Wednesday, May 31, 2006

AI5 Anticlimax Celebrates Anti-Idols

Taylor Hicks has been crowned the 2006 winner of American Idol. The throwback reigned at the Kodak.

The best man left prevailed.

Elliott Yamin was my sentimental favorite – an underdog who motivated me to vote when the contestants still numbered in double digits. I saw greatness in Elliott’s talent and character but never dared to dream that he could outlast Mandisa Hundley, Ace Young, Kellie Pickler, Paris Bennett and Chris Daughtry. Taylor was my second favorite – and, as Elliott advanced, an increasingly distant second. When Elliott left, I forced myself to vote for Taylor – as if it were the bitterest medicine. Due to the expanded voting period and extra phone lines, I actually voted 30 minutes longer for Taylor than I ever had for Elliott. That felt just. Plain. Weird. But I knew then that I would be glad someday I did it – and I already am.

If your favorite was eliminated earlier in the competition, the lopsided showdown between Hicks and Katharine McPhee likely seemed anticlimactic. With so many strong vocalists in the top five, their sizable fan bases felt detached from the contest’s conclusion. Special guests and other surprises planned by the crew provided the only genuine drama in what was widely regarded as the most entertaining season finale in AI history.

As my husband was quick to remind me, he predicted Taylor’s ascendancy the first time we saw him in the auditions – exactly as he had done for Clay Aiken. Despite obvious disparities in style and appearance, Taylor and Clay have much in common within the context of American Idol. Both inspired the fierce devotion of followers who founded and populated large internet communities. Both incurred the chronic contempt of Simon Cowell who, in his myopic vision, could not foresee either as a singing star. Both received enough votes each week all the way through their respective seasons to keep them out of the group identified as the bottom two or three.

Although not the technical winner of season two, Clay was the first contestant to release an album – with the gracious permission of Ruben Studdard – and the contestant who earned the highest sales that year. Clay used his popularity as leverage to record a debut free of sexual content that he would be proud to let children hear. RCA, under the Sony/BMG umbrella, didn’t seem to appreciate Clay’s talent or understand how to present it. Measure of a Man was a good pop album – owing to Clay’s determination to select the most appropriate songs offered to him and vocals too strong for the studio Bandzilla to bury – but hardly the showcase he needed or deserved.

Like Clay, Taylor defied the odds and those who called him too odd to win. Taylor may face the same uphill battle for creative control, but he enjoys important advantages, including unusual sticktuitiveness. A decade ago, he dropped out of Auburn University to move to Nashville, where he began to chase his once elusive dream. When he told his father he was auditioning for American Idol, Brad Hicks said, "Why don't you just go buy a lottery ticket?" He is a songwriter-musician with an impeccable ear for his own sound and a steady eye for the right musical direction. His passionate reverence for soul, rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm & blues, and country honors the legacy of his forebears – and gives him broad appeal across a wider variety of genres and radio formats than any AI predecessor before him.

From the start I admired Taylor and expected him to win. He charmed me with his unembarrassed zeal for performing – the physical manifestation of his incorruptible faith in music. His victory was a vindication of his faith and his music, which overcame months of careless handling and cynical manipulations. After the AI producers forced Taylor to switch love songs at nearly the last minute, I noted that he looked wounded. In his new interview with Rolling Stone, he compared his AI experience to “dancing with the devil.” As Clay might attest, nothing exorcises demons like the triumphant success of an anti-idol.

Clay’s astonishing return to the program that launched his career was a highlight of the season five finale. Every tentative, deliberate step back onto the AI stage carried the weight of many milestones and millstones since his own anticlimactic exit three long years ago. Seeing his stylish new look and mature, confident demeanor was almost like meeting Clay again for the first time. As he took command of the microphone, his voice was instantly familiar and yet as thrilling as ever.

Artists who create and sustain such a potent connection are blessed with a special gift that cannot be manufactured by TV or recording industry moguls. Compelling performers like Clay and Taylor make the audience believe in the power of music to transcend and transform.

Taylor believes – with the wishful innocence of a child on Christmas morning. Taylor has the gift – and the conviction of a man who has long sacrificed for his art. You could say he waited a lifetime for a moment like this.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Photo Finish: Elliott Yamin & Clay Aiken

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And here is a photo from a much earlier show:

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

I'm Voting for Taylor Hicks




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Check Dial Idol regularly for voting data updates.

May the Best Man Left Win

If you are a heartbroken Yaminion like me, you may be undecided about getting back on the phone tonight to vote for one of the American Idol finalists.

Ask yourself these questions. Which one has Elliott Yamin called his friend for life, Taylor Hicks or Katharine McPhee? By going out of his way to talk about how close they are in his exit interviews, was Elliott sending his fans a message to vote for Taylor? Would Elliott feel better about his own elimination if he knew his loyal fans helped his good buddy Taylor win?

You can see their mutual love and affection in this video of them joking around together during the filming of a Ford carmercial. Elliott is Taylor’s bro from a different schmo.

Do whatever you think is right.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Aim Higher – Vote for Taylor Hicks

Recently I attended a university graduation where Ken Blanchard, the author of business theory primers including One Minute Manager, was the keynote speaker. The message he tried to impart was simple and, as commencement addresses go, fairly succinct.

Dr. Blanchard described a boy he knew whose grandmother was a Monopoly whiz. Finally the day arrived when he was skilled enough to beat her at the game. As he exulted in his victory, Grandma told him gently, “That’s wonderful. But don’t forget – everything goes back in the box.”

Status and material success are the means to an end, he explained, but you cannot take them with you. Aim higher. Strive for significance.

This story may not seem relevant to American Idol, but it illustrates what I think is the show’s most frustrating flaw. A franchise that claims to create singing idols squanders its considerable power and resources to promote easy-to-market hit makers instead. AI could lead the revitalization of a music industry in flux instead of lagging behind pop culture on the decline. But the Idiots-in-Charge would rather milk the ailing cash cow – every time.

American Idol holds a unique position to produce instant stars, influence musical tastes and ignite purchasing trends. Having their work highlighted on the show can be an enormous boost to forgotten and unknown artists. Since Daniel Powter’s Bad Day became the soundtrack for each eliminated contestant’s video retrospective, the single came from musical oblivion to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. After Elliott Yamin paid his moving tribute to Donny Hathaway in word and song on April 25, 2006, A Donny Hathaway Collection zoomed up the ranks of Amazon music sales.

Multi-generational families across the United States and beyond are watching American Idol together, voting for their favorite contestants, attending AI concerts, buying CDs and other AI-related merchandise, and writing AI commentary on websites, blogs and message boards. Clearly the show feeds a hunger for music that is crafted artfully, arranged smartly and performed compellingly. But the finished product it delivers all too often is disposable pop fare, the aural equivalent of junk food.

I asked my son, a college student who listens to thrash metal and Japanese electronica, why he enjoys AI's featured music. He answered simply, "It's better than what's on the radio." His AI5 favorites have been Taylor Hicks and Paris Bennett.

The music industry and AM/FM radio are in a stagnant phase - due in part to technological advances including cheap and illegal downloads. No fresh genres have sprung from popular music since the ascendancy of alternative/indie, rap and hip-hop in the early 1990s. Ironically, alt rock's signature style has become as formulaic and mainstream as the so-called corporate rock that triggered its rebellious uprising 15 years ago.

Nevertheless, 2006 is the year that the AI brain trust caught up with the homogenized version of alternative and decided that the audience could handle an alt-ish idol. Chris Daughtry was the rocker who persuaded them. Actually, Chris is a talented singer-songwriter dedicated to a musical vision broader than the narrow niche AI chose for him. So was Bo Bice, last season's Southern rocker. These days Bo - or a defeated-looking impostor who resembles Bo - is on the top 10 charts with a single, The Real Thing, that sounds like a reject from Clay Aiken's Measure of a Man recording sessions.

If it weren't for hindsight, the AI team might be completely blind. Regrettably, they are also nearly deaf to most of the indigenous music that comprises the great American songbook - except for familiar tunes that became international hits or were covered by British artists. Nigel Lythgoe dismissing Try a Little Tenderness as a Blues Brothers number was just plain dumb. The fact that the creators and administrators of American Idol were born in the U.K. would not be a handicap if they honored their program's content - primarily 20th century American music - as much as its advertising dollars.

Well, they are about to receive the education of their lives - a crash course in music appreciation.

Throughout the AI5 season, I maintained news links and whatnot devoted to Taylor Hicks and Elliott Yamin down the sidebar of my blog. T-H-E-Y were my absolute favorites since their first televised auditions. As the competition progressed, I developed a consuming interest in one over the other.

When Elliott was eliminated last week, my heart left the building. After the initial stages of grieving, however, I found that I still have an interest in the outcome of AI5.

I pledge to vote non-stop this Tuesday for Taylor Hicks – and encourage other dispirited Yaminions to do the same. My dream that T-H-E-Y would appear together in the finale is lost. But I still believe that the winner should be someone who wants the victory for all the right reasons.

A vote for Taylor is more than a vote against Katharine McPhee. It is an affirmation of the soul, R&B, and blues that T-H-E-Y love. Elliott and Taylor entered this competition driven by a common passion to sing the music that is their life’s blood. Not for the perks of celebrity or success. Not in search of opportunities to star on the stage, on TV or in films.

T-H-E-Y inspire their fans to seek out and support the artists whose catalogs T-H-E-Y introduced to us on American Idol. Imagine their music-loving phenomenon spreading across the continent and around the world. I don’t know if Taylor Hicks can single-handedly revive the music industry or simply remind a careworn civilization of our uplifting musical heritage. But, with Elliott's help and our votes, he stands a fighting chance – and I can still dream.

If Taylor Hicks wins the American Idol title, he will be in a position of power and influence to change modern music for the better. And unlike some television, radio and recording executives, I believe Taylor will aim higher and strive for significance.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Had a Bad Day. Where's My Video?

Sorry! I haven't had time to write about what Elliott Yamin means to me but will try again tomorrow. I apologize for not linking to all the fabulous articles and interviews yet.

Family health issues have kept me from sleeping, writing or attending to my blog much in the 48 hours since Elliott was eliminated. Nothing life-threatening, just time-consuming.

Tonight I finally sat down to compose my thoughts about Elliott. I felt emotionally sturdy enough – or numb from lack of sleep – to watch his homecoming video again without blubbering. Before I taped Wednesday's results show, my DVR allocation was nearly maxed out. I have stored every top 24 American Idol episode featuring an Elliott performance, including his Wednesday night singouts. Yes, I have been on board the E-Train since it left the station.

To make room, I chose to delete top 16 week when he performed Bryan Adams' Heaven – my least favorite of his song selections. If you read AI5 Royal Flush: The Heir and Four Spares, you already know how I feel about Adams.

Computer downloads are a godsend, but I prefer to watch Elliott on our widescreen TV. My son hadn't seen this week's carmercial and we all shared a hearty laugh at Elliott's grandpa rapper as we rewound it for repeat viewings.

Then I fast-forwarded through Taylor Hicks' video and performance. Near the end of Kat McPhee's, the recording stopped. Dead – 35 minutes into the show. Yaminions, another reason to hate her. No Richmond rally, no parade, no first pitch, no Moody's Mood for Love, no elimination drama, no gracious goodbye.

Just me and buckets of fresh tears.

While checking online for a high quality download that won't unleash the hounds of spyware hell on my aging laptop, I read that AI5 tour tickets became available at 10:00am this morning. I thought the August 27th stop at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim went on sale Sunday. Oh, these are special Pop Tarts presale tickets – and, ten hours later, the best are gobbled up.

Quick – what is the cutoff age for temper tantrums? The terrible thirties? Screwed again.

There's an unopened pint of coffee Häagen-Dazs in the freezer and I. Don't. Care.

Tomorrow has to be a better day. Good night, all.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Elliott Yamin R Us – T-H-E-Y Is History

After Elliott Yamin was eliminated from American Idol tonight, I decided to redecorate my blog just a bit. I still like Taylor Hicks, but he is no Elliott Yamin.

I don't hate Katharine McPhee or blame her for Elliott's departure. She makes me smile when I think of her and the clan McPhee as Simon Cowell's – and Clive Davis' – bad karma sprung to life.

Thousands upon thousands of Chris Daughtry and Elliott Yamin fans might stick rusty pins into their Kat McPhee voodoo dolls during next week's finale. That's not my thing.

Nope. I think I will take a pink popsicle out of the freezer and let it melt in her honor.


Elliott Done Been Screwed and Knows It

Last night on American Idol, Elliott Yamin performed I Believe to My Soul by Ray Charles as his personal selection. The lyrics may hold special meaning.

Since I live in Southern California, I can listen to Elliott's mp3s that Rickey so generously posts hours before American Idol airs on the west coast. He sounded consistently good throughout all three songs and excellent in parts. Then I watched the show. On What You Won't Do for Love, he danced around more than he has since I Don't Wanna Be. Maybe I watch too closely, but he just seemed down personally. I hope he is okay.

Those of us who watch Elliott obsessively noticed that his sparkle and ready smile were missing. His voice was a little hoarse on Open Arms. When he spoke, he sounded husky. Usually hyper and nervous, he seemed resigned and subdued. Something changed him. Maybe the hustle and bustle of traveling home to Richmond and back this past week exacted a toll on his health. Maybe it was the writing on the wall - too many AI judges and producers foretelling a future without him before a note had been sung or a single vote cast. Despite the fact that some Soul Patrollers think the relationship between Taylor Hicks and Elliott is like the Skipper and his Little Buddy, Elliott is far from stupid.

On Good Day LA this morning, entertainment reporter Dorothy Lucey said that, for the first time this season, the contestant eliminated tonight will not be available for an interview tomorrow. On Thursday, May 19, 2005, AI4 third place finisher Vonzell Solomon made the usual media rounds: MTV, Rodney Ho, etc.

A commenter at MJ's Big Blog with the user name Canuck posted this comparison of the singing times American Idol allotted to each contestant last night.

Total Song time = sum of all three songs from beginning to end
Singing time = total song time, less intro and any non-singing time at end

Total Song 5:31
Singing 5:12

Total Song 5:20 (97% of Kat's)
Singing 4:54 (94% of Kat's)

Total Song 4:30 (82% of Kat's, 84% of Tay's)
Singing 4:07 (79% of Kat's, 84% of Tay's)

Katharine's longest singing time was 2:33, Elliott's longest singing time was 1:38 -- a difference of 55 seconds. Elliott's two shortest songs together had less singing time than Kat's longest. If Kat had left out her shortest song, her total singing time would have been only 1 second less than Elliott's. Kat's shortest singing time was 4 seconds less than Elliott's shortest singing time. Taylor had 18 seconds less singing time than Kat, Elliott had 1:05 less than Kat. Okay, I'll stop.

Just for fun, the raw numbers, longest to shortest singing time:


Katharine, Somewhere Rainbow, 2:33/2:33
Taylor, Try Little Tenderness, 1:49/1:45
Taylor, You Are So Beautiful, 1:56/1:44
Elliott, I Believe To My Soul, 1:45/1:38
Katharine, I Believe I Can Fly, 1:41/1:33
Taylor, Dancing in the Dark, 1:35/1:25
Elliott, Open Arms, 1:27/1:19
Elliott, Won't Do For Love, 1:18/1:10
Katharine, Ain't Got Nothin' Blues, 1:17/1:06

Read these song lyrics and see if there isn't a screw-you message to the American Idol Idiots-in-Charge or somebody who done him wrong. Perhaps I am projecting my frustrations with the heavy-handed favoritism and manipulations. But, when Simon gave him his kiss-off, Elliott did not look surprised.

One of these days, and it won't be long,
You're gonna look for me and I'll be gone
'Cause I believe (I believe, yes I believe)
I say I believe right now (I believe, yes I believe)
Well I believe to my soul now,
You're tryin' to make a fool of me (I believe it, I believe it)

Well you're goin' 'round here with your head so hard,
I think I'm gonna have to use my rod
'Cause I believe (I believe, yes I believe)
I say I believe right now (I believe, yes I believe)
Well I believe to my soul now
You're tryin' to make a fool of me (I believe it, I believe it)

Last night you were dreaming and I heard you say
"Oh, Nelly" when you know my name is Elliott Yamin
That's why I believe right now (I believe, yes I believe)
I say I believe right now (I believe, yes I believe)
Well I believe to my soul now
You're tryin' to make a fool of me (I believe it)

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Vote for Elliott Yamin! May 16, 2006




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Please vote non-stop for Elliott!

No vote splitting!

Dial Idol regularly for voting data updates.

Elliott, we are so proud of you!

We knew you could, we knew you could, we knew you could!

Monday, May 15, 2006

Vote Like Yamin It!

The biggest shocker this week on American Idol was:

1. The elimination of Chris Daughtry.
2. Dial Idol accurately predicting the voting results.
3. The underdog, Elliott Yamin, stealing the show.
4. The final four dancing together during Wednesday’s Elvis medley.

My choice? Item 4. My eyes! My dog’s eyes! For one hideous moment I hope to banish from my optical memory, I channeled Simonvision. Taylor’s choreography is usually entertaining, but the whole lot of them staggered around the catwalk like a quartet of paraplegics sprung from their wheelchairs at a “Heal, Jesus!” service.

America, this is what happens when you vote off all the black performers.

Far from surprising, Daughtry’s departure was predictable. Last week I warned about the precedent of final four eliminations during odd-numbered seasons, a.k.a. the Curse of the Cowell-Pimped Contestants. If fans had done their homework, they would know that two other early Simon favorites, Tamyra Gray and LaToya London, were sent packing at this exact point in seasons one and three respectively. Chris described his own ouster as “the biggest shock in American Idol history.” Sure – if history began in 2006. Those Cro-Magnon relics, Tamyra and LaToya, might disagree. And besides, the season ain’t over yet.

I detailed Daughtry’s dilemma in Is Simon Cowell Off His Rocker. The AI team, and Simon in particular, wanted Chris to have a breakthrough, breakout moment – especially during the Queen show – that would secure his base, lure fans away from other contestants and establish him as an unbeatable frontrunner. But Chris adamantly refused to compromise his rocker credibility for any of the musical themes. His strategy may have cost him a TV contest victory, but it should pay off magnificently when he begins his career independent of the show.

Attention, fans – and especially Yaminions! Please note these important lessons. Don’t buy the hype, become complacent or take success for granted. Daughtry’s departure proves that American Idol is not rigged – just clumsily manipulated. Tuesday night phone calls and text messages are the only poll that counts – so vote like Yamin it! The past is prologue – every message board should have at least one historian. And there is no situation so bad that the AI team cannot make it even worse.

Did Chris deserve to be cold cocked on international TV? In his Wednesday afternoon interview, Executive Producer Nigel Lythgoe explained, “Whatever happens tonight, I can assure you it’s going to be someone that we don’t want to lose.” He added, “So we’ve got to be careful how we handle it, you know, I don’t want to sort of make a mockery of the competition at this stage, but you know the vote isn’t always what you want it to be.”

If the callous send-off of Chris Daughtry represents the AI team being careful, are viewers ready for malicious? Just to be safe, I strongly encourage the top three contestants to wear Depends on Clive Davis Judgment Day.

Taylor is probably the most polarizing AI contestant since Kevin Covais. You are either charmed by Taylor, as I am, or you can’t stand to watch him. Only when he sings plainly from the heart with his shoes nailed to the floor can Simon appreciate his talent. But the Soul Patrol wants him to tear it up with his trademark dances like the Carlton Banks and the Diddley Squat. At this level in the competition, he needs to focus on pleasing the fans. Can he do that without exasperating Clive?

Kat has her share of detractors, too. Ouch! But, like so many guest judges before him, Clive may not be immune to her wanton wiles. She also appears to suffer from a geographic disadvantage. I have been a close observer of Dial Idol these past two months. Even if Jim Hellriegel, who developed the Dial Idol software, doesn’t rank the finalists in their correct order every week, the results usually fall into the margins of error he establishes between them. What I find most informative is how the contestants’ results vary in different time zones. For instance, Taylor is consistently strong as voting sweeps westward. In recent weeks Elliott, whose support used to peak along the eastern half of the country, has gained significant ground in the Mountain and Pacific zones. The west coast is Katharine McPhee’s voting base and thus far she has not made inroads in the Central and Eastern Time zones.

The good news for Elliott Yamin? Most negative reactions to him have been cosmetic and superficial. With longer hair and some spiffy duds, Elliott’s looks have actually become an asset. He even has a new fangirly nickname – Hottie White Choc-o-lat-y. Oops! Did I write that out loud?

The bad news? Elliott gave two – count ‘em – star making performances on Elvis Presley night. Conventional wisdom had him leaving last week, but he stole the show. Despite his triumphant tour de force, Elliott remains the underdog. The gambling sites still consider him a long shot to reach the top two.

As the Clay Aiken phenomenon proved, viewers become more invested in contestants who display variety, versatility and visible growth. Elliott hasn’t come this far because of flattering light shows, fawning video clips, comical dance routines, revealing wardrobe malfunctions, or kneeling/falling on the stage. Of the three semifinalists, Elliott is the only performer who has never shared the spotlight with an instrumentalist. He never needed one. His voice requires no special lozenges or fancy props – just a melody line and a chance to shine.

I will be the first on his doorstep, begging to help Elliott write his autobiography. If I fictionalized his life story, the skeptics would call it far-fetched – from Richmond to riches, from rags to recording greatness.

The AI team may not recognize the amazing gift they have in Elliott Yamin, but somebody up there is looking out for him. This week, it might be Clive Davis. If not, Elliott's future is in even better hands.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Slap My Bass and Call Me Crazy

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My favorite song right now is Crazy by Gnarls Barkley, a.k.a. DJ Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo Green.

I would lurv for Elliott Yamin to rock out on it. Just putting it out there in the blogosphere.

Elliott Returns to Richmond Today

Today Elliott Yamin returns to Richmond, Virginia. The itinerary, which is subject to change without notice, is here. Lucky fans can watch as Elliott receives a key to the city and a royal welcome home.

For the rest of us, please enjoy these pictures courtesy of Susan DiPlacido and Gray Charles. The first captures the moment when T-H-E-Y were declared safe. The second shows Elliott biting his nails nervously as he worries over Chris Daughtry and Katharine McPhee.

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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Vote for Elliott Yamin! May 9, 2006



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Please vote two hours non-stop for Elliott!

No vote splitting!

Dial Idol regularly for voting data updates.

Elliott, we are so proud of you! We knew you could, we knew you could, we knew you could!

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Ya Gotta Believe in Yamin!

Have you heard? Elliott Yamin is leaving American Idol during Elvis Presley week. The betting establishment said so. Simon Cowell declared that Elliott is vulnerable. The print and electronic media have their headline ready: Elliott Has Left the Building.

Elliott’s elimination is such a foregone conclusion that, while Chris Daughtry, Katharine McPhee and Taylor Hicks enjoyed first class accommodations en route to Memphis, Elliott flew cargo. You may have seen the pictures of Elliott hanging out the window of the Ford SUV that transported the quartet from the airport to Graceland – well, it was either that or riding atop the luggage rack. As the others dined on delicious southern barbecue in the swanky dining hall where The King used to gorge on fried peanut butter-banana sandwiches, Elliott ate rice and beans in the servants’ quarters.

Just kidding. The famous Presley home really isn’t all that palatial. Besides, I am fairly certain that Taylor and Elliott have each others’ backs at all times. T-H-E-Y are loyal soul siblings in every way except DNA. Have you seen them together? Elliott is Taylor’s bro from a different schmo.

Can I be serious for a moment, though? I don’t know, but I’ll try. There is an awful lot of speculation, propaganda, and even hysteria pretending to be reliable information – days before the first note has been sung or the first vote cast on Presley Tuesday.

AI Executive Producer Ken Warwick swears that only he, Nigel Lythgoe, the Fox Standards and Practices office, and the company in charge of AI voting know the bottom three results. We are not privy to last Tuesday’s totals when future superstar Paris Bennett was eliminated and Elliott joined her in the bottom two. Although Katharine was implicated in the elimination melodrama, Chris or Taylor might actually have been the next lowest vote getter. They were the top three, but their actual voting rank was never revealed. Whoever it was among them, the margin between his or her total and Elliott’s could have been as close as one vote.

As for the alleged experts cited in the first paragraph, the same odds makers who wagered that Ace Young would win AI5 are trying to recoup their money and their credibility. By the way, this week Ace told Greta Van Susteren that he would be "overjoyed" if Elliott wins.

At best, Simon – who predicted that Kellie Pickler would be in the top three – wants to salvage his reputation as a savvy talent scout. At worst, Cowell hopes to discourage some fan bases from voting and motivate others to vote more for his favorites.

On American Idol, nothing is guaranteed – except that Elliott Yamin will be eliminated if his fans let themselves become too dejected to vote on Tuesday. By year five, none of us should need a reminder that anything can happen on this show – especially during final four week in odd-numbered seasons.

Tamyra Gray and LaToya London were American Idol contestants in odd-numbered seasons: one and three respectively. They were Simon’s early favorites who received the deluxe preferential treatment and were widely expected to appear in the grand finale. Both left after shocking eliminations during final four week.

Voting results in season five have been somewhat fluid with top vote getters one week becoming low vote getters the next. Only Taylor Hicks has avoided the bottom group thus far. In this May 4th American Idol Extra video, Randy Jackson said of the top five, “I think that all of these ones will have a great shot at a career.”

Thank you, Randy. Your confidence is reassuring, but this fan is not taking anything for granted. I will be voting two hours non-stop for Elliott again this Tuesday night.

In defiance of all odds and manipulations, Yamania is sweeping the YamiNation. One dedicated Yaminion, Amanda Jones, drove twice to Graceland this week to be first in line to see Elliott. The E-Train is the little engine that could. Every Tuesday, as Elliott chugs uphill again, we chant prayerfully, “I think he can. I think he can. I think he can. I think he can.” Being an Elliott fan means never feeling that your favorite is safe – so this week is essentially no different than any other.

Of this season’s final four, Elliott has come the farthest – and not merely in geographic distance. Throughout his life before American Idol, he triumphed over more than his share of misfortunes and crises – and emerged without any noticeable bitterness or self-pity. During his AI odyssey, Elliott has overcome a scarcity of the advantages that the other three enjoy, including preferential treatment by the AI team, which he must have noticed – and yet he remains so grateful for every opportunity to shine. After eleven weeks of competition, he is the most consistent and improved contestant.

Chris Daughtry and Taylor Hicks spent years singing onstage in bands. Katharine McPhee performed in high school plays, attended the prestigious Boston Conservatory, and was nominated as Lead Actress in a Musical for an Ovation Award. Elliott’s performing experience prior to American Idol was limited to a few karaoke songs at a hometown restaurant. He entered the contest unpolished, unknown and with no readymade fan base. And yet Elliott managed to reach the final four during the most competitive year in AI history.

Elliott was introduced to the audience as a bit player in the Brittenum twins farce while his mother, Claudette, was in the hospital ICU in Virginia. Randy singled him out as the best among his group, which performed It’s in Her Kiss. When the judges were shown inviting the top 24 to the semifinal round, Elliott was omitted. His lack of camera time in the auditions phase prevented him from building an early fan base. The audience reacted to his first performances in the competition, If You Really Love Me and Moody’s Mood for Love which showcased his technical proficiency in R&B and jazz, with a collective "Whoa! Where did he come from?"

From his first onscreen appearance, Elliott did not fit the judges’ image of an American Idol winner. As the show’s stylists worked on his hair and wardrobe, the beauty and goodness within him became easier for all to see. Like Clay Aiken, the closest thing to an American idol the franchise has ever produced, Elliott is the underdog with platinum recording potential, sterling character and a heart of gold.

He is so empathetic, generous and loving toward others that it is palpable through the TV screen. After Paris Bennett was revealed as this week’s lowest vote getter, Elliott stood behind her, gallantly raising one swaying arm to lead the crowd in a rhythmic salute. In her MTV interview the next day, Paris said, “Elliott possesses something so deep within himself that for him to be able to do the things he does when he's on that stage, I honor him for that. With both of them [Elliott and Taylor], they both have a sense of home, you never feel like you're out of place.”

Unlike some who laughed, whooped, and hollered in relief when told they were safe, Elliott’s instinct is always to console and support the performer who is departing. On his first occasion in the bottom two as they awaited the results, he displayed awesome unselfishness and seemed more concerned about Mandisa Hundley’s welfare than his own.

Elliott is touchingly modest, sincere, unpretentious – and, according to his mother, unchanged by the perks of American Idol celebrity. Although contestants receive an estimated weekly salary of $2,000 plus a wardrobe allowance, he balks at big-ticket purchases that normally he could not afford.

His success on American Idol represents a victory for the underprivileged, for the underrated, for the forgotten, for those disheartened by handicaps and hardships, and for those coping with a challenging condition like deafness or diabetes. He is a common man with an uncommon gift.

Rooting for the underdog is an American tradition at least as old as our national pastime. In 1973, the New York Mets were stuck in last place in their division and time was running out. During a clubhouse pep talk six weeks before the season’s end, relief pitcher Tug McGraw – father of Tim – shouted, “Ya gotta believe!” Nobody – not the betting establishment nor the sports experts – expected the Mets to beat the Big Red Machine and play in the World Series – but, led by McGraw, they did.

I am as optimistic about Elliott’s prospects as McGraw was for his own on that August day when the doubters had already dismissed his team. Elliott’s vocal talent is so phenomenal and his character so powerfully inspiring that he can level the most tilted playing field – if you know what I mean.

American Idol is not the only game in town. The vision I have of Elliott’s future does not end at the Kodak Theatre – but I can see him singing there on the imposing stage with a choir of angelic voices behind him and the crowd on their feet, cheering and screaming his name.

As he announces Elliott as the season five winner, Ryan Seacrest will be standing not in a pool of sweat but a puddle of tears. All of Elliott’s family, old friends and new friends will be there to congratulate him, celebrate with him and repay his kindnesses to them.

Taylor will be the first to hug Elliott, followed by their buddies Bucky Covington and Sway Penala. Ace will be overjoyed, just as he promised. Paris, Mandisa, Kat, Chris, and all the other AI5 contestants will wish they were in Elliott’s place – but feel genuinely happy that the talented underdog prevailed.

Can you see it? Then ya gotta believe it!

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Four Idols Tour Graceland

Today Elliott Yamin, Taylor Hicks, Katharine McPhee and Chris Daughtry arrived at Graceland, the Memphis home of Elvis Presley. You can find more pictures and a live webcam at Elvis Presley's official site.

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Sunday update: Wearing the green I Love Elliott t-shirt and white Yaminion headband is 19-year-old Amanda Jones. After Ryan Seacrest announced during Wednesday's show that the final four contestants would be jetting to Memphis, Jones initially drove from Jonesboro, Arkansas, to Graceland on Thursday morning. Told that the AI quartet would arrive two days later, she repeated the hourlong drive to be first in line at 5:45am yesterday. In its entirety, her sign reads : I Love Elliott The Yamin Machine.

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Monday update: New photos below courtesy of Gray Charles and Fox 13 Weather.

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