American/Pop Idol: Where There's a Will, There's No Wayby Phil Lewin -- 09/10/2002
Being on the wrong side of the Atlantic at the time, I did not catch the finals of American Idol. However from the comments made by other writers on this site and elsewhere, it is clear that the guest appearance by the British Pop Idol winner, Will Young, sucked. Columnists in the UK speculated beforehand that his appearance would kickstart his career in the States. Instead, it has most likely been killed off before it even began. Yet this lackluster performance is probably an accurate reflection of how Will's progress, since winning Pop Idol six months ago, has been steady rather than stratospheric, and in a possible warning to the American Idol finalists signing up to BMG records, our old friend Simon Cowell might be partly to blame.
During the latter stages of Pop Idol, the consensus was that the winner would be one of two contestants: Will and Gareth Gates. Both were very different vocalists and personalities. Gareth was 17, from a small blue collar Northern town. Will was 22, came from a professional family, and was a graduate in politics. Until the final, it looked as though Gareth was the most likely winner, partly because he had seemingly cornered the "cute" factor among the key teenage girl viewers. However Will, who had a broader public appeal based more on his talents than his looks, eventually pulled ahead in support and won the final vote.
You would therefore expect BMG to pull out the stops to push the career of their winner. Well, no. Will's first single release would be a ballad called "Evergreen," originally recorded as an album track by the Irish boy band, Westlife. However this song was not chosen specifically for Will but recorded in advance of the final by each of the last three, regardless of how well it fit their specific vocal abilities. According to the third place finalist, Darius Danesh, the song was deliberately chosen as being best suited for Gareth's voice and it did not fit comfortably within the other two's vocal ranges at all. Will had even asked for the keys to be rearranged to make the song more suitable for everyone, but Simon Cowell refused. Regardless, Will's version of the song was released and, on the back of the series' popularity, was an instant number one in the UK singles chart, even though it scarcely did him justice.
In the meantime Simon, with characteristic bluntness, had gone public and admitted to the NME that he felt Gareth should have won Pop Idol instead - a wonderful statement of confidence in his protege's abilities. At the same time, BMG were also reputedly unsettled by tabloid revelations that Will was gay. Although this had never been a secret and is not a matter of particular concern to most music buyers, the "outing" was followed by characteristically inane press commentary on the lines that Will had somehow betrayed the fantasies of his teenage girl fans, who in reality showed far more maturity about the subject than the columnists themselves. Nevertheless, it was publicity that BMG felt they could do without, particularly compared to Gareth, who was rumoured to be having a definitely more acceptable heterosexual romance with another of the Pop Idol finalists, Zoe Birkett.
Showing indecent haste, BMG waited no more than three weeks before putting out Gareth's first single, which in a stunning demonstration of record company unoriginality, was a cover of "Unchained Melody," Gareth thus joining the several hundred other artists that have re-recorded this song (usually to its detriment - and Gareth's version was no exception). To add insult to injury, Gareth's version of "Evergreen" was also put onto the CD, which replaced Will at the top of the singles chart.
By this time it was becoming evident to many observers that Gareth was being given preferential treatment. Even one of the Pop Idol co-hosts, Declan Donnelly, complained about BMG's attitude. "He was the Pop Idol winner and they should have held back Gareth's single for a bit. But instead Gareth is getting all the glory." A more scathing criticism came from Ross Hemsworth, the managing director of independent Galaxi Music. "Anyone that knows anything about music could see that Will's voice is far superior to Gareth's and a lot more versatile, but as usual the British record companies continue to sign people on looks for the bubblegum pop marketplace. Will Young has real talent and could be a worldwide smash in the right hands. He should be developed as an album artiste with credible material and not thrown to the lions the way he is right now. It seems from the recent publicity that his advisors are not helping him build a career with longevity and this real talent could sink without trace."
Unsurprisingly, BMG denied the allegations of favouritism, but Simon eventually fought back and, surprise, blamed Will. "I don't think Will wants to work with me," he complained, "and so I put my energies into Gareth. The difference between Will and Gareth is that Gareth wants to work with me and take my ideas and I don't think Will does. I suggested something to Will recently and he said no. I told him he was making a mistake. I would love to work with Will more but you can only do so much." You could argue this conflict two ways; either Will is a stubborn son of a bitch, or as an older and more confident personality than Gareth, he has his own views on the direction of his career and is less easy to manipulate.
Either way, six months down the line, Gareth's career progression seems to have crept ahead of Will's. Gareth was allowed to put out an original song for his second single release while Will was saddled with another cover version, in this case a version of "Light My Fire" which would have had Jim Morrison spinning in his Parisian grave. Gareth, not Will, got the big Pepsi sponsorship deal. Gareth, not Will, appeared in the original Fox trailer for American Idol. Shortly, Will and Gareth are to duet in, well what do you know, yet another cover. This time it's "The Long and Winding Road," chosen after a long and winding search by BMG to avoid a male duet with any lyrical implication of homosexuality. Gareth, not Will, is singing the lead.
Yet despite the current apparent favouritism for Gareth over Will, you have to fear for the long-term career path for both of them. Clearly choosing a string of ropy covers for any artist to release does not lend itself to serious long-term development (except as a member of a tribute band or a warm-up in Vegas). Darius Danesh quickly recognised this was not a path he wanted to follow and despite discussions regarding a contract at BMG, who allegedly wanted him to cover "It's Not Unusual" as his first release, he instead signed up with Mercury Records. They were happy to allow him to write and record his own songs, the first of which was recently a number one hit.
However, BMG seem to be working on the basis that a little originality is a dangerous thing, and therefore Will and Gareth must stick to the bland and familiar until the fickle teenage market finally loses interest, likely to be when until the brand new 2003 Pop Idol comes along (not to mention Kelly and Justin when they inevitably cross the Atlantic). In Will's case this would be a sad waste of genuine ability. As Ross Hemsworth suggests, "there must be a good lawyer who could get Will out of his contract and to a label that will give him the support that a talent of his stature deserves." Will seems bright enough to be aware of his predicament and, with an early escape from the clutches of Mr. Cowell, he could still make it as a genuine idol, instead of merely treading water in the shallows as now.
It remains to be seen whether a similar scenario awaits the American Idol finalists. Simon is of course more than happy (at the moment anyway) to manage both Kelly and Justin (although if Nikki had won, that might have been a different matter). The American market is also very different to the British and less likely to accept a succession of mediocre covers from its idol, or anyone else. Yet with Idol II already in the pipeline, it is hoped that the first generation of idols are still allowed to develop even after their successors are crowned - instead of being unceremoniously dumped for the latest model. How many Pop Idols, American or otherwise, are there room for in the world? That remains to be seen.
You can contact Phil at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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