For many finalists of American Idol, Fox’s juggernaut reality television show, success in mainstream media has been difficult, far and between. Deep into its seventh season, the world’s most popular singing talent competition may have lost some of its starmaking luster, but indications would show that finalists are learning a thing or two about “the business,” and are starting to make inroads into specific niche markets.Country music appears to be the safehouse of many an American Idol finalist. While Season Two finalist Josh Gracin may have found some element of chart success on the country charts, including a #1 single, Nothing to Lose, Season Three winner Carrie Underwood cemented the potential of country music as a viable, long-term genre of choice for a debut musician, achieving pole positions with her debut album and its follow-up, as well asÂ #1 singles.
Since Underwood’s success, many Idol finalists have attempted to forge careers in country music, the most notable being Season Five finalist Kellie Pickler. Pickler’s Small Town Girl debut has sold almost 750,000 copies, making her the second best-selling Idol finalist of her season (surpassing contest winner Taylor Hicks), and landing three consecutive Top 20 singles. Also charting in the country charts: Season Six finalist Phil Stacey and Season One winner Kelly Clarkson, whose duet with Reba McEntire, a revival of Clarkson’s Because of You, stopped short of #1, peaking in the runner-up slot.
Other than the fickle pop and R&B charts, who have been largely hostile to American Idol non-winners, the most viable chart for American Idol non-finalists seems to be the Contemporary Christian charts. Five American Idol finalists have charted on the Christian charts, including Season Two finalist Clay Aiken (Mary Do You Know, #39), Underwood (Jesus, Take the Wheel, #3; I’ll Stand By You, #29; So Small, #21), and Daughtry (Home, #14). Season One finalist RJ Helton also released a Christian album, but did not chart. (Ruben Studdard‘s I Need An Angel was listed in the Gospel charts; musical diversity comes back to bite you in the butt.)
The most successful American Idol finalist on the Christian charts, thus far, is Season Five finalist Mandisa. Debut single Only the World peaked at No. 6 on the Christian charts in August 2007 (and spent five weeks on the Billboard Hot Singles Sales chart). Her first #1 hit was Christmas Day, a duet with Michael W. Smith; a notch lower that same week was Christmas Makes Me Cry, a duet with Matthew West, rose to #2. God Speaking peaked at #18 that same month; Voice of a Savior peaked in the Top 5 of Radio and Records’ Inspo charts.
Season Six finalist Chris Sligh says in an interview with WJTL, “I just really felt like God was calling me to do Christian music… it turned out way better than I ever could have expected.” Running Back to You, his album out May 6th, is, in his words, “this record which is a complete and utter encapsulation of who I really am.” Empty Me is now climbing the Hot Christian Songs chart.