Late to the party

Several years ago at one of those lunch pitch-in things at the office, a group of coworkers got into a discussion about what was then the latest craze on television: American Idol. The passions ran deep, and it seemed that everyone had their favorite performer. At the time, I'd never seen American Idol, and for some reason now unknown to me, I wasn't interested. The years went by, and I never watched a single episode of this TV show that apparently all other Americans except me watched on a regular basis.

Flash forward to early 2011: American Idol is about to start its tenth season, and suddenly I see Facebook chatter that a girl from my hometown named Victoria Huggins had passed the first round of auditions. Someone attached a video to their Facebook page, and I took a look. I'm not sure if it was Victoria's spunk or Steven Tyler's response to it, but something about that clip got me interested in American Idol for the first time ever, and I kept watching.

I kept watching through the crazy audition phase. There was good talent, excellent talent, and, um, a few instances of no talent. There were tear-jerking stories that I'll never forget. There were people who seemed so ordinary at first, yet blew the judges away when they began to sing; and people who walked in like they were stars already, only to bomb. There were moments of great joy, and moments of deep disappointment, tears, and even shock -- as seen on the face of my hometown girl when she found out she didn't make the cut.

Then came the actual competitions. As the weeks passed, you could literally see the individual growth taking place as the contestants (whom I'll now call competitors) rehearsed, were coached by the likes of Jimmy Iovine,, Sheryl Crow and Lady Gaga, and were sometimes reamed by the judges. I don't know about past seasons, but this season the competitors all seemed to like each other and they seemed supportive of each other -- particularly the Top Six or Seven. As the field narrowed, the performances got even better, and it was like I was witnessing the formation of stars.

Now we're down to three: Scotty McCreery, the country singer from Garner, North Carolina; Georgia peach Lauren Alaina, who can sing anything and is as cute as a button; and Chicago-based Haley Reinhart, whose raspy-bluesy voice is matched by an impressive attitude. I like them all, and regardless of who becomes the next American Idol, they all have fantastic careers ahead of them.

And what about the judges? I may have missed out on the Simon Cowell/Paula Abdul days, but if you ask me, the current judges are the right blend of critic, support, and street cred. Steven Tyler may have a potty mouth at times, but he's the real deal. He seems to know just when someone needs to hear a compliment, and he can find the good in any performance. Jennifer Lopez comes across as engaging and playful, as exemplified in the "kiss scene" with Casey. Veteran judge Randy Jackson calls it like he sees it - the mark of a true professional.

So I now watch American Idol. I may have arrived late the to the party, but the party's just getting started. For me, at least. In fact, just this morning I bought tickets to the upcoming Idols Summer Tour: The Top 11 are coming to my town in July. I look forward to seeing these awesome young performers up on the stage in front of me. As far as I'm concerned, they're all winners!

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