It's Never Going to Work

Colton Dixon's 'Idol' afterlife

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Photo by Sparrow

Maybe you’re a singer-songwriter. Maybe you’ve been lucky enough to grow up in a biggish church, and you’ve been pruned to be a performer, playing for your youth group, practicing at school, starting a band or playing solo in front of your graduating class of 1,000. Maybe you’re some variant of that, but if you were lucky enough to perform at least once for 1,000 people – that performance alone would put you in a small percentage of the population.
That’s not exactly his story, but it’s close – his performances just ended up on the “small percentage of the small percentage” side of the population.

Colton Dixon, a new heartthrob of a superstar who recently released his debut record, A Messenger, would hate being called a heartthrob. But with his Mohawk, eccentric style and youth, it’s unavoidable. After all, millions of teenage girls and women watched him perform weekly for almost three months.

Colton Dixon was a contestant on the 11th season of “American Idol.” If you aren’t familiar with the show’s process, potential Idols perform each week, and then America votes for which performer they like best. It doesn’t matter who wins the vote, only who doesn’t – each week the person with the least amount of votes is sent home.

The winner that year was Phillip Phillips, and you’ve probably heard his song “Home” on every commercial on television. Many thought Dixon was a front-runner to compete against Phillips and eventual runner-up, the pint-sized vocal powerhouse Jessica Sanchez, but he was shockingly booted off when there were seven people left. He had never been in the bottom three before, one of the only barometers of success (or lack thereof) the show allows the audience to be privy to.

It wasn’t his first rodeo with ‘Idol.’ The first time he tried out for the show the year before, he did so with his younger sister, Schyler; they both did all right but not all right enough – they made it to Hollywood, the first major hurdle in the contestant’s competition, but they were both cut before making the Top 24, the second major hurdle. Dixon would later decide the show wasn’t for him, but his sister was determined to go back and give it another go. He said he’d join her at the audition the next year for support, but he wasn’t going to try out himself.

The two made some kind of impression their first time around because the judges on the show remembered them both. (The people remembering them were Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson.) When his sister was done trying out again, they asked her where he was. Since he was in the hallway, he was coaxed into trying out again, and they both ended up heading to Hollywood – again.

There was a time when Christian music was like country music – it sold well, but it only sold to its market. Recently, though, it seems the public can’t get enough of either. Taylor Swift can be heard on country and pop music radio, and it probably won’t be long before she’s singing hooks for Lil’ Wayne. Major producing studios are realizing that biblical themes sell, too – and not just to Christians.

“The Bible,” the History Channel’s mini-series that culminated in a finale on Easter, shattered DVD sales records in a time when DVDs aren’t selling as well. It’s no surprise that the man behind “The Bible,” Mark Burnett, is also the man behind what some consider the original reality TV series, “Survivor.” As it were, Burnett is also a believer. He knows the power of faith, but he’s also very smart: He knows Bible stories are legitimately good stories to tell. There’s a reason they’ve been around for thousands of years, and he knows a good story is the basis for any good program.

Music is getting the picture, too. Skillet is playing alongside Slipknot at the biggest rock festivals in America. And here we have Dixon, an open believer, competing on one of America’s largest television shows. (Dixon would later tell me that Phillip Phillips is also a believer.) One is winning the singing competition, while the other’s ousting was noted as notoriously shocking.

It may have been unexpected, but it was all Dixon needed.

“‘Idol’ provided a great platform,” Dixon said to me. He’s somewhere in the upper Midwest and calling me a little late because their sound check ran long. “They tell you to be yourself in the extreme. I’m a believer and faith is a big part of who I am, so that’s what I let shine. I looked for opportunities to share my faith. I didn’t want to come across preachy.”

He didn’t, really. There were hints of it – for example, he played the subtle-y Christian “Everything” by the subtle-y Christian Lifehouse – but he never came outright and said it. In fact, the week he was voted off the show, he did his version of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” hardly a nod to his faith, just a nod to a solid pop song with a great melody.

That “Idol” platform, though, is the kicker. “American Idol,” despite its recent drop in ratings, is still a behemoth. Colton Dixon performed in front of 30 million people, weekly, for almost three months. Fifty-three million people voted the week Dixon was booted – and you only get two hours to vote, and you only get those hours right after the show ends. (The final voting week of his season, 132 million votes were cast. For comparison, a total of 126 million people voted in the 2012 election.)

“As far as success goes from ‘Idol,’” Dixon explains, “they provided a huge fan base and following just from you being on television in front of something like 30 million people every week. It’s insane. They definitely boosted the Twitter and Facebook followers. And then when the record came out, I think most people knew what I was going to do. Even if they don’t listen to Christian music, I’ve seen a lot of people who at least entertained my record, and I think most of them dug it. The only complaint I’ve seen is the whole religious thing: ‘I wish you wouldn’t have done Christian music.’ If I had not done Christian music, it wouldn’t have been true to myself; it would have been fake material. Christian music is what I stuck with and I’m happy with it.”

Only four people got record deals from his season. Two of them were fairly obvious – eventual winner Phillip Phillips and runner-up Jessica Sanchez – the third was almost a joke (Heejun Han), and the fourth was Dixon. It speaks worlds to him as an artist – faith-based or not – and loads to his marketability and keen eye for the industry, even though his decision to write a Christian record had its fair share of naysayers.

“I’ve always wanted the same sound,” Dixon says. “Even some of my closest friends were like: ‘It’s not going to work, especially not Christian music. They just don’t go for that kind of thing.’ I was so determined – and I’m hard-headed, too – so that mixed together …”

He had been writing songs far before his “Idol” experience, and he could play his own instruments, looking particularly strong behind a piano. For some incredible vocalists, they can’t make that leap to artist, and a lot of that problem is rooted in them not knowing an instrument – they only know how to sing well. It’s either they can’t play an instrument or their rhythm lacks or they don’t understand business or they have no concept of showmanship. But for Dixon, all those puzzle pieces fell into place.

“I would write stuff that was a good starting point and kept on writing, writing and writing,” Dixon says of his pre-“Idol” time preparing for his career as a musician. “Then I went on ‘Idol’ and they really helped develop the tools I came in with, and they gave me a couple of other ones. After ‘Idol,’ a management company decided to put me with some other artists and writers and they really helped … come up with something I love and am very proud of.

“It’s funny. Whenever my friends who told me it wouldn’t work, they listen to it now and they get it and say, ‘It’s exactly what you described back then.’”

He’s business-savvy. It seems a lot of people think Christians can’t be both businessmen and believers, that somehow the two are mutually exclusive. But Dixon knows what he’s doing. He may hate being called a heartthrob, but he certainly knows it doesn’t hurt. Just read this exchange I had with him:

So you’re on tour right now with Third Day? They’re a pretty huge rock band.
“Yeah, they’re kind of a big deal.”

The only thing is: They are getting a little older. They are the type of people I listened to when I was growing up, and I’m sure you listened to them when you were first starting out. What’s the vibe like at concerts with them? Do you see a bunch of cougars out there looking for you trying to say hello to you?
“That’s hilarious. What Mac Powell (Third Day lead singer) says every night – he looks out in the audience and says, ‘We see a lot of moms, and we see a lot of daughters. I’m going to go out on a limb and say the moms are here for us, and the daughters are here for Colton.’
It’s pretty funny to hear the response, especially when he says, ‘Give it up for Colton,’ the cheers are an octave higher, and when they say, ‘Give it up for Third Day,’ and the octave is a little lower. I think it was really cool and smart on their part. I’m so happy they had me out, but it was a cool chance for fans, too, because (Third Day) has been successful for so long that their fans have gotten old with them – which is what I hope to do. Now these fans can bring their daughters or sons, and they can all enjoy the show together.”

The quick bit in there – the part about Third Day being smart to nab him up for their tour – that’s business. That’s him being self-aware. In fact, I don’t think he even thought about it when he said it to me, but he’s certainly right. Third Day first put out a record in 1995 when Dixon was four years old. His demographic is solidly that of a new generation, and it undoubtedly helps to have him around to bring two generations of fan to their concerts.
Even on the “American Idol” tour there was something special about him. The Top 10 finishers on the show all go on tour together following the close of the show, and Dixon was allowed to perform one of his eventual hits “Never Gone” – a song he wrote. Not all of the contestants can write their own music, and they all don’t get a portion of the touring show dedicated to them.

“I don’t totally understand the logistics of everything, and I still don’t,” Dixons says. “I have no idea why they let me do my own song. I was thinking in the back of my mind, ‘I need to write a rock anthem that’s going to be great for arenas with a really catchy hook.’ So I’m thinking all this and about that time is when I started writing. I started pitching all these songs to my management company and the people in charge of the ‘Idol’ tour, and they were like, ‘We really like these two, let’s see what else you can come up with.’

“I’m so grateful they gave me the opportunity to begin with. We didn’t come out with ‘Never Gone’ until probably two weeks before the ‘Idol’ tour started. We were three weeks into rehearsals and I hadn’t rehearsed my original song yet because it hadn’t been created. (When they gave me the opportunity), I didn’t want to just skate by with this song; I wanted the song to be on the record and be something I believe in. It was the first time I took the emotions I was going through when I was on a TV show and put them into a song. It turned into something far beyond what I could have imagined.

“I still have no clue why they gave me that extra slot with an original.”

Dixons says: “If you’re not going to let your kids watch (‘Idol’) because of the content on the show or because of a certain judge … I totally understand. But if the name ‘American Idol’ offends you, I think you’re living in a little bit of a bubble. You need to take the blinders off and see the bigger picture of what’s happening. People are on stage sharing their faith and presenting the gospel to a secular market, which is I think what Jesus called us to do.”
It’s probably the most direct Dixon was with me the entire time we talked. He speaks softly, is incredibly good at interviews, and if you’ve heard him speak on TV or in an interview, he sounds the exact same way. When he said this, though, it came out very pointed. It wasn’t his tone that implied his thoughts; it was his cadence.

I mentioned that I agreed with him, that Jesus always wanted to hang with the sick. He didn’t go to places where people were healthy; he always went to parties with tax collectors. Jesus, the original crossover act, was very specific about his words and actions. And when Dixon would take to the stage with his subtle Christianity, or if he would do it in a more vocal fashion when the cameras were off, it was easy to be attracted to him. Contestants would gravitate to it.

“Phil Phillips was a believer as well, and we kind of held each other accountable while we were out there,” Dixon says. “We prayed together before and after shows. He’s a great dude. There were several other contestants as well that definitely opened up when they saw me doing what I was doing.”
It’s the heart of a leader, a true trust that doing what he believed was right, and if he fell on his face – if it didn’t work – he would be more than happy to go down on his own terms.

“My decisions, musically, stayed pretty much the same,” he says. “I love rock music. It’s really where my heart is. But I love worship music, too. Combining the two was something I wanted to do on this record. And I’m happy with the way it turned out.”

Colton Dixon was posted on June 3, 2013 for HM Magazine and authored by .