She probably didn't know it at the time, but when season 3 winner Fantasia belted ''Have you ever reached a rainbow's end?'' this summer, she was foreshadowing the careers of some of her pals on American Idol. Over the next six weeks, the show's muscle and the public's desire for syrupy ballads will be tested when five former winners and runners-up release new albums. They face not only each other but an unusually strong fall slate that includes Eminem, Good Charlotte, U2, Destiny's Child, Gwen Stefani, Snoop Dogg, and Ashanti. The plan to unleash five albums in such a short period is risky: It could overexpose a franchise that still has enormous appeal (Fox's Idol finished last season as TV's No. 1 program) and hurt BMG, the conglomerate behind all the entries. As for the artists? Let's just say a slow start could ruin a career in less time than it takes Ryan Seacrest to do his hair.
To date, the public has proved its Idol worship only goes so far: About a third of the contestants who've attempted solo albums have generated hits. On the high end, season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken's Measure of a Man sold 2.6 million copies, while bombs included season 1 runner-up Justin Guarini's self-titled entry, which enticed just 142,000 buyers and assured his place in TV history as a perma-punchline. BMG North America CEO Clive Davis who oversaw all five upcoming albums is convinced that postshow success comes only by de-Idolizing contestants the minute they enter the recording studio. ''There's a certain song that all of America loves when that confetti comes down, but it really has no relevance to their recording career,'' he says. ''Once you get away from that single, you're dealing with an original recording artist. I'm not making American Idol albums.''
Twenty-eight million fans might not appreciate Davis' disdain, but the singers' new offerings reflect his approach. As if to prove his point, Aiken refused to speak with EW a sign, perhaps, that the wildly popular 25-year-old is tired of his close association with Idol. Others were more forthcoming: ''It's the reason I'm here,'' says Ruben Studdard. ''[Album] producers do their best to scoot away from the Idol stigma, but I'll never forget where I came from.'' Kelly Clarkson agrees: ''['American Idol winner'] is going to be on my grave,'' she says. ''I'll be a trivia answer for life. And still, with everything that I do, the people surrounding me tell me that they think that [my next album] will be what breaks me away from American Idol. And I have to ask, Why are we running from it?''