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Commentary: ‘Idol’ plays to type, and that no longer is a good thing

By Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — The winner has been declared. A nation has decided, and we went to bed on Wednesday finally knowing that American Idol No. 11 is, in the words of dozens of Twitter commenters, another “white guy with guitar” (WGWG). Rest easy, America.

Phillip Phillips, a 21-year-old would-be troubadour with husk in his voice, a twinkle in his eye and a smile tailor-made for winning over the world’s grandmas, got the majority of the 132 million votes cast for the long-running Fox music competition.

He bested 16-year-old Jessica Sanchez, who can sustain a note for miles and who on the show’s finale performed a stunning duet of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” with Jennifer Holliday. This memorable moment, though, was too little, too late. With enough Southern grace to charm a nation of “Idol” watchers whose preferences have trended toward WGWG, the unflappable Phillips becomes the fifth of a kind in a row, following Scotty McCreery, Lee DeWyze, Kris Allen and David Cook.

Who knew we still loved white guys with guitars so much?

Many “Idol” watchers did, which is probably one reason why viewership has nearly halved since the series’ peak in 2003, when 38 million people witnessed Ruben Studdard best Clay Aiken and established their relevance around water coolers the nation over. (Aiken recently lost to Arsenio Hall on Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice,” which isn’t the path many would have predicted in 2003, when Aiken’s debut album went platinum on the heels of his “Idol” star turn.)

Since then, those who grew up on the show — like Sanchez, who was 5 when Kelly Clarkson became the first “Idol” winner — have come to understand a central truth: that the individual contestants, while often magnetic, be they winners, runners-up or among the top dozen, are disposable, flawed and often unworthy of sustained musical interest. We’ve seen Randy Jackson feign excitement way too many times.

In the end, we’ve come to know that the only thing “America Idol” guarantees is a few months of surreal bliss, a trophy, a Wiki page and a lifetime of free drinks in your hometown. When we see Taylor Hicks six years after he won, we see a man whose “Idol” moment now feels like some sort of sleight of hand.

It’s now an annual treadmill: Fall teasers, tryouts, show, finale, tour, release, repeat. One year it’s Cook riding it, another year it’s Allen, each a replaceable part in a piece of commercial machinery created to make engaging plot lines and harness the artistry and enthusiasm for fame in service of commerce. And if it doesn’t stick, the characters within these stories end up performing on into the future at the aftermarket outlet mall that is the casino circuit.

The audience understands this, is fine with this, and votes for many of these artists only to lose interest when it comes to following through on their promise of pop stardom. They’ve heard too many bland, boring singles to buy in to the illusion that winning “Idol” actually heralds the emergence of an American idol.

Yes, “Idol” has produced idols: Carrie Underwood, Clarkson, Adam Lambert, Chris Daughtry and McCreery among them. And a few — most notably, Clarkson and Lambert — have even pushed the pop music conversation forward. As host Ryan Seacrest bragged during the finale, this week one “Idol” contestant, Lambert, replaced another one, Underwood, at the top of the charts. But neither success guarantees that Phillips will follow their example.

This isn’t an argument against the show, or, in fact, against Phillips, whose dominance this year was undeniable, and whose steady gaze and humble presentation did wonders to mask the reality of his constantly out-of-tune, seldom-surprising voice. Rather, it’s an acknowledgment that none of the last five winners, since Jordin Sparks won it in 2007, would have made it onto prime time on talent and charisma alone.

Whether Phillips succeeds will be up to him. Hopefully he will follow first-year winner Clarkson’s model of defiant independence. She earned her artistry and continued respect not merely through her 2001 victory but through determination, good taste and a keen understanding for her strengths as a pop singer. Here’s hoping he and his catchy, if derivative, song “Home” will become a 2012 classic and a harbinger of good fortune and good music to come. But in the end, if it doesn’t, American culture has lost very little; it’s not like Billboard’s charts are lacking for artists.

“What a night, what a year, can’t wait to do it again,” Seacrest tweeted after the show’s conclusion, and I imagined him doing so in the back of his hovercraft limousine speeding toward the cosmos until reappearing in January 2013. What form he and his show will take at that time is to be determined, but expect that when “Idol” returns, the machine will be in need of some fuel — artistic, creative and otherwise.

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