An example of "American Idol " power is the fact that fans of the show remember great performances, early exits, and painful finale results years after each season is over. Viewers can easily get embroiled in "what if" arguments, and it's hard not to argue that some contestants would have fared better in different season. After last year's all-country finale, so far it looks like voters in Season 11 are more into pop-rock and power ballads, leaving country spitfire Skylar Laine in danger of early elimination.
Alaina v. Laine
Maybe destiny simply got a few letters mixed up and put Lauren Alaina in the Season 10 line-up as the show's hope for a girl winner on "American Idol." The producer manipulation and judges' favoritism got Alaina all the way to the final, but her male country counterpart, Scotty McCreery, took the title in a landslide victory. The teenage contestant that judge Steven Tyler had dubbed "the one" had talent, but her constant breathiness and awkward stage moves prevented her from being a serious threat to the eventual winner.
In contrast, Season 11 "American Idol" hopeful Laine seems born for the stage. Her audition included no awkward flirtations, just good vocals and excitement, and her twangy "Hell on Heels" was a high energy treat that had the judges voting "Yes!" unanimously. Once she hit the Top 25, her performance of "Stay with Me" cemented her image as a rockin' country girl with spirited moves and infectious enthusiasm. Couldn't that stage presence and charm have outdone McCreery, his waggling eyebrows, and strangely held microphone?
A Dip in the Ratings
As Top 9 week in Season 11 illustrated, allowing the "American Idol" contestants to choose songs they love tends to bring out the best in their performances. The narrow theme weeks often demolish otherwise talented singers as they struggle to put their own spin on songs from different eras, and often completely different genres. Skylar didn't completely crash during theme weeks, but she seemed to falter, sliding into the middle of the pack as contestants like Jessica Sanchez and Elise Testone had "Idol moments."
A common thread with the mentors was for Laine to dial back on the belting and connect with the song more. She isn't the only one who oversings to try and sell her vocal ability, but with so many solid competitors this year, it only takes one or two little flaws to send you into the Bottom 3. When she performed "Shameless" during Billy Joel week, it was a powerful vocal, but the sweet tones of her voice that can convey more emotion got lost in the big notes.
"Gunpowder and Lead"
This Miranda Lambert tune was actually one of Lauren's best "American Idol" performances in Season 10, finally finding a bit of personality as she dueted with Haley Reinhart. Watch their version on YouTube, and then compare it to Skylar's version on Top 9 performance night. If Skylar had performed last year with Haley, would their dual energy have become a force to be reckoned with? Might we have had an all-girl final that many "AI" fans have been wishing for?
"American Idol" voting has proven time and again that young, preferably cute guys get the most votes on the show. In Season 11, Heejun Han made a mockery of the contest with his comic performance during Billy Joel week, waking Steven Tyler up out of his usual dreamy coma enough to actually be annoyed at the disrespect. Still, Han was saved that week by voters and Erika Van Pelt went home instead. In Top 9 week, despite some weaker performances by the guys, two women ended up in the Bottom 3. One of them was Skylar.
So, despite her sassy vocals and showmanship skills, Skylar might have ended up exactly as Lauren did -- completely shut out in favor of the cute country boy McCreery. It might not all be blamed on voter bias, however. This country girl needs to choose a song that lets all the range of her voice show, and not at a full belt. Connecting better with the audience and telling a story the way the best country artists do could win her a lot more votes.
One of the top YouTube comments on Skylar's "Stay with Me" reads: "She's the only country contestant in 'AI' history I've ever liked!" The teenage singer has definite crossover appeal, something McCreery never had, and those extra votes could have landed her the Season 10 title. If she can find her "moment" on "American Idol" in the upcoming weeks, though, Season 11 might be the right place for her after all.
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