couple of rivals in the semifinals to get that honor. Since Malakar was the only teenager among the 12 male semifinalists, he sailed into the finals despite sounding like someone’s little brother who got hold of a karaoke machine and some dress-up clothes. Best-case scenario: Teen sensation John Stevens outlasted future Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson in the show’s third season, so it’s possible Malakar could be around a long time. Worst-case scenario: He’s the least ready of the 12 finalists for stardom, and it’s not even that close. If voting is based on performance alone, he’ll go early. Prognosis: It’s tough to see Malakar lasting much longer. He might be the first finalist to go.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.