What happens next for 'American Idol' winner Maddie Poppe could well make or break her chance at lasting fame, experts say
American Idol finalist Maddie Poppe of Clarksville, Iowa, visits her hometown to film segments for the finale of the competition. Des Moines Register
Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Caleb Johnson, Phillip Phillips, David Cook and Nick Fradiani.
And now, Maddie Poppe of Clarksville, Iowa.
Know what they all have in common? They all won “American Idol.”
But as several of those past winners show, the reality show win is no guarantee of lasting success.
How Poppe presents herself in the music marketplace and shakes off the negativity that can come from getting your start on reality television could determine rest of her career, radio insiders and "Idol" experts say.
“She is never going to have more momentum than she does right now, so the stakes are huge that the next step is the right step,” said Brian Mansfield, a music writer and “Idol” expert.
With her dazzling victory Monday night, there’s a glow around Poppe that has brought her instant national acclaim.
But the music she puts out in the next eight months to a year likely will determine whether that fame is lasting, said Luke Matthews, a DJ with Star 102.5 and a pop culture enthusiast.
“This is the part right now that I worry the most about the 'Idol' winner,” Matthews said. “I have a vested interest in Maddie doing well because she is from Iowa, but at end of the day, you can be called 'American Idol' champion, but if you don’t have a hit sometime soon, then you are going to quickly fade away.”
Poppe’s more immediate future is well laid out: She will have a week of media appearances and will perform at several prescheduled shows in the six weeks she has off between now and her “American Idol Live! 2018” tour.
In addition to the title of “American Idol,” Poppe won $250,000 on Monday, as well as a headlining performance at the Hollywood Bowl, a spot on the cross-country “Idol” tour and a recording contract with Hollywood Records.
She’ll crisscross the country on that tour between July 11 and Sept. 16.
When the curtain closes on that September show, Poppe will lose her “Idol” safety net and her road gig paychecks.
On Sept. 17, she’ll need to hit the ground running on the "Maddie career."
But what does she need to do to launch into that next level of success?
“Nobody knows that,” Mansfield said. “She doesn’t know that. The label probably doesn’t know that. That is like catching lightning in a bottle.”
Will her uniqueness be an asset?
Throughout the season, the judges commended Poppe’s undefinable qualities.
She wasn’t the typical “American Idol” singer belting out pop tunes. Instead, she was a quiet vocal storyteller with a penchant for eccentric song choices and an uncommon style.
But what worked on TV historically has had a hard time translating to radio for non-country “Idol” winners, Mansfield said. And radio is key to any performer's success.
“They can be unique, but they have to fit into a genre,” he said. “There was a time on 'Idol' where they had all white guys with the guitars win, and they ran into a problem because white guys with guitars weren’t really the thing that everybody else was listening to.”
Right now, the pop music scene is dominated by electronic sounds and is strongly influenced by R&B and hip-hop, Mansfield said. To some extent, even the country arena “is very beats-oriented and not necessarily about the classic melody that 'Idol' goes after.”
“If Maddie has something in the back of her head like that, then that could be a very good thing,” he said. “If she is more like Jewel and less like (singer/songwriter) Bebe Rexha, well, there’s no radio format for music like Jewel right now.”
With her ukulele, pigtails and trademark Kermit the Frog song, it’s hard to imagine Poppe sporting the glitter and high heels of many of today's starring pop acts. Nor would she appear to be totally comfortable in the cowboy boots of a country starlet.
But maybe Poppe's throwback style is just what millennials are looking for, said Eric White, a DJ on 107.5 Kiss FM.
Everything from Poppe’s sound to her fashion screams millennial hipster, he said, and, for 20-year-olds, that is going to remind them of everything they liked in college.
“She might not be a singer in the style of being a true pop artist,” White, 23, said. “But she has this awesome, really different voice that’s almost like an old soul in the way it sounds.
"It was her voice that really caught the judges off guard, and it could catch the nation off guard as well.”
Matthews is hard-pressed to say that standing out is anything but good. He’s heard from people who claim they can’t tell the difference between tunes by pop divas such as Demi Lovato and Ariana Grande and Selena Gomez.
Having a voice that is distinctly recognizable within the first three seconds of a song is going to cause people to tune, he said.
But he admitted that Poppe doesn’t fit easily into one radio format or music genre just yet.
“I think that she’s just a couple of really well-written and well-produced songs away from being a big star in any genre,” Matthews said. “Malleable is the wrong word, but I think she is easily guided into any genre that she really likes.
"Just having general music ability and having a great voice all bodes well for her.”
And Brian cautions against being too quick to write Poppe off: “Maybe with a bigger budget and a team around her that knows how to make commercial records, she’ll have a vision that she hasn’t realized to this point.”
Moving from screen to studio
Not only will Poppe be fighting to define her spot in the music business, she’ll also have to fend off some of the negative perceptions associated with being a reality TV name, experts told the Register.
In its waning days on FOX — before the show was picked up by ABC — the “Idol” champions were just OK, and just OK does not sell records nor does it get audiences interested in the contestants on the show, they said.
“Idol” used to be the perfect way to get invested in a new artist because you got to see them start from the ground up, Matthews said.
That mission is still part of the show’s DNA, but, for him, the core reasons that the competition was successful and created successful artists has waned over the years.
“After a while, I felt like they chose profits over quality and the level of talent just wasn’t there,” Matthews said.
After the show's first few seasons, radio stations grew reluctant to play “Idol” winners’ songs because managers couldn't bank on those names having staying power.
“They seemed like TV-generated stars, rather than people radio programmers knew worked on the radio,” Mansfield said. “That reluctance is stronger now than it ever has been.”
Monday night's reality TV finale — with its dramatic revelation that Poppe and runner-up Caleb Lee Hutchinson are dating — didn't do Poppe any favors, experts like Matthews said.
“I clicked over, and they’re bringing out an alpaca and then they are yanking Sanjaya out of a time capsule,” Matthews said.
“I honestly hope she is successful in spite of the show,” he said.
Regardless, Poppe is well-positioned to shine in Iowa, where her hometown was peppered with signs decreeing “Poppe Power.”
There are a few other musical celebrities that Iowa can point to as our own, White said, but having one more is always welcome.
“Especially with Des Moines on the come-up, stuff like this proves we are not a fly-over,” White said. “It proves that we have talented people and awesome cities and so much potential.
"To me, Maddie is the epitome of the potential that Iowa is.”
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American Idol finalist Maddie Poppe visits her hometown of Clarksville, Iowa. Des Moines Register