*On the evening of March 23, 2011, Jacob Lusk had his  Moment.

In just one minute and fifty-six seconds–the length of his compact,  impassioned   rendition of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s 1968 soul classic, “You’re All I Need To Get By”– Lusk, a 23 year-old church boy from Compton, California,  had the kind of moment  every performer dreams of.

Like many young singers today with  chops, he tends to oversing. But on this night, Lusk, who, on occasion, sounds uncannily like gospel singer Rance Allen, exhibited the artful, stylistic restraint of a gifted veteran.

He turned on his vocal ingenuity in just the right places (like the crowd-pleasing ad-lib  cadence toward  the song’s end that tossed gas on the fire),  the whole time seducing the TV viewing audience  with subtle facial antics that exuded everything from wistful sentimentality and sheer joy to sexy flirtation.

Lusk’s Moment, arguably one of “Idol”‘s greatest performances ever, left the studio audience in stunned shambles.  They and millions more watching at home knew that whether or not Lusk wins “Idol,” they’d just witnessed a star.

Then again, there are more than a couple of potential stars on this year’s “Idol.”  Breathing down Lusk’s back is 16 year-old Lauren Alaina from Rossville, Georgia, a big-voiced singer in the tradition of past “Idol” winners Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood.

Alaina, like Lusk, could take it all.  She has a  penchant for pop/country, but can sing other stuff just as well and possesses an aw-shucks sassiness that is infectious. And, she hails from the South. Statistically, most “Idol” winners and front-runners  come from the South.

However, that’s the thing with “Idol”–you never know in what pattern a fickle public might vote. In any case, in its tenth season, the world’s greatest amateur music competition has found redemption.

Who would’ve thunk it, considering  the hideous talent pool that was season nine?  If two big, nattily dressed men with broad shoulders grabbed me at gunpoint, drove me to an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of town, tied me up in a chair and told me the only way I’d see tomorrow would be to give them the name of the winner of  last season’s “Idol,”  I’d  be one dead MF.  The lineup was that ho-hum.

When the program’s star judge, the  inimitable  Simon Cowell, left to helm the American debut of his competing TV talent  creation, “The X-Factor,”  critics  put the final nail in “Idol”‘s  coffin.

However, the departure of Cowell, dreaded by “Idol” producers,  only served to make it clear that  a talent show’s success is not about judges but  ambitious, budding talent.  This year’s  “Idol” has plenty, including 22 year-old  Pia Toscano, a  Big Ballad belter from Howard Beach, New York; dreamy-eyed, pop/R&B singer Stefano Langone, 22, from Kent, Washington; raspy-throated Haley Reinhart, 20, of Wheeling, Illinois and screaming rocker James Durbin, 22,  from Santa Cruz, California.

And, turns out, the unlikely appointment of new judges Jennifer Lopez and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, joining show stalwart Randy Jackson,  give “Idol” new life.  I  don’t   recall ever hearing a Lopez recording all the way through, but she actually has some good advice for the performers, while Tyler’s funky charisma and zest for keeping it real has made the rock star a TV star.

Why, you ask,  am I all up into this corny TV show?  To me, the inclination is  natural: I grew up watching pop music on TV.   Back in the latter 20th Century, before the advent of the music video and MTV, popular recording artists reached their public exclusively through top 40 radio, concert tours and network television.

It was during  weekly ’60s TV variety programs belonging to  legendary entertainers and impresarios  such as Ed Sullivan,   Mike Douglas, Andy Williams, Carol Burnett and Sonny and Cher, among others,  that America tuned in to see, sandwiched between comedy skits and post Vaudeville performances, the Beatles, the Supremes, James Brown, the Rolling Stones,  Lil’ Stevie Wonder,  the Temptations,  Aretha, The Who, Sly and the Family Stone and the Jackson 5.  Influential icons today, back then these acts were all scratching for their  own TV Moments.

Meanwhile,  hip rock and roll  network shows of the era–“American Bandstand,”  “Shindig,” “Hullabaloo,”  “Where The Action Is” and “Music Scene”–paved the way for “Soul Train,” “The Midnight Special,” “In Concert” and “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” in the ’70s.  An ardent pop music lover,  I lived for all these shows.  Today,    it seems surreal  that  songs which debuted on those old programs  are now cultural classics performed by “Idol” contestants who  never heard of the original version  or the act who made it famous.

That’s okay.  I’d rather listen to a gifted young amateur sing a pop relic  than watch most  of today’s so-called professional “artists” strut  and howl their way through new half-baked grooves. “Idol”‘s current lineup can out sing and out perform many of the acts currently in Billboard’s  top 40.  It figures that some of the record execs who signed those video vamps now shamelessly raid the TV talent shows for fresh blood.

Truth of the matter is that, left  to some of those guys,  “Idol” alumni  Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia and Chris Daughtry  might  still be waiting tables to finance  demos to submit  to aloof, tone-deaf label execs
who don’t return calls.   Current  “Idol” contenders Paul McDonald, 26, of  Huntsville, Alabama–with his peculiar gravel and weird onstage moves–and  eclectic 20 year-old singer/multi-instrumentalist Casey James, from Wilmette, Illinois, would not have gotten past a label’s  security desk.

To be sure, “Idol”‘s concept of launching stars is nothing new.  Renowned  soul singer Gladys Knight was just seven  in 1952  when she appeared on the popular “Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour;”  Beyonce, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and
Le Ann Rimes all  competed  on the syndicated “Star Search” in the ’90s.  Some of them weren’t even in their teens.

But it doesn’t matter to me that  new “Idol” contender  Scotty McCreery, a straight up country crooner with a delightfully crooked smile from Garner, North Carolina, is only  17.  I don’t even care that his family and I most likely voted for distinctly different candidates during the last Presidential election.  All I know is whenever that  white boy takes the mic, he’s  bringin’  it.   And I love it.

Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love  (Simon & Schuster),  has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].