photo: Fox"Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!" Melanie Amaro shouted through tears, after a delayed reaction during which she just stood there next to her proud mentor Simon Cowell, taking it all in. She'd just won the Season 1 "X Factor" title and a $5 million record contract, and it's no wonder she was in such shock. She almost didn't make it to live shows at all, and now here she was, in the winner's circle on finale night. "I don't even know what to say! God is good! This is something I've wanted all my life!"
Melanie almost missed this opportunity, when Simon--either in a rare case of admitting he was wrong, or in a not-so-rare-case of manufacturing TV drama for ratings--initially eliminated her during the Judges' Houses rounds, and brought her back as a bonus contestant after having a last-minute change of heart/strategy. But once Melanie was back in the game, she was a frontrunner from that point on, never landing once in the bottom two--and this Thursday, she was declared the very first "X Factor USA" winner. Simon may have made some bad decisions this season--firing Cheryl Cole, not giving Steve Jones a co-host, keeping Simone Battle over Caitlin Koch, making Drew Ryniewicz spend an entire performance glued to a chair--but apparently going back for Melanie was not one of them.
photo: FoxMelanie was one to watch ever since her first "Listen" audition was featured in Fox promo spots, and Simon was clearly grooming her all season to be the American Leona Lewis (Leona being the most successful "X Factor U.K." champion, and a performer on this Thursday's big finale). But that's not to say Melanie had this competition in the bag. With the final three singers representing very different genres and very different fanbases, going into this very suspenseful week, it seemed like any of them could win this thing. Although Melanie was arguably the technically best singer of the entire show, the judges always made it clear this was not just a singing competition, but also a search for a SUPERSTAR--someone, that is, with that elusive X-factor. And while Melanie had the powerhouse vocals down, she often lacked the vivacious extrovert personality of a superstar, and she never quite defined herself musically, singing ballad after ballad week after week. Chris Rene, meanwhile, had personality and swagger for days and a distinct musical style, and he'd been a major fan favorite ever since he auditioned with his autobiographical "Young Homie" (which received 10 million views on YouTube). Josh Krajcik, who seemed to be Melanie's stiffest competition, was a credible musician with a huge following, a voice that at times rivaled Melanie's octave for octave, and a passing similarity to the David Cook/Kris Allen/Lee DeWyze types that usually win shows like these. All of them had a shot, making this one of the most exciting and unpredictable talent-show finales in recent memory.
photo: FoxHowever, in the end, it was a singing competition after all, as America voted for the best singer: Melanie, an old-fashioned balladeer in the mold of early "Idol" belters like Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, and Jordin Sparks, "The X Factor U.K.'s" Leona Lewis, and old-school divas from the Whitney/Mariah/Celine school of singing. But now, the real question is...will record buyers snatch up albums and singles by a relatively conservative singer like Melanie, when what's going on in the real pop marketplace is total free-for-all weirdness: Lady Gaga going out sans pants, Nicki Minaj rocking flamingo-pink wigs, Katy Perry wearing whipped-cream-gun brassieres, Rihanna wielding day-glo whips and chains, Jessie J doing it like a dude, Pink doing Cirque-style aerial stunts in mid-air, Ke$ha slathering herself in glitter and filth, Florence Welch slathering herself in kabuki paint? Is there room on the charts for a nice girl who'd rather croon love ballads in floor-length pageant gowns than wear meat-dresses or cupcake-bras?
I think that will come down to the songs Melanie records. Although she's definitely one of those divas who could sing the phone book if she had to and sound fantastic, no one is going to download the phone book on iTunes, so she better get a killer breakout single that gets on the radio. Melanie recently told me that she's not sure what musical direction she'd like to go in post-show (a comment I found odd coming from any aspiring entertainer), so apparently the girl's a clean slate, ready to work with whatever A-list producers and songwriters Simon can line up for her. Give her a "Since U Been Gone" or "Bleeding Love" or "No Air," and she very well may repeat the success of other talent-show divas coached by Cowell. So I hope Simon makes some wise decisions when it comes time to put Melanie in the studio. Pair this great talent with a great song, and the real greatness is yet to come.