For the first time in years, American Idol has a hit on its hands. Newly-crowned winner Phillip Phillips' first single "Home" (listen to it below) scored a huge debut this week, surging to No. 2 on Billboard's Digital Songs chart and putting up the second-best digital sales week ever for an Idol contestant, behind only Kelly Clarkson's "My Life Would Suck Without You." On the Hot 100, which measures sales and radio play, "Home" debuts at No. 10, the first time an Idol winner's coronation song has cracked the Top 10 since 2008. As rival talent competitions multiply, Idol's ratings were down almost a third from last year, while the mediocre sales and flash-in-the-pan popularity of recent winners have left critics wondering whether the show is still relevant. Is Phillips proving that Idol can still produce stars?
The numbers speak for themselves: Phillips' sales aren't just impressive when compared to those of past, largely unsuccessful winners, says American Idol Net. "Home" is the most downloaded coronation song in Idol history, beating the record set by David Cook's "Time of My Life" in 2008. He even beat the sales for inaugural winner Kelly Clarkson's "A Moment Like This," though that was actually a CD single, predating digital sales. Even outside the Idol realm, Phillips is a bonafide breakout. "Home" has the fourth highest debut sales of the year, behind songs by Justin Bieber, Maroon 5, and Katy Perry. Not bad company.
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He has the potential to keep momentum up: "Home" is "one of the best songs — if not the best — given to an Idol finalist," says Andy Neuenschwander at Yidio. If the rest of his debut album is as musically interesting and fits his style as perfectly, Phillips could quickly join Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, and Chris Daughtry among the best-selling Idols ever. "Plus, there's the matter of Phillips' looks." He attracts that iTunes-crazy, concert-flocking Tiger Beat fan base that's crucial to modern pop success. With the show's ratings floundering, "a solid career and a few multi-platinum records would be music to American Idol's ears."
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Idol still needs to break the mold: Phillips' sure-to-be-fleeting success aside, if Idol hopes to remain relevant it must find a way to stop letting "the hormonal whims of teenage girls so dominatingly dictate how this thing goes down," says Richard Lawson at The Atlantic. We now have our fifth milquetoast winner from the "White Guys With Guitars" niche. The show's core voting bloc consistently votes for the cute boys, but the rest of the record-buying population isn't so enamored. If Idol wants a winner that resonates long-term, it needs to find finalists who are neither flannel-wearing guitar players nor "skinny [girls] wailing out Mariah Carey." Think bigger, producers. "Hell, think Rihanna."
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