'American Idol' showdown
By Lynn Elber
AP Television Writer
|"American Idol" top finalists, Justin Guarini, left, and Kelly Clarkson, have captured hearts all summer. Tonight we'll see who's more popular.
That's the certainty awaiting the finalists in Fox's hit talent competition, which started out with 10,000 aspiring pop stars hoping for a TV magic-carpet ride to fame.
After that? Get out the crystal ball. The top contestants have a shot at lasting careers if hard work, artistic growth and a sometimes-fickle public fall into line, say music industry insiders.
For now, even the show's co-executive producer admits the idol title is in name only for Guarini, 23, of Doylestown, Pa., or Clarkson, 20, of Burleson, Texas.
"This program or programs like it are great platforms for a career, but they don't guarantee any career," said Nigel Lythgoe. "Their music, at the end of the day, and where they take their music and the quality of their songs is going to do that."
Billboard's Geoff Mayfield agreed.
"You really can't bet on how someone's going to fare until a record is made and it hits the stores," said Mayfield, director of charts for Billboard. Since artist development is a gamble anyway, the contestants' chances are as good as any, he said.
Independent producer 7 Aurelius, who has worked with stars including Mary J. Blige, Janet Jackson and Jennifer Lopez, expressed confidence that the show's best will find success.
"It already worked overseas," Aurelius said, referring to the hit records produced by the three top finishers in Britain's "Pop Idol," the model for "American Idol."
He pronounced himself ready to work with Nikki McKibbin, 23, of Grand Prairie, Texas, who just missed out on the finals. ("I want to sign her. Print that," said Aurelius.)
There's precedent for enduring talent-show fame. Ed McMahon's "Star Search" (1983-95) gave us Rosie O'Donnell and Britney Spears. Winners of "The Original Amateur Hour," which aired from 1948-1960 with host Ted Mack, included 7-year-old Gladys Knight and college student Pat Boone. In 1937, radio's "Major Bowes' Amateur Hour" boasted the biggest idol of them all: Frank Sinatra.
"American Idol" contestants seem to have a ready-made market. The series attracted a healthy summer audience of 11.5 million when it debuted June 11; viewership swelled to nearly 17 million last week as the contestants were pared to the final two.
Fox crows it has the highest-rated summer series among the young adult viewers favored by advertisers.
The number of callers voting for their favorite has swelled to more than 14 million weekly. That includes, however, "power dialers" making thousands of calls in a bid to change the voting outcome which the producers maintain has had a statistically insignificant impact.
"We get to pick the winner," 15-year-old fan Ashley Knoblach said, explaining the show's appeal as she and several friends waited to take their seats at a taping last week in Hollywood's Kodak Theatre. Will they buy their records? Yes, they nod in enthusiastic unison.
The two-part finale airs Tuesday (9-10 p.m. EDT) and Wednesday (8-10 p.m. EDT). Guarini and Clarkson will perform the first night and votes will be cast; the results will be announced the second night.
There's no cutthroat gamesmanship, at least none apparent, between the finalists. "This show, I'm going to be completely relaxed," Clarkson said in an interview. "Whoever wins, wins."
Predicted Guarini: "It's gonna be a lot of fun."
Both have come a long way in a short time. Clarkson had just moved to Los Angeles and was shopping a demo record when she answered the audition call during a brief trip back home. Guarini had been singing and dancing for a children's entertainment outfit.
"You could argue that the people who are competing now would be doing nothing more than singing in local lounges if it hadn't been for this show," suggested Billboard's Mayfield.
"It's a blessing," Guarini said of "American Idol."
Clarkson concurs. "I love that I came up this way. First of all, I have nine close friends (her fellow finalists), and it's hard to find people you can trust and lean on in this industry."
Dan Miller understands their enthusiasm. Miller, just shy of 22, found himself vaulted into pop fame as a member of O-Town, the boy band that was the focus of ABC's reality series "Making the Band."
O-Town's December 2000 single, "Liquid Dreams," became the first debut record from a new artist and new label J Records to enter the charts at No. 1. Their first album went double-platinum; the second, "O2," is set for release Nov. 5.
"I wouldn't be where I am now" without TV exposure, Miller said. "I'm doing what I love to do, and at the end of the day that's the good thing. However, there are advantages and disadvantages."
There was so much pressure to rush their first album out, capitalizing on their series fame, that some of the songs were disappointing to band members.
O-Town is taking its time with the new album, which includes songs written by band members, to avoid that trap. The group also is eager to prove it's more than the sum of its TV audience.
"Since the beginning we've been attached to that TV show, and now is our chance to step away from it and prove ourselves as O-Town, rather than O-Town, the guys from 'Making the Band.' It's a test," Miller said.
Guarini and Clarkson dismiss concerns that their artistic aspirations could suffer because of "Idol" contract mandates. The single has a Sept. 17 release date from RCA Records; "The winner will release his/her first album Nov. 26," according to Fox.
"We have talented writers wanting to work with us," said Clarkson. "I'm not one to look at the cons. I want to look at the pros."
Here's one: Even losing can be winning. Standout Tamyra Gray, 23, of Takoma Park, Md., who was voted off the show Aug. 21 after a subpar performance, already has signed a management deal.
Whatever happens to the contestants, producer Aurelius says "American Idol's" success will affect how the industry seeks out fresh faces and voices, especially if the search expands beyond pop to hip-hop and other genres.
Fox is bringing "Idol" back for a second season; CBS just announced plans for a new version of "Star Search."
"It's looking at the wave of the future. It's basically replaced the old method of finding talent ... (through) clubs, churches, functions, maybe just on the street in by-chance situations."
Consider O-Town, Aurelius said. "These cats were put together on television. Everyone laughed at it, but they went and sold 2 million records."
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