Stand by Me

Our favorite American Idol contestant shouldn't have been on the show in the first place

There was a moment during Josiah Leming's audition for American Idol where Randy Jackson hesitated. He breathed deeply, tapped his pen on the desk, exhaled loudly, and finally, after eight long seconds, said he thought Leming should go through to the second round in Hollywood. Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell quickly agreed.

What was he thinking? If Jackson had said no, would Abdul and Cowell still have moved Leming through? Who knows? Whether he'd ever be a serious competitor on the show seemed beside the point. Leming had a good story—he was from Morristown, totally off any sort of industry radar, was only 17 when he tried out, and he'd been living in his car for the previous year, surviving on odd jobs and occasional singing gigs. (And he cries at the drop of a hat. Teenage girls were moved, but eventually I wanted to wipe his nose with a rake.)

That's the kind of thing that sells the first few weeks of any season of American Idol. The stories behind the singers are more important than the singers themselves. Most of the process of narrowing down the more than 100 who make the first cut to the final 24 could be done at the initial auditions. Surely Jackson and Cowell can tell who's got what it takes after six years of this. (I wouldn't bet on Paula Abdul.) Leming doesn't. As a guy with a guitar in the corner of a bar or a singer for a local rock band, he'd be perfectly acceptable. As a candidate to take up where Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson left off? No way. Jackson seemed to have already identified that at the audition: "I'm not sure I wouldn't like you more in a band," he said. "I usually don't like people from—where are you from?—Morristown, Tenn., singing with British accents. I don't usually like that." His vote of support seems surprising in retrospect. That Cowell, reliable for both his acuity and his venom, joined Jackson with such enthusiasm is even more surprising.

Leming's now become one of the most popular non-finalists in the history of the show, with appearances on Access Hollywood, Ellen, and the local afternoon show Live at Five since his departure. In a recent video posted on YouTube, Leming says he has meetings lined up with a slew of label representatives in March.

But what's the fuss? Leming's audition—an a cappella version of a song he'd written—may have been a lot better than most of the performances you see on the first few episodes of every season. But he also showed every single one of the flaws that eventually got him booted off the show: a lack of range, an affected British accent, and a chronic inability to distinguish emoting from emotion.

There's not been much since that audition to support the panel's initial confidence. Leming's version of British singer Mika's "Grace Kelly," accompanying himself on keyboard, was his best-received performance of the show. It was an energetic rendition, but raw, and not in a good way—he didn't hit the falsetto, and what should have been a heartfelt crescendo at the end was a caterwaul. Then came his disastrous unaccompanied performance of "Stand by Me." He didn't practice the night before, stayed up until 3:30 a.m. bawling to the camera and bitching about the band, and ignored an offer of help from the show's vocal coach. He didn't seem like a sensitive kid; he looked like a petulant and self-absorbed jerk. To the shock of the judges, Leming dismissed the band from the stage before he sang.

He stank. He flattened notes he couldn't hit, mangled the melody, and approximated soul by getting louder. (Somebody really should advise him about the high notes—he can't reach them. He should stop trying.)

That was the end of American Idol for him, but the start of his post-Idol celebrity cycle. Fans flocked to his MySpace page with words of support and to the American Idol message board with complaints. Ellen DeGeneres booked Leming on her daytime talk show, he cried, and she gave him $8,000 worth of music equipment. MTV sent a reporter to Morristown to spend a weekend with him. Videos of some live recordings popped up on YouTube. Terry Morrow profiled him in the News Sentinel.

Again, it's good copy: Local hard-luck kid—come on, he lived in his car—unfairly dumped by superficial reality show. If he gets a record deal, even better copy. But all he's been so far is copy. He never had a chance on American Idol. He never should have made that first cut. The judges knew it. You could see it in Jackson's hesitation. It's not unfair that they cut him from the contest—he wasn't good enough. It was unfair to put him on in the first place.