Eye On Idol (5/20/11)

And then there were two.

Following last night’s (5/19) exit of Haley Reinhart from American Idol, only country contestants Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina remain. That’s right, an all country finale, which has never happened in the show’s 11 seasons.

No matter who wins, this is great news for Nashville. We get not just one, but two, Idol voter-approved talents to mold into the next future stars. But as is the case with any new artist, there will be some important hurdles. Below is an examination of those hurdles and an Idol finale scorecard.

First off, let’s talk talent. Detractors have criticized Scotty for not being a great singer or perhaps sounding too much like Josh Turner. Sure he may not be the rangiest vocalist out there, and he may have sung “Your Man” one too many times in the early rounds, but I haven’t heard him hit too many sour notes so far. He seems to know his limitations and wisely stays close to his sweet spot. Lauren, on the other hand, is a naturally gifted singer with a gorgeous tone and extraordinary range. She gets the win in this category.

Haley Reinhart

There’s also an aspect of preparedness to consider. Scotty has a definite lead in this category, showing a confidence onstage and in front of the camera that belies his 17 years. He also has a keen ability to adapt and make instinctively appropriate choices for the moment, like choosing Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You” on the Wednesday following Osama Bin Laden’s death.

By comparison, Lauren’s song choices seem completely slapdash. For example, her own song choice for Wednesday’s (5/18) highly critical Top 3 show was Faith Hill’s cute-but-forgettable “Wild One.” Hardly a slam dunk. And I’m still not exactly clear how she sees herself as an artist… is she more Miranda or Martina or something completely different? Issues her label will have to confront.

Country radio is still an important piece of the puzzle, and Scotty in particular may face some challenges there. If Phyllis Stark’s recent article for Radio-Info is any indication, many country PDs and MDs aren’t going to be signing up for the Scotty fan club anytime soon. The response to Lauren was less hostile, provided that she comes with some A-plus material.

Hopefully, some of these folks in country radio will come to their senses and realize that both artists are young and still developing their skills. They should also pause to consider just how many of their listeners (and potential new ones) have been calling to vote for these kids (95 million total votes this week, fyi). And I won’t want to presume to speak for the labels here, but I imagine great care will be taken to ensure Scotty is not just a Josh Turner soundalike. His performances and choices suggest a wide range of ability and taste and it shouldn’t be a problem for him to bury that criticism.

Lastly, there’s a certain all-important X factor. Scotty has this in droves. He’s the all-American kid that helps your grandmother cross the street and rescues helpless kittens out of trees. Seriously, how can you compete with something that symbolic? To her credit, Lauren possesses a likeable southern girl charm but she’s no match for Scotty in this area.

Yes, both contestants have some checks in their columns. Both are distinct talents with their own set of pluses and minuses. But for my money, nothing short of the supposed Rapture tomorrow is going to stop Scotty from being crowned the next American Idol.

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