Go fourth and conquer. Experience shows that, even if you don't finish in the Top 3 on American Idol, you can still score big.
Fort Meade resident Lakisha Jones has made it into the final four. Even if she were to lose as early as tonight, she could still be a winner -- if you consider the success that previous fourth-place finishers on the show have experienced.
In a way, fourth-place has little honor in American culture. When the Preakness runs next week, the fourth-place horse will finish out of the money.
In the Olympics, the first-place athlete gets the gold medal, the second gets the silver, and the third gets the bronze. The fourth gets forgotten.
But Idol seems to be the exception that proves the rule. Nearly every singer who has placed fourth for the previous five seasons has gone on to a solid performing career -- and in the most recent instance, has outshone the winner.
"All four of the remaining contestants -- Melinda Doolittle, Lakisha Jones, Jordin Sparks and Blake Lewis -- all will get recording contracts," says Jon Caramanica, music editor of Vibe magazine, who notes that the Top 10 contestants will go on tour together this summer.
"By the time someone has come this far, if they capitalize on the post-tour momentum, they have a shot at a respectable career. In fact, it's impossible to predict, based on standing alone, which singer's record will have the most sales. These things are less comprehensible than I would want them to be."
Just take a glance at how the previous fourth-place contestants have fared.
Season 1: Tamyra Gray. The former Takoma Park resident will join the Broadway cast of Rent at the end of the month, playing the lead, Mimi.
A versatile singer-songwriter-actress, Gray previously has appeared on Broadway in Bombay Dreams and had a recurring role on Boston Public.
"She was the first and most shocking elimination of all," says Andy Dehnart, who operates the blog realityblurred.com. "Everyone expected her and Kelly Clarkson to be in the finale."
Season 2: Josh Gracin. After the singer completed a four-year stint with the Marines, Gracin made it big on the country charts. His self-titled debut album went gold and racked up three Top 5 country hits; a second CD is awaiting release. Gracin also has kept busy contributing songs to compilation soundtracks and appearing in such soap operas as The Young and the Restless.
Season 3: LaToya London. One of the so-called "three divas" on Season 3, London released a critically well-received album in 2005 called Love and Life. It made its debut at No. 27 on Billboard's R&B; chart and reached 82nd place in Billboard's Top 200.
Two singles, "Every Part of Me" and "State of My Heart," were critical and commercial successes.
Currently, London is playing the role of Nettie in the national touring production of The Color Purple.
Season 4: Anthony Federov. "He's the highest-finishing contestant on American Idol never to have a recording contract," says Dehnart, an adjunct professor of English and communications at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla.
"He was one of those singers who a lot of people thought didn't belong on the show, but he had a pretty remarkable story. He had a birth defect on his windpipe and had to have a tracheotomy. Despite that, he still sang better than Sanjaya." Dehnart was referring to Sanjaya Malakar, the "ponyhawked" seventh-place finalist from this season.
And Fedorov isn't exactly on the unemployment rolls. According to Newsday, he spent last month touring U.S. Air Force bases in Europe and judging teen talent contests.
Season 5: Chris Daughtry. "He's been one of the most successful contestants in recent memory," Dehnart says. He's scheduled to appear May 24 at Washington's 9:30 Club.
"His record debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart," Dehnart says. "The winner, Taylor Hicks, debuted at No. 2 and then slid way down."
Daughtry's album also has outsold other releases by Season 5 contestants, including Katharine McPhee (the runner-up), Elliott Yamin (No. 3) and Kellie Pickler (No. 6). In fact, it's Daughtry's single "Home" that's being used to send the current group of contestants, well, home.
Of course, Daughtry's song might play tonight for a singer other than Jones.
The 27-year-old former bank teller with the powerhouse voice might come in third. Or second. Or even, gasp, first.
The point seems to be that, by persevering to this point in the competition, Jones has a solid chance of forging a musical career. Chances are that she'll be able to provide at least an upper-middle-class lifestyle for herself and her 4-year-old daughter, Brionne, by doing what she loves best.
She'll no longer have to worry that her lights will be shut off because there isn't enough money left from her paycheck to pay the electric bill.
Isn't that the real prize?
>>>On TV American Idol airs at 9 tonight on WBFF (Channel 45).