Controversy sometimes strikes American Idol in the strangest places. For AI5's 1950s Week, Chris Daughtry performed Johnny Cash's 1956 epic, I Walk The Line, with a novel alternative-rock arrangement, building from a sparse, slow beginning to a fully rocked-out, strobe-lighted finish. The judges unanimously praised Daughtry for his imagination and his steadfast refusal to compromise. This was one of the exceptionally few performances after which Simon actually applauded.
But here in the Internet Age, little slips past America. Well before Daughtry's final note had faded away, bloggers and forum posters were already pointing out the strong similarities between his arrangement and that of a 2001 cover of "I Walk The Line" by the popular Pennsylvania alt-rock band, Live.
Normally, contestants don't mention where and how they arrived at an arrangement. This time, however, a public relations problem ensued. The intro clip featured Daughtry saying, "As much as I respect Johnny Cash's creativity, we're going to try something different tonight." Guest mentor Barry Manilow expressed admiration at the new take on the old song, Ryan Seacrest introduced the performance by noting that Daughtry had "done it again - a classic with a twist," and of course the judges fell all over themselves praising Daughtry's cleverness. In this context, it was certainly understandable for uninitiated viewers to assume that Daughtry had crafted the arrangement himself, and for some later to feel snookered, and perhaps even worse, when the truth became widely known over the next few days.
Though most of the Idolsphere had only positive things to say about the performance, enough reviewers were annoyed by the lack of a shout-out to Live, joining those who simply don't like to hear classic songs rearranged so dramatically, to hold "Line"'s approval rating to a 75.
Of the performance? We thought it was outstanding. Although Live is based not far from us, we'd not heard this arrangement before. We agree with the judges that despite a rough vocal patch or two, Daughtry delivered the song with the right mix of old-school respect and modern-school glitz. We'd rate it comfortably among the Top 20 performances of AI5, very probably the Top 10.
Of the controversy? On the surface, it was silly. Daughtry had made no secret of his admiration for Live, and it's highly doubtful that he'd be so foolish to believe he could pass off the arrangement of such a well-known band as his own (particularly as the song had just appeared on Live's Greatest Hits album.) Given the producers' unfortunate propensity for selectively editing intro clips to fit their reality-show agenda – for details, contact Brian May and Ace Young – it's entirely plausible that Daughtry uttered the word "Live" at least once on camera or while working with Manilow, but that it never made it to our TV screens.
That said, we thought the participants' attempts at damage control were laughable. Initial attempts by 19E to play down the controversy only fanned the flames, which dominated many AI sites for a full week. Just prior to his next performance, Daughtry went on camera with Seacrest to address the issue, but to us he came off looking embarrassed, like a kid who'd had his hand caught in the proverbial cookie jar. (We chide the producers here for not prepping Daughtry adequately; contestants are chosen on their ability to sing, not on their public speaking talents.) Had any politician's staff handled a minor controversy this clumsily, they'd be filling out unemployment insurance paperwork the next day.
Future contestants, take heed: once you make it to the semifinals on American Idol, you're an honest-to-goodness celebrity, even if your time in the spotlight is brief. (If anything, Andy Warhol underestimated.) And, celebrities are under the microscope like no one else in American culture.