Sunday, June 04, 2006

Elliott Yamin: The Class of 2006

You may know someone who seemed lost – a victim of hard knocks, lousy choices or a combination of both – but who, in defiance of all expectations, found and saved himself. If so, you understand how extraordinarily difficult it is to exchange the bad habits and poor self-image that become second nature for the self-discipline and healthy behavior that build positive self-esteem.

Elliott Yamin is the ultimate comeback kid with loads of potential that largely went unfulfilled. He was a high school dropout who earned his GED as part of a hiring bargain with his employer at the time. In the decade that followed, Elliott – by his own admission – drifted aimlessly from job to job without a guiding purpose to his life. He had an enduring passion for music but lacked the confidence to sing in front of an audience until about a year ago.

American Idol is the college his family never expected Elliott to enter, much less complete with honors. If his SAT was If You Really Love Me, then Moody’s Mood for Love was his Advanced Placement test. For extra credit, Elliott assigned himself the most challenging songs week after week – and nailed every one. Simon Cowell graded Elliott’s rendition of A Song for You as vocal master class quality. Out of the tens of thousands who auditioned for American Idol 5, Elliott finished third in his class. His impressive growth is due to his own determination to learn all he could from the show’s advisors, vocal coaches, judges, guest artists, and more experienced contestants.

In truth, American Idol is more like intensive vocational training than a performing arts program. Undeveloped talent is nurtured in the service of advertising and record sales. Naïve youngsters who flock to the contest with starry-eyed dreams may encounter a crass, exploitative franchise administered with nominal care for its protégés – unless it makes good television. Chris Daughtry was The Chosen One promoted throughout season five by the AI team – and even he was dismissed with brutal swiftness for maximum dramatic effect.

American Idol does not aspire to produce a valedictorian with exceptional singing talent – or even a genuine idol in the most honorable meaning of the word. Its far-from-lofty ambition is to assemble a cast entertaining enough to attract high ratings, identify at least one marketable talent among them who fits a readymade radio niche, and employ as many manipulations as the FCC allows to ensure the conclusion desired by its TV and music producers.

Every contest needs a winner – and the AI team was lucky to find theirs in Taylor Hicks, a self-taught music history scholar who may yet be worthy of the American Idol title. Five years of AI competition have spawned recording artists who, although failing to grasp the victor’s crown, can hardly be considered losers. Some, like Clay Aiken and Bo Bice, performed unselfish acts deserving of idolatry. But only a defining moment that triggers a groundswell of affection and admiration can create an authentic idol.

During the voting on top three night, Taylor and Katharine McPhee edged past Elliott with a narrow margin reminiscent of Ruben Studdard’s 2003 victory over Clay. The next evening, American Idol documented Elliott’s triumphant return to Richmond, Virginia, as the humble hometown hero who traveled to Hollywood in search of a golden opportunity – and discovered it within himself.

Had Elliott’s homecoming and retrospective videos aired 25 hours earlier, the results might have been a landslide with a different outcome. The AI brain trust would never allow a do-over – that is against the rules. But they cannot stop the audience from choosing its own champion.

As his proud mother – Claudette Yamin – said, her son’s vocal “talent is a given. But he’s such a good soul.” Set against a backdrop of adversity and disadvantage, Elliott’s inspirational character proved as endearing as his uncommon gift for singing. As his devoted fan base multiplied accordingly, the people pleaser grew into a crowd pleaser.

Recently I compared Elliott to the miracle Mets of New York. Baseball fans who remember the 1973 season recall with clarity how pitcher Tug McGraw’s battle cry – “Ya gotta believe!” – drove his team of underdogs from the National League cellar to the World Series. What is frequently forgotten is the Mets’ loss to the Oakland A’s in the seventh game of the World Series – an irrelevant footnote to one of the most thrilling achievements in sports history.

Just as his remarkable voice is ripe for recording now, Elliott’s story begs to be written by a modern day Horatio Alger and filmed by a contemporary Frank Capra – in due course. Graduation is called commencement with good reason. For Elliott, this is only the beginning.