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Youth is no benefit on ‘American Idol’

Unsurprisingly, teenager Paris Bennett is sent home
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

The clock finally struck midnight for “Princess P” on Wednesday, and the sad news from Ryan Seacrest should send a message to high-schoolers everywhere. Go ahead and try out for “American Idol,” but don’t ever expect to win.

That’s the logical conclusion after Paris Bennett became the eighth finalist voted off the show on Wednesday, knocking the last of the teenagers out of the competition. Bennett entered the finals with the pedigree (her grandmother is Grammy Award-winning singer Ann Nesby, of the Sounds of Blackness), the pipes, and the personality to win it all, but it just didn’t happen for her. She was among the lowest vote-getters so often that she was starting to look like Seacrest’s co-host every Wednesday.

Her departure made for one of the least surprising results shows of the season. Bennett’s been on the firing line for so long that it was anticlimactic when she finally got the boot. Her parents and family were smiling in the audience, she was smiling on stage — it was the happiest departure on a Fox show since Shannon Doherty left “Beverly Hills 90210.” Everyone looked sad to see her go, but also appeared to realize that Bennett's best days are still ahead of her (so in that sense, it may not be quite as much like Doherty’s departure after all).   

Her family had good reason to be proud. Bennett tried her best, sang well each week, had a smile that wouldn’t quit, and may have been the most well-grounded person on the show. Every single guest musical artist loved her, and it says something when Queen, Andrea Bocelli, Stevie Wonder and Barry Manilow all go beyond the usual “yeah, she was great — and buy my new album!” shtick and offer unqualified praise.

Moreover, the teen was a lot calmer than some of her older rivals even as the competition heated up. Katharine McPhee admitted she was starting to feel the pressure, and Elliott Yamin said he could see himself in the finals standing in a pool of his own sweat (Right Guard advertising department, are you listening?). Bennett was clearly stressed out — she cried every week when she was given the last-minute Ryan reprieve — but never let emotions get the better of her when she had the microphone in her hand.

Princess of potentialOnly one problem: Bennett’s 17 years old, and she looked it every time she took the stage.  While the rest of the remaining finalists have had moments where it looked as if their next stop could be a packed arena (or at least a trendy nightclub), Bennett always appeared to be trying to win a spot in the glee club before heading back to her room to do her trigonometry. Her lucky charms are her princess crown and her SpongeBob SquarePants doll, for crying out loud.

There’s a reason why all the other high-schoolers exited the competition early — this is a contest that favors serious musicians. Chris Daughtry and Taylor Hicks have been playing in bands forever, and know every trick for working the crowd. Yamin has nearly a decade on Bennett, as well as some magical power that keeps the judges from criticizing him. McPhee is just 21, but that extra four years makes a big difference. For example, it gave her four extra years to pick out flattering outfits.

If this competition were based on potential, Bennett would have been a lock. If it were based on pure talent, she’d be among the final three contestants without breaking a sweat. But it’s not. It’s all about who the American public wants to hear from right this very second, and right this very second Bennett isn’t as ready for her close-up as some of the others.

Bennett looked young when she sang contemporary songs, and she looked like a kid playing dress-up when she tried to be more serious. She’s trying to develop her own style, but all of the remaining finalists have had a lot more time to accomplish that already, and in the end she just ran out of time.

Yamin finished with the second-fewest votes, and is in big trouble next week. He looks as if he tries the hardest of everyone in the competition, and gets better every week. But the others aren't still waiting for him to catch up, so his best hope is for someone else to make a mistake.

That person may well be McPhee, who looked for a time as if she was about to throw up onstage. At 21, she’s now the youngest singer left in the competition, and she needs to calm down and step it up, or at least stop picking Phil Collins songs.

Next week brings a trip to Graceland for an Elvis workshop, which means Taylor Hicks will get to revisit the Memphis places where he and The King hung out when they both were kids in the 1940s. For Bennett, however, it will be a quick trip to the Heartbreak Hotel before resuming her musical career.

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