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.