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‘Idol’ odds in the homestretch

Times Staff Writer

For the third time in five years, “American Idol” has become a battle of the sexes: a beauty contestant belter -- Katharine McPhee -- versus the prematurely gray Taylor Hicks. On the way to Wednesday night’s Season 5 finale, there was controversy (Mandisa lost the voting amid controversy), surprise (the dumping of Mr. Clean’s alt-rock stepson, Chris Daughtry) as well as the usual voting tabulation conspiracy theories.

History tells us that in every matchup between male and female contestants, women have come out on top. But before McPhee is crowned the next American Idol -- or upset by Hicks -- perhaps now is the time to consider American Idolatry through the cooler lens of phenomenological science.

Versatility and the ability to inject melodrama into melisma (turning a single word into a multi-note aria, a la Whitney and Mariah) are essential, of course, but there are other physical and psychological traits and truisms that define the American Idol. Lessons learned these last five seasons:

Intestinal fortitude is required. No matter how confident or delusional you are, facing rejection by three celebrities, 300 studio audience members and 30 million viewers a week requires gut instincts and a strong spine. In a Darwinian sense, it is not necessarily the fittest of the Idol species that survives but the most adaptable. Deprived of rest, privacy and anonymity, contestants are accelerated into instant celebrity (with the specter of equally quick obscurity) and a schedule that would have other television performers screaming for their agents.

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Some fare better than others. Praised by judge Simon Cowell as “the only artist who has refused to compromise,” Daughtry exhibited rock star integrity, but his inability to change colors compromised his shot. By contrast, McPhee, the 21-year-old daughter of a vocal coach who sometimes appeared to be put out, and Hicks, the manic working musician who was often accused of acting drunk, came across as seasoned performers. Each stayed true to their respective Idol-appropriate metiers -- Broadway for McPhee and blue-eyed soul for Hicks -- but ladled on showbiz schmaltz when needed. Advantage: Hicks

Cuteness is suspect. This season, wide-eyed looks and dimpled cheeks undid contestants in three consecutive weeks: goo-goo eyed, aging Tiger Beat falsetto Ace Young, country bumpkin Kellie Pickler and the prodigious 17-year-old Paris Bennett, whose Betty Boop speaking voice did not jibe with her sophisticated jazz pipes. (America, apparently, is also suspicious of precociousness; none of the Idols has been younger than 20.)

American Idol celebrates its constituency -- the gawky, geeky and well-fed young women of this land who don’t live on a starlet’s diet of cigarettes and diet colas. These are the voters who relate to pear-shaped McPhee’s apple-cheeked accessible glamour even as she teeters between hauteur and ungainliness. They also have warm and fuzzy feelings for Hicks and Elliott Yamin, puppyish “dawgs” whom judge Randy Jackson is wont to call “real.” Unthreatening to other men, they attract female voters who exhibit the same hysterical blindness that made Clay Aiken a sex symbol. Advantage: Draw

Pheromones are verboten. At best Idols exude a sexual neutrality but never, ever danger. (It wasn’t until she stopped being an Idol and starting acting like a pop star that Kelly Clarkson became a hottie commodity.) The pumped-up Daughtry seethed with bad-boy testosterone; that, and the public announcement of his underwear preferences, may have been more turn-off than turn-on. Hicks is the kind of guy who gets brought home to meet mom. Female contestants have more wiggle room, but it must be deployed tastefully. This year, Pickler’s last-call honky-tonk honey image and Bennett’s Beyonce-styled bounce raised eyebrows. McPhee exuded sultriness without overstepping the line. Advantage: McPhee

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Hands, eyes, and lips must coordinate. Idols need to communicate comfort and joy. Yamin struggled with the former; Daughtry with the latter. McPhee, however, has laser beam eye contact and can hit the most improbably high notes with a sparkling smile, while Hicks uses goofy footwork and Ray Charles-indebted body language to show the music some love. Advantage: Hicks

A taste for crow and humble pie should be acquired. Nurture more than nature separates the Idols from the also-rans. Each week, Americans worship the Idols with eyes and ears open, but choose with their hearts, rewarding contestants for more intangible qualities such as poise, sportsmanship and modesty. Sass what Simon says and you may as well pack your bags. Suck up the compliments like mother’s milk without so much as an aw-shucks, as Daughtry did, and you are toast. There is a fine line between moxie and arrogance, but contestants who can muster a smile even when cowed by Cowell are the ones who win points for spunk. Advantage: Hicks

Jerk as many tears as possible. However much she may be teased for it, Paula Abdul’s unconditional mother love for the contestants carries as much weight as Cowell’s stern paternalism. Reduce Abdul to puddles of tears, as Yamin did this year, and America responds. Break down yourself -- as third season single mom Fantasia Barrino did while singing “Summertime” -- and victory is assured. If you can’t manage your tear ducts, make your father cry, as McPhee did singing “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Advantage: McPhee

Open up and bleed. The most compelling Idols offer a back story that establishes a need for triumph over adversity and a subsequent narrative arc that satisfies the American public’s passion for drama, conflict and resolution. Yet even these are subject to the audience’s moral review. If Barrino’s struggles as a single teenage mother were galvanizing, Pickler’s revelation of an estranged and incarcerated father seemed to work against her. To his credit, Yamin, who had the most to gain from personal disclosures, steadfastly refused to milk sympathy for his health issues, including diabetes and hearing loss. Hicks and McPhee have endured no such character building. Advantage: Draw

Drawl y’all. It is more statistically advantageous for contestants to identify as Southern. Every winner and runner-up of the last four years -- be they black white, male or female -- knows how to whistle Dixie. Hicks is from Alabama; McPhee is from, well, Southern California. Advantage: Hicks


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