As we head into the homestretch of the “American Idol” season, there’s one thing that is abundantly clear: Crystal Bowersox is the overwhelming favorite. It seems like all she has to do is make it through the next five weeks without throwing up onstage or deciding to quit without letting the heroic and selfless Ryan Seacrest talk her out of it. (Well, that’s one version of the story, at least.)
Not so fast.
“Idol” history is filled with singers who were sure things … right up until they were voted off the show. Chris Daughtry is the most cited example, but just one year later Melinda Doolittle was considered a lock to win season six — before her stunning ouster just ahead of the finale. Being the front-runner doesn’t mean anything except that it’s just that more painful to your fans if you wind up losing.
That’s because being the favorite is a double-edged sword. Sure, it feels good to get the adulation of the judges every week and to hear the “Idol” mentors tell you how great you are. And it’s nice to spend the Wednesday results shows sitting in the comfy seats instead of the uncomfortable-looking accommodations provided to the three who received the lowest number of votes.
However, Bowersox isn’t universally admired, by any means. There are plenty of people who criticize her because they don’t like her style or because they think all the praise is excessive.
That criticism isn’t warranted. Bowersox is praised every week because ... wait for it ... she’s really good every week. There is no other “Idol” hopeful this season who has maintained anywhere close to her level of performance, and she’s exceeding even that high bar she has set for herself.
But let’s face it: Few root for Goliath just for the heck of it, even if she comes in dreads and a mic stand made from what once was a lamp. The fact that she’s such a heavy favorite only makes her a more attractive target for those who want to see someone else earn the crown. And the non-stop positive feedback only adds to the resentment of those who favor other singers (hence the derisive nicknames floating around the Web playing off her last name) while giving the favorite’s fans a sense of complacency that may be undeserved.
Something to worry about
Does it matter that some really don’t like her? After all, viewers aren’t voting against a particular singer every week. No matter how much you donated to “Idol Gives Back,” you can’t text in a special code that takes away Bowersox’s votes.
Everyone assumes that Bowersox is running away with the vote totals every week, but because “Idol” is so secretive with the results, that may not be the case. We know that she’s never been among the lowest vote-getters, but nobody knows whether her totals are increasing every week, or whether she’s losing ground.
Every time someone goes home, hundreds of thousands of votes (if not millions) are suddenly available. Will the Tim Urban fans now stop watching the show after their hero was tossed off last week? Will they watch and simply not vote? Or will they shift their allegiances to someone else?
It’s that latter possibility that should have Bowersox and her fans worried. It’s possible that she’s reached her ceiling of people who enjoy her music, and that those who currently favor the underdogs will support more traditional musicians as their own top choices fall by the wayside.
That may be what doomed Adam Lambert a year ago. Lambert and Bowersox are both very different from the usual “Idol” contender: Bowersox is the indie queen, and Lambert the theatrical master of the stage. Both emerged as unexpected stars early in the competition and never let up.
Lambert was the top performer throughout most of season eight, but he fell short against Kris Allen in the finale. In part, that may be because the fans of Danny Gokey, who finished third, may not have wanted Lambert to win and so voted for Allen to secure him the victory.
Could we see that scenario again? Say the final three singers are Bowersox, Lee Dewyze and Michael Lynche or Casey James. If it then becomes a Bowersox-Dewyze finale, are the fans of Lynche and James going to switch gears entirely and burn up the phone lines for Bowersox, or will they go for the more traditional rock vocalist?
For Bowersox, that danger may be exacerbated because (like Doolittle) her commercial niche isn’t immediately obvious. Judges like singers they can pigeonhole, in no small part because that makes it easier to sell their singles. Bowersox is as close to an indie musician as “Idol” is ever likely to get. As Simon Cowell has mentioned, she has the look and the musical style of someone playing in a subway station for commuters’ loose change — and that may hurt her chances.
Make no mistake: Bowersox is still more likely to win than anyone else is. But she and her fans can’t rest easy. This is one horse race where the long shots sometimes pull out the victory in the end.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/craigberman.