American Idol has helped bring attention to some truly talented artists who might otherwise have never found mainstream success. But we're not talking about winners over even finalists today. No. As a reality show, American Idol has a unique challenge in casting its finalists. They present themselves as a singing competition, but the semi-finalists are always a broad range of different genres. You'll always have an R&B diva or two, a quirky cabaret girl, a teenage boy, a rocker, a couple country singers, torch-song singers, very attractive girls, and maybe a bluesy guitarist of some sort. The diversity cannot be an accident when these AI archetypes appear every season. Let's put it this way: it's no coincidence that three singers from Hawaii made it to the semi-finals on the season when the show made a big deal about going to Hawaii. The same applies to returning to a city they haven't auditioned in for years and any time they change the age requirements.
So what does that mean for the genuinely talented singers who are competing against a producer's pet interest for a slot in the semi-finals? It usually means they don't even get shown singing one note. Does it mean they're not talented? Of course not. This post is going to highlight a few of my favorite also-rans that easily outsing most of the finalists on their season.
We'll start with one of the newest singers to fall into this category. This year on the show, the producers allowed 15 year old singers to audition. I generally opposed the idea of even having 16 year olds on the show (vocal development, overworking the voice, too much pressure, stress, public scrutiny--all bad things for a performer that young with no media training), so I was skeptical about 15 year old singers. The ones shown auditioning were either cute novelties or pageant singers, and they all seemed very interchangeable.
Vote for the Worst--the love it or hate it Idol site--found a fifteen year old MySpace.com auditioner who goes by the name of Bekuh Boom. She made it all the way to the last day of Hollywood week and was cut before they shipped the contestants to Vegas to perform songs by The Beatles. Bekuh Boom sings R&B and writes her own raps, too. She's extremely polished and has developed a unique style for a girl that young. Her YouTube account, BekuhBOOMTV, features samples of her choreography, cover songs, and what she calls remixes. She'll take a hit song and write new verses. For example, she made Soldier Boy Tell'em's awful song "Pretty Boy Swag" into a song worth listening too, "Pretty Girl Swag."
As cool as her remixes are, I'm more impressed by the original music she's written. Her song "Speechless" has been on constant rotation on my mp3 player. You can download it for free at the link.
Next is another contestant who was never shown singing on Season 9. Alex Nester is a singer/songwriter with an R&B/soul sound. Her original music is powerful and her stage presence is strong. She's already making waves in the industry, winning a Hollywood Music in Media Award for her song "Unique." It's a great track with a now award winning vocal.
To put it in perspective, she won an award from a group that threw her in competition with Hollywood film scores, TV scores, and professional commercial scores when her project was wholly independent.
Also scoring big at that awards ceremony was the most high profile of the singers featured in this article: Jackie Tohn. Jackie Tohn was a semi-finalist on Season 8 of American Idol where the show stupidly went back to a Top 30 with three contestants advancing each week. The judges unexpectedly turned on her for showing her sense of humor and performance style while singing "A Little Less Conversation," which made her one of the few entertaining performers that night.
Her song "What Is Love" was featured in the film You Again (as well as in certain cuts of the trailer), but don't hold that against her. The award winning music video is adorable and the song is sweet and romantic without being cloying.
It doesn't hurt that she's half of the power-duo Powerfox & Ponymane with far less-exposed Season 8 competitor Jes Hudak. They do great covers of songs with an old Casio keyboard and a ukulele (or occasionally a guitar). They have fun with it and still produce strong arrangements and mash-ups, like this cover of Paula Abdul's "Straight Up" mixed with the Kara DioGuardi-written "Sober."
Speaking of Jes Hudak...she's great, too. She's also a singer-songwriter from Season 8, only she didn't make the semi-finals. I couldn't tell you who the pop soprano with a personality was who blocked her admittance into the voting rounds because she didn't make the finals either. Jes Hudak writes fun pop songs in that Sara Bareilles/Ingrid Michelson "we have brains but that doesn't mean we can't write catchy songs" vein. Here's her song "All Mine."
Sometimes it's nice just to be nice. These talented singers all deserve your attention because they unique styles and developed musical personas that make the difference between good music and great music.