Can Asheville's American Idol winner, Caleb Johnson, overcome the Idol curse? | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Can Asheville's American Idol winner, Caleb Johnson, overcome the Idol curse? 

American Idol suffered a series of endings at the start of April.

Season 14 closed with a hail of confetti, the new winner Nick Fradiani and lower finale ratings than the previous season. Fox had already announced that the show's next run, which begins in January, would also be its last. And Season 13 winner Caleb Johnson, the Asheville rocker with pipes that suggest the wail of Whitesnake, went indie. The state's third Idol winner, Johnson left the show's associated imprint, Interscope, after his debut LP tanked. He is searching for, as he told Billboard, a team who is "going to support me."

At last, perhaps, Johnson will get interesting again—maybe successful, too.

Johnson's departure from Interscope seemed to be a foregone conclusion as soon as he won. The brand of music he offered on Idol— "rock 'n' roll songs with soul," he told me in a July interview—and, three months later, on his solo debut is decidedly out of step with what now thrives on the dwindling number of rock stations. It's too melodic and classic for the dour landscape of what radio programmers call "active rock," too powerful for the wan world of "adult album alternative."

You have to imagine that Idol the machine didn't want him to win. Second-place finisher Jena Irene, who specialized in strident confessionals, and third-place finisher Alex Preston, who never missed a chance to remind the audience about his relationship to goofy strummer Jason Mraz, were more in tune with the commercial times and the Idol oeuvre. Fifth-place finisher Sam Woolf, an anxious if cute Floridian who turned 18 shortly before he was eliminated, could have been a teen dream.

But Johnson did win, affording Idol a certain amount of long-haired-rocker panache (a missing element among the show's waves of lite-rock-ready strummers) during his ride to victory. He stormed through "Still Of The Night" and covered the Black Crowes, Lady Gaga and "Maybe I'm Amazed." He became the first person to bring the Canadian prog-libertarians Rush to the Idol stage by singing "Working Man" during a week themed around "Home." That alone should have given him at least enough karmic credit to warrant a top-four finish, had he not referred to Twitter users who offered up song suggestions as "retards." (He apologized almost immediately, thus passing his first test in the ongoing celebrity course, "American Public Relations Crisis.")

But after the show, Testify sold barely more than 10,000 copies, disappointing numbers for someone with an entire season of national television in their promotional arsenal. It was the worst-selling Idol debut ever, but Johnson's lack of traction in the pop marketplace seems as much a testament to Idol's fading fortunes as it is to his out-of-fashion genre. It's tempting to think that perhaps Idol got lucky on its first attempt to make a pop star. But Kelly Clarkson, the show's inaugural winner, was destined to be a pop standout, evidenced by the enthusiasm she continues to put in even for performances at all-day radio station meat markets. Many of the show's most successful pop-rock exports since her win have been decidedly middle of the road, however, making music meant to be played between Delilah segments—the Mumford-lite tunes of Phillip Phillips, the Pink-like offerings of Adam Lambert.

Other singing competitions have struggled to get their music to the wider marketplace, too. For all its ratings-grabbing and chair-swiveling, The Voice has been more of a chart boon to its already-famous judges than to its contestants. And the road is littered with other pretenders to the Idol throne—The X Factor USA (the one with Simon Cowell after he left Idol), The Next Great American Band (the one with bands) and Rising Star (the one with an app). It's as if audiences have decided that musical stars and shows about making them needn't be connected.

Like Testify's retro-rock, that makes Johnson a musician out of time, despite how good the album occasionally was.

Justin Hawkins of poodle-rock revivalists The Darkness wrote "As Long As You Love Me," the first single Johnson released after his Idol victory. It's a muscular rocker, built to showcase Johnson's formidable voice. Testify deserves a spot on the shelf of current post-'80s hard rock curiosities that also includes albums by the Chicago quintet Bad City, the New Orleans stompers Star & Dagger or Hawkins' own outfit for that song alone. Johnson also powers through the stormy "Another Life" (co-written by Aloe Blacc) and the Southern-fried "Save Me." For the '80s pop-rock pastiche "Let Me In," he gets an assist from the Dap-Kings' horn section.

The ballads are a bit timid, mostly because Johnson's voice sounds so smooth. The grain he exposed when he hit high notes on Idol worked as one of his most satisfying tricks. Producers polished it away for Testify, though, making a compromise for commercialism that never even happened.

Blaming Testify's generally undercooked essence on Idol, its associations and the demands of potential fame is reasonable enough. Not only was there implicit pressure for Johnson to deliver something resembling a modern hit, but the material was also recorded and released as soon as Johnson could get off the air and while he was out on the road with the show's annual tour. That's a tough setup for a grand entrance.

Now, however, Johnson is free to proceed at his own pace. He can make a follow-up record that doesn't aim so safely for the middle and miss. If his Idol performances and the breadcrumbs scattered throughout Testify are any indication, Johnson can sell a certain strain of rock—emotive, soulful and big—even if the charts aren't always buying.

This article appeared in print with the headline "About to rock?"

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