Idol Chatter

Opening day for America's fourth national sport is upon us

College football season has ended, and the Super Bowl is a few weeks away. Hockey and basketball are in their January doldrums of well-nigh meaningless mid-season games, and pitchers and catchers won't report to their Arizona and Florida digs for another month or so.

Luckily, for all of those who love competitive spectacle, America's newest and damn near most cutthroat professional sport has already had its opening day. I speak, of course, of American Idol, the only sport in which the preseason -- the early, lunatic-packed preliminary auditions -- is even better than the regular season and even the championship.

Five years ago, it was hard to imagine that this event could have gotten so huge. Its tentacles are everywhere now. The pop, rock, R&B and adult contemporary charts are now studded with Idol winners (or littered with Idol detritus, depending on your point of view). Ruben, Kelly, Clay, Taylor, McPhee, Daughtry, Justin and Fantasia are on a one-name basis with the whole of middle America. And now middling finalist Jennifer Hudson has become a film star, outshining Beyoncé in Dreamgirls.

Say what you will about Idol -- that its brutal cohost Simon Cowell revels in saying he prefers Kelly Clarkson to Bob Dylan, that the show is a glorified karaoke competition, that the music it champions is hyperglycemic cotton candy sludge. Those are damning charges and all true. But in a more general sense, Idol is one of the last strands holding American culture together today. Music is fracturing into smaller and smaller micro-tribes. There are dozens if not hundreds of scenelets to identify with. Idol reverses that process and forces us to join something that doesn't cater to us near-exclusively for a change. When every trend is going on at once, it's nice to have a mainstream to take a dip in once in a while, even if you are doing it with a sense of detachment.

Of course, millions of the show's fans are devoted to it unquestioningly. And those people are not, as is often alleged, exclusively or even mostly guileless teenagers. Simon Cowell knows the music business better than that. He is well aware that kids don't buy records anymore -- and so his target audience is people in their thirties and up. Sure, he throws the kids a bone by seeing to it that there are a few hotties among the contestants. But look at Idol's celebrity guests -- Andrea Bocelli, Diane Warren, Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart are not exactly heroes for the MySpace-n'-Hot Topic set. And the success of High School Musical notwithstanding, neither are teens the primary audience for show tunes.

"He skews the show toward people who buy music based on personality," says music industry vet, Press contributor and Idol fan Greg Ellis. "Those people often buy records because of who the artists are rather than what they do. Those people like buying records because they like having the pictures and stuff that come with owning a physical copy of a record."

Today, the trade magazine Advertising Age estimates that Idol's total price tag, which includes ad sales and the album sales of winners and runners-up, is $2.5 billion. That's billion with a "b," folks, a greater sum than the gross national product of about three dozen sovereign nations. Which is either pretty cool or totally disgusting, depending on how much like Bono you are.

And so as we launch into another national orgy of high drama, low comedy and cheesy pop with occasionally transcendent moments, it seems like as good a time as any to look back over the past five seasons. Namely, where are all those other people we hooted, jeered and, in some cases, hoped would win?

Everybody knows the deal with the big winners and runners-up, but whatever happened to that loathsome choad Constantine Maroulis? Or Corey Clark, the caddish thug who (allegedly) had his wicked way with Paula? Or teenaged red-headed crooner John Stevens?

Armed with a squad of pistol-packing, whiskey-breathed private dicks, I tracked down a few of them in their many and varied lairs, so you wouldn't have to. (All right, I Googled them and trawled Wikipedia. Sue me.)

Season One: Judging from the pics on her web site, Texan Nikki McKibbin appears to have either aged beyond her years or lied about her age to begin with. The "hot, bad, sexy" singer is churning out sub-Evanescence alt-rock and hasn't updated the news section of her site since April of last year...Cult fave Tamyra Gray is living in L.A. and shopping for a label... RJ Helton released a gospel album in 2004 and then came out of the closet last year... Ryan Starr's music career has apparently stalled -- she has set it aside in favor of appearing in straight-to-DVD flicks and shows like The Surreal Lifeand Battle of the Network Reality Stars. She's on the C-list of people who are famous for being famous, and we're betting a future on Cinemax skin flicks lurks... EJay Day is currently a performer on Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas.

Season Two: Kimberly Locke, whom Simon Cowell referred to in his autobiography as looking like "an overweight librarian," has an active adult contemporary music career. She's signed to Curb Records in Nashville and has a record coming out this year...Singing Marine Josh Gracin is also a post-Idol success; his self-titled country debut went gold and the follow-up is scheduled for this year...Mormon cutie Carmen Rasmussen married the son of Utah's lieutenant governor and is appearing in commercials for a western states convenience store chain called Maverik...Katy-bred Kimberly Caldwell is one of the many gratingly smug hosts on the TV Guide Channel. She is also working on a country album... Corey Clark was arrested in 2005 after a hotel food fight and busted again last year for trespassing; in both cases he was exonerated. His 2005 debut album sold a whopping 2,500 copies... Julia DeMatohas likewise run afoul of the law. Last year the singing hairdresser was arrested for DUI and possession of pot and coke. (Figures...She always looked the part to me.) As for her music career, nada...Plump Bette Midler clone Vanessa Olivarez moved to Canada for a time where she starred in a Toronto production of Hairspray. Since then, she has joined a band called Butterfly Stitch.

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