A dearth of crooners

Where the boys are - it's definitely not singing on `American Idol'

May 11, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

When you watch the four finalists on American Idol sing and shimmy their way through tonight's episode, you may notice something missing from the show: testosterone.

American Idol has a boy problem. This first became clear two months ago, when the show revealed the 12 finalists culled from a casting call of thousands. Eight were women, and they were fantastic - divas and Southern belles of the highest order, with the talent and looks of true idols.

The other four finalists were men, and they were uniformly awful. Dull, flat and just average looking on their best days, they were guys who made you glad for the TV mute button. One got in only after another guy was arrested on a drunken driving charge.

And now, mercifully, all four of them are gone. The viewers voted them off, one by one, in the last few weeks - proving people who vote on call-in TV shows are more sophisticated judges than anyone guessed.

But why were the men so bad to begin with? This hasn't always been the case. Last year the top two Idol finalists were guys - Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken - and the year before, the runner-up was Justin Guarini.

But even that track record reveals the secret to American Idol success: For a man to win, he's got to be a little bit woman.

"[Guys] all grow up wanting to be rock stars or to start a garage band that makes good, and American Idol is everything against that," said Sammy Simpson, program director of Z104-FM in Washington. "It has a very manufactured pop kind of lean to it. A lot of guys who find their niche in this business can't pull that schtick off."

So the men who are successful on American Idol have been stripped of their masculinity. Roly-poly Ruben was affectionately known as the Velvet Teddy Bear. His pale and humorless runner-up Clay was as stimulating as warm milk.

This year brought John Stevens, who was like Clay, only less interesting, and whose signature stage move was sitting on a stool and snapping his fingers, occasionally in time with the music. And George Huff, who cornered the market on bland. There's nothing bad to say about him, except that there's nothing good to say about him.

The other two male finalists this year were Matt Rogers, a 25-year-old who looked 35 and had a receding hairline, and Jon Peter Lewis, who judge Simon Cowell said looked like a pen salesman and had the personality of a mouse.

"Clearly, the women are way better," says Robert J. Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "That does raise some demographic havoc. You always want to have one cute guy toward the end to get that huge audience of people who love guys like Clay and Justin."

An Idol executive producer, Nigel Lythgoe, agreed that this year's girls had more talent and personality than the boys.

"It doesn't surprise me [the final four are women] because I think they're probably the most talented four people we've seen," Lythgoe said in an interview yesterday. "Had the boys been stronger, I don't think this would have happened this year. ... But you can see the competition is wide open for a really good-looking, talented boy next year."

Simpson, from Z104, says the ballad-heavy American Idol format, with its big songs popularized by Gloria Estefan and Barry Manilow, may be less appealing to young men than to young women. "It's as if the guys would be embarrassed to make it onto the show because it's not considered cool for them," he said.

And with the boy band craze officially over and women like Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson leading the charts, Americans may simply be tired of cute, squeaky-voiced boys. Former runner-up Justin was dropped by his record label last December after slow sales.

"One theory is that women performers like Britney and Jessica are at a high premium, so there's a slight prejudice to be hearing women because you're thinking she could be the next Norah Jones," Thompson says.

Kid Kelly, the director of pop programming for Sirius satellite radio, also says the women benefit because they have current templates to follow while the men have to reach farther back, maybe to Frank Sinatra, for a similar male icon. (Ricky Martin so does not count.)

"And is the country in the market for a new Frank Sinatra?" Kelly asks. "Not in the pop market."

Indeed, the only male performer to break out is the one who makes the best case for the sorry state of the boys on Idol. His name is William Hung.

Simon says...

about John Stevens: "You and Latin music go together like chocolate ice cream and an onion."

about George Huff:

"You can go on any medium cruise-liner and hear what we heard tonight."

about Jon Peter Lewis: "You look like a pen salesman, and you have the personality of a mouse."

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