The “American Idol” gender gap is turning into a canyon. While the four female winners have all maintained varying degrees of success from smash (Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson) to respected and solid (Fantasia) to multi-disciplinary good (Jordin Sparks), the same can’t be said for the male champs.
With the news this week that Kris Allen has parted ways with his major label home after two modestly selling albums, all but the two most recent male “Idol” winners have lost their label deals. Meanwhile, the four women have kept theirs. In fact, out of the first five male “Idol” champs, only one has made it past their second major label release.
Season two winner Ruben Studdard, whose sales plummeted from nearly 2 million for his 2003 debut to 483,000 for its gospel follow-up and half that amount for his 2006 album, The Return, made it to three before being dropped. Otherwise, season five’s Taylor Hicks and nine’s Lee DeWyze flamed out after one and David Cook and Allen made it two before parting ways with their label homes.
What gives? Is there really some kind of “Idol” male curse?
“I don’t necessarily think it’s a case of gender discrimination,” said Billboard associate director of charts Keith Caulfield. “I think it may have something to do with solo male artists often having a more difficult time in the world of pop music than solo female pop artists.” If you look at the charts on any given week you’ll see what Caulfield is talking about.
The Billboard Hot 100 is lousy with hits from the likes of Taylor Swift, Pink, Ellie Goulding, Carly Rae Jepsen and Katy Perry, but most of the male artists are either in bands, hip-hop/R&B acts or the rare pop breakthroughs like Gotye and Justin Bieber. The latter have also benefitted from a viral stickiness that none of the “Idol” winners have been able to harness to date.
“[Fourth place finisher] Daughtry was able to work around that by making himself into a band and he’s still signed, but he’s seeing fewer returns, too,” said Caulfield. “When you have a lot of male winners that are all kind of in the same vein — Cook, Allen, Lee DeWyze … they’re all kind of cut from the same cloth and not terribly sonically different from one another, so it makes it hard for them all to live in the pop landscape at the same time.”
Season 10 winner Scotty McCreery broke the cycle with his platinum country debut, but he’s also faced diminishing returns at country radio lately. Last year’s winner, Philip Phillips, who is in that same general bland pop/rock vein as Allen, DeWyze and Cook, has scored a big hit with his Olympics smash “Home” and is still working on his debut.
Hollywood Reporter music editor Shirley Halperin agreed with Caulfield that the “Idol” male dysfunction is not so much chromosomal as it is a music industry issue. “My friend does a music business program at NYU and he said if he was an A&R guy now he would only sign women in their teens or 20s,” she said. “That’s what sells. It’s also a numbers game. These ‘Idol’ record contracts were written so long ago that the economics don’t work. They have very generous terms for the winner, but it’s just not something a record company can afford to pay. It’s not like they’re not getting a chance. They all get a chance and then the labels see if they’re worth holding on to.”
Halperin said it’s coincidental that the women have fared better and she thinks former “Idol” label home Sony may have gotten a bit lazy with the winners they handled, pairing them with the same big-name songwriters and producers without straying from the formula enough. “[New ‘Idol’ label home] Interscope is trying to get it right, which you can see with Phillip’s first single, which he didn’t want to release, but which was a bit hit,” she said. “If his album is successful it could be a pace setter for the rest of the ‘Idol’ winners that they need to listen up. The biggest problem with the winners has been that they think they know better.”
Aside from the relative sameness of recent winners and the difficulty of breaking male solo acts, “Idol” blogger MJ Santilli said “Idol”‘s slipping ratings have also meant its pop culture stranglehold has loosened since its heyday. “It’s not as important as it used to be and people are still watching it and are willing to vote for someone they like, but they don’t seem willing to support them afterward,” she said. “Even if a girl won, I don’t know that she’d have better luck.”
The “cute” factor might also play a role, as in the “Idol” teen girl demo may be willing to vote for the attractive young man, but when it comes to buying his record they’re not as interested and may have moved on. “It’s vital that the winners are marketed so that they are able to appeal to an audience outside of the ‘Idol’ bubble,” she said. “Teen girls’ attention spans are not that long.”
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