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Chris Medina's debut single tests 'American Idol's' aim 'to be on the cutting edge of music production'

March 3, 2011 |  6:00 am

Chris-medina-debut-single

Chris Medina had the winning formula that easily earmarked him as an early front-runner on this season of “American Idol”: soaring vocals, a heart-wrenching personal narrative and a charming personality.

Medina won over the judges with his take on the Script's “Breakeven,” but it was his backstory that sparked a visceral reaction from viewers. Two months before the Oak Forest, Ill., native planned to walk down the aisle with fiancée Juliana Ramos, she was in a car accident that left her confined to a wheelchair after suffering a severe brain injury.

Medina’s emotional audition package culminated in him uttering the words, “What kind of guy would I be if I walked out when she needed me the most?,” which surely made people in living rooms across America erupt in tears.

But the seemingly certain contender was eliminated before the top 24 after a less than stellar performance in Las Vegas during a night of Beatles’ classics.  

Judge Jennifer Lopez dramatically sobbed, “I can’t do this anymore.” Medina was stoic, thanking the judges for the opportunity. Lopez needed a moment to compose herself as Randy Jackson and Steven Tyler consoled her and tried to rid her fear of “telling him the right way.” “Idol” fans tweeted their disbelief and a crop of 12 men, sans Medina, made its debut.

But across the country in New York, the 26-year-old was enveloped in a media blitz quite uncharacteristic of a contestant who hadn't survived the coveted Green Mile into the top 24. In just a week, post-elimination Medina landed in chairs next to a variety of interviewers, including Jay Leno, Regis and Kelly and Mario Lopez, and he will appear on "Good Morning America" on Friday.

Instead of pining over his unceremonious exit from the show, Medina is working his debut single, “What Are Words,” a Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins-produced ballad in tribute to Medina's fiancée. And in a testiment to his quick impact on the competition, the song is performing well, making it into the top 50 of the iTunes top 200 charts (No. 45 as of early Wednesday) -- good news, considering a portion of the proceeds of the song will go to Ramos’ recovery fund.

Looking back on his brief "Idol" experience, Medina said he was taken aback that the judges, specifically Lopez, felt so invested in him.

“I felt like they were rooting for me, and they wanted me to be as good as I could be,” Medina said. “I had a fantastic story, but in the end I thought they had it right. I thought it was a few performances that weren’t so great.”

Medina said getting the word that pop Svengali Jerkins (he’s crafted hits for Michael and Janet Jackson, Brandy, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Britney Spears, to name a few) had a song ready to go, just for him, was overwhelming.

Medina“He saw something in me. He felt inspired to write something so beautiful. He could have had anyone write that song,” Medina said. “Who better to sing it than somebody who went through it?”

Jerkins has been a champion for Medina since he first saw his audition. The producer was recruited by in-house “Idol” mentor Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Universal Music Group's Interscope Geffen A&M subsidiary, along with other hitmakers --  Ron Fair, Timbaland, Tricky Stewart and Alex Da Kid -- to help with song selection, and arranging and producing the musical accompaniment.

On a recent trip to his Hollywood recording studio, the 33-year-old Jerkins had Medina’s audition showing on a flat screen in his lounge, enthusiastically telling anyone within earshot about the singer. He said Medina’s tear-filled audition laid the groundwork for the song.

“He gave me the title for the song,” Jerkins said. “To me, that statement solidifies who he is, to still be with her. ‘What kind of guy would I be to walk away when she needed me the most?’ Think about it, how many cats would really stay? To me, it showed who he is.”

Lauren Christy, the songwriter who collaborated with Jerkins on the song, said she was struck by Medina's story.

“After Rodney showed me the clip, I just burst into tears. I couldn’t believe it. He said, 'Take that emotion right now and write a song about it,' ” said Christy, who also has penned songs for Avril Lavigne, Kelly Clarkson and Enrique Iglesias. “There was this beautiful piano motif. Every line came running through me.”

Medina’s “What Are Words,” charity song or not, is the first to flirt with a new model that “Idol” producers hope will further boost the show's sagging ratings: rolling out original music during the run of the show, instead of waiting until a winner has been crowned.

The new crop of contestants will also be presented the opportunity to sing original songs during the competition -– something viewers briefly saw a few attempt in the Green Mile episode last week.

“We want to be on the cutting edge of music production,” executive producer Nigel Lythgoe said at the Television Critics Assn.'s winter press tour in Pasadena in January.

Host Ryan Seacrest said he hopes the new model will allow contestants to get “on the radio right away.” With the "Idol" host/morning radio personality premiering each new single on his own hit show, which has become the go-to destination for singers ranging from Rihanna, Willow Smith, the “Glee” cast and even judge Lopez, Seacrest could easily position songs for radio success. Such an arrangement is likely to benefit competitors who historically haven't gotten a first single out until months after the show's wrap (unless you're in the top three).

Christy, who admits she hasn’t been engrossed in the show since the days of Clarkson, said she doesn’t understand why "American Idol" is just now cashing in on this idea.

“It’s a smart move. In this [song’s] case, people are rooting for Chris, not necessarily just on ‘Idol,’ they are rooting for him in life. Yes, he came out as a loser on ‘Idol,’ but he’s a winner in life. He came out on top,” she said. “I think he’s been sent to show the world what it means to be man.”

During the show's first five seasons, before the digital music boom, the recordings were released as compilation albums at the end of the season -- all five of which broke Billboard's top 200 album charts. Later installments have been digital-only releases (though Season 8 was a Wal-Mart exclusive ). The live performances and studio recordings of covers were eventually made available on iTunes for recent seasons.

In 2010, longtime “Idol” major label affiliate Sony Music was replaced by Universal's Interscope-Geffen-A&M Records arm. Jerkins said the new strategy with Interscope harnesses the show’s potential to dominate digital charts, much like another Fox hit, “Glee,” proved with its weekly single releases. 

“It’s the ‘Glee’ concept, but original content," Jerkins said, adding that it allows content to come out much quicker to build on the day-after buzz. “If you’ve seen the schedule, you’d ask how we do it. Our first week, we had to turn around 20 songs for 20 contestants in four days.”

What weight “What Are Words” -- or any of the original singles’ success -- will hold is yet to be seen. But despite the untested waters, Jerkins is confident it will work.

“It’s some really good talent,” he said. “It’s going to be one of those seasons where even if you didn’t win, a star is going to be born.”

For his part, Medina is just happy to have his moment -- even if he doesn’t return to “Idol” on Thursday as a wild-card selection, which at this point seems highly unlikely.

“I would be surprised if they didn’t bring me back, now that I have the single out,” Medina said. “I would be happy. I just want to perform the song a little bit more. I’m still a contender in this music industry.”

-- Gerrick D. Kennedy

Twitter.com/GerrickKennedy

Photos: (Above) Chris Medina publicity shot. Credit: Insterscope Records

(Below) Medina performs in front of the judges on "American Idol." Credit: Michael Becker / Fox

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