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Reporter's Notebook: How five girls won 'American Idol'

'American Idol' will crown its first female victor since 2007. But the real winners are the Top 5 girls who made it happen.

May 16, 2013|By Gerrick D. Kennedy
  • "American Idol" is down to two female singers: Candice Glover, left, and Kree Harrison.
"American Idol" is down to two female singers: Candice Glover,… (Michael Becker / Associated…)

For those following “American Idol,” most of the focus has shifted toward incendiary headlines on sagging ratings, bitter rivalries and the likely mass exodus of the judges panel.

It’s a shame, really, considering the aging competition has delivered one of its best seasons – as far as talent is concerned.

Thursday’s finale is the sort of face-off “Idol” has only seen one other time in its more than 10-year run: a diva vs. diva showdown. Season 12 will either go to Kree Harrison, the country songbird, or Candice Glover, the R&B-soul diva with the voice.

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For the first time since Jordin Sparks’ 2007 win, a woman will finally take the crown. But it doesn’t matter who wins.

This season the competition – between contestants, not the judges – has featured some of the strongest finalists in recent history. This is thanks to the talented five female finalists that played the game so deftly they knocked their male peers out week by week, marking the show's first all-female Top 5. They are the real winners here. 

“Idol’s” narrative in recent years has been built around the handsome singer-songwriter equipped with a guitar and permanent three-day stubble. It started innocently enough with “Idol’s” incredibly forgettable seventh season when alt-rocker David Cook squared off against sweet-faced, innocent pop crooner David Archuleta.

But soon a trend was born and eventually critics passed off subsequent winners as just another "white guy with a guitar." That criticism heated up as the WGWG continued to prevail over their female runner-up who was widely considered a front-runner. Just ask Jessica Sanchez, Lauren Alania and Crystal Bowersox who came in second on the show’s last three seasons, despite being seen as potential winners.

So how did this year’s batch of girls break the cycle?  

In past seasons it was easy to dismiss female contestants for leaning toward traditional selections from the American songbook.

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Sure, it's standard practice for any inspiring diva on "Idol" to tackle songs from Whitney Houston, Celine Dion or Mariah Carey, who brought her regal flair to the judges panel this season. These are the first songs girls born in the early '90s learned to sing into their hairbrushes for hours as tykes -- but they often prove nearly impossible to put an original stamp on.

Where this group of girls succeeded, and surpassed their male peers, was displaying a greater knack for tapping into what’s current, which is critical for a show that’s typically panned as a glorified karaoke contest when compared with the breadth of competitors on rival "The Voice."

Some of this season’s finest moments came courtesy of smash songs from contemporary pop singers like Pink, Emeli Sande, Rihanna, Jessie J, Adele and Beyonce. Even Bruno Mars and Drake got bold makeovers, courtesy of Glover’s risk-taking, gender-defying selections.

Current hits allowed the girls to not only shine, but appeal to the younger generation of “Idol” viewers who gobble up music from multiple genres and are the ones voting.

That generational gap has always been the crux of "Idol." It was on full display this year as the girls – the oldest, Glover, is just 23 – stumbled greatly with classic genres and tired theme nights. First and foremost, there aren’t many twenty-somethings out there as well-versed with the Beatles and the book of Burt Bacharach and Hal David as their parents, or grandparents, are.

They also shifted their idea of the “diva.”

Female contestants have long made it far by delivering beautiful ballads while looking stunning in the process (they were, after all, raised on Mariah, Whitney and Celine). This season Angie Miller cemented her place with the sort of piano power Alicia Keys built her career on; Janelle Arthur tapped into always welcomed traditional country roots; and Amber Holcomb took the Beyonce route and channeled the contemporary, multi-genre diva.

And then there are the final two. Harrison, like Kelly Clarkson before her, has shown she can weave through classic rock, pop, country and R&B without breaking a sweat and Glover has the type of voice judges and viewers fawn over, and should easily walk away the victor.

Their potential singles even packed a punch, something that’s long been hit-or-miss (largely miss) on “Idol.” Harrison’s “All Cried Out,” is a lush country ballad plucked right from radio and Glover’s “I Am Beautiful,” is the sort of big R&B-pop ballad that’s inspirational message of self-love will give it legs.

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