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!