Be careful what you wish for. While “American Idol” fans (and certainly producers) have been itching for what they hope will be the epic showdown between the Davids for months, now that the last woman standing, Syesha Mercado, has been tossed from the locker room , it’s worth asking: Do we really want a male “Idol”? Or, better yet, is there a jinx on male “Idol” winners?
Since season-one winner Kelly Clarkson took the mantle, two-thirds of “Idol” winners have been female and, to date, they have all managed to have very respectable (Fantasia Barrino, Jordin Sparks) if not superstar (Carrie Underwood, Clarkson) careers. The men, on the other hand, have had a less-stellar path. In fact, so far, the two male winners, season two’s Ruben Studdard and season five’s Taylor Hicks, are the only top vote-getters to be dropped from their major-label deals .
The tale of the tape tells it all: Underwood and Clarkson are the undisputed “Idol” champs, with debuts that sold 6.4 million and 5.9 million copies, respectively, according to SoundScan. Studdard nudges Fantasia by just more than 20,000 copies with his 1.78 million-selling debut, but he was dropped from J Records last year after his third album, The Return, sold just over 230,000 copies.
Fantasia, on the other hand, received three Grammy nominations for her second album and is working on her third while prepping to play Celie in the upcoming film adaptation of “The Color Purple” musical. Hicks, who was dropped from J Records in January after just one album, brings up the rear with just more than 700,000 copies of his debut sold, which made him the first “Idol” winner not to go platinum. In fact, his debut sold 40,000 copies less than Sparks’ first effort, which was released in November and is currently getting a second wind thanks to the top-five single “No Air,” which will likely further boost her album sales.
While it might be too early to say that there’s some sort of bad mojo for the top “Idol” men, Michael Slezak, senior writer for EW.com, said it is becoming clear that America is more willing to embrace a female winner singing the traditionally gooey career-launching ballad. “Somehow, Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson singing the cheesy ‘Idol’ anthem as their first single didn’t seem to harm their credibility quite as much,” he said. “America has a history of embracing their divas singing cheesy ballads, but it’s a bit harder for male artists to get radio play with that schlock.”
Slezak said he didn’t think the career arcs of the two men who’ve won “Idol” to date are indicative of what might happen to Cook or Archuleta, but he did wonder if the latter’s preference for squishy, adult-contemporary ballads might make him a square peg with radio. “[Archuleta] falls into that Clay Aiken sort of square, which is a tough sell at radio,” he said. “And when he was doing the Chris Brown song … he clearly doesn’t have it when it comes to contemporary music.”
Cook, on the other hand, has proven he can handle rock songs by acts like Switchfoot and Our Lady Peace and even put his own unique spin on tunes by Dolly Parton and Mariah Carey that are out of his comfort zone. “I think it’s better for ‘Idol’ if David Cook wins,” Slezak said. “They do need a male artist to win who can sell records.”
Geoff Mayfield, Billboard magazine’s director of charts/ senior analyst, said he’s not willing to go so far as to call male “Idol” winners cursed but rather sees their struggles as part of the traditional hit-or-miss nature of the music business. “I think it might be a coincidence, but it’s always down to how much talent does this person have once they’ve won,” he said. “And that’s true for any of [the winners]. I believe Jordin Sparks has the wherewithal to hang in there longer than Taylor Hicks because there’s more to work with than what Taylor had.”
But still, he said, it’s a case-by-case call, whether the winner is male or female. For Studdard, who came out of the gate strong, the rapidly declining returns on his second and third albums would likely have gotten him booted from any label, “Idol” crown or not, and the call on Hicks was much easier given the difficulty he had in connecting with a mainstream audience.
“Idol” hasn’t been particularly kind to male runner-ups, either, from season-one also-ran Justin Guarini and season two’s once-shining star Clay Aiken to season-four former major-label rocker Bo Bice and last season’s beatboxing flame-out, Blake Lewis. Though Aiken is back with his fourth studio album and just finished a well-received run on Broadway in “Spamalot,” it does seem as if “Idol” fans love voting for the boys but aren’t nearly as hyped on buying their records.
And perhaps it’s also a coincidence, and likely a function of “Idol” being seven seasons in and ratings being down across the board due to the strike-impacted season, but the numbers for the show this year have consistently been down from previous highs. Though it is still the #1 show on TV, during last week’s Tuesday night episode, 21.8 million people tuned in, which was the lowest audience total for the show since season two, the Studdard/Aiken year.
“Winning ‘Idol’ has never been a [guarantee of future success],” Mayfield said. “It gives any artist who comes from there a familiarity with their fanbase in the comfort of their living rooms, but whether they can parlay that into something bigger depends on how much talent they have at the right time, right place.”
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