Why American Idol needs Haeley Vaughn

Katie Stevens seems like an unrivalled front-runner, but she’s not particularly "relevant"

Could Hillary Clinton win American Idol? This is not an entirely facetious question.

As Idol debuted its Top 24 this week, the women’s half of the competition breaks down like a Democratic presidential primary: one obvious and seemingly inevitable front-runner (think Hillary), several intriguing prospects who could be brilliant or disastrous (Howard Dean, Wesley Clark, Bill Clinton, Bill Bradley, Paul Tsongas or Barack Obama) and a few unremarkable candidates who will soon be forgotten (Dick Gephardt).

The last group is not particularly worth dwelling upon. Two—Janell and Ashley—were eliminated in the competition’s first viewer vote. The rest (Lacey, Michelle Paige and Didi) will probably be gone in short order.

The middle group is both the most interesting, albeit least likely to succeed. Of this year’s 12 final girls, at least five qualify here. Lilly is a punky former busker with platinum blond bangs who sang a relatively obscure Beatles song (Fixing a Hole) this week. Katelyn is this season’s temptress, all big eyes and curly hair, who performed the Beatles’ Oh! Darling this week, while wearing a black leather skirt and bright red lipstick. Siobhan is a glass-blowing apprentice from Cape Cod who sang Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game in an surprisingly deep voice. Crystal is a dreadlocked mum with one of those chin piercings who sang an Alanis Morrisette song while playing guitar and harmonica.

Most intriguing is Haeley Vaughn, a 16-year-old, black, female country singer and guitarist with a way of singing that can only be described as odd-sounding. She turned I Want To Hold Your Hand into something almost reggae. Kara said she was “very pure,” Ellen said she shone, Simon said she was “a complete and utter mess.” Ellen countered that if she was a mess, she was a “hot mess.” It is difficult to express just how wildly divergent the possibilities are here. Haeley could be one of the most intriguing and unique performers in Idol history. She could end up being responsible for one of most excruciating performances in the history of American television. She could be Bill Clinton, she might be Howard Dean.

The clear and unquestionable favourite is Katie Stevens, a savvy 17-year-old who swaggered her way through a Michael Buble song this week. She is pretty and cute and blessed of a big voice. She has an endearing story: her quest for stardom set up as a race against the time and memory of her ailing grandmother. She seems somehow descended from the most successful Idols: Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Jordin Sparks, pleasingly and unostentatiously talented and attractive.

If a woman is to win this year’s Idol—Simon Cowell is on record as saying this year’s winner is most likely to be female—it should be Katie Stevens. And maybe that’s a problem.

It is, for one thing, harder to impress when you’re expected to be great. Katie was more or less fine this week, but she was scolded for seeming too contrived and not acting her age. For another, it is harder to be motivated if unchallenged. The unrivalled front-runner tempts doom (see Al Gore or John Kerry).

Cowell has said he wants to find the next Taylor Swift, someone “relevant.” That, right now, isn’t Katie Stevens. And that’s why Idol might need Haeley Vaughn.