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Fantasia – I Believe

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It’s a tricky thing being the winner of a TV pop music talent contest. On the one hand, a win can lead to worldwide fame and massive chart success (Kelly Clarkson, Leona Lewis) or guarantee you great popularity in a particular genre (Carrie Underwood). On the other, it can chew you up and spit you out, leaving behind nothing but the detritus of a once-promising career (Javier Colon from The Voice or the UK X Factor winner Steve Brookstein). In many cases, being a runner-up or eliminated early is a much better thing, leading to even greater chart careers (One Direction, Adam Lambert) or even an Oscar (Jennifer Hudson).

In addition to an uncertain chart future, the TV talent winner also has to experience something even scarier and potentially career-destroying: the Coronation Song. This is the song that the winner performs live on television before the final audience vote, and then again after being crowned victor, and which usually becomes his or her first single. For most British X-Factor and American Idol winners (for the first five seasons at least), this usually results in an instant no.1 hit, despite the often dubious quality of these ditties. Most Coronation songs share a few key ingredients: (1) they must be inspirational, (2) they must reference, either directly or indirectly, the journey the winner has taken to get to the top, and (3) they must feature a Barry Manilow-esque key change before the last triumphant chorus. Oh, and the other constant with these songs? Their utter banality. Would Jordin SparksThis is My Now, Will Young’s Evergreen or Taylor HicksDo I Make You Proud ever chart on their own, let alone be committed to vinyl or digital, without the talent show association? I think not. True fact: after hearing Kelly Clarkson’s performance of the very first American Idol Coronation Song A Moment Like This, I was challenged by a friend to write a song as insipid during the finale show’s commercial breaks. The end result, The Dream You Dreamed is You, is a modern masterpiece in waiting (I confirm the veracity of this statement – Ed.)

Every now and then, however, the combination of a winning contestant and a Coronation Song results in something unexpected – a truly amazing recording. And in my opinion there is no better example of this than American Idol Season 3 winner (and arguably the greatest Idol winner ever), Fantasia, and her crowning anthem I Believe.

If Season 3 (2004) of Idol is remembered for anything now, it is for the shocking elimination of Jennifer Hudson, who finished seventh in the competition. But Hudson was never considered the front-runner that season. That honor belonged to Fantasia Barrino. This 19 year old single mother had a quirky, effortless voice that seemed to be comprised of 1/3 old-soul princess, 1/3 tortured artist, and 1/3 helium. She dominated the competition from the start, and won legions of fan with her unfiltered and dynamic stage presence. Her rendition of Summertime from Porgy and Bess is considered by some to be the single best cover ever performed on the show. By the time the finale rolled around, the competition was hers to lose.

In the finale, both Barrino and the runner-up, Diana DeGarmo, performed I Believe, which was co-written by season 1 contestant Tamyra Gray. On its face, lyrically the song is a paint-by-numbers tune about reaching for one’s dreams. DeGarmo went first, and performed an above-average version. But from the moment Fantasia took the stage, she transformed the song into a thrilling, goose-bump inducing anthem of hope and faith. And at about 2:26 into the performance, she took it to church. At that point, the crowd, and the crown, was hers.

 
When Barrino performed it again the next night, it was an even more spectacular and emotional performance. With both of these as a launch pad the single shot straight to no.1, becoming the first debut single in US chart history to chart straight in at the top. After the competition, Barrino went on to have a moderately successful US chart career, but neither I Believe – nor any of her other singles –  ever graced the British charts. Which is too bad, because as Coronation songs go, this one was perhaps the best, an anthem that transcended its lyrical clichés to become something magnificent.

Entered chart: did not chart

Who could sing this today and have a hit? Given its inspirational message and successful pedigree, it is a bit shocking that Simon Cowell has not tried to repurpose this for another artist. But when the original is so definitive, it would be hard to see someone like Matt Cardle or even Alexandra Burke attempt to cover this. I’d like to see fellow Idol-winner Kelly Clarkson try, however.

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