Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino, Carrie Underwood and Taylor Hicks have a few things in common. For one, all of them are American Idol winners. They’ve all sold at least a million copies of their debut disc. And they’re all from the South.
But here’s the big thing: none of them are from Season 6.
Truth be told, last year’s American Idol was somewhat of a train wreck. Statistically, it lost viewers from the previous season, and winner Jordin Sparks is not likely to go platinum until summer of 2008. Its only highlight was the prolonged presence of Sanjaya—the East Indian heartthrob who looked like Aladdin and was just as popular with preteen girls. (One cried tears of joy on national TV, mind you.) The problem with Season 6, it seems, is that American Idol had no Plan B. We’ve seen previous years with unimpressive winners, but even those seasons managed to launch a bona fide superstar: Studdard’s year gave us Clay Aiken; Fantasia’s gave us Jennifer Hudson; even Taylor Hick’s season spurred Chris Daughtry to international superstardom.
So how does television’s biggest franchise recover from its first off year? Change! You’ve heard it from Obama and Romney, but Cowell and Abdul aren’t far behind; they’re pushing Season 7 as the year that change creeps into a formulaic show. The result, so far, has just been creepy.
But let’s forgive AmIdol for its debut hours of little talent and lots of loony. After all, it turns out the stalker guy is an actor, and I’m pretty sure “If she were a bathtub, I would caulk her” will end up in my wedding vows. Below, check out my top five things to expect from an AmIdol season that’s billing itself as the year of the unexpected.
(1) The slow, Idol-aided rise of Jordin Sparks. As mentioned earlier, Sparks is off to a rough start in the real world of fake music. To give her the bump she needs, expect multiple guest appearances and a couple performances. My guess is that “Tattoo,” her current single, will be Season 7’s torch song that plays whenever a contestant is voted off the show. Two years ago, this method launched Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day” to fame, and last year it helped Chris Daughtry out by popularizing his “Home.” Idol has always been willing to self-serve even when it doesn’t have to, but Sparks is in dire need of some good publicity.
(2) Phenomenal auditions. I know Idol’s first four hours of auditions were remarkably lame, but new rules in this year’s audition process could enable some impressive first impressions. Contestants are now allowed, for example, to accompany themselves with instruments in their auditions. Idol has also promised greater focus on the stars and less focus on the crazies, meaning that more real talent has a chance to break through to the audition room. This might be the season where you can actually guess the Top 5 from their auditions alone, which in the past has proved an astonishingly difficult task.
(3) A Yankee victor. All six AmIdol winners have come from below the Mason Dixon line, but this year that could change. Idol judge Randy Jackson, in publicity interviews, is most excited about the San Diego batch of auditions. And despite its prevalence of kooks, Philadelphia produced at least two potential finalists: Kristy Lee Cook, the log cabin country girl who’s accurately being referred to as Carrie Underwood 2.0; and Chris Watson, the dreadlocked ladies’ man whom Simon said had the air of a superstar.
(4) Pop politics. By the time AmIdol gets to its live shows, the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates will more than likely be set. We didn’t see Kerry or Bush hit the Idol stage back in 2004, but I’d expect someone to manipulate the spotlight for campaign reasons in the coming months. It makes sense that the best way to increase your election chances is to show up at the only voting contest that’s bigger than the presidency.
(5) Idol gets fabulous. It positively astonishes me that Idol has been so devoid of gay contestants since its conception in 2002; off the top of my head, I can’t name one. So from a business perspective, Idol execs have to realize that finding a few gay stars is an absolute guarantee for greater viewership. Look at the success of Project Runway. Or the increased popularity of Real World seasons that feature a gay roommate. A gay Idol candidate would bring extensive media coverage, unheralded LGBT support and an endless stream of sassy one-liners. And it just might make Ryan Seacrest that much happier.