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Idol Threats

How Can So Many People Watch American Idol And So Few Buy The Albums?

Deanna Staffo

By Raymond Cummings | Posted 1/17/2007

Life after American Idol is humbling for any finalist not named Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood. The jury's still out on Jennifer Hudson--will the Dreamgirls score award statuettes?--and Josh Gracin, beloved by country fans but not yet a mainstream pop figure. Longhaired rocker Bo Bice--whose first album did a little business--made an awful video featuring gratuitous mane thrashing, intense face scrunching, and the worst vocals-to-lips sync-up this side of a Super Bowl half-time show or a Soul Train episode. Platinum-selling MOR nonentity Clay Aiken recently guest-starred on daytime soap Days of Our Lives--as himself.

Debut albums by Kimberly Locke, Diana DeGarmo, and too many others to list materialized with zero fanfare and gathered dust on record-store shelves. Season 3 clincher Fantasia Barrino is more famous for being an illiterate single mom whose life was made into a TV movie than for any of her singles. The allegedly smoldering Constantine Maroulis put his theater background to good use on Broadway when he and his entourage weren't cooling their heels in New York nightspots. Tamyra Gray married a member of Color Me Badd and turned up on Boston Legal and Las Vegas. Kimberly Caldwell will hang at your private party for a mere $2,000--$3,000 if you want her to actually sing. Nobody knows how Justin Guarini spends his time these days, and nobody cares.

Consider that William Hung never advanced to Hollywood but got a contract anyway. Consider that WWE newbie Kevin Federline and professional vacuum Paris Hilton are less talented than many of the above, yet they're household names who are way more likely to generate headlines. The potential Idols grimaced and flounced through all those insipid music videos-cum-Ford commercials for this?

Nevertheless, nothing can impede or halt the forward march of Idol commerce. In late 2006, aluminum mines were duly plundered in the soon-to-be-forgotten names of this year's finalists, including nü-nü-grunge supersoldier Chris Daughtry, bubble-headed country darlin' Kellie Pickler, and blue-eyed soul man Taylor Hicks, who took home the 2006 Idol title.

North Carolina's Daughtry--a chrome-domed brooder who somehow managed to transform almost every song he tackled on Idol into a Creed single--wisely declined the opportunity to front Fuel, instead laying down a rousing batch of circa-2001 modern rock under his surname. What you finally take away from Daughtry (RCA) is that though breaking up during his bachelor days was probably tough, being a married dude with kids who is constantly on tour is even tougher. The truth may lie somewhere in between these two extremes; this Howard Benson-produced slab scans like a string of alternately agonized or adoring letters mailed from the road to hash things out or patch them back up.

"It's Not Over" is eerily similar to Fuel's "Hemorrhage," a melancholy latticework of guitar erupting into politely soaring riffs as Daughtry fights valiantly to rescue a collapsing relationship ("This love is killing me, but you're the only one") or refuses to accept that it's kaput ("You've taken everything away/ And I can't deal with that") or both. On "What I Want," a darkly gritty rager featuring Slash's hard riffery, our goateed hero affirms that domestic tranquility is something he wasn't sure he needed at first. "It always seemed that I was sorry for the things that I did," he sings. "But I never did a thing about it till I let you in/ It's kinda funny, 'bout the time that I was falling apart/ You came and put me back together." All of which is fine and dandy--his throat-straining distress is reasonably diverting--but how long can he get away with this emo-on-steroids Staind/Incubus mooning?

Unlike earnest Daughtry, North Carolina's cute-as-a-button Pickler, her producer Blake Chancey, and the assorted svengalis, musicians, and hangers-on who helped shape Small Town Girl (BNA Entertainment)--the liners eschew in-depth credits in favor of a fake letter from "Pickles" that shouts out a few of those involved without identifying what their contributions were--appear to be a jaded bunch. Carefully calibrated to delight casual county fans and suburban moms alike, Girl craftily and cynically milks the most common of the genre's clichés in the name of mass appeal. There are the paeans to being from the country and the particulars of same, tinged with red-state stubbornness and distaste for urban centers ("Girls Like Me," the title track). There's the one about going out on the town alone because your man's MIA ("Red High Heels"). There's an aw-shucks ditty about how fun it is to let one's hair down and hang with the boys ("One of the Guys") and another about how the guys just don't get it ("Things That Never Cross a Man's Mind").

There's even a gorgeous story-song titled "Wild Ponies" in which a victim of domestic violence screws up her courage and drives away from the home-cum-battlefront. Thematically, it's faintly reminiscent of Underwood's Grammy-nominated "Jesus, Take the Wheel," but Pickler's belted, wide-open chorus is wistful and all-inclusive beyond the immediate theme, the song's conceit isn't telegraphed from the outset, and the protagonist at least acts under her own steam. "I Wonder"--a ballad about Pickler's über-deadbeat dad that doubles as an oblique indictment--sweeps along on angelic strings and ivory chords, a heart-jerker despite or maybe because of the admittedly schmaltzy and sentimental production its subject doesn't even begin to deserve.

The most frustrating aspect of Small Town Girl is that Pickler's singing feels so fresh, confident, and Dolly Parton-aspirant that she wins you over even as you can't quite shake the icky feeling of being manipulated. Her songs are littered with country's standard-issue reams of good-time pianos, acres of pedal steel, and more acoustic guitar twang than a Nashville open-mic night. But Pickler admirably says what she means, means what she says, and has little interest in inviting the sort of controversy or divisiveness her peers have relied upon to help generate sales in recent years--unless she's saving that for the next album.

Less successful is Taylor Hicks' eponymous post-Idol debut. During the final weeks of competition, Hicks was the hopeless Idol underdog many couldn't help pulling for and couldn't believe he'd advanced that far; he was slightly pudgy, gray-haired, championed a genre the popular consciousness has little use for, and was enthusiastic almost to a fault. What sold Idol voters was Hicks' unconditional showman's surrender to whatever he was covering, complete with shuffling and back-jerking dancing that was as painful to behold as it was transfixing.

Such passionate abandon doesn't carry over to this studio album, though Taylor Hicks (Arista) does find its namesake in finer, more robust voice than when he was burning down the house with judges Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell seated up front. "Heaven Knows" capitalizes nicely on his come-hither soul growl even as it cannibalizes Smokey Robinson's "Ain't That Peculiar" and Ray Charles' "What'd I Say" for Hicks' reconstituted Motown. Likewise, he acquits himself well on Marvin Gaye's love-'em-and-leave-'em "Wherever I Lay My Hat," chewing producer Matt Serlectic's reassuring adult-contemporary backdrop like an increasingly persistent terrier going to town on a new set of curtains. It's as comfortable and cozy as a worn old robe, which is fine for somebody like Rod Stewart, but more kinetic tunes and a live DVD of a sweat-soaked Hicks performing the album at the Apollo might've sealed the deal--not to mention a longer, higher tenure on the charts.

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