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As "American Idol" gets down to its final quartet of competitors this week, it's a far different field than fans would have expected, even a few weeks ago.
Who would have expected the two guys most likely to be one-note wonders - eccentric heavy metal screamer James Durbin and country crooner Scotty McCreery of Garner - would find ways to reinvent themselves time and again while glossier competitors faltered?
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And at a time when "Idol" voters have seemed more antifemale than ever, kicking off five women in succession before the first male singer was let go, plucky blonds Haley Reinhart and Lauren Alaina are still in it.
I'm predicting that McCreery and Durbin will be the finalists, despite the shameless favoritism toward Reinhart in recent weeks (I think they got spooked by the long stretch of female ejections).
McCreery probably will win the whole thing, especially given that he never has been in the show's bottom three. Of course, my prediction automatically jinxes him, because I've never correctly picked an "Idol" winner this far out!
A McCreery win also would continue "Idol's" habit of picking safe, unassuming guys for the top prize, an ironic turn since music's biggest iconoclast, Lady Gaga, will serve as a mentor this week and perform the next.
Still, there are some lessons to be learned about TV's biggest singing show, now that we're nearly through an amazing season where producers pulled a program on the verge of irrelevance from the brink.
Relentless positivity has ruined the judges' credibility: What felt like a breath of fresh air three months ago has taken on the air of Hollywood phoniness. In other words, when every performance is greeted with compliments, then real achievement means nothing. Praising contestants unless they completely self-destruct turns the judges' comments into an empty, boring exercise something departed star Simon Cowell knew all too well.
Late in the game, the mentors aren't helping much: Last week, Sheryl Crow seemed more interested in jamming with the contestants than coaching them, and competitors Casey Abrams and Durbin have had their biggest moments on stage by disregarding advice from record label executive/coach Jimmy Iovine and doing what feels right. It just proves what artists always have known: If producers and record executives could create pop stars, they wouldn't need "American Idol."
The journey still matters: McCreery's transformation from shy, unassuming country prodigy to a swaggering, self-assured singer on TV's biggest stage is the kind of progression that makes "Idol" voters swoon. On a show so focused on turning unknowns into stars, the singer who comes closest to living that dream onstage usually wins it all.