.Songbird Lauren Alaina would entertain her family in Rossville, Ga.,… (Michael Becker / Associated…)
Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina, the teens facing off in the final competitive round of "American Idol" Tuesday night, obviously have a lot in common. They're young Southerners, devout Christians and country music devotees. They've also both spent family time in tanning salons.
McCreery's mother, Judy, owns At the Beach salon in Clayton, N.C., and in addition to his Norman Rockwell-esque gig as a grocery store bag boy, he's also worked part-time in that more contemporary setting. In Rossville, Ga., Alaina and her mom attained sunless glows at Fort Lake Tanning, in the same mini-mall as the CiCi's Pizza franchise where the 16-year-old famously worked.
This shared connection to one of the staple beauty routines of the South may seem trivial, but it provides a window into the environment that produced these homogenous rivals, which is proving likely to produce the most commercially viable winner in several seasons.
Yes, it's a country music year for "Idol" — just what producer Nigel Lythgoe wanted when he tagged Alaina early on as this season's Chosen One. (The show's producers have also pushed McCreery, who is now likely to win, since the beginning; he's had a signature song — Josh Turner's "Your Man" — ever since his audition.) With Carrie Underwood now the official top-earning "Idol" alum and Nashville holding up better than any other corner of the conventional recording industry, no one can be surprised that "Idol" has found new life, in part, by assertively reconnecting with this heartland.
"Idol" has always belonged to the South; six of its nine previous champions hail from the region, with David Cook, from Missouri, qualifying as a border dweller. What this year's young finalists demonstrate is how even the deepest-dwelling sweet tea Southerner is really now a chain-store cosmopolitan, as long as he or she hails from the middle class.
Alaina and McCreery came into this competition primed for their spot onstage at the Nokia Theatre L.A. Live. Both were self-styled child stars: McCreery dressed up as Elvis Presley for Halloween in grade school, and Alaina charmed at family gatherings by pretending to be on, yes, "American Idol."
That's hardly unusual in edge cities like McCreery's hometown of Garner (10 minutes from the state capital Raleigh, also home to "Idol" finalist Clay Aiken) and Rossville (the same distance from Chattanooga, Tenn., and only a couple of hours from Nashville), where talent shows and beauty pageants sit alongside sports on most children's activity calendars.
What country music gives these young performers is a way to explore the same sensual pleasures and upwardly mobile dreams that rock and soul also address, but within a resolutely wholesome, cheerfully conformist framework. This has long been part of the Nashville sensibility. Tradition isn't a door to be shut against the modern world, but a frame within which its more challenging elements are contained.
If McCreery and Alaina were strictly conservative, the moments that defined them on "Idol" could never have happened. Alaina won her audition by singing an Aerosmith song to and with judge Steven Tyler, forging an emotional connection with the unrepentantly lecherous rock star. And "Your Man," the song McCreery won't put down, is explicitly about sex — something a teen Christian so devout that he kissed his cross after meeting that heretic, Lady Gaga, isn't supposed to celebrate.
McCreery and Alaina are instead flexibly conservative, and, in some ways, flexibly country. The deep-voiced boy and the large-lunged girl seem to sing beyond their years, yet their delivery tends to be emotionally blank. This seems like a necessity for these kids, who haven't gone through the full process of self-definition that will make them adults. Instead, they've adopted the standard male and female voices of country pop, a style as indebted to Celine Dion and Tom Petty as to George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
McCreery's throwback baritone maybe virtually screams "old-fashioned," but his most direct forebear isn't the brooding Johnny Cash — it's Jim Reeves, whose elegant music took the Nashville sound from the honky tonk to the cocktail lounge in the late 1950s and early 1960s. His hayseed act is musical theater.
And Alaina is a pure product of the beauty pageant/cheerleader machine that's created current country's feminine ideal, as embodied by fashion-forward stars like Lady A's Hillary Scott and Thompson Square's Shawna Thompson.
What's missing from the country these kids make is not only any real whiff of the rural, but a sense of working-class life, once so endemic to the genre. But this distance from the "workin' man" of whom Merle Haggard once sang also typifies today's young country artists. Confronting economic crises — such as the killer explosion and subsequent closing of the ConAgra plant in McCreery's hometown — might taint the mood set by songs about Mexican vacations and the perfect goodnight kiss.
The side of "real country" that speaks for coal miner's daughters and other working people (many of whom, incidentally, are not white) isn't one that McCreery or Alaina can comfortably take on. But that won't hurt them, either in the competition or afterward. In the realm of "Idol," "country" is just a suburb of Hollywood. The same often seems true now in Nashville too.