Q: Would someone like Janis Joplin, who could really belt out a tune but didn't have the look of a pop idol, win an "American Idol" competition?

Aaron McMahon, Alexandria

A: "Idol" star Ruben Studdard was overweight. Clay Aiken was generally unattractive. (And still is!) Although the "Idol" format incorporates the makeover craze -- and we've certainly seen our share of asymmetry, obesity and bad hair make it to the final rounds -- there's a limit to what the show can or will promote.

Could Janis Joplin survive? I think the more important question is, Would Janis Joplin . . .? Based on everything we know about Janis, she wouldn't have been caught dead doing such a thing. (Oh, wait, right. She is dead. Has been for 34 years.)

For the sake of argument, though, let's say there's a Janis equivalent out there, just as innovative, wildly uncontrollable and ambitious -- and with less-than-gorgeous looks. (Simon Cowell might say ugly; I would say unconventional.) This person wouldn't go near "American Idol": She wouldn't sing songs from her parents' favorite radio stations. She wouldn't be polite to the likes of Ryan Seacrest. She'd barf -- for a variety of reasons, the most important being authenticity.

The biggest mistake we make is to assume that all contemporary musicians want only to be superfamous. In fact, most innovators want merely to be heard and paid a decent living. The Janis Joplins of the realm frequently succumb to the kind of fame that is the incidental result of hard work and talent. Conversely, there's a reason why bad pop stars seem to linger: Fame is all they ever wanted, in spite of talent, and they never go away. In the final round, they merely imitate the greats.

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