American Wash-up

American Idol will wrap up this week by naming a winner on Wednesday night’s show after the finalist give their last performances, the judges offer their last tongue-in-cheek comments and host Ryan Seacrest makes his last few bad jokes of the show’s sixth season.

American Idol will wrap up this week by naming a winner on Wednesday night’s show after the finalist give their last performances, the judges offer their last tongue-in-cheek comments and host Ryan Seacrest makes his last few bad jokes of the show’s sixth season.

The two remaining contestants, Jordin Sparks and Blake Lewis, will have their last chance to impress America by singing on tonight’s episode. No doubt the show will attract lots of viewers (over 31 million viewers tuned in to the final performances of season five), but at this point in the competition the kind of people who will actually call in and vote, the real Idol fans, have chosen sides. After the votes are tallied, one will be named the next winner of American Idol on the two-hour-long finale tomorrow night.

Sparks, 17, hails from Glendale, Ariz., and sings like an angel. Really, she does. She could sing anything with that big voice of hers and has shown incredible range throughout the competition with songs like the Bee Gee’s “To Love Somebody,” Martina McBride’s “A Broken Wing” and Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.” She’s the daughter of former NFL defensive back Philippi Sparks, and though she looks like she could maybe take to the field, her demeanor reflects a very sweet and bubbly personality.

Besides singing well (everyone in the top five sings pretty well), Sparks is marketable. She’s young, she’s cute and she could sell albums. Her competitor, Lewis, clearly has a fan base, but he is better categorized as a novelty, rather than someone who could have longevity in show biz.

Lewis, 25, from Bothell, Wash., was for the first several weeks of the competition the goofy guy that beat boxed, and boy did he take that to the bank. That charm got him to the top 10, where he finally showed that he could sing, kind of. He has since kept the beat boxing to a minimum and instead infused most of his song arrangements with an electronica base. Sometimes it’s worked, and sometimes it’s been a little strange. His ballad renditions, like Tim McGraw’s “When the Stars Go Blue,” have come off as insincere, but he’s given some strong performances with The Zombie’s “Time of the Season” and “Roxanne” by The Police. His voice sounds most comfortable singing songs by Maroon 5, and I’ve always thought one Maroon 5 was more than enough.

Sparks has been favored by the judges over Lewis all season, and though Randy, Paula and Simon are ever so knowledgeable, their comments are unlikely to deter public opinion, especially now. The best evidence of this is the case of Sanjaya Malakar. Perhaps the most obnoxious and untalented contestant to grace the Idol stage, Malakar, a 17-year-old from Federal Way, Wash., remained on the show this season weeks longer than the judges or anyone sane thought he should have been. He was finally voted off on the April 18 show, leaving six real singers in the race for Idol victory.

The best explanation for Malakar’s unwarranted success, and the success of other unlikely contestants in the past seasons is that the easily entertained general public likes novelty. America votes these underdogs, these unassuming victors, into the limelight and is so utterly pleased by doing so. But do they buy their records? The numbers suggest that they don’t.

The most successful Idol winners and former contestants have been the ones with big voices and pretty faces. Kelly Clarkson has been on the top of the charts since she became the American Idol winner in 2002. She’s sold a total of 8.2 million albums, with her third to be released in June. Carrie Underwood, winner of season four, has become a crossover sensation, getting play on both pop and country music radio stations, and has sold 5.42 million records. Clarkson and Underwood are the only two Idol alums to win Grammy awards, each with two to their name. Are you getting the picture? These are the kind of winners that actually win.

Season two winner Ruben Studdard, though voted to the top for his deep voice and teddy bear characteristics, has only sold 2.44 million albums total, and he’s put out three. Clay Aiken, season two runner-up, experienced brief fame among the adult easy listening crowd, making him the third most successful former contestant of the show, but have you even heard his name in the last two years? Probably not, because nobody cares anymore.

Taylor Hicks, the newest American Idol, has sold only 677,000 albums since December and, unlike Clarkson, didn’t play at the Rose Garden when he came to town. He was a man of antics, old-fashioned song choices and graying hair. He was barely within the age requirement, the maximum age being 28 upon the time of a contestant’s first audition. Yeah, he won the whole thing, but he’s no longer appealing to any major demographic. He’s old and he doesn’t look good in a mini skirt, so no one wants to see him perform anymore.

People like novelty, but in the end prefer their real expectations to be filled. They like to entertain the idea of someone different finding success through a popular vote, but ultimately the biggest successes are the Kelly Clarkson’s of the world. They’re just easier to market.

If Sparks wins, she’ll (hopefully) finish high school, then put out an album in a few weeks and lose weight just in time to promote her new single. If Lewis wins, his album may go platinum, but we won’t see him at the Grammys next year and he’ll probably have to start playing small venues with Malakar, where 12-year-old girls, his only remaining fans, will throw stuffed animals at him as a profession of their love.