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From Conway to glory 

‘American Idol’ Kris Allen is an unknown music minister no more.

HOMETOWN HERO: Allen and wife cruise through Conway.
  • HOMETOWN HERO: Allen and wife cruise through Conway.

Today, without much effort, you can get online and read about Kris Allen's chest hair, learn that he had a rib surgically removed in junior high and see a video about his “young, effortless hairstyle.” And that's just a whiff of the exhaustive attention paid to the new American Idol, who three months ago, even after “Idol's” famously acerbic judge Simon Cowell signaled his legitimacy in the competition with, “I think the chicks are going to love you,” wasn't even the most famous Kris Allen on Google. That honor belonged to country singer Kris Allen, leader of the band Southern Thunder and owner of a flowing blonde mullet. Slightly farther back, say six months ago, even with a CD to his name and a host of club performances in Little Rock and Fayetteville under his belt, Allen wasn't known in Central Arkansas much farther than the campus of the University of Central Arkansas or the walls of New Life Church, where he served as assistant music minister.

But that's why we watch, right? To see the unknown rise to glory. Or rather, to lift the unknown to glory. We're invested because the “Idol” story is one of our most archetypal — a pop version of the American Dream. But mostly, we watch and we vote because we're a nation that devours celebrity by the Britney-load, and we can't resist the prospect of electing some better version to stardom.

Of course, there is that not insignificant contingent, undoubtedly saying “ ‘we' nothing, man,” who've never watched or who actively loathe “Idol.” But among the general population of TV viewers, “Idol” is king. Even after three straight seasons of declining viewership, this year the Fox series was 72 percent more popular than “Desperate Housewives,” the next most watched program among 18- to 49-year-olds.

In the show finale, before host Ryan Seacrest announced that Kris Allen was the new “American Idol,” he said that a record-breaking 100 million votes were cast in the final performance night. That's only 30 million votes shy of those cast in the last presidential election. A statistician — or maybe even a 7th grader — might argue that those numbers aren't analogous. “Idol” notoriously doesn't restrict the number of times one can vote, only the window of time in which votes are eligible. But riddle me this: Why shouldn't a person be able to vote over and over until his fingertips turn bloody? Don't 50 votes from 2,000,000 people each express an equal amount of affection as one vote from 100 million?

 

Don't answer that. Instead, consider the improbability of Kris Allen, 23-year-old former business major at UCA, coming anywhere close to the finale of “American Idol.” Leading up to season eight, more than 100,000 auditioned for the show in eight cities. Of the more than 10,000 who auditioned in Louisville, Ky., in January, Allen, by his telling, was one of the last to receive a ticket to audition. His brother Daniel had convinced him to give “Idol” a shot, and the Louisville audition was the only one in reasonable proximity that fit their schedules, though a gig at church the evening before forced the brothers to drive through the night. By the time Allen auditioned, he'd lost his voice. Adrenaline must've pushed him through several rounds with producers to an appearance in front of the four celebrity judges, where he sang the same song he'd sung at his wedding four months earlier, Donny Hathaway's take on Leon Russell's “A Song for You.” Next came those four words every “Idol” hopeful longs to hear: “You're going to Hollywood.”

For the first four weeks in Hollywood, the four judges whittle the field from 147 down to 36. Only then does America have the chance to vote on the results.   

Despite frequent and inane reminders from the judges to the contrary, “American Idol” is not a singing competition. It's a public referendum on the make-up of a pop star, with vocal talent merely serving as one sometimes-not-very-important piece of the puzzle.

In the early, non-voting stages of “Idol,” producers sprinkle in short, background pieces on a select number of candidates — treacly snippets about obstacles overcome or single motherhood or something similarly life-affirming. In Idol-speak, that sort of preferred treatment is known as “pimping,” as in shamelessly selling contestants' life stories.

In the first six weeks, or 13 episodes, Kris received 27 seconds of airtime.

According to a study done by the “Idol” fan site “What Not to Sing” using data from the show's first seven seasons, contestants who receive little to no exposure prior to the semi-finals went home two and a half times quicker than those who received pimp spots.

 

Josh Jenkins, a 23-year-old graduate student at Baylor University and a childhood friend of Allen's, may not have recognized the precise odds Kris Allen was up against in the early weeks of the show, but he was annoyed.

“Kris is really talented, and as someone who doesn't really follow ‘Idol' closely, or who hasn't up until this year, knowing that he was on the show and seeing how he was treated, it infuriated me in a lot of ways.”

So he started a website and called it, hopefully, KrisAllenNation.

“I figured if we could organize and get the word out at all, you know, great.”

“American Idol” fan sites are a dime a dozen. Many, in fact, are all about making a dime — automated sites, littered with pictures, T-shirts for sale and ads. Jenkins opted not to host advertising.

“I didn't want to taint the experience for myself or for anyone else who came to the site. I wanted the agenda to be clear.”

Even with graduate school and a job, Jenkins devoted himself to the site. He posted seemingly every “Idol”-related picture, video or news story about Kris. He offered commentary on the most minute “Idol” detail. He installed a message board for Kris Allen fans to interact.

But most importantly, once the voting portion of the show began, he offered detailed voting strategies.

To the casual “Idol” fan, that might sound like a limited prospect. The rules allow viewers to call or text, via AT&T, an unlimited amount in a two-hour window. But, as Jenkins discovered by researching past successful campaigns in “Idol” forums, there are ways to game the system.

Power-texting is probably the most widely known method. It simply involves those with unlimited texting plans from AT&T inputting a designated “Idol” contestant number into their phonebook five, ten or more times and sending a mass text to all those contacts at once — over and over. By power-texting, fans, including Jenkins' wife, Rachel, reported averaging some 6,000 to 7,000 votes every week.

But Jenkins didn't stop there. He encouraged fans to download Gizmo, a free VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) program that, like Skype, allows users to make phone calls through their computers. Because VoIP allows one to select “local” outgoing numbers from anywhere in the world, voters could use the service for the two hours following the live show and two more following the tape-delayed West Coast airing.

Jenkins also suggested that fans purchase a pre-paid GoPhone from AT&T and asking the cellular provider to assign a West Coast number to it. All, he says, is within the official voting rules of “Idol.”

 

Meanwhile, Kris took advantage of his screen time. He landed in the top 13 — another milestone in Idoldom — with an impassioned cover of Michael Jackson's “Man in the Mirror.” Two weeks later, during Grand Ole Opry Week — themes are an integral part of “Idol” — he stretched the country boundary with a cover of Bob Dylan's “To Make You Feel My Love,” which bowled the judges over. Randy Jackson, who typically begins his critiques with some version of “yo, yo, yo, yo!” and rarely fails to call performers “dawg,” made the inevitable leap from “that was a tender performance by my dawg, Kris” to dubbing Allen “Tender Dawg.”

That ability to lend vulnerability to song served Kris throughout the competition. As the weeks went along, he delivered a nimbly subdued take on Bill Withers' “Ain't No Sunshine” while playing the piano, and a spot-on version of “Falling Slowly,” the lovely and quiet Oscar-winning theme song to the indie hit “Once.”

In a week where his competitors chose sappy, overblown ballads, “Falling Slowly” particularly seemed to separate Allen from not just the field, but the “American Idol” standard. Where theatrics and sentimentality had long reigned supreme, Allen introduced emotional nuance.

During Disco Week, his radical rework of Donna Summer's “She Works Hard for Her Money” (with bongos!) earned what was shaping up to be effusive, unified praise from the judges before Paula Abdul offered an extended metaphor about his courage for “shopping in the women's department,” which was quickly derailed by Simon Cowell, who wanted to know, “So you're saying Kris buys women's underwear?”

A week later, guest mentor Jamie Foxx told him, regardless of how Idol worked out, he wanted to make a record with him. Two weeks later, Jackson called Kris' cover of Kanye West's “Heartless” better than the original.

 

In a web-only video after Kris reached the top 36, he says that his experience has been “kick …” — and thinking better of saying “ass” on camera, adds — “… awesome,” before laughing embarrassedly.

A simple mistake? An endearing display of wholesomeness? Either way, it's become ingrained in Arkansas lingo.

At the finale watch party in downtown Conway, a middle-aged woman, in a voice typically reserved for middle school math teachers, and two grown men began a conversation like this:

“How are you?”

“We're kick awesome!”

“We're kick awesome, too!”

It's possible they were members of the Kick Awesome Task Force, a team comprised of city officials (the mayor learned to text to support Kris Allen) and members of the Conway Chamber of Commerce, New Life Church, UCA community and more, allied to promote Allen within the community.

The team assembled in early April, according to Lori Case, a vice president for marketing at First State Bank. One of the charter members, she said it was easy to embrace Allen's run on “Idol.”

“If you had to pick a demographic for Conway, Kris represents it. The average age is 26.7. Over half of the people who live here weren't born here, but stay because of the quality of life. We know how to enjoy ourselves, and we support our own.”

Effectively a party planning committee, the task force began hosting elaborate community watch parties in the Farris Center at UCA and at New Life Church in late April. Thousands showed up to watch on a giant projection screen and cheer and jeer and text en masse post-show. MTV covered one event.

When Kris returned home after securing a spot in the top three, the state embraced him as if he'd been crowned King of Arkansas. Hundreds showed up at the airport to meet his jet. The Riverfest Amphitheatre filled as if James Brown had returned to life and the stage — at 11:45 in the morning on a school and workday. Later, more than a third of Conway's population, an estimated 20,000, swarmed downtown Simon Park in Conway to catch a glimpse at a parade and another concert.

The Kick Awesome Task Force and the chamber hosted the parade and concert, using Conway Advertising, Marketing and Promotion funds derived from the so-called local “hamburger” tax. Nearly every downtown business had shoe-polish-painted messages of support in their windows. “Kris Allen gets our stamp of approval” read one in a window of a downtown US post office. Musical notes drawn around “Kris Allen is the soul of Conway” on City Hall leavened the potential for calls of blasphemy.

From the local affiliate station, the Fox 16 news team showed fealty to “Idol” by covering Allen's homecoming with gusto typically reserved for presidential visits. A team of reporters shadowed him virtually every moment for two days. As he met the governor (“He makes Arkansas proud”). As he received the key to the city of Jacksonville, where he was born (“Here's the key to the city. It really doesn't open anything — except our hearts”). As he signed autographs outside of a radio station (“This is the moment we've all been waiting for! Right here in West Little Rock signing some autographs”).

A Google map on the station's dedicated Kris Allen web page tracked the Idol's every movement.

 

After Kris Allen won “American Idol,” most media coverage cast his victory as an upset. After all, from early in the season, the judges competitively fawned over Adam Lambert, the androgynous, eye-liner-wearing former cast member of a national production of “Wicked.” Lambert was a virtuosic singer, that is, when he wasn't caterwauling like a howler monkey. One week, Paula Abdul cried. Another judge, Kara DioGuardi, called him a “rock god.” In the finale, Simon Cowell called him a “worldwide star.” In the greater media world, the Los Angeles Times claimed that Lambert “outshined the rest of the contestants by a mile” and Rolling Stone argued that he'd single-handedly saved “Idol.” The odds makers liked Lambert, too. With eight weeks left in the show, the New York Post reported that he was a 4 to 5, odds-on favorite to win the show.

To some, Kris Allen's win seemed less like an upset than an act of God. At the outdoor finale watch party in downtown Conway, one of Allen's fellow church members, Carly Crowell, explained his win as a “God thing.” She wasn't the first. At an earlier watch party in Conway, Jasmine Coleman, a UCA sophomore who knew Kris through the religious campus group Chi Alpha, said she believed Kris would win because “he's anointed.”

Allen never mentioned his faith or his affiliation with New Life Church on the show, and when asked about it in press conferences, he pointedly said he didn't think it should figure into voting. But it was rare to read about Allen and not see mention of his church roots. The AP even ran a story that led with a New Life minister relaying that Allen had told him that the bright stage lights and feel of the audience at “Idol” reminded him of going to church. After third place finisher Danny Gokey, a music minister from Milwaukee, was eliminated, his pastor told his Twitter followers to vote for Kris.

But, if religion played a role, broader demographic factors surely contributed, too. At the outset of the finale, Ryan Seacrest framed the last showdown as “Conway versus California …” and “the guy next door versus the guyliner.” Based on those sorts of cultural differences, the political review Congressional Quarterly convincingly predicted a Kris Allen victory by applying political metrics to the contest. It argued that “Idol” closely resembles a Southern primary election insomuch as, historically, the show's results favor conservative candidates from culturally conservative geographical areas. As is often the case in Southern primaries, the quarterly argued, a liberal candidate may take the early lead, but when the field narrows, a conservative candidate typically wins. In other words, two conservative candidates, Kris Allen and Danny Gokey for example, might split the conservative vote in the top three and lag behind the liberal candidate, but when left with only one conservative candidate, the largely conservative electorate — in this case, the show's predominantly white middle-aged women viewers — would coalesce.

Of course, Kris Allen is more than simply a demographic consideration. He smiled unflaggingly throughout the show, but without the practiced look of someone stage-trained. He stumbled over his words. He shrugged a lot. He exuded a much ballyhooed quality in politics — he was imminently relatable. Yet, at the same time, his good looks made him an “other.” That's a golden proposition in an election, to be someone who voters look at and say, “He's like me, but better.”

Moreover, his talent for interpreting songs seems clear. On “Idol,” he consistently lent emotion to material, but subtly. The New York Times argued that his victory might reflect viewers' preference for convention in pop music (in other, more withering articles, the paper of record compared him to Pat Boone and snipped that he makes “Kenny Loggins look tough”). But Allen's foil, Adam Lambert, aside from appearance, never defied convention anywhere but the “Idol” bubble. In the broader pop world, leather pants and screeching are hardly novel. Instead, it was Allen's measured approach that was unconventional for the series, helping align “Idol” with contemporary pop culture, where histrionics no longer top the charts.

 

In the moments after Ryan Seacrest announced that Kris Allen was the latest “American Idol,” Adam Lambert smiled and leaned over to Kris and whispered into his ear. It was easy to imagine him saying, “Ha! Now you have to sing the stupid coronation song for the next five months!”

In “Idol” tradition, the coronation song is the last song sung by the final two contestants and the winner's first single. Historically, the song is more inspirationally saccharine than Michael Landon in the '80s. Previous editions include “Flying without Wings” and “Inside Your Heaven” (which included the lyrics “All my dreams are in your eyes / I want to be inside your heaven”). This year's song, “No Boundaries,” co-written by DioGuardi, may've surpassed the gooey heights of past songs. Its pinnacle, so to speak, comes in the refrain: “With every step, you climb another mountain / Every breath, it's harder to believe / You'll make it through the pain / weather the hurricanes / To get to that one thing.”

If you haven't seen Allen sing that song in the last weeks, you haven't been watching TV. His recent press schedule could rival what a presidential candidate faces. In interviews, he's self-effacing, usually asking the audience to “give it up” for Lambert in the opening minutes, and more effortlessly charming than he was on “Idol.”

Meanwhile, if TV cameras aren't filming him, the paparazzi's cameras are. A non-scandal erupted last week when bloggers and national media came on a Democrat-Gazette article that mentioned AT&T in Arkansas had provided free cell phones for texting and instruction at two watch parties in Central Arkansas. Dozens of major news outlets followed the story and, for at least a couple of hours before Fox issued a statement, the scandal became known as “textgate.”

Allen's friends and supporters don't expect the whirlwind of attention or controversy to affect the new “Idol.” 

Kris' pastor at New Life Church Rick Bezet accompanied his family to L.A. for the finale. He says the Allens already have a foundation in place that should serve them well over the long haul.

“They've got great relationships. They're definitely rooted and grounded. It's going to be hard to get them out of sync with the values that matter.”

Long time friend and former roommate JP Davenport agrees.

“I don't think he'll let it affect him. He's still Kris the husband, Kris the son, Kris the best friend. Kris the American Idol is just something he does. He's not going to let it own him.”

Still, contractually speaking, he'll be bound to “Idol” for at least the near future. Beginning in July, he and the nine other “Idol” semi-finalists will mount a nearly non-stop, three-month tour of the U.S., which stops at Alltel Arena on July 25 (at presstime, a few tickets remained). If the release schedule of past “Idol” winners is an indication, he should put out his major label debut late this year. Maybe then he'll get the one thing in interviews he's repeatedly said he's longing for. A vacation.

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