Why on Earth is Casey James Still on “Idol”?

Of the three remaining “American Idol” finalists, two have been sure bets for weeks.

Crystal Bowersox has been an audience and judges’ favorite from the beginning, while Lee Dewyze has never been in obvious danger of going home. Apart from last week, when Ryan Seacrest made Bowersox sweat it out until the last minute in the “results-in-no-particular-order” reveal, neither has had much to worry about. (Though Dewyze is pretty obvious about showing us that he worries plenty anyway.)

And then there’s Casey James. He was in the bottom three in back-to-back weeks in April, but stuck around when Tim Urban and Siobhan Magnus got the boot instead. It’s not like he’s used that scare to raise his level of performance, but the results have been better anyway. He was thought to be one of the worst singers over the past couple of weeks as well, but wasn’t among the two lowest vote-getters when Aaron Kelly went home.

Which begs the question: Why is he still here? That’s what fans of Michael Lynche, Kelly, Magnus and pretty much every other eliminated contestant are asking. In fact, half the time, it looks like James himself is wondering what in the heck he’s still doing there.

They kind of have a point.

James hasn’t shown the same flashes of star potential as Lynche did with “This Woman’s Work” and Magnus did in parts of nearly every song. James fans will cite “Jealous Guy,” which was fine, but wasn’t something that could go right onto the radio. He’s pretty to look at, and seems to have a pleasant personality, but musically speaking, he hasn’t been one of the season’s stars.

A bad fit?
Part of the problem is that he seems to be a bad fit for “Idol.” It’s easy to see him making a career for himself in country, though the competition in Nashville is a lot more fierce than it is at the Kodak Theater. But he hasn’t had the opportunity to go down that road often on the show, and he hasn’t made his own chances to do that either.

This is a mass-market musical talent show that tries to manipulate the contestants to ensure the maximum commercial viability. Most contestants go with the flow, finding it the most obvious route to the judges’ favor, though many ultimately find chasing that ghost to be a fruitless task and become bland, flavor-of-the-week karaoke masters.

Others stick to their strength and have the confidence — or the hubris — to think they know  better than the judges. Bowersox has done that and excelled, but so did Magnus with less success. It doesn’t often work, and it takes a certain kind of contestant to pull it off.

The thing with James is that he’s really done neither. If he’s trying to please the judges, it isn’t working. The only reason he isn’t getting slammed instead of mildly critiqued by Simon Cowell is that the Brit’s gone soft in his senior season. But James also isn’t doing much to use the songs to accentuate his own strengths, like Bowersox does.

In addition, James is entirely dependent on his instrument. It’s not quite fair to say that he uses his guitar as a crutch because he’s a legitimately strong guitarist, but take that away — as the show did in Sinatra week — and it’s like he loses all confidence in himself.

Getting attention
Last, but certainly not least, it’s unfortunate for James that he first got the cameras’ attention by taking off his shirt during his auditions. It prompted the season-long cougar story line with Kara DioGuardi that’s been as mature as a seventh-grade classroom’s discussion of who likes whom this week.

It says something that, just seven seasons after the whole Corey Clark-Paula Abdul did-they-or-didn’t-they story, “Idol” is now making a joke about a married female judge and a younger male contestant. But one of the side effects is that it helps turn James into a sideshow as much as a singer, which isn’t fair to him or his abilities.

That said, the easiest explanation as to why James is still around is simple: Who would you prefer?

Even if you buy that Bowersox and Dewyze are worthy heirs to the top two of previous seasons, the defining attribute of this group of finalists is that most are equally average.

Did Lynche really deserve to be here more? He was a judges’ save away from finishing ninth, so he was lucky to make it as far as fourth. Are Kelly, Magnus or Katie Stevens closer to being radio ready than James? No. Tim Urban was a last-minute addition to the semifinals, so can his fans really be upset that he came in seventh?

In all likelihood, anything other than a dominant performance will get James tossed off the show this week, and we’ll get the “Idol” finale that the judges seem to want.

However, a lot of people last year would have said at this point that Kris Allen had enjoyed a nice run, but the signs were pointing to a Danny Gokey-Adam Lambert showdown. Instead, Gokey was the surprised contestant who exited early, and Allen won the season eight title and is all over the radio.

So you never know ...

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/craigberman.

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