"American Idol" has never been just a singing competition, with personality and performance style carrying just as much weight since Kelly Clarkson took the first title in 2002. But as the contestants have gotten better and the competition stiffer, the number of vital factors has grown.
There's style and song arrangement, both overseen by professionals hired by the show. Some have argued the importance of camera time, which is, of course, out of a contestant's control. And there's song selection, the one true strategic element in the "Idol" race.
All you have to do is watch an episode and count how many times you hear the words "I didn't like that song for you," or "Perfect song" or "That was a big risk with your song choice" to see how much it has played a part in the fifth season.
Or just ask last season's runner-up, Bo Bice. "That's the most important part of 'Idol,' " he said.
Contestants have lived or died by their song picks since the semifinals this season, and what should make things interesting is that many of the finalists have different approaches to choosing songs.
"I try to pick songs that are my favorite songs that I listen to, like that Fuel song has been one of my favorite songs ever since it came out," said Chris Daughtry, referencing his rendition of "Hemorrhage (In My Hands)" in the second week of semifinals.
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"I try to go with songs that I already know, even though they could be cliché to sing on the show," Katharine McPhee added. "I wanted to sing this other song a couple of weeks ago, and I chose to do [something new instead] and it didn't come out as well. You just have to go with what you know that you can do the best, what you love, what feels good and what represents you."
Familiarity may be key to some, but others are more about finding lyrics they can relate to at the moment, which could be part of a song that's entirely new to the performer.
"If I can't tie to it emotionally, I'm not going to do it," Ace Young said. "That is my key. If I can feel it and I can portray it, than you can feel it with me. Entertainment is my stress relief, so it should be your release watching."
It's also not always an option to go with something familiar when contestants get into the theme weeks.
"When that happens I say just pick one that speaks to you," Bucky Covington said. "Pick one that runs through your bones, one that makes you move. That's how I try to pick them."
In the finals, once the contestants learn the genre for the coming week, the show's producers actually do get them started by sharing several possibilities.
"For instance, when we did the '50s, we gave them a CD of '50s songs. We actually gave them Barry Manilow's '50s album and then a whole pile of other songs that we could clear, 'cause obviously we have to get music licenses," co-executive producer Nigel Lythgoe said. "And then they choose their own song. And they'll sing it a couple of times and go, 'I don't know if this is right,' or 'Yeah, I love it.' "
Contestants also have the option of choosing a different song within the theme, which is what helped Bo through last year's competition.
"Don't just take a list of songs you're given," he advised. "Do your research. Find things that move you, find things that really speak from your heart, things that don't just encompass your voice, but they encompass your spirit and your soul and what you stand for and are about."
The risk in finding something else is that producers still have to clear it — and if they can't, the contestant better have a backup prepared.
"American Idol" has deals with the two major publishing companies, ASCAP and BMI, but that's only part of clearing a song to be performed on the show.
"If we wanted to, say, clear a song by the Eagles, we would have to ask the publisher, the person who holds the rights, the songwriter and each one of the Eagles," Lythgoe said. "And if one of them says no, we can't sing the song."
According to Vincent Candilora, senior vice president of licensing at ASCAP, there are five different rights in the copyright of a song and "Idol" needs two of them to use it on the show: the performance right, which ASCAP and BMI handle, and the synchronization right, which "you need to get when you sync a musical composition with any type of visual: motion picture, video, etc.," he said. "That's handled directly by the musical publishers."
"The publishers are pretty up for this because it's good exposure for their song," added Phillip R. Graham, senior vice president of writer/publisher relations at BMI. "If it becomes the winner's song, they get a lot of performances out of it, and it's good for them."
Still, several artists have never cleared their songs for "Idol," both legends (the Beatles, for one) and newcomers.
"A lot of people that have written the songs just say, 'No, I don't want you to sing my song, ' " Lythgoe said. "People just don't want their songs sung by good singers."
But current songs aren't that popular among the contestants anyway. The judges might suggest them, especially for younger singers like Paris Bennett, but semifinalists Ayla Brown, Kinnik Sky and Heather Cox are proof that it's not always the best idea. They were voted out after singing Natasha Bedingfield, Alicia Keys and Mariah Carey songs, respectively.
"You've got the propensity to be compared to the current artist, so you have to be careful with that," explained Mandisa, who has stuck with the classics.
"I'm young, but the songs that I grew up to aren't the songs that are out now," Bennett said in her defense. "I am a big Gladys Knight fan and a big Tina Turner, Roberta Flack fan. I'm an old spirit."
Kellie Pickler, who has been praised for her song choices in recent weeks, has a simple strategy — and one that seems to be working.
"You just have to pick a song that showcases your vocal range and your talent and just hope that America likes it," she said.