May 23, 2007: That was the night Jordin Sparks was crowned “American Idol” champion, defeating Blake Lewis in a finale that was dubbed “one of the least suspenseful” in the show’s history … and not just because Sparks was going head-to-head with a beat-boxing white guy from Seattle.
See, back then, girls not only won “Idol,” they dominated it: Sparks was the fourth female singer to win the competition in six years (joining Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia Barrino and Carrie Underwood), and the list of those who didn’t — Tamyra Gray, Diana DeGarmo, Katharine McPhee, Jennifer-freaking-Hudson — was nearly as estimable. Of course, since then, things have changed, and, thanks to an audience that has gotten increasingly older, female and conservative, Sparks remains the last girl to take home the “Idol” crown.
In a way, the 2,000 days since Sparks began her reign have also coincided with “Idol’s” slide from cultural relevancy: Ratings are down, judges have been shuffled and the parade of white guys with guitars that have taken the title stands in stark contrast to the rise of young, racially diverse — and above all else, female — pop stars that have come to rule both the charts and the pop culture landscape (though, it should be noted, Phillip Phillips has done rather well for himself). And don’t think the folks behind the show haven’t noticed … the addition of Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey was a bold attempt to address those shortcomings. Now, with the right pieces in place, all they can do is sit back and hope viewers will follow their lead.
And it looks like that gamble may pay off. Because as the show prepares to pare its Top 40 down to a Top 24 this week, it seems like a mortal lock: A girl will win “American Idol.”
Why? Well, for starters, there’s the fact that both the show and the producers have done a fabulous job of stacking the deck in favor of the females. Last week, viewers were made very aware of the fact that it’s been six years since Sparks won this thing, and there certainly seems to be an increased focus on the whole “Girls vs. Guys” storyline (I suppose you’ve got to rally the fanbase somehow). There’s also been no shortage of superlatives showered on this year’s crop of female singers: everyone from Angela Miller and Candice Glover to Melinda Ademi and, yes, even Zoanette have been praised lavishly, to the point where they are probably the show’s biggest breakout stars at this juncture. Seriously, outside of Charlie Askew, name a male singer who’s made an impact in the competition.
And that last point brings up a larger (and more important) one: For whatever reason, the judges — particularly Nicki and Mariah — have excelled at choosing female singers, while, at the same time, completely failed when it came to picking their male counterparts. The girls’ side is loaded with potential breakout stars … talent that not only spans genres, but age as well. There’s 15-year-old Juliana Chahayed, 17-year-old Shubha Vedula, and the country tandem of Jenny Beth Willis and Janelle Arthur (to name just a few), artists that not only sound like stars of today, but feel like them too. You believe they can win, which is a marked improvement over previous female singers like Crystal Bowersox or Jessica Sanchez, prodigiously talented singers that didn’t quite seem to fit in the contemporary landscape.
As for the guys? Well, if you see a potential star in this mix, please let me know. Can you tell the difference between Jimmy Smith and Josh Holiday? Do you really think re-treads like Johnny Keyser or Nick Boddington can actually put it all together? Does anyone believe Josh “Jada” Davila or Gurpreet Singh Sarin have a realistic shot at winning? Aside from the off-kilter Askew, this year’s field of male contestants is as underwhelming as they come … a collection of crooners that, if anything, feel like carbon copies of previous champs (and a whole spate of former also-rans).
So, yes, the deck is astronomically stacked in the girls’ favor. But will “American Idol” viewers vote accordingly? That remains the biggest uncertainty. They’ve certainly been, uh, nudged by both judges and show producers, now we’ve all just got to sit back and see what happens. But the time is right, and the talent is there … and demographics be damned, change is in the air. Which is why, finally, when “Idol” reaches its finale this May, I believe we’ll finally have our successor to Sparks. Long may she reign.
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