Does Philip Phillips' success signal American Idol about to mistakenly choose another boring cute guy winner?
American Idol, you were so close.
You had mostly left your reputation for overlooking your best contestants behind, as viewers embraced a field of singers who were more proficient, ethnically diverse and filled with women than in many years.
The success of powerhouse singer Jessica Sanchez belied the show's often bewildering toughness on female signers of color. And the continuing triumphs of gospel-drenched soul belter Joshua Ledet proved that Idol's problems rejecting soul singers were also in its past.
And then came Thursday's results, kicking off Ledet -- who seemed destined to face off against Sanchez in a battle of the big voices -- in favor of scruffy rocker Phillip Phillips, a Dave Matthews clone whose success seems much more about the mostly-female audience's preference for cute, unassuming guy singers.
Leaving aside the fact that Idol has been forced to tie itself in knots to present Phillips as an original artist -- he even moves like Matthews onstage, twisting geekily while strumming an acoustic guitar and talking in an offhand hipster mumble -- his presence in the finale signals the return of an ongoing problem for the show.
The dominance of the low-key, cute guy singer.
Idol dodged that bullet last year, handing victory to Scotty McCreery, a country singer who seemed tailor made for that genre's audience. Indeed, his debut album was certified platinum on Idol's stage months after its October debut -- still a far cry from the days when an Idol winner's first album would sell a million copies within days of release.
But now the show seems on the verge of crowning another unassuming white guy singer as champion, in the same way Lee DeWyze, Kris Allen, and David Cook took the top prize in the three seasons before McCreery's win.
Idol voters' tastes have often seemed diametrically opposed to what sells best in pop music.
British pop singer Adele was far and away 2011's top-selling artist, with country singer Jason Aldean the only artist in Billboard's Top Five selling albums coming anywhere close to Idol's cute guy singer mold (his self-titled album placed fifth in sales behind Michael Buble, Lady Gaga and Lil' Wayne)
So Idol voters have a clear choice now; a Sanchez win could hint at a new future where the show's winners fall closer to what is actually popular on the charts. Or they could pick another cute, unassuming guy destined to shrug his way into showbiz irrelevance.
The fate of TV's highest-rated reality show hangs in the balance.