LOS ANGELES — She isn’t employed by the show and viewers never see her sparring with Simon Cowell. But Leesa Bellesi exerts her own kind of pull on “American Idol,” Fox’s top-rated singing contest that has a unique if often-unstated link to Christian churches.
Bellesi, who runs a Christian nonprofit in Lake Forest, Calif., with her ex-pastor husband, visits tapings frequently, has befriended numerous finalists and helps wrangle funds and scout temporary housing for families who trek cross-country to see relatives perform on “Idol.” Bellesi said that churches form a base for the young singers as they try to win votes and establish fan bases. Half of the Top 10 last season were worship leaders in their churches, she said.
“Most of the kids that have been really successful on ‘American Idol’ have that huge support of their church that’s pushed them — they’ve had a lot of voting and things like that,” said Bellesi, who has no official connection to the show (a spokesperson for the producers said he had never heard of her) but was spoken of as an unofficial patron by former finalists Danny Gokey, Jason Castro and others.
Ties to churches — especially of the evangelical or Pentecostal variety — are indeed a common denominator for many contestants on America’s No. 1 show, including this season’s Aaron Kelly, Lacey Brown and Jermaine Sellers. Castro, who placed fourth on Season 7 and just released his first album, played one of his first pre-“Idol” gigs at Lake Pointe, a suburban Dallas mega-church he attends that’s known for its sophisticated musical performances.
“That was the only time I sang when there were cameras involved,” Castro said in a recent interview. “Any of the larger churches you go into are really full-on performance venues.”
With many contestants having honed their vocal skills at black churches and suburban mega-churches, “Idol” has been embraced by Christian communities across the nation. Congregations have launched enthusiastic viewing parties and vote drives for favorites. Perhaps more important, the contestants’ church training has deeply influenced the songs and musical styles viewers hear on “Idol” and helped launch the careers of faith-based singers, such as George Huff and Mandisa, as well as secular pop artists. The show has projected to an audience of tens of millions an image of heartland youth driven by faith and strong family values. That’s an important source of appeal for a nation that according to a 2007 Pew Research Center survey identifies itself as 78 percent Christian.
Indeed, all of the winners from the previous eight seasons have hailed from Bible Belt states, except for Arizona native Jordin Sparks, who went to the top during Season 6. And perhaps not surprisingly, “Idol” ratings are highest in such Southern cities as Atlanta; Birmingham, Ala.; and Winston-Salem, N.C., according to the Nielsen Co. Birmingham alone has produced two “Idol” winners: Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks. (Although the trend won’t hold up this year: The two finalists, Crystal Bowersox and Lee DeWyze, are Midwesterners.)
“There are always so many Christians that go on ‘American Idol,’ and I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” said Mandisa, a top 9 finalist from Season 5 who now records as a gospel artist under her first name. “I think it’s one of the few shows left out there that is family-appropriate — at least for the most part.”
True, “Idol” could hardly be called a religious show. It’s secular enough to earn many complaints for bleeped-out obscenities and risque guest performances, an inevitable result of the show’s need to connect with the hip-hop and R&B styles that top today’s charts. A crotch-grabbing performance by Usher this season offered but one example of the family-unfriendly antics that make some traditionalists wince.
Meanwhile, religious ties are not a theme the show’s creators are eager to explore. Spokespersons for Fremantle Media and 19 Entertainment, which make “Idol,” said that an executive producer would not be available to comment for this story. But industry veterans nevertheless say that “Idol” and many of today’s Christian churches are made for one another.
“Music is a huge part of modern American church culture, so kids get exposure and experience that I don’t think they would get otherwise,” said Brad O’Donnell, vice president of artists & repertoire for EMI Christian Music, which signed Mandisa.
O’Donnell, who regularly treks to churches across the nation trolling for talent, added: “I can’t think of one I’ve been to that doesn’t have music as a major component.”
Of course, music has been incorporated into the worship services of many faiths for centuries. The 18th century English poet Alexander Pope, in his “Essay on Criticism,” wryly noted that “some to church repair/ Not for the doctrine, but the music there.”
Most church music stayed there. But starting in the 1950s, gospel music from black churches began crossing over into mainstream soul, R&B and pop music, a trend that continues to this day. Ray Charles’ 1954 hit single “I Got a Woman” was adapted from a gospel song called “It Must Be Jesus.” In turn, rapper Kanye West sampled “I Got a Woman” in his 2005 No. 1 smash, “Gold Digger.” Elvis Presley recorded several gospel albums and infused mainstream hits like 1968’s “If I Can Dream” with a distinct gospel flavor.
“Gospel music is at the foundation of what we think of now as American popular music, what’s on the charts today,” said Katherine Meizel, an ethnomusicology instructor at Bowling Green State University who writes about “Idol” for the online magazine Slate. Season 3 finalist Fantasia Barrino, heavily influenced by gospel music, closed out the competition with an inspirational song called “I Believe.” Barrino ended up winning “Idol” and “I Believe” became Billboard’s top-selling single of 2004.
Meanwhile, experts say it’s no accident that the popularity of “Idol” over the last eight years has dovetailed with the continued growth of mega-churches, which, in addition to offering a broad menu of social activities and groups, often stage elaborate musical performances. (While ratings for “Idol” have slipped over the past few years, analysts and industry executives agree that’s normal for TV show in its ninth season. Recently, the show tumbled to its lowest numbers since 2002.)
Scott Thumma, a scholar at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research who has written widely about mega-churches, recalls visiting a youth service at a large church in the Washington, D.C., area. The entertainment portion featured dramatic stage lighting and electric guitars. “It was easily a rock concert,” he said. “The only thing missing was ‘Free Bird’ and us holding up our lighters.”
Churches are thus a natural training ground for prospective “Idol” contestants, Thumma said. “There aren’t many places in our culture where people can just sing,” he said. “Church is one of those places.”
The music played in mega-churches can extend far beyond the gospel or Christian pop one might expect. In fact, their repertoire can resemble what viewers hear on “Idol” every week. Danny Gokey, who finished No. 3 last year on “Idol,” said he got serious about music at about age 19 when he started attending FaithBuilders, a nondenominational church in Milwaukee. As lead singer, Gokey and his fellow singers would riff on a wide range of styles: Marvin Gaye one week, Dolly Parton the next.
“A lot of churches didn’t like us because we played mainstream music right in the church,” Gokey, now pursuing a career as a country recording artist, said in an interview. “I played Eminem one time.”
On the flip side, some “Idol” contestants have brought their faith to the show. During Season 5, Mandisa made a gesture pointing to her heart, head and the sky that she took from the work of evangelist Beth Moore. “A lot of people recognized that and were rooting for me,” she said. She performed the gospel song “Shackles (Praise You)” for the Top 10 week. She even cited Jesus’ life in telling judge Simon Cowell that she had forgiven him for making cruel on-camera remarks about her weight.
Some have pointed out that gospel music is less of a factor on this season’s “Idol,” as attention has moved from R&B crooners toward indie-flavored singers such as Bowersox. But church-trained finalists this year included Kelly, Michael Lynche and Tim Urban.
There’s little question that contestants who drew their musical training from the church have a huge leg up when it comes to competing on “Idol.” Bellesi points to the churches’ singular role in American culture today.
“I think there’s no place like the church where people are given opportunity to use their voice and really be themselves and to be accepted and to be in a safe place,” she said. “It’s encouraged in the church.”
// Notes from the Road
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