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Idol Tracker

Turns out 13 is their lucky number

March 07, 2009|Richard Rushfield

Three weeks ago they walked out on the "American Idol" semifinals stage as 13 nobodies, but Thursday night each one came back a star.

It is the inexorable life cycle of the "Idol" season, but still it is breathtaking to watch. Whatever the year's ups and downs, the show retains the unshakable ability to pull a handful of young dreamers from the unwashed masses and transport them to a land beyond their wildest dreams.

Thursday night, immediately after the wild card show, the newly named top 13 celebrated their anointing at West Hollywood's Area nightclub. Before they could party inside, however, the first red carpet of their lives beckoned. They walked the rope line one by one, granting mini-interviews to the dozens of assembled world press members. Each of the new stars seemed giddy from the heady moment, but it is hard to imagine that they truly comprehended how their lives had just been forever altered.

Just one year ago, I watched as no less than David Cook, Michael Johns, Jason Castro, Brooke White, David Archuleta and Carly Smithson took this first giddy walk down the carpet, the press glancing at their tipsheets to remember their names.

For the children of Season 8, what happens in the next 12 weeks will forever be the center of their lives; win the competition or go down in flames, "Idol alumni" has been etched on their foreheads. If history is a guidepost, one to three of these 13 have just received a ticket to true and durable stardom, a seat at one of the A-listiest tables in our society. For a handful more, they have been given the tools to create what millions of struggling performers would kill for: a viable career supporting themselves through their singing. And for a tragic handful more, the season will be the thing that forever they struggle to live up to, the albatross around their neck.

But for this one night, they stand in-between, still unpackaged, genuine human beings -- chatting to interviewers with little streetwise guile -- without fear of Internet backlash, media convulsions or corporate clearances. In the years to come, each will have time to learn all that.

What conclusions can now be drawn about the season that brought us these brave champions? It has certainly been the bumpiest preseason in "Idol" history, rife with much drama and controversy on-screen and off. Already we have survived the addition of a new judge, the reversion to the original semifinals format, Hurricane Katrina (a.k.a. Bikini Girl), the dismissal of Joanna Pacitti, faltering ratings, technical glitches, the Norman Gentle and Tatiana shows, mysteries about the rules, some of the roughest nights -- singing-wise -- "Idol" has seen and ultimately the drama of the wild card round with its one final twist of a 13th place at the Idoldome table.

But underneath all that, has the show built a solid foundation for its main event, the season proper? Historians won't definitively be able to answer for decades, until they can look back from afar and coolly assess what sort of finale this season produced, what sort of careers its children went on to. Some conclusions are possible, however. They include:

* There was a certain lack of warmth in the restored format; some emotional core missing to the sudden-death arrangement, gone with our inability to take a longer journey with each of the contestants, to see them grow, preseason.

* Nonetheless, now that the wild card round has worked its magic with some solid choices (particularly the sensational Megan Corkrey), this is a fairly good top group as seasons go. By my count, at least six of the 13 would have made the finals in any season, and I can see plausible scenarios whereby almost all the rest could wind up in the top three -- with only a couple seeming obviously doomed. Typically we go into the finals with a good half of the contestants looking like obvious cannon fodder.

* I won't say this is the strongest group in history -- I still give those honors to my beloved Season 7 -- but it is an early potential contender for the silver or bronze medals.

* It is the first time in my memory that we go into the finals with a wide open field, with no ordained front-runner or group. (Last year at this point it was Archuleta's to lose; the year before the LaKisha/Melinda/Jordin cluster dominated; the year before, it was McPhee versus Daughtry). Question marks loom: Does Danny Gokey have star power? Is Lil Rounds too good, too polished too soon? Does Alexis Grace have the range and the experience to see her through?

* The four-judge lineup is not working in its current state. The addition of Kara DioGuardi pumped much-needed adrenaline into the drooping panel; however, it's become a slog listening to four judges slam a song choice. In addition, DioGuardi has failed to bring her promised fresh perspective to the panel, 98% of the time echoing the sentiments of Paula and/or Randy and leaving Simon, more clearly than ever, standing alone as the voice of rational sobriety (see: Gokey's semifinals critiques). Giving less time to each for the remainder of the season would be much appreciated.

But it is time to roll up our sleeves -- the real work is about to begin. And for those giddy young faces on the red carpet, fame is not the only experience beyond their wildest dreams lying just ahead for them. They are about to enter some of the most grueling days they have ever known.

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richard.rushfield@latimes.com

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