I’ve been watching American Idol since its debut season in 2002. Back then, America hadn’t yet evolved into a gladiatorial cybernation of bloggers, tweeters, and self-ordained voice coaches. Idol-specific insults like ”pitchy” and ”cruise ship” were new to the lexicon. Contestants like Jim Verraros could sail through to the top 10 without the support of ”Worsters” (disciples of the self-explanatory website votefortheworst.com). It was an innocent time. Sure, the show was wildly popular from the get-go, but it wasn’t, like, a way of life.
Seven years and four Kelly Clarkson albums later, the Idol stage is a much scarier place to be. In earlier seasons, contestants probably thought they were merely participating in a fad. A game show. The millennial version of Solid Gold. But now it’s evident that a memorable (read: embarrassing) stint on Idol can haunt a person for years. Do you remember Sanjaya? I remember Sanjaya. I’ll probably remember him when I’m 50. Bombing on Idol is a life sentence, pop-culture-wise.
With that in mind, I have a lot of respect for any contestant who makes it through to Hollywood, let alone to the big Kodak Theatre finale. Their vocals may be golden, but their cojones are solid steel. Consenting to appear on Idol is a commitment to play a part: The Grinning Hayseed. The Choirboy Who Needs ”Dirtying Up.” The Blond Girl Who Thinks She Can Sing Sam Cooke. Fake Justin Timberlake. An invisible label is affixed to each youthful brow by 19 Entertainment — God forbid you’re christened The Bad One.
Of course, every season has its Good One as well. This year, both the judges and the fans are smitten with Adam Lambert, a soft-spoken freckled kid disguised as a shrieking goth balladeer. The praise heaped upon Adam is not unwarranted; the dude can totally sing. Also, he possesses that rare Clarksonesque combination of technical perfection and onstage humility. He might actually be that elusive white whale of Idol lore: the flameproof contestant. Even those ”shocking” photos that surfaced of Adam sucking face with a male friend haven’t derailed the Lambert love train. Could someone deserving actually win this show? Think about it, America. Yes, we can!
NEXT PAGE: In a world of wannabe Jonas Brothers, it’s refreshing to see a guy who would rather be Art Garfunkel.
Then there’s Scott MacIntyre, an entertaining throwback to the heyday of Christopher Cross and Rupert Holmes. Listening to Scott makes me want to open a box of Franzia Blush and chill out on a yacht. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve downloaded his soothing version of ”Mandolin Rain” and his airport Marriott take on ”Just the Way You Are.” Since he’s legally blind, Scott could be accused of courting the sympathy vote (in the grand tradition of Anthony ”Tracheotomy” Fedorov and Kellie ”Prison Dad” Pickler). However, I think Scott is the real deal. His old-fashioned appeal is, paradoxically, one of the freshest things about the show. In a world of wannabe Jonas Brothers, it’s refreshing to see a guy who would rather be Art Garfunkel.
But my favorite this season is — was — adorable Alex Wagner-Trugman, unfairly booted in the third week of semifinals. Alex was The Brave Little Toaster of season 8. The kid had heart. So much heart that he knocked over the mic stand while growling his way through ”I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” That’s not an accident, that’s rock & roll! Sadly, Simon dismissed Alex as a bundle of bluesy affectations. I’d liken him instead to another teenage Alex (Chilton). On the one hand, I hope the guy auditions again next season; on the other hand, I hope he leaves his American Idol dreams behind in the interest of self-preservation. After all, the Alex Wagner Trugmans (Trugmen?) of the world ought to be kept pure.
So who’s going to take it all this year? Adam isn’t necessarily the anointed one. Some people are betting on Danny Gokey, he of the prayerful face and thrusting pelvis. Contrarians are rooting for the dark horse, Allison Iraheta, whose 16-year-old vocal cords sound like they’ve been steeped in Gentleman Jack. Whoever wins, they’ve gotta be aware that a post-Idol career is a crapshoot. Say what you will about Tuesday’s children — they’ve got guts.