Jordin, Blake - who cares?

[29 May 2007]

By Ben Wener

The Orange County Register (MCT)

I so wanted Blake to win.

That’s a lie, actually: I wanted Melinda Doolittle or LaKisha Jones to win - Melinda because she can sing circles around the rest (and let’s all repeat the cliche: “It’s a singing competition”); LaKisha if only to break the Big Girl Curse (though ultimately being shunned by the myopic mainstream worked wonders for Jennifer Hudson, if not Kimberley Locke).

I’m not displeased that fresh-faced, Beyonce-mimicking 17-year-old Jordin Sparks is your new American Idol. Truth be told, my household voted for her - twice. There’s a reason she and beatboxing Lewis lasted: They were by far the most contemporary candidates. Music mogul Clive Davis, whose interminable “report card” about “Idol”-related albums proved yet again he doesn’t belong on television, must be tickled - the final two contestants are clearly the most salable would-be stars to further market to teens and their parents nationwide.

Jordin, for one, is charming and capable, and will undoubtedly have a smash single by this time next year - one that isn’t “This Is My Now,” so obvious a rewrite of “A Moment Like This” and other cringe-inducing “Idol” closers it’s no wonder it won the show’s first songwriting competition.

But if Blake had won, this column would be even easier to write. Not only would we have just witnessed the dullest, strangest, most bloated finale to the dullest, strangest most bloated “Idol” season ever, but we’d have wound up with the first truly undeserving winner as well. That stuff writes itself.

As it is, Jordin winning hardly sways my opinions:

1) The writing is on the wall for “Idol.”

2) None of these singers will have a lasting career, apart from maybe Melinda.

The first point first. Yes, “Idol” may well last another five, even 10 years, doing exactly what the show does now, simply because it has become a national pastime; people who rarely if ever care about pop music get caught up in the results. Remember, ratings aren’t everything: This “Idol” finish may have attracted 19 percent fewer viewers than last year’s (vastly superior) ending - in part, I imagine, because the outcome seemed like such a done deal.

But a downturn in turnout hardly boots the program from the Top 10. Like “ER,” when it does finally fall from the top of the mountain, it won’t fall far.

That said, this season has done irreparable damage to the “Idol” brand, and not only because of dreaded Sanjaya’s prolonged, judges-mocking run. Every year has a fluke like Pony Hawk; this year just produced an unintentionally hilarious one who has already used up 14 of his 15 minutes of fame.

All the contestants were savvier - which meant the show lost some of its star-plucking appeal, since the second the Top 10 stepped onstage they already figured they were stars. Most every episode’s incessant padding has grown tiresome; Wednesday night’s thoroughly lame “Golden Idol” awards is a dumb idea that needs to be retired.

Many people, I suspect, are growing bored with the process, particularly when it yields neither a bountiful harvest of amateur talent nor many first-rate performances from guest artists and mentors.

Most of the legends and A-listers who appeared this season were embarrassments: Pink seemingly lost, Maroon 5 stiff and unrehearsed, Bette Midler warbling “The Wind Beneath My Wings” in at least three different keys, the great Barry Gibb illustrating that age does indeed take a toll on a man’s falsetto.

Add that lackluster detail to the fact that the only runaway sensation has been Sanjaya and you wind up with mounting tedium. A radical revamp - maybe even the replacement of Randy, Paula and Simon - is in order. Even so, I doubt “Idol” can regain the clout it acquired at the start of the decade.

That’s really as it should be: The search for the next ephemeral pop phenomenon should itself be ephemeral to some degree. All major pop-TV trends from the past, from “American Bandstand” to MTV, eventually withered or were replaced or took years to experience a rebirth.

Not that Jordin - or Blake or Melinda or perhaps even LaKisha or Chris Richardson or (ack!) Sanjaya - won’t go platinum. It only stands to reason: If 74 million votes are cast to determine the winner, surely a million people will buy whatever prefab dreck is dumped into stores by Christmas.

Because of that, pushing a million units barely registers in the “Idol” universe. It signifies nothing other than the flat-lining extension of a fad, something Davis - a reportedly dictatorial overseer of the “Idol” album franchise - seemed to acknowledge in his awkwardly delivered “report card.”

It came off like a speech to BMG shareholders, one touting the current (and reluctant) golden boy while offering backhanded support to last year’s final two standouts.

“The big news has been the huge explosion of Chris Daughtry,” he noted. “Yes, Taylor Hicks’ new single of `Heaven Knows’ can still take him and his platinum album much further, and the new single `Love Story’ can still do it for Katharine McPhee. But it’s been Daughtry who has broken through as the entire music industry’s biggest-selling artist of the year.”

That sure sounded like, “Yes, we know we have to keep plugging Taylor and Kat, even though they’re tanking - but we sure love that Daughtry is raking in big bucks! Let’s take credit for that!”

In reality, Daughtry’s album is probably the one meddled with least by Davis and his misdirected makeover rubes: It sounds exactly like what he would have made anyway. He was just fortunate to have such a huge launching pad.

Jordin and Blake, however, are only slightly fresher than Kat and Taylor. Steered incorrectly, glossed-up and not allowed to be hip and urbanized (as Kelly Clarkson and Fantasia Barrino were on their second albums), Jordin’s first disc could come off as blandly as Kat’s. Just ask Ruben Studdard or Bo Bice how easy it is to rebound from that.

Blake could benefit from NOT winning - the kinda-rock-kinda-not fans he would appeal to most might view his runner-up finish as cooler than being crowned “Idol.” Daughtry has neatly slotted into that role as well, but there’s a crucial difference: Daughtry actually rocks, no matter how sick to death I am of hearing “Home.” Blake, as his final turn indicated, is nothing more than a Maroon 5 knockoff coasting on that group’s popularity.

He sings poorly, his airiness covering the fact that he lacks force and precision. His beatboxing is above-average, sure, but he’s not hip-hop - thus that flavor can at best be seasoning, not a foundation. He’s little more than a Teen Beat pinup - whereas Elliott Yamin, nobody’s idea of a beau-hunk but a far stronger vocalist, stands a much better chance at finding a lasting, faithful audience.

Melinda is too gifted not to curry favor with an adult crowd that still loves Anita Baker and misses Tina Turner. LaKisha will settle into gospel, where she’ll shine. Phil Stacey could cut a country album and surprise. Gina Glocksen could join an Evanescence-ish band and do likewise.

Jordin is a total wild card - though why can’t I shake the feeling that, like Kellie Pickler, her future is more in being a TV personality than being a singer? She’s superior to Pickler, for sure - but will she be entirely engaging as a pop star, or just a cute summer fling? Years ago, when “Idol” began, everyone thought Justin Guarini could be a viable radio hitmaker, too. Now he hosts red-carpet arrival shows.

Most importantly, will Jordin be insistent on pursuing her musical desires, the way Kelly and Fantasia and (though he lost his latest battle) Clay Aiken have? Will she fight to present the real Jordin, the way Kelly (the one and only true “American Idol,” if you ask me) has lately in the lead-up to her angrier, more rockin’ third album, “My December”? For how long will she be an obedient 19 Management property and fulfill the wishes of her contract holders?

Above all, can she last?

She’s a nice girl and all, so I hate to be mean - but I doubt it.

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