Does Winning ‘American Idol’ Matter?

Runners-up, top-five finishers have soared over the past few seasons.

So much emphasis is placed each year on who wins the coveted “American Idol” title that it’s sometimes hard to recall that a few of the biggest stars in the recent “Idol” universe were sent home either well before the finale or on the last night.

This season marked the first one which all the contestants really seemed to understand that just making it past Hollywood to the show was probably enough to launch some kind of career. You could tell by the way they marketed themselves using their sex appeal (Haley Scarnato), hairstyles (Sanjaya Malakar), similarity to Justin Timberlake (Chris Richardson) and quirky mouth-magic gimmicks (Blake Lewis). Chances are, they took their cues from last season’s galaxy of non-winner stars 2-8, who have all either released or are about to release their own albums.

Though Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood are certified superstars, given the relatively modest success of the second albums from Ruben Studdard and Fantasia Barrino, and the solid but buzzless debut from last year’s winner, Taylor Hicks, it begs the question: Does it really matter anymore who wins “Idol”?

Even one of this season’s finalists, beatbox-crazy Blake Lewis (see “Doug E. Fresh, ‘Police Academy’ Star Size Up ‘Idol’ Finalist Blake Lewis’ Beatboxing” ), feels like he’s won already, even if he falls short Wednesday night.

“I’ve never looked at it as a competition,” Lewis told MTV News. “Because I’m such an eclectic artist, I’ve just tried to represent myself, be true to myself this whole time. And I think I’ve done that, and I think the support from the show and all the fans of me on the show have seen that, and that’s why I’ve gone this far. … I won when I got into the top 10. I’ve already reached my goal, so regardless of win or lose, I think I’m a winner on this show already.”

Fellow finalist Jordin Sparks is on the “just glad to be nominated” train too, but she’s also not sure if winning is everything. “I came into this competition, and I really do want to win, I do, but at the same time, if I don’t, it’s not gonna be the end of the world,” she said. “It’s not going to be, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m never gonna sing again’ kind of thing. I would be happy if I won, and I would be happy if Blake won. I’m just glad that I got a chance to be a part of it.”

Last year, Ace Young went out in the new Sanjaya memorial spot (i.e. #7), which he said was the perfect time for him. “When I was on the show, I realized that after I got off I received so much press I really don’t think anyone in the world would have known who I was [otherwise],” said Young, who is finishing work on his S-Curve Records (Joss Stone) debut, due in the fall. “Everybody knows my name, and I don’t think they would have if I’d stayed another week.”

Young said winning is a double-edge sword. Early on, the winners were the ones who moved on to great fame, but as the show has grown in popularity, more finalists have had an opportunity to shine. For him, that chance was helping to write “It’s Not Over,” the first single from fellow season-five castoff Chris Daughtry.

Elliott Yamin has seen firsthand that third place is not a bad spot to land. Last year’s second runner-up just had a guest spot on “Idol” last week and is riding high with strong sales of his self-titled debut album. “The exposure the show gives you creates so many opportunities,” said Yamin, who had nothing but praise for the “Idol” producers for helping him jumpstart his career. “But I don’t think you have to win to be successful, especially if you can prove your real talent on the show. I’m glad I could get in a position I am today and to do it independently. I had more creative freedom to do it my way [than if I had won].”

The day after her exit two weeks ago, one of this year’s favorites to take it all, LaKisha Jones, was quick with a quip about how she felt about finishing fourth and what it meant for her post-”Idol” career. “Only thing I can say is, look at Chris Daughtry,” Jones said.

Ah yes, Daughtry. Six months after getting booted from “Idol,” Chris Daughtry was equally blasé about not taking the top spot. While he was the rare “Idol” to vent a bit of frustration about being booted early (see “Daughtry On Elimination: ‘I Wasn’t Going To Pretend To Be Happy’ “ ), by October, Daughtry had changed his tune. “I wasn’t too happy about it,” he said. “But for me, it was the best thing that happened. Now I get to put a band together and write my stuff and put the album out that I wanted to put out. So I got what I wanted out of the whole process.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Daughtry put that band together and released a self-titled debut that has sold more than 2 million copies, easily eclipsing some guy named Taylor Hicks, who won “Idol” last year and has sold a very respectable, if more modest, 700,000.

“I would definitely say if you win the competition, you have something to live up to,” Daughtry said.

Rockers typically face the hardest slog of all “Idol” contestants, fighting for credibility while singing cheesy songs week after week (see: Constantine Maroulis, Bo Bice). One of this year’s early castoffs, Chris Sligh, admitted after his ouster that, coming from an alt-rock background with his group, Half Past Forever, he never wanted to win.

“I think winning ‘American Idol’ would hurt what I was really going for,” said Sligh, who almost dropped out of the competition when he faced particularly harsh criticism for his arrangement of Diana Ross’ “Endless Love” (see “Chris Sligh: ‘I Actually Almost Dropped Out’ “ ). “There is that competitive side of me that kind of kicks in. After that top 12 performance, I kind of took some time to decompress and talk to some people that I trusted, and then I came out and I was like, “I want to do it on my own terms, and if that means that I get cut early, then that means I get cut early.’ ”

Season four’s sixth-place finisher, Constantine “Bohemian Rhapsody” Maroulis, knows all about the rocker conundrum. But the current guest star on daytime soap “The Bold and the Beautiful” said at this point, the music industry has clearly wised up to the fact that “Idol” is a showcase for all different kinds of performers. “People realize it’s not corny to go on the show; it’s big business,” he said. “Not winning, fortunately, turned out to be a good thing for me. I play to win, so I didn’t necessarily want to go home early, that’s just what happened.”

Despite his early exit, Maroulis has parlayed his exposure into his own rock tours, stints in Broadway shows such as “The Wedding Singer,” a sitcom deal with ABC that fell through, a song on a 2005 Queen tribute album and his own self-financed solo debut, due in August.

As if further proof is needed, last year’s #6 finisher, Kellie Pickler, hit #1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart with her debut album, Small Town Girl, in October. So far, she’s scanned almost as many copies (526,000) as Hicks.

“Do you have to win? Absolutely not,” said a groggy Pickler, who is out on the road supporting Brad Paisley this summer. “Look at Chris Daughtry, and Bucky [Covington], who came out and debuted at #1 on the country charts. We all leave winners with the ultimate goal of having a record deal. … The only pressure with winning is the higher expectations on you. Usually sixth place doesn’t get a record deal!”

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