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?
DANCING WITH THE STARS
PROJECT RUNWAY / TOP MODEL