There are a few certainties about "American Idol." Simon will be booed by viewers for stating what's clearly obvious to anyone with working ears. Paula Abdul will act loopy, convincing viewers that there's something other than Coca-Cola in her red plastic glass. And of course, one or more of the "Idol" wannabes will see a scandal from his or her past surface and threaten to knock them out of the competition.
This year, two minor scandals bloomed forth even before their singers got very far in the contest. Akron Watson was disinvited from the Hollywood round for no apparent reason, leaving most to assume it's because of the marijuana bust in his past. Ashlyn Carr, memorable because Simon and crew first disinvited her to Hollywood, then called her back, apparently once confessed to dumping sugar in an ex-boyfriend's gas tank. But Akron's dismissal was quietly shoved under the rug, and Ashlyn didn't last long enough for her sugary-sweet past to become a worry.
They're hardly the first "Idol" wannabes to have run-ins with the law. Perhaps the most famous is Bo Bice, who almost won it all in 2005. The long-haired rocker was arrested twice in the four years before his competition, once for felony cocaine possession. He completed a drug program and had that charge dismissed. When The Smoking Gun dug up the charges, Fox was almost snippy about defending Bice, calling the site "salacious" and saying that Bice had been honest with the network show about his charges.
A more uncomfortable moment ensued when finalist Scott Savol turned out to have a domestic violence arrest in his past, allegedly shoving the mother of his son and breaking a telephone on her. (Telephones are made of pretty sturdy stuff, so, ouch.) Again, Fox said Savol had been honest, and he stayed on the show.
Compared to drugs and domestic violence, current "Idol" singer Antonella Barba's reported risque photos seem pretty mild. Some say she's not even the person in the racier photos, and even if she was, what's her crime? She was young and stupid and someone had a camera. Viewers can't help but remember Vanessa Williams, Miss America 1984, who had to give up her crown thanks to naughty photos, and went on to be recognized as the most talented Miss America ever.
"American Idol" producers have been ignoring Barba's photos, and that seems like a fairly sensible decision, especially considering she does not possess one of the show's strongest voices and is unlikely to go far. But there's one problem with the producers' sudden attack of logic: Frenchie Davis.
Davis was booted from "Idol" in 2003 because she'd posed for racy photos on a Web site. She was paid for her photos, while Barba (if it is Barba in the questionable pics) appears to have been just goofing around. But Davis was kicked off the show, while Barba was not. Was the fact that she accepted money for her photos the difference?
Since Davis is black and Barba white, some are calling it racism. Davis isn't among them. She doesn't think race has anything to do with it, but from interviews with her, it's clear that she does see a double standard. And she claims she was clear about her photos before going on to the show, just as Savol and Bice reportedly were about the issues in their pasts.
Davis went on to find Broadway success, and is currently singing in the musical "Rent." She's hinting that she wouldn't mind a monetary settlement from the show, saying she is owed more than an apology, which is absolutely the wrong thing to say. The ground she's standing on would look a lot more firm if she simply went forward and saying "I don't want money, I just want someone to explain the difference."
"American Idol" is a family show, no question about it. Obviously, the show producers would love it if all their contestants came to the stage fresh from feeding the hungry and building homes for Hurricane Katrina victims. But these singers are at varying stages of life -- some are wide-eyed and 16, others are married parents, aged 27 or 28.
And the show is kidding itself and its audience to pretend that the music scene that its contestants desperately want to enter is just one step away from the convent. When Bo Bice's drug arrests became public, savvy observers laughed at the idea that a guy who's been playing music in bars for years was expected to have never come in contact with drugs.
It's not that Fox should let a serial killer into its tidy little contest -- no one's asking for that. And most people don't think Barba's photos (again, assuming they are of her) are worth kicking her out over, either.
But if the show wants this Barba-Davis issue to go away, someone at Fox needs to step up and address the issue. This is very unlikely to happen, considering how secretive the show is about things such as vote totals and phone-line glitches, but here's how I'd like it to go down.
A show spokesperson should speak publicly and explain why Davis was kicked off and Barba hasn't been. Maybe hand out a chart: Domestic violence: OK, if it doesn't involve anything heavier than a phone. Drug arrests: OK, if you get treatment. Racy photos: OK, if you're not paid for them. Or make a blanket statement: If we know about your issue ahead of time, we'll take it on a case-by-case basis, but if if we're blindsided by the tabloids while you're on the show, you're going home.
Whatever their explanation is, if it rings true, viewers will know. If not, then the show has deeper problems.