Friday, February 15, 2008

Why It Doesn't Matter That American Idol's Carly Smithson Used to Have a Record Deal

In the span of just a couple of hours this morning I got e-mails from 3 different friends alerting me to the fact that American Idol contestant Carly Smithson at one point had a record deal with a major label. I knew this information, of course (I referenced it in my post Eight Burning Questions About the Top 24), but, due to the fact that this information seems to be traveling quickly through the Idol-sphere, I thought I'd give my $.02 on the topic.

I just don't care.

Before I get to why I don't care, a bit of background, in case you don't know the story...

Smithson (or Carly Hennessy, as she was known at the time) got a major record deal around 2000/2001. The label put a lot of money into promoting her as the next big thing (reports indicate it may have been as much as $2 million). The album sold less than 500 copies (ouch!) She was dropped by the label.

Fast forward a few years, and she auditions for American Idol, makes it through to Hollywood, and is disqualified due to Visa restrictions.

Fast forward a couple more years, and here we are, with Smithson in the Top 24 and some Idol folk freaking out.

Now, Smithson is not violating any Idol rules by competing -- in order to be eligible to compete, you simply cannot have a recording contract at the time you audition. Smithson didn't -- so no problem there.

Where some folks do seem to have a problem, however, is that this information seems to have been hidden from the audience. (This is not entirely accurate -- the producers have acknowledged her history in interviews, and have reiterated the rules of eligibility). During the multitude of screen time she's received through the initial stages of the competition, however, there has been no mention of this part of her background. (To be fair, she's not the only one who's had a musical part of their past unaddressed on the show -- there has also been no mention thus far that David Archuleta won Star Search several years back). We heard about Carly's Visa issues, and how much this opportunity means to her, but until now there has been no televised mention of her professional history.

The truth is, however, is that the Idol producers have a habit of not focusing on contestants' professional music history, and they do it for a very specific reason -- they want the viewers to believe they are the very first to discover each of the artists. Think about Clay Aiken or Elliott Yamin -- the thrust of their show-created narrative was that they were just "normal" kids with amazing gifts who basically stumbled into American Idol. The "normal Joe" storyline, it seems, is often a succesful one, as they audience feels personally invested at lifting these kids from a "nobody" to a "somebody." The lower on the musical totem pole they start, the more they are capable of rising.

What this has meant in the past is that backstories are creatively re-told. It's happened year after year -- Kelly Clarkson, for example, was always referred to as a "cocktail waitress," when she had been in Los Angeles for some time recording demos and trying to get a record deal. Taylor Hicks, Chris Daughtry and Bo Bice are just some of the other former Idol contenders who had recorded CDs or worked in the music industry in some capacity, but their actual pre-Idol experience was only hinted at, but never fully discussed.

So, Carly had a major record deal. It was a failure. Who knows why -- these things happen. What matters is that she's picked herself up, and is clearly grateful to have the chance to try again. Do I think all of this should have been explained on the show? Yes, I do. However, I'm not surprised it wasn't, as Idol history has shown any professional music background tends to be obfuscated by the producers. If the full story had been told, some may have been turned off by her professional experience, while others may have actually sympathized with her more. Does she have an unfair leg up in the competion? Since her CD only sold about 390 copies, and thus she does not have a pre-existing fanbase, I'd say no.

Ultimately, come Wednesday night when she takes the stage to sing, I don't think it will matter what she has done in the past-- her success or failure on the show will come from her ability to deliver, not what her professional experience level is.

Tell me what you think -- do you care that Carly had a record deal? Do you think the producers should have been more open about it when discussing her backstory?




wen said...

It's not just that Carly previously had a record deal. How do we know she's not just a ringer who was pre-cast to make sure AI has some strong contenders?

That, and it really feels like (once you find out) that Carly is being pushed on us. Like they do with Hollywood actresses even through everything they've been in has been for the most part a flop? For instance, Jennifer Garner is probably a nice person but, everything she's stared in has been a flop at the box office or just so-so ratings wise on TV. Yet, they keep putting her in these big budget movie and shows.

Anonymous said...

Well, I just got Carly's first album in the mail yesterday (along with Kristi Lee Cook's), and have listened to them both all day today (2/15/08).

Kristi's is all country - not Carrie Underwood country, but more Tammy Wynette and early LeAnne Rimes, and very listenable.

Carly's is pop rock, with some tracks sort of a soulful pop, and is very good, actually. Even shares a track that's on Kelly Clarkson's first album.

As for the brouhaha over Carly's earlier deal - screw the naysayers, IMHO.

-- RustySax

Anonymous said...

While I certainly understand that reality TV isn't...ahem...real, I do think it's disingenuous of the producers to leave out that part of her background (as well as David Archuleta's Starsearch win). Why? Mainly because these are kids who have professional experience, which I think gives them an unfair advantage over the true "undiscovereds." They marveled at how comfortable Archuleta was onstage. Well heck yeah, he should be comfortable, he won freakin' Starsearch. *** While I will certainly enjoy watching and rooting for those people who are great singers, I'm afraid those who seem to have an unfair advantage will be lessened in my eyes.

Anonymous said...

My son's band has been struggling for years in the music industry. They have had managers and all sorts of people promise them the moon and not deliver. They were signed by a label once, only to have nothing happen. They received no support and had their hands legally tied for a year. The industry is in horrible financial shape and the labels are not reallying doing much to help anyone out right now. I think most of the contestants have been out working and trying to get a break. As long as they don't break any of the rules, you can't blame them for trying to get a shot. I am also sure a lot of good performers don't make it to Hollywood or the top 24 because American Idol is an entertainment show and are looking for unique characters to fill the slots. As we have seen, even winning American Idol is no guarantee you are going to make it in the music industry.

Benito said...

Ditto here. After reading about her story, I have concluded that I admire the tenaciousness of Carly Hennessy/Smithson--the achievement motive personified! Yes, there are always bumps on the road, blocks in the world, blocks inside the person. But what is the alternative to failure? No, not suicide! I say, keep on fighting, keep at it till you win!

James said...

Yes, I think it's a big deal. This wasn't a small indy effort, but rather a major rollout by a label that's one of the "biggies" in the business. They went above and beyond, re-recording the album after it didn't test well and bringing in new writers. MCA paid Carly's living expenses all this time and hired promoters to try to get airplay. In the end $2.2 million was spent. Is Carly "undiscovered talent" -- in a word, NO!!!

James said...

Oh, I forgot -- if the reports are true, Randy Jackson was an exec at MCA when Carly (Hennessey) Smithson was under contract with her 6-album deal. That alone should invalidate her from AI. They dropped a contestant last year (allegedly) for the same reason (under contract to BMG while Simon was an employee).

Anonymous said...

I agree. It DOES matter to me also. The fact that one of the writer's on Carly's CD has AI connections, tells me something.

What ever happened to putting the kids that has talent on, to get the exposure they wouldn't have been able to get? Undeveloped talent, not ones that have had their chance.

There are several plants this year that have been on TV, CD's, singing in their own bands..etc..etc..etc. Even though AI is still the top rated show, their ratings have been dropping, so what better way than to bring in the 'Ringers' this year?

This is AMERICAN IDOL not Irish Idol OR even Australian Idol which makes me wonder why Micheal Johns did not try out there?

I guess I am suprised that AI would stoop so low as to try and put this over on the American Public.

Anonymous said...

One more thing....They Passed Jermaine Paul that was in the top 50(?) but "HE" dropped out because he was up for a Grammy last Sunday night. His nomination for a Grammy was for a duet with Alicia Keys on one of her CD's and also he has performed with Kanye West. Some of these other Plants have been signed to record labels but didn't cut the mustard.

So AI, Please don't tell me that these people all need a second chance.

Bring on the ones that deserve their 'First' chance. That didn't have the opportunity that these kids have had.

Brenda said...

Nope, doesn't matter at all to me.

It's just a show, folks. Entertainment. We don't know any of those contestants professionally. I think all the conspiracy theories are silly. Get real, people. If a company thinks Carly is hot and wants to produce her next CD, they will offer her a contract! NOT stick her in AI and hope that she wins! Duh!!

The idea that the contestants should all be clueless shlubs "discovered" on national TV, and then one win a record deal is silly. No experience is likely to equal few sales and crushed dreams.

Anonymous said...

I could care less if Carly had a record deal 7 years ago, or if anyone on the show told me. She fits into the criteria now and that's all that matters to me.

Just because you have or have not had a record deal doesn't have a thing to do with your talent or singing abilities.

Also, maybe they just didn't want to spill everything in the first show. They are not required to give full disclosure anyway. I thought I read that they were going to spend more time focusing on the contestant's stories this year. Maybe they just wanted to save a little info for future episodes.

If you like her voice, vote for her. If you don't, don't. It's that simple really. But always remember that this is a TV Show for entertainment purposes as much as a talent contest.