When it comes to “American Idol”, sometimes the only way to win is to lose. In general, the show has a checkered history of creating superstars, with only two winners who could legitimately claim that title: season one’s Kelly Clarkson and season four’s Carrie Underwood.
But until last season’s anomalous Scotty McCreery (you kind of have to give him a pass because he’s a country star and that’s a whole different audience than the more fickle pop/R&B one), the show’s track record when it comes to male winners has been pretty dismal.
We bring this up because either Phillip Phillips or Joshua Ledet, or possibly both of them, will be in the “Idol” season 11 finale in two weeks. Both men have carved their own unique lanes and deserve a shot at the title, but unlike McCreery, at this point, neither of those lanes screams “platinum star.”
Phillips has clearly skated through the contest on his good looks, earnest, “aw, shucks” demeanor, gritty vocals and did we mention how cute he is? But his foot stomping, growling Dave Matthews Lite sound is hardly the kind that is tearing up the charts these days. It’s also hard to imagine all those squealing girl fans rushing out to buy a moody, jammy CD of introspective acoustic ballads seven months from now.
Similarly, Ledet has earned a legion of fans for his soaring, church-bred brand of old school soul. He has rightfully earned his praise, but his Al Green/Otis Redding delivery is an anachronism . Just ask Ray Charles impersonator and season five winner Taylor Hicks. Unless mentor Jimmy Iovine and his crew can figure out a way to pull a Bruno Mars on Ledet and make him seem contemporary, he could end up like Hicks, who followed his platinum debut by being dropped a year later by Arista Records and then plummeting into obscurity.
Hicks isn’t alone among “Idol”’s male winners, either.
Season two champ Ruben Studdard rushed out of the gate with a smash debut in 2003, then followed with a poorly-selling gospel album, a flop return to R&B form third effort and then, yes, a separation from his label and difficulty getting his swag back since.
Though he appeared on Wednesday night’s show playing his new single, season seven champ David Cook has also gone from a platinum-selling debut to a second album that barely sold 120,000 and then being dropped from his deal.
The jury is still out on season eight winner Kris Allen. The first-week sales for his self-titled 2009 debut were the lowest-ever at that point for an “Idol” champ at barely 80,000, topping out just shy of 330,000. Allen’s second major-label album, Thank You Camellia, is due out later this month.
The biggest cautionary tale of a cute male singer with a very specific sound and a seemingly inflexible will to do things their way is season nine winner Lee DeWyze. With a similarly low-key persona and guitar-strumming delivery, DeWyze set the new low bar for male “Idol” winners when his debut, Live It Up had the worst-selling first week ever for a champ (39,000), then fell 74 slots in week two before completely disappearing a short time later after selling less than 170,000 copies. He was, not surprisingly, let go by his label a short time later and has been off the radar ever since.
Season 10 winner McCreery has turned things around, with a platinum debut and strong support from the country community, but with Ledet and Phillips unable to count on the loyalty of country fans to boost their post-“Idol” careers, they won’t have the same built-in fanbase McCreery tapped into.
It’s worth noting that even though female winners such as Fantasia and Jordin Sparks have not always reached the heights of Clarkson and Underwood, no female “Idol” winner has ever been dropped by her major label.
Do you think Phillips and Ledet have a chance at turning around the “Idol” male curse? Let us know in comments below.
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