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Idol fantasy

By GINA VIVINETTO, Times Pop Music Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 24, 2002

TAMPA -- Just as millions of television viewers tuned into American Idol for thirteen weeks this summer to discover new singing talent, 9,251 fans of the program came Wednesday to the St. Pete Times Forum to enjoy Idol's ten best, including America's newest sweetheart, winner Kelly Clarkson.

Wednesday's concert confirmed everything already learned by Idol fans and its three judges: surly Brit Simon Cowell, who told one singer on the show to demand money back from her vocal coach; music industry honcho Randy Jackson; and pop has-been Paula Abdul, who, we are to assume, now knows how to foster a recording career. Some of these kids, all in their early 20s, can really belt it out; others should forget any dreams of stardom.

The show began with each singer performing a classic pop song. Not surprisingly, powerhouse Tamyra Gray brought down the house with a riveting I'm Every Woman that would have Chaka Khan testifying with one hand up in the air. Clarkson, of course, made fans swoon with her now classic, soulful rendition of Respect. Other highlights: Nikki McKibbin, by far the show's edgiest participant with dyed magenta hair, made fans howl as she sang the Janis Joplin hit Piece of My Heart. Abdul wasn't there -- none of the judges were -- to get teary-eyed when Justin Guarini sang Get Here, but his version was smooth and emotional. Guarini is the only male singer from Idol worthy of a record deal, even if his moxie -- sheer adorability! -- is much of his appeal.

The stinkers: wispy-voiced Jim Verraros -- who most suffered Cowell's digs on the show -- performed a rendition of the Commodores' Easy that was thin and warbly. In the words of crotchety Cowell: "Pa-thet-tic." A.J. Gill, gyrating awkwardly in a fedora, reprised his gooey version of My Cherie Amour.

After an intermission, the Idol kids returned to perform together. Fire blasts infused a fun version of En Vogue's Free Your Mind. Guarini performed a bouncy For Once In My Life, with the mop-top making the most of the stage in slick dance moves. Again, Clarkson, now in dapper black suit and hat, stole the second set, with a sublime (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman. Clarkson's personality, as big as her home state of Texas, shone in perky stage patter. Unbelievably, Clarkson did not sing her monster hit A Moment Like This.

The show's weirdest moment was when spooky McKibbin, clad in black Morticia Addams garb, surrounded by swirling stage smoke, sang Rhiannon, the ode to a witch written by Stevie Nicks.

The show's second set, though enjoyable, amplified what's icky about American Idol and the climate of today's pop. It's tough to watch cheery pep squad types singing songs they didn't write, with winsome grins, hungry for 15 minutes of fame, without questioning, Why? Do these kids have the music in them? Or, like Britney Spears, do they not even know the origin of the material they're singing? You can feel the passion in some of the Idols -- Clarkson, Gray. With others, it's like watching the world's most lucrative karaoke contest.

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