The Daughtry dilemma

March 4, 2007


Although it's a fading virtue, authenticity -- the perception that a musician is "the real deal" who made it on his own and isn't all prefab hype -- is still a valuable commodity in rock 'n' roll. Few of the finalists on the absurdly popular TV talent show "American Idol" have spent a second sweating about their credibility; they're all too happy to be embraced by the star-making juggernaut. But as the representative rocker on season five -- a somber and super-earnest descendent of bombastic post-grunge groups such as Live and Creed -- the 27-year-old, shaven-headed, North Carolina bar-band vet Chris Daughtry worries about it plenty.

To escape the whiff of superficiality that's an inescapable part of all things "Idol," Daughtry formed a band, conveniently named Daughtry, with friends from the circuit back home. The musicians didn't play on the singer's first album -- which has sold more than 1.3 million copies since its release last November and spent a few weeks this year at No. 1, and which also is conveniently named "Daughtry" -- but they are backing him as he tours in support of the disc, intentionally playing intimate clubs the size of Chicago's Double Door or smaller.

"I started in bands," Daughtry says by phone from a 300-capacity club somewhere in Texas. "Ever since I started doing music when I was 16, I just wanted to be in a rock band, and I was inspired by rock bands -- Live being one of the biggest ones that influenced me. I never wanted to be a solo guy, so doing the TV show was a departure from what I'm used to. I just felt like, 'OK, I'm not getting exposure in these dive places I'm playing at home, so I might as well stick my head out and see what else is there.' "

"What else" turned out to be an audition for "American Idol." It was his wife's idea: The couple lives in McLeansville with their two children, and it's easy to imagine her fretting about their financial future when hubby's musical career was going nowhere fast. It's ironic, then, to find the singer back in exactly the sort of clubs he was trying to escape -- although this time, he clearly has bigger plans for the future.

"Right now, we still feel like a baby band," Daughtry explains. "We wanted to build our touring base up, and we wanted to be more up-close and intimate with the crowd before we jump right into the big stuff. We're having a blast doing this: You can see every face in the crowd -- and you get to hear them when they're yelling at you and saying that you suck."

The "you suck!'s" are inevitable for any artist trying to make it in the rock world after becoming a household name on Gen Y's version of "The Original Amateur Hour." But the complaint about shouting skeptics may just be another part of the campaign for cred: No one is likely to pay to see the singer just to heckle him, especially when 300 tickets sell out pretty fast if you've still got an enormous following of "Idol" worshippers.

Early on in season five, many pegged Daughtry as the sure winner. He wound up in fourth place, ultimately bested by silver-haired soccer-mom heartthrob Taylor Hicks, prompting legions of Daughtry fans to protest that their man was robbed. They showed their support by buying his album by the bushel, and he ultimately had the last laugh when he outsold Hicks' debut effort.

Daughtry doesn't disavow the "Idol" effect, but he prefers to think that the mainstream rock radio has done just as much for album sales. "That first 300,000 was the 'Idol' crowd: Those were the people that knew me from the show, and they were going to buy it regardless. Then, of course, people started talking about it and went, 'This is actually OK.' I think a lot of people now are finding out about it even if they didn't watch the show because of rock radio, which is a miracle for me -- no one has ever successfully made it on rock radio coming off that show, which is understandable."

Understandable, that is, because of the authenticity factor, though mainstream rock radio is hardly a bastion of that, and Daughtry's aspirations seem pretty shallow when you remember what kind of artists he admires. "To have bands like Fuel, Saliva and Nickelback approach me and say, 'You have some good stuff' -- really taking it seriously and showing mutual respect -- is a great thing," he gushes, without realizing that he sounds like a wannabe painter or struggling standup saying they've been praised by Thomas Kinkade, "Painter of Light," or that comic genius known as Carrot Top.

Me, I've never watched one episode of "American Idol." Rather than a dereliction of my duty as pop music critic, I think of it as maintaining focus: My beat is music, not television. I've heard most of the "Idol" finalists' albums and seen many of them in concert, and I could care less about what happened to them on the show, who appealed to Paula Abdul or who was dissed by Simon Cowell. What matters to me is the music.

"Daughtry" is a better album than many of the contestants have churned out, but again, that's just about the faintest praise imaginable. Produced by Howard Benson (My Chemical Romance, All-American Rejects) and penned by the singer and hired co-writers in hotel rooms at night during one of those dreadful "Idol" arena tours, it's the kind of slick, over-the-top but generic hard rock that seems loud at any volume, but which quickly reveals a serious lack of substance amid all the mildly tuneful thunder.

"I try to see the good in life / But good things in life are hard to find," Daughtry bellows in his "I really mean it!" way during the hit, "It's Not Over." "I'll blow it away, blow it away / Can we make this something good?"

He might as well be talking about his own post-"Idol" career.

"You can't just force people to not talk about 'American Idol,' " Daughtry says. "But if the music speaks for itself and takes people's minds off of that and is being taken seriously, they may say, 'It's not an "Idol" record; it's something more than that, and he actually does write and wasn't just a poseur on this TV show.' Hopefully, on the next two or three albums, it'll just be, 'Hey, this is the new album from Daughtry,' and not 'This is Chris Daughtry-from-the-TV-show's new album.' "

Maybe. But the bottom line is most people wouldn't care if it hadn't been for the TV show, and the singer is tied to it in perpetuity, at least contractually: He is, after all, signed to 19 Recordings, the label managed by "American Idol" creator Simon Fuller.

"I chose to stay with them," Daughtry insists. "I knew it was a risk, because it is the company that started the TV show and they inevitably end up managing all the 'Idol' singers, unless they try to buy out of it. But for me, it just seemed that they were so willing to do everything they could to make me happy and make sure that I have the right album, and they heard everything I had to say. I felt like, 'Hey, they're working their butts off for me, I might as well stick with them.' "

So much for authenticity and making it on your own.



When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee
Tickets: Sold Out