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An Open Letter - January 20

Dear 24 American Idol Finalists –

Hello, and congratulations for being in the final 24. You are the most talented people in a group that will probably the most diverse collection ever. According to the promos, however, you may also be the most cutthroat ever. You may need some advice as to what the audience is looking for. I’m here to tell you what to do and what NOT to do when we finally get to see you in a live setting.

1. SING well, but not too well. Obviously, you need to sing well to try to get an audience. If you sound like chalk on a blackboard, you are leaving quickly. You are also leaving quickly if you sound too ‘safe’, or if other people shine better in your genre. You need to pick up as much fan base as you possibly humanly can.

However, let’s not forget one little fact – the favorite has NEVER won American Idol. Why? Too much expectation. If you blow the roof right out of the gate and become the favorite, then everyone expects you to step up your game every single week. When that doesn’t happen, people will start to nit pick at you and your star loses some luster. Eventually, that will cost you the competition. Being the favorite turned Anwar Robinson into Johnny one note. The best advice? Sing well, but don’t go after the challenging material until you are in the Top 10. That’s when the bottom feeders are gone and the real competition begins, and it also gives you enough time to get a fan base who will stick around even if you try something hard and fail. That’s what cost Nadia Turner the competition.

2. Make. Us. Care. I can’t STRESS this enough. Idol is not just a pop singing competition – it’s part popularity competition as well. Your job is to give us a reason to vote for you, and while your vocals alone may be good enough to get into the Top 12, it will not be good enough to win the competition. Do you have the ultimate sob story or fascinating tale? Then TELL us. Carrie Underwood’s country style and look of innocence was a major factor of why she won – and more than one time covered her while she was mangling lyrics. Part of what gets you votes is your back story. The audio clip of the plump Mandisa Hundley is already getting airplay on WKTU in NYC, and that sort of endorsement is going to be huge when you are trying to get votes. Should she, Rochelle Elaine, Chris Daughtry, or any of the other people profiles make it to the Top 24, then they will have a huge edge on sticking around early.

Now what about the people who haven’t gotten the airtime? I admit that it puts you in a hole, but you can get out of it. You all have your intros when you are introduced on the Top 24 show, and you need to spill your guts out. Why are you here? Don’t say ‘Because I want to be the next American Idol.’ Duh. Everyone wants to be the Next American Idol. What is your motivation? Have you had a bad childhood? Are your relatives ill? Are you poor or come from a struggling neighborhood? Are you from a completely different style of life that you think we could relate to? You need to tell us why we should care enough to vote for you – and you need to do it immediately, because if the song you sing isn’t great, your back story will be the only thing keeping you in the competition.

3. Speaking about songs, let’s talk about song selection. It is VITAL that you select the right sort of song. What is the right sort of song, you may ask? Well, the right song is something that…

a. You and at least half of the audience out there has heard of.

b. Something that can show off your range, emphasizing your good qualities while masking your weak notes.

c. Something that hasn’t been sung to death around 35,000 times.

d. Something that the people who are going to be voting for you can relate to.

e. Something that you can cross over (ie. Sing in a different genre that you usually don’t sing in), yet pull it off.

I’ll say this about Carrie – she knew what her fan base wanted. She was going to stay in country forever because she knew that she could deliver a nice country performance. She got very lucky that no one else crossed over to get her, but give her props for being smart about it. We talk a little about song selection, but in this year’s recaps, I will be going to go over exactly why something was – or was not – a good song to sing.

4. Finally, it’s about Media Control. This is the section that I have yet to see anyone utilize correctly. When Ryan gives you the microphone, this is your time to shine. Based on everything we’ve seen so far this year, there may be a lot of media control. Here are some dos and don’ts…

a. If you think that you did anything bad in the early shows that the audience may get you on later, do the right thing and fess up and apologize. It gave extended life to both Kimberly Caldwell and Scott Savol.

b. Be ready to thank the judges – either for a good comment or a ‘Ok, I’ll try to improve’

c. Look like you are listening to what everyone has to say. Talk about you and how a song or something affects you. The more personality you can put in your interviews, the more people will be interested in you.

d. Playful banter with a judge will get you bonus points. Putting down a judge or disagreeing with them will show you the door. NEVER put down a judge or engage in any sort of Scott Savol-type behavior. Sure, the Rebel has always made the Top 6. The Rebel has also never come near the Top 3.

e. NEVER, EVER, EVER put down Ryan Seacrest. See Vanessa Olivares and Mikalah Gordon.

So why am I bringing this up now, although the live shows are still a month away? Simple – this is a tutorial for the 24 people who are still around and I want to give them time to learn it. Read it. Practice it. Get to do these things in your sleep. The career you may help boost may be your own.


Gordon Pepper

Gordon Pepper knows how to make a winner. Email him at

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