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May 14, 2010 at 6:38 AM

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'American Idol's' fire-in-the-belly problem

Posted by Misha Berson

Here we are, once again, "Idol" addicts: down to the top three candidates for the "American Idol" crown. Down to the hometown parades, the sing-offs, the big star-studded final night with the confetti finale and the Disneyland commercial.

And all over Idol Land there's a palpable sigh. And a case of the blahs.

I'm not saying the final three this year aren't talented. Casey James can play a mean guitar, and whoop through a rocking blues. Lee DeWyze has that husky thing going on, and he's cute. And Crystal Bowersox has the pipes, the power, the integrity to potentially have a terrific career as a Janis/Bonnie rootsy wailer.

But I've been trying for weeks now to put my finger on what's gone missing this year, why I'm not attached to any of them winning. Last season I rooted hard for that creative and sly musician Kris Allen but also loved the wild-and-crazy hipness and virtuosity Adam Lambert and Allison Iraheta brought to the game. The year before, David Cook won my heart but I could understand David Archuleta's appeal.

This year, I think what's happening is that "American Idol is," at the ripe old age of 9, becoming both too predictable in its formula and at the same time too desperate to reinvent the wheel and find The Next Big Thing. It's part of a mainstream recording industry that really isn't all that interested in finding or developing or promoting fresh young talent anymore -- unless it's a full-service entertainer like Lady Gaga, who is as much about performance art and circus as music. Most of the creative energy is coming from the indy record scene.

Then there are the contestants themselves. We've now got some who started watching the show at age 7 or 8, and have studied it like they're cramming for an exam. Then we've got more blase journeymen singers with attitude -- who are obviously thinking, "the whole thing is jive, but it's worth a shot anyway to make some bread and get some exposure." The over-eagerness of the former camp isn't alluring (see: Katie Stevens). And the casualness and relative detachment of the latter is a little deflating (see: Crystal Bowersox).

Then we've got judges blathering on about "artistry," while also second-guessing and trying to contrive the scenario of the contest from Day 1. We were told, for instance, that the winner should be a woman this time, before we even met the Top 24. (It sounded like a marketing decree.) And there's that constant mantra of finding someone "current." Shouldn't it just be someone great, no matter what genre they fall into?

What was "current" about Kelly Clarkson when she won, for Pete's sake? Or Carrie Underwood? Big talents make their own splash, create their own momentum and niche.

When Big Mike Lynche got knocked off this week, I felt a twinge of sorrow. I never thought he'd win the whole enchilada, but he had something going on (beside a very agile, in-tune voice, nothing to sneeze at this year) which the final three haven't shown me yet: a passionate, killer desire to win this thing. Fire in the belly. Trying to rev it up each week, and really connect with the crowd. Chris Daughtry (who I never thought I'd be quoting) said it in his terse advice to the finalists: "Stay hungry."

Is that just something, that sense of showmanship, innate? You got it or you don't? Or is it something Idol used to instill, but doesn't anymore? Maybe we're all getting blase about the thing -- or just tired of the same old/same old "theme" nights? The recycled judges' comments? Those piercing stares of Jamie Foxx?

For the next couple of weeks, maybe some magic ignition fluid will rain down and fire the contest up. Maybe there will actually be performances to remember, surprises, shocks. I'm not counting on it. But Idol needs to get that mojo working again, and get us caring more about who gets that confetti shower. And next year's, too.

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