American Idol: the beautiful, but not too beautiful

Casey James’ looks might win him or cost him the competition

Herein, the seventh in a semi-regular series chronicling the ninth season of American Idol. You can read the first installment here, the second installment here, the third installment here, the fourth installment here, the fifth installment here and the sixth installment here.

The last two weeks of American Idol competition have been, at best, weird and disappointing. Where once it seemed we had the makings of a uniquely great season, we may now be faced with one of the worst in Idol‘s nine years. Though no one will remember much of any of this if the winner goes on to even a moderate level of stardom.

To review, the frontrunner (Katie Stevens) imploded, but has somehow avoided elimination. An unlikely pop star (Lilly Scott) emerged as the most self-assured contestant, only to be inexplicably cut. A candidate who didn’t make the final 24 (Tim Urban), but was brought back when another contestant was disqualified, is now among the final 12. A glass blowing apprentice who admires Courtney Love (Siobhan Magnus) is now the leading female. The leading male, and perhaps the current overall favourite, is a massive human being (Michael Lynche) who would appear better suited to the NFL draft combine.

With the final 24 now cut in half, it’s entirely debatable whether the dozen that remain are collectively as talented and interesting as the dozen that are gone. So maybe now is as good a time as any to ask an important question: Is it possible to be too good-looking?

The question must be asked because of the continued presence of Casey James, a 27-year-old blues singer from Fort Worth, Texas, who was first celebrated this season for taking off his shirt at the behest of judge Kara DioGuardi. He is blessed of curly golden locks, blue eyes and a southern twang. He somehow maintains a constant two-day growth of whiskers and scruff without appearing lazy or homeless. He is vaguely reminiscent of the late-90s Matthew McConaughey (before McConaughey stopped trying). He is, by most accepted definitions, a good-looking man.

He can also, for the most part, sing: not quite brilliantly, but well enough that he entirely deserves to have made it this far. And yet, while necessary, his ability to sing will not necessarily determine his fate. All things being equal, if he ultimately wins, it will be, in large part, because he’s so good looking. If he is eventually eliminated, it will be, in at least some way, because he’s so good looking.

Conventional wisdom has it that the better looking you are, the more likely you are to “succeed” in life—or at least the easier it is thought to be for you to find what would generally be considered success. But it is maybe not quite so simple if your life is public life.

Consider politics. Attractive politicians—especially attractive female politicians—are often quickly celebrated for their potential, only to disappoint or otherwise fail. Sometimes, granted, the beautiful in politics are too quickly promoted or advanced to positions of prominence they are not yet prepared to handle. Some though may simply be doomed by their attractiveness and the expectation that attractiveness creates. The good-looking candidate is almost implicitly expected to be as eloquent or adept as they are attractive: the better looking they are, the more likely their other attributes are to pale in comparison.

Take, for instance, Sarah Palin. In a study released last year, participants who were asked to first consider Palin’s physical appearance were subsequently less likely to consider her competent. The study did not draw a straight line between attractiveness and perceived ability, but did suggest that a focus on physical appearance—objectification, essentially—ultimately limits a woman’s ability to be taken seriously otherwise.

This does not necessarily have anything to do with American Idol. But as much as Idol is about pop music, entertainment and celebrity, it is a political exercise: a test of one’s ability to appeal widely and motivate support from the public at large. It is not quite the same as succeeding in music or movies, pursuits in which the best-looking are often the most successful. Idol contestants don’t need to be admired or lusted after so much as they need to be endearing. They need a narrative. They need you to want them to succeed. And it is maybe not coincidence that none of the previous winners were overbearingly beautiful. Idol hasn’t anointed an ugly winner, but it also hasn’t elected an underwear model.

Casey James could, conceivably, have a career in underwear modelling. And in an uneven, inconsistent competition, he is, on the strength of a decent voice and identifiable style, a legitimate contender. As Kara DioGuardi noted recently, he would seem, “on paper,” to have everything going for him. But that might not be enough. Or, more specifically, that might be too much.