She's an instant celebrity with three months worth of standing ovations still ringing in her ears, and now American Idol 2005 winner Carrie Underwood is about to become another cog in the pop music machine.
How she fares will depend on equal parts luck, savvy marketing, good timing, the quality of songs music industry impresario Clive Davis finds for her, and momentum from the wildly popular Fox television show that attracted tens of millions of viewers.
And, oh yes, talent figures in there somewhere, too.
It's no longer about pulling off a good performance on Tuesday night singing someone else's songs and then hoping millions of voters call her number so she can stick around to do it again next week. Now Underwood must face radio programmers, music critics, and a fickle fan base as she tries to forge a viable singing career.
On her own, untethered from the format that makes Idol work, Underwood will have to rely on her vocal chops and star power if she wants to follow in the path of Kelly Clarkson. The 2002 winner's short career has been an unqualified success, marked by robust sales, plenty of pop radio attention, and a nice run of hit singles.
If she's not careful, though, Underwood could end up like last year's Idol runner-up, Diana DeGarmo. Her first disc, "Blue Skies," bombed amid universal critical skewering. Clearly DeGarmo, just a teenager, wasn't ready to make an album's worth of songs - and it showed.
Already, Underwood and her handlers face a tough choice. She navigated the highly competitive Idol season and fended off main challenger Bo Bice by sticking with popular country songs. But the temptation will be to sell her to the public as a pop star, ala Clarkson, to rake in the big bucks, even though that style of music may not come naturally to her.
"Inside Your Heaven," this year's Idol-produced ballad that Underwood will be releasing soon, is a bloated, sappy affair: slick, soulless, and weighted by a fussy arrangement. She delivers songs like these with plenty of energy and style over substance, but at just 21 with little professional background, she's callow as an "artist" and singer.
Chuck Taylor of Billboard, the music industry publication that tracks chart success, says it will be tough to market Underwood as anything other than a country singer because that's all she performed on the show, where she tackled tunes by acts like Martina McBride and Dixie Chicks.
There's a big difference between winning a talent contest and forging a successful recording career in pop music, he said.
"You may have 35 million viewers tuning into American Idol, but that doesn't necessarily mean they want to buy the music," he said in a telephone interview. "It's not these people choosing their favorite artist, they're choosing their favorite contestant."
Additionally, pop radio programmers have generally turned a muffled ear to the show's winners since its debut in 2002.
Taylor wrote a long piece for Billboard in November in which he explored radio's attitude toward the Idol singers. The bottom line was that once the performers are fighting for air time with artists like Outkast or Usher or Green Day, they have come up short.
He's not sure if radio programmers are out of touch with what listeners want, which means they're not pushing the Idol songs enough, or if there is a "chasm" between the TV audience and people listening to pop music on the radio.
"You've got 35 million people watching the most popular show of the decade and you have to question whether mainstream Top 40 radio is out of touch, or if they just have a completely different agenda," he said.
Working in Underwood's favor is the fact that her work will be released into a market that is already primed for American Idol product. Six Idol winners and runners-up - not to mention some finalists who've scored record deals - have gone before her, so there's plenty of precedent for what she could face.
Here's a brief look at how her predecessors have fared in terms of sales and critical attention:
Winner: Clarkson. The darling of the Idol franchise thanks to her success in terms of both sales and airplay, Clarkson has put out two discs that have sold phenomenally well while receiving generally positive reviews. She's pure pop with a powerhouse voice, and that's what her audience wants. Her debut, "Thankful," reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts, and sales for the follow-up "Breakaway" have been brisk.
Runner-up: Justin Guarini. Destined to be the answer to the trivia question "Who finished second in the first American Idol?" Guarini's recording career disintegrated almost instantly. He was dropped from his record company two months after the release of his self-titled post-Idol disc, which critics hated and fans ignored.
Winner: Ruben Studdard. Pop music wasn't very welcoming of a mellow, sweet-voiced soul singer like Big Ruben, and his debut disc, "Soulful," stalled out quickly. It hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, but didn't attract much attention from radio. He regrouped with a gospel follow-up, "I Need an Angel," which climbed to No. 1 on the gospel charts, where he seems more comfortable.
Runner-up: Clay Aiken. His wildly successful career is inexplicable. Blessed with some of the wimpiest, overwrought songs imaginable, Aiken has rivaled Clarkson in popularity and CD sales. Taylor said he appeals to a unique demographic - middle-aged women and pubescent girls - that has helped him sell millions of his debut "Measure of a Man," host his own TV special, and record a Christmas album.
Winner: Fantasia Barrino. Like Studdard, her short career has been marked by a ho-hum response from pop radio, but welcome attention from another genre. On the R&B/Hip-Hop charts her debut "Free Yourself" reached as high as No. 2. But it also had the lowest first week sales of any of the other Idol winners.
Runner-up: DeGarmo. She's proof that the Idol formula doesn't work for everyone. Her debut "Blue Skies" sold horribly and was savaged by critics.
What will happen to this year's runner-up, Bo Bice, is tough to predict unless he decides to join a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute band. Taylor said he would have been a hard sell to folks who like rock music because he's too poppy to have credibility with that audience and "he surely won't succeed on rock radio."
Already a bona fide celebrity who's sure to saturate all the TV talk shows, Underwood will have the full Idol marketing machine behind her with Davis, the man who built the careers of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, at the controls.
And she starts with a ready-made fan base that most musicians have to build over years of touring and recording.
"Certainly, American Idol gives these young singers an amazing edge that no other publicity could achieve," Taylor said.
Judge Simon Cowell stoked the hype Wednesday night when he predicted that she'd "sell more CDs than anyone." And over the course of the past few months Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul have gushed all over her, which has firmly planted the idea in millions of minds that she's a legitimate star in the making.
Finally, like a long political campaign that tests the candidates under fire, walking out of Checotah, Okla., onto the most popular show on television to belt out songs and face the withering criticism of someone like Cowell is one of the things that makes American Idol fascinating entertainment.
It doesn't necessarily translate into finding the most creative artists, but in Underwood's case it could be the baptism that pushes her forward as an artist who's something more than just another marketable commodity.
Let's hope for her sake, that she's another Kelly Clarkson and not a Diana DeGarmo.
Contact Rod Lockwood at email@example.com
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