While Bo Bice spent the '90s touring with his band, probably performing the same songs he's been singing on "American Idol," many of his competitors were still in grade school, maybe doing the solo at their yearly choir concert.
With "Idol" producers raising the age limit this season, there are 12 years between some of the finalists, an age difference some feel is unfair. And with three of the four youngest finalists being the first to be eliminated, there just might be proof that Aaliyah was wrong when she sang "Age Ain't Nothin' But a Number."
"It is hard when you're 17 working against 28- and 29-year-olds," Mikalah Gordon said after she was eliminated two weeks ago. "Bo knows exactly what he's doing onstage, and Nadia knows exactly what to sing onstage. They're experienced. They know what's going on and they're really comfortable with who they are, too. I mean, the thing that I wish people would remember is that even though I'm 17 and I'm really confident, that's also a critical age where you're still trying to find yourself."
Gordon was the youngest singer in the final 12, followed by 19-year-olds Jessica Sierra and Anthony Fedorov and 20-year-old Lindsey Cardinale. Sierra and Cardinale have also been eliminated, and Federov has been to the bottom three. On the other end, Bice and Constantine Maroulis are 29 (they were 28 when they auditioned), Nadia Turner and Scott Savol are 28 and Anwar Robinson is 25. Bice, Maroulis and Savol have never been to the bottom three.
Paula Abdul, who was 26 when her career took off in 1988, agrees with Gordon that older singers are at an advantage for a couple of reasons, the biggest being that someone in their mid- to late-20s can relate to a lot more songs.
"Expecting a 16-year-old to sing about heartaches and sing it with emotions and have that gratifying feeling of hearing that, it's a stretch, because at 16 years old, you don't really know what heartache is about," Abdul said. "28 years old, these people have already experienced several rounds of heartaches."
Older singers not only have more wisdom, but more desire as well, Abdul added.
"At 28 years old, I really believe that it's that magical age when you are at that crossroads where, if you haven't made it in your music career by then, you're pushing the limit," she explained. "That feeling of desperation and pulling out all the stops ... that's exactly what's going through their minds."
Interestingly, that desire is exactly why "American Idol" co-executive producers Ken Warwick and Nigel Lythgoe raised the age limit from 26 to 28 (see "Lock Up Your Mom: 'Idol' Raises Age Limit").
"We kinda felt bad that there were a lot of kids who had the talent, they certainly weren't old, and they were a little bit more passionate in that they had been around the block, they knew how difficult it really was and they were prepared to go that extra mile with everything," Warwick said. "We thought it was unfair we were closing the door on them."
Warwick admits that 27- and 28-year-olds have "a bigger reservoir of knowledge," but considers talk of them having an advantage on "American Idol" rubbish.
"If all of the 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds suffered and we had a show that was completely 26- to 28-year-olds, that might be right, but that isn't the case," he said. "The age is as diverse across the final 12 as it's ever been. In the final 12, there are a couple of youngsters and a couple of 28-year-olds and the rest are in the middle."
Jessica Sierra, the 19-year-old who was eliminated last week, agrees. "[The older contestants] have been doing it for longer and stuff, but we all have equal opportunity, and we made it this far because we're all talented," she said.
Warwick, who still refers to the contestants as "the kids," said the only time he is reminded that some of the singers are significantly older than others is during the interview segments, not the performances. "We generally find that the older ones have more to say and are a bit more entertaining, although you had someone like Mikalah, who was the youngest of the lot, but also the most entertaining," he said.
None of the singers, including Bice and Maroulis, are as knowledgeable about music as they should be, Warwick contends.
"I'm absolutely flabbergasted at the huge, huge hole of musical knowledge in the kids in America," the British producer said. "I just had a kid who wanted to sing 'Climb Every Mountain.' I said, hold on a second, you know that was sung by Mother Superior [in "The Sound of Music"]? He said, 'No, I only heard the song for the first time last night.' ... Last season, Fantasia had never heard 'Summertime.' So I like to think we are educating all the kids a bit with the show."
Warwick said "Idol" can expect the age limit to be the same next season. "We look at these things afterwards, we do a debrief and ask, 'Did this work? Did that work?' And I have to say, this is working," he said.
Regardless, Gordon believes she had an extra challenge being 17, especially since she was the only singer required to spend a part of each day in schooling.
"I had to work really hard," she said. "I had to leave [rehearsals] earlier than everyone else just because I had to get my three hours [of schooling] in. And they thought they were really funny. 'Did you have a nice day at school?' And I was like, 'Thank you. All jokesters here.' "