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'American Idol': Youth key to Milwaukee contestants' success

January 27, 2011 |  2:06 pm

MB1_4996 “Cause when you're 15 and somebody tells you they love you / You're gonna believe them / And when you're 15, don't forget to look before you fall / I've found time can heal most anything / And you just might find who you're supposed to be / I didn't know who I was supposed to be at 15” – Taylor Swift, “Fifteen”

There is something about youth that has the American Idol judges desperate to dole out golden tickets.

Call it the Justin Bieber effect, call it cuteness, you might even call it pity, but the judges' affinity for teens –- specifically 15-year-olds (the show's new lowered minimum age) -- reached a fever pitch when the show ventured to Milwaukee for a round of tryouts.

As host Ryan Seacrest pointed out, every single 15-year-old that auditioned in Milwaukee received that coveted golden pass to Hollywood.

With viewers being treated to a operatic tribute to Bieber’s hit, “Baby,” Seacrest acknowledged that the pint-sized star's lightning-quick rise was a main motivator for the show to lower the age limit from 16 to 15. This would undoubtedly usher in an influx of Beiber-like prodigies, and Seacrest said, “They've certainly delivered so far on the road."

But what exactly constitutes delivered?

Though Bieber has enjoyed unparalleled success in a strugglingmusic industry, he built up a hefty fan base with an abundance of popular YouTube videos, which gave him a foundation of fans to pull from when it came time for his debut. "Idol," however, provides little backstory for each contestant during the audition rounds, choosing to focus on tear-jerkers. 

Though the show has only been back for two incredibly brief weeks, viewers have watched the judges send through a few teenage contestants they deemed "unready" for the competition, but caved in because of tears and promises to improve. 

While one package sets up a precocious 15-year-old cooing about learning to read and write around the time the show crowned Kelly Clarkson as its inaugural winner 10 years ago, they don't mention when she began singing -- or whether she ever got training. And, granted, the show might rely heavily on winning over viewers with an inherent soft spot for the hopefuls who were just sliding out of Pull-ups at the show's inception, when it comes time to start logging votes, historically the younger contestants drop the quickest on "Idol" -- with the exception of standouts such as Jordin Sparks (who took the crown), Diana DeGarmo and David Archuleta (who both placed second) and Sanjaya Malakar (who during the show became a pop phenom). 

What the Milwaukee set of hopefuls further demonstrated was the judges' inability to say "no" to its youngest teens (each of the judges mention, more than once, how the young ones they pass through will struggle greatly in Hollywood).

These bright-eyed hopefuls walking through those double doors don't get the same criticism as older contestants. Though as "Idol" has shown in its 10 seasons, it pays off to get a "no" one year, dust off those vocal chords and come back again. In the past the judges have almost always rewarded in kind those contestants that come back year after year, improving their voices and gaining more experience along the way.

But for a teen who just snagged their learner’s permit (the package of the same 15-year-old shows her driving –- family in tow --16 hours after having just reached the milestone of getting her temps), a competition such as “Idol” appears to be more urgent, as evidenced by the tears that quickly come when Randy, Jennifer or Steven wince during a performance. There is a now-or-nothing essence that rides on the shoulders of the typical teenage angst and doesn’t make room for patience or perseverance. And in the world of music, those are two necessary qualities to possess.

“This is what my life is about,” 15-year-old Emma Henry cried when she saw the hesitation on the judges' faces after delivering a rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s signature anthem, “True Colors” (“we just wish she wasn’t sick,” her dad offered a waiting Ryan Seacrest, falling back on the “Idol” friendly excuse for not nailing an audition). Randy told her with a straight face that she will get “swallowed up in this whole thing,” but thanks to some crocodile tears -- and her promise that she will do better -- the judges sent her to the sharks of Hollywood Week.

Steven suggested that she spend the long 16-hour car ride home "opening up her vocals." Sadly, when she departed through those double doors, golden ticket in hand, all three agreed that the competition won't treat her kindly in the least bit. If so, why pass her through in the first place?

Thia Megia, on the other hand, was a 15-year-old that soared past the panel, sans a backstory. Taking on Adele's "Chasing Pavements,” which was a stark departure from her peers' strategy of reaching deep into the American songbook and relying on old standards to advance them -- thus demonstrating their talents by picking a song possibly suggested by a parent or overpriced vocal coach. 

Will these younger contestants be able to cut it? It doesn’t take brains to see the obvious strain a show like “Idol” presents. The limited sleep, the long hours, being sequestered from the outside world, the constant scrutiny of America’s voting bloc, and being subjected to weekly criticism by the judges on live television. The panel, particularly Randy, who has been there since Day 1, knows what this competition holds for its youth, and he continued to question whether they were all ready -- especially as Jennifer offered resistance and a quick "no." But, still, they all made it through. 

Taylor Swift sings that she “didn't know who I was supposed to be at 15,” and that’s a far cry from contestants in their 20s who have had the life experiences and time to pour into honing their vocals, music repertoire -- and most of all find their confidence. 

The lingering question here is whether a  competition such as “Idol” will be able to nurture and cultivate the talent of the young hopefuls they so willingly pass through to Hollywood.  

-- Gerrick D. Kennedy


Photo: Emma Henry, 15, from Littleton, Colo., performs in front of the American Idol judges Wednesday on FOX. Credit: Michael Becker / FOX.