Taylor Hicks winning “American Idol” was not the most suspenseful reality-show conclusion in history. It had been widely agreed upon that he was the presumptive winner, and his tenacious fan base did not disappoint. From the standpoint of the show, this is the end. The money train is the television spectacle itself. The future careers of the contestants are like the couplings on “The Bachelor”: it feeds the mythology if they work out, but it isn’t critical.
Kelly Clarkson is, after all, the show’s only participant who has genuinely become more than “the one who was on ‘American Idol.’” Clay Aiken has a band of admirably impassioned followers and makes a load of money touring, but he hasn’t released a non-Christmas album in almost three years, since shortly after “Idol” launched him. Fantasia Barrino and Ruben Studdard have largely faded from the radar for the moment, and Carrie Underwood was, until last night, still living off being the most recent winner.
Kelly, though, got hold of an insanely catchy single (“Since U Been Gone”), persevered in the face of the flak she took for coming from reality television, and is now just about finished proving she isn’t just a made-for-TV phenomenon like The Monkees.
The unfortunate fact, from a contestant’s perspective, is that for the purposes of anything beyond the “Idol” finale itself, the show does a ridiculously poor job of equipping its graduates to have wide commercial appeal. The mature, energetic, thoroughly modern Kelly Clarkson of “Since U Been Gone” would not have looked at home on stage with Carrie, Katharine and Taylor singing “I Made It Through The Rain” dressed all in white. Because really, “I Made It Through The Rain” is only slightly hipper than “Tie A Yellow Ribbon” would have been, and does not exactly position a person to cozy up to the youth market where the intense record sales are concentrated.
The set of awful songs the contestants have been forced to present as their first singles reads like a line of inspirational birth announcements: “A Moment Like This,” “Flying Without Wings,” “I Believe,” and now “Do I Make You Proud?” OK, Carrie’s song was an outlier — the icky-sounding “Inside Your Heaven” got by both musicians and censors who should have known better. But none of these songs set anyone up for a career in anything other than providing mood music for high-school graduations. In something of a reversal from the usual pattern, in order to get a career going, these people have to wait for their wretched first singles to fade from memory. Carrie began to build her post-“Idol” career with “Jesus, Take The Wheel,” and “Inside Your Heaven” is all but forgotten. Certainly, “Jesus, Take The Wheel” is also an enormously stupid song (saluting, as it does, rather unconventional strategies for motor-vehicle safety), but it’s not stupid in the same “I am a song written for an ‘American Idol’ finale” kind of way.
In short, there is a lot working against any winner, and it’s not Taylor’s fault that it’s going to be an uphill battle to get back the harmonica-playing, soul-singing, glorified bar-band guy that he was born to be. Unlike several smooth, inoffensive singers who have come before him, Taylor will never sell himself as a fresh-faced upstart rendered wide-eyed and baffled by the great big world of fame. He will have to be presented as something different, more like what Bo Bice would have had to become if he’d beaten Carrie: a guy grabbing onto his last shot, rather than his first.
It seems like Taylor should have the easiest path to success, given the fact that he never dipped low in the standings as most even strong contestants do at least once. Taylor is clearly beloved, and the enthusiasm for him is resilient, unconcerned with either variations in the quality of his singing or the increasingly unsettling tics that pervade his performances. Supporting him combines a subversive stick-it-to-Simon-Cowell vibe, because he looks old and unglamorous, with an aw-shucks warmth that’s squarely aimed at the same “family” demographic that has supported most of “Idol’s” strongest performers. He should be all set.
So why is it so hard to imagine Taylor’s CD? His singles, his appearances on MTV, his role as a guidance counselor in the movie “From Mr. Hicks To Katharine”? He is not an intuitively easy marketing task. It is one of the dirty little secrets of “American Idol” that while it markets itself like a teen show, much of its audience is made up of adults. Given its affinity for Barry Manilow, Burt Bacharach, and other icons of the 1970s, it’s not surprising. In the past, though, it hasn’t been quite so obvious that it was those adults who would need to buy the CDs if anyone was going to.
Who does fit the mold of exactly what this show loves to promote? Runner-up Katharine McPhee. Giggling, coy, pretty, melisma-addicted, and at her best, singing songs that don’t suffer from being delivered with a blank smile. Katharine is Simon Cowell’s dream contestant. She is, in many ways, an older Diana DeGarmo or a female Clay Aiken: she can sing, and although she doesn’t seem to really understand much about what she’s singing, she is unfailingly sunny, if something of a poor sport when criticized. (If she does look to Clay for guidance, however, she should ignore the horrific faux-Beatle shag haircut he was sporting on last night’s show.)
The odds are at least 50-50 that Katharine will outsell and outshine Taylor, much as Clay did with Ruben. She isn’t more talented than Taylor (interestingly, Elliott Yamin made a decent case during the finale that he’s a better musician than either of the finalists), but she’s an easier sell. She doesn’t have all those funny “Woo!” issues and bad dance moves, and she’s got the weepy parents who you can just tell will hunt down her detractors and make them eat dirt. She’s much more ready for “TRL” than Taylor is, and if you want to sell a lot of records, that — and not Taylor-friendly venues where you can play the harmonica and talk about your love of the blues — is where you go.
Besides, “American Idol” sold Katharine as the performer she actually is, while it had to push Taylor as a non-instrument-playing solo singer, which he typically is not. Taylor’s natural habitat, performance-wise, is a bar. Katharine’s is a mall rotunda. She hasn’t ever left her comfort zone to begin with, because she does nothing quite as well as she sings about how happy she is. She has no transition to make; the Katharine of the “American Idol” finale is what Katharine will be in five years, no matter what she’s doing. It’s who she genuinely is. This means that she’s far better equipped to survive “My Destiny” than Taylor is to survive “Do I Make You Proud?”, despite the fact that the latter is less intrinsically awful.
Taylor Hicks would have a hard time being Kelly Clarkson. What will be interesting is whether he can manage to be successful as a more adult, more acoustic “Idol” winner. Don’t be surprised if he finds himself upstaged, at least in the early going, by the very woman he has supposedly just bested.