Tuesday, April 05, 2005

No Other Idols before Us?

This week American Idol staged a tribute to Broadway musicals, but they forgot to invite . . .

Mikalah Gordon? No, thank you very much. Hearing "there’s noooo business like shoooow business" in my head is punishment enough. Quick, think back to Anwar Robinson’s elegant rendition of If Ever I Would Leave You or Vonzell Solomon’s masterful reworking of People. Ah, that’s better.

Actually, I had in mind the original AI contestant whom the judges declared was better suited to the Great White Way: Clay Aiken. Two years later, we are still talking about Clay, his televised personal transformation and his transformation of American Idol TV.

I am one among many who thought the season two competition between Clay and Ruben Studdard could never be equaled or surpassed for entertainment value. Last year some saw Clay potential in John Stevens or Jon Peter Lewis and others of us found no Clay-like marvel to champion, leading to a deeply unsatisfying AI3 experience.

AI2 was unique in that the two strongest contenders were identified early in the top 12 countdown and led the competition all the way to the final showdown. Clay’s momentum carried him past the finale and into the American Idol record books. He changed the terms of the contest. Someone else won the title, but Clay became the first and only AI phenomenon.

Who is this season’s Clay Aiken, if there is one? The male judges said it first: Anthony Federov reminds us of Clay. He’s got the glasses, tousled hair, non-threatening boy-next-door appeal. Never mind that Anthony looked hunkier at week one than Clay did at the end of his metamorphosis, that he has demonstrated zero improvement as a performer, that he lacks the Aiken charm and vocal talent. Clay-inspired message boards are filled with the tormented confessions of fans who feel disloyal for liking Anthony.

Just wait until they realize there’s an even bigger threat to Our Man Clay’s legacy.

Look, I have been as much of a holdout as anyone, hoping for lightning to strike twice, judging all comers by the Aiken standard. Meanwhile Clay obviously moved onward and upward, severing all visible ties to the AI franchise.

Tuesday evening at 8:12pm I discovered that I have moved on, too. My clock stopped. My heart stopped. Finally, I found my new American phenom and his name is Constantine Maroulis.

Some of my reactions to Constantine are familiar. As I watched him reinventing My Funny Valentine with his very special brand of cool, I felt a thrill of recognition as I did when Clay first performed Solitaire. Like Clay, Constantine has a voice at odds with his appearance and uses the contrast to his advantage. He seems to blossom by the week, surprising us with his versatility and command over each new genre. Constantine may or may not win the American Idol title, but he is dominating the competition (and mugging for the camera) as no one has since Clay.

There is only one contestant blatantly trying to emulate Clay and his formula for success and it’s not Constantine. If there’s room enough in the Clay Nation for a weak substitute like Anthony who dares to encroach on hallowed ground, surely we can admire the magnetic force of an original talent without guilt. Surely we can appreciate and support any new favorite without igniting a civil war.

That’s all I’m saying.

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