In its seventh season, American Idol is still TV's biggest draw. Maybe it's the razzle-dazzle, Vegas-on-steroids staging of the big-voiced amateurs that makes it all so appealing. Or perhaps it's the supposed power that viewers have in deciding the fate of pop-star hopefuls.
But with the exceptions of Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia Barrino and Carrie Underwood, few of the show's winners have made memorable impressions. And there doesn't seem to be a thriller among the contestants on the current season. None of this year's crop of singers seems to exude that certain "It" factor all great pop artists possess.
"They're all forgettable. If I strain my brain, I may remember one. But I don't," says Dominic Patten, an author who writes about music and pop culture. "The show this season lacks any inspiration."
Once an unstoppable force, American Idol's influence has been waning lately. Its rating are down about 7 percent from last season, and it's showing larger declines among key demographics like women 18 to 34 and kids 2 to 11. Meanwhile, album sales of the last two Idol winners have been underwhelming at best.
Taylor Hicks, the affable blue-eyed soul singer from Season 5, was dropped by Arista Records when his self-titled debut didn't meet sales expectations or generate big hits. It took several months for Jordin Sparks, last season's winner, to reach gold sales with her mediocre self-titled debut, though "No Air," her smash duet with the uber-hot Chris Brown, undoubtedly boosted Sparks' CD sales.
But the very premise of American Idol - where viewers select a pop star with mass appeal - seems backward and antiquated given the rapid irrelevance of the record industry and the almost hourly fragmentation of today's pop audience.
"The show gets bogged down with what would make a traditional pop star - another Whitney Houston or Rod Stewart," says Sean Fennessey, music editor of Vibe magazine who writes regularly about Idol. "The show's producers and judges are searching for an '80s or an early '90s pop ideal. It's amusing to see them try to make that happen."
As on past seasons, the show's producers continue to focus on musical-tribute themes that ultimately disserve the contestants and the artists they salute. Last week's Idol spotlighted Mariah Carey, whose appearance just so happened to coincide with the release of her latest album, E=MC2. The pop diva, who after 18 years of stardom still sorely lacks presence on screen, lifelessly coached contestants through songs that even she doesn't perform anymore.
And the results were predictable: mostly soaring high notes from the women (and David Archuleta) and alt-rock affectations from the guys. On Thursday, Kristy Lee Cook was rightfully booted off after belting a countrified version of "Forever," a doo wop-tinged hit for Carey in 1996.
"American Idol really grooms these big voices for these big pop songs, but pop is much narrower than that now," says Kennedy, a former MTV personality who now hosts Reality Remix, a cable show that recaps the best of the genre.
"But I don't think the contestants this season have the personality or personal drama to carry a good pop song. Having a great voice doesn't really matter. It's the back story that helps you sell the artist, that certain something people can relate to."
Early on, American Idol viewers seemingly understood that. Fantasia Barrino, winner of Season 3, garnered much press (and eventually a Lifetime movie) with her hard-knock past. She was a rape survivor and a barely literate teen mother whose dynamic stage presence and quirky, gospel-drenched vocal style vitalized her performances. Though her pop success has been limited since winning American Idol, Fantasia has done well in the urban realm.
"The show is really selling a narrative, not a singer," Fennessey says. "The more the audience can identify with a good back story, the more interested they become in the contestant."
Early this season, Idol producers promised that they would focus more on the back stories of the contestants, but so far the show has stuck with overemphasizing its pop-star guests and head-scratching musical themes.
There was a bit of a brouhaha early on when it was revealed that several of the show's "amateurs" (namely Carly Smithson, Kristy Lee Cook, Brooke White and Michael Johns) had record deals at one time. Others, such as Archuleta, Jason Yeager and Syesha Mercado, had previously appeared on other TV talent shows. So many of the contestants are more or less seasoned, which is reflected in their mannered performances on the show.
There's little sense that you're watching, say, a Kelly Clarkson transform from a shy, homely girl with a big voice to an assured performer comfortable in the spotlight. "There's no mass standout this year, and the formula is getting old," Kennedy says. "But to watch the whole pop star-making process unfold is what keeps people coming back in droves."
David Archuleta On TV: His baby face, Boy Scout manners and surging vocals make Archuleta a hit with the Disney crowd and women over 50. The squeals say he's the favorite to win.
On pop radio: With no swagger and a soft singing style, Archuleta is a throwback to the days of David Cassidy. But it's doubtful that there will be a resurgence of that sound anytime soon.
David Cook On TV: Cook, a sensitive artsy rocker, has made a name for himself by reworking old hits in crowd-pleasing ways. With a spread-out fan base, he could leave prematurely like Season 5's rocker Chris Daughtry.
On pop radio: He'll likely be singing new songs, not re-engineered classics. And his penchant for swallowing verses over bombastic arrangements is more suited to commercial pop circa 1994.
Carly Smithson On TV: The tattooed Irish singer is capable of the vocal gymnastics that Idol viewers love. But too much tough love from the judges could result in a fourth- or fifth-place finish.
On pop radio: She has impressive skills and technique, but she hasn't parlayed any of that talent into a distinct style or image needed to sell records.
Syesha Mercado On TV: An actress and singer, Mercado is poised, polished and bubbling with banter when she isn't performing. She's a perpetual bottom-3 dweller, and her Idol days are numbered. On pop radio: She'd make a stronger R&B; singer. Her showy, polished sound is reminiscent of '90s pop-soul sensation Deborah Cox.
Brooke White On TV: White has taken advantage of the new rules this season that allow contestants to play instruments. She's got a singer-songwriter vibe without actually having to write songs. Nerves are always a problem for her and may send her packing this week. On pop radio: White has had pitch problems on the show, but her real trouble is that her voice lacks personality and color.
Jason Castro On TV: He has a face the camera loves, with blue eyes and flowing dreadlocks - a novel look on mainstream TV. With his teenage-girl fan base and his laid-back approach, he might just sneak into the top 3. On pop radio: Castro shows little promise as a commercial pop star. His one-dimensional beach-folk approach wears thin after a while.