Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2008

An Unfortunate "American Idol" Ringer

By Evan Rytlewski
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"American Idol" producers have publicized a number of small "tweaks" to retool the program after a slight dip in ratings last year, among them a greater emphasis on the performers—back stories and less reliance on celebrity guests. If online reports are to be believed, however, there's a secret game plan the producers are downplaying: Use ringers.

According to "American Idol" spoiler sites, a number of this season's contestants have professional recording experience. This isn't quite the scandal that some websites have played it up to be—the rules clearly allow these singers to enter the contest, so long as they are not currently signed to a label—but it does run contrary to the program's primary pitch, that it lets American break undiscovered talent.

One of the contestants rumored to make the cut is particularly noteworthy: Carly Hennessy, a failed pop singer known only for her very, very expensive flop.

MCA Records signed the nondescript singer and invested a small fortune into her market-researched 2001 debut, pulling in some of the priciest songwriters in the industry. Two million dollars later, and Ultimate High had sold less than 400 copies in its three months on the market—a fraction of what an industrious rapper could have turned around clocking weekends in a Walgreens parking lot, pushing self-released CDs from his car trunk. [An interesting side note: Hennessy's unheard debut single was a shameless fellatio track called "I'm Gonna Blow Your Mind." Just months later, Eve would turn a song built around the exact same mind = penis metaphor, "Let Me Blow Ya Mind," into a huge hit which effectively launched the solo career of Gwen Stefani, who reshaped the face of modern pop music.]

It's curious that "American Idol," a program that celebrates the music industry at every turn, would select a laughing-stock metaphor for why the industry is failing as one of its contestants. It's also telling. For decades, the industry's "we'll shove whatever we think you'll like down your throat" business model has served them well, and it'll take more than a sinking ship to make them change this last in the game.

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