When Chris Daughtry was but a toddler, synth pop savants the Buggles heralded the demise of one era and the dawn of another when their “Video Killed the Radio Star” rang in an upstart new cable network dedicated to a bold new concept: music television. A quarter-century later Daughtry is a music star by way of TV, and “music television” is dominated by celebrity gossip and reality programming. The “M” doesn’t seem to stand for “music” these days as much as “marketing” and “merchandising.”

Indeed, Chris may one day have to explain to his children what a “radio star” was.

That’s the conglomerate-dominated, media-saturated world in which Chris Daughtry became one of 2006’s precious few rock music commercial triumphs. Supported by a steady string of late night and early morning network television appearances, the burgeoning success of DAUGHTRY has continued to roll on, already at three million units sold and counting. Never mind that the present, all-caps incarnation of “DAUGHTRY” is now a band with Chris as lead singer—hey, worked for Dio and Dokken in the ’80s—if a completely different group of musicians than the ones who recorded DAUGHTRY the album.

It seems a true Cinderella tale: longtime North Carolina journeyman singer-songwriter becomes a crowd-pleasing favorite on America’s No. 1 TV program, the talent derby American Idol. Yet despite being booted before the final round, Chris’s TV-fueled popularity nets him a record contract, with the album quickly soaring to the No. 1 slot on the Billboard charts. More remarkably, the album lingers near the top of those charts for months, establishing Chris and band not only as the most successful American Idol “failure” yet, but as the most potent American rock act of 2007.

It’s foolish to argue whether DAUGHTRY deserves its popularity; three million-plus have already voted with their pocketbooks. And no doubt many pop music consumers are tired of having some elitist scribe argue what unwashed ignoramuses they are for daring to buy the music of artist X, or for actually being an enthusiastic fan of artist Y. At the height of Bon Jovi’s popularity, while reviewing a sold-out arena concert, a pop critic from a major daily paper remarked that the giddy fans leaving the show only thought they’d had a good time. Said critic then proceeded to explain in a paragraph why the fans hadn’t really—making a condescending buffoon of himself in the bargain. No, thanks.

Yet it’s hard not to notice that DAUGHTRY’s success seems to come with a few caveats. Absent the massive public exposure of American Idol, Chris Daughtry’s music career prospects seemed decidedly dim. He’d diligently followed his muse with but modest success in his hometown and had already failed his audition for another network talent competition, Rock Star: INXS.

His music has usually been compared to that of Fuel and Live, bands whose turn-of-the-millennium, “post-grunge” successes were largely rooted in the sonic and emotional ethos of the so-called “Seattle scene,” yet delivered with a patent melodrama and polish that were in many ways its antithesis. After performing Fuel’s "Hemorrage (In My Hands)" early in his American Idol run, that band reportedly offered Chris its then-vacant lead singer slot, which he turned down to pursue his own dreams. A gutsy move by any standard.

Blessed with good looks and a winning smile, Daughtry is a perfect modern American rock star. But though he’s one of American Idol’s rare successes in the rock realm, his strong voice and urgent, dramatic delivery are very much in the vein of the show’s other, more pop-oriented successes. Visit the DAUGHTRY page on the websites of a few top online music sellers and you’ll find their customer recommendations, data based on what others have purchased, oddly don’t include Fuel and Live, the acts Chris’ music has been most often compared to. Instead, you’ll find those recommendations heavily dominated by fellow Idol winners and alumni like Taylor Hicks, Carrie Underwood, Elliott Yasmin, Kelly Clarkson, Katherine McPhee and Kellie Pickler, artists that, at first glance, seem to share little in common with Chris Daughtry—other than the television program that spurred their mutual stardom. Indeed, American Idol seems to have become its own potent musical genre, propelled by the tidal wave of audience participation and call-in voting.

So what’s really going on here? Is DAUGHTRY’s massive popularity a sign that the record industry’s contemporary marketing mindset has somehow overlooked a potential market of three million-plus music fans eager for the emo-on-steroids, back-to-the-’90s muse that Chris is following? That the willfully fractured world of indie-rock was too often obsessed with writing its own epitaph? Or but another confirmation of television’s potential for generating mass-market fame—if too often of the 15-minute variety Andy Warhol once predicted for us all?

Ed Sullivan’s showcasing of Elvis and the Beatles showed how effectively television could whip an existing musical phenomena into a virtual firestorm of fame. Soon after, The Monkees showed TV could do nearly the same thing without the existing musical phenomena—even as, to their credit, Mike, Davey, Peter, and Mickey stubbornly insisted on creating the latter after the fact. Will Chris be as artistically diligent—and potentially star-crossed—over the long haul? And will the legions of fans who’ve “discovered” him via the nation’s most popular television program be as faithful when his initial glow of mass-media fame fades, and the spotlight turns to the next TV-generated “idol”?

A decade ago Van Dyke Parks was featured on a panel at one of those self-congratulation fests that music journalists enjoy so much. Parks had variously collaborated with Brian Wilson on Smile, produced Randy Newman, been sideman to the Byrds and countless others, a Warners exec, noted songwriter, and film scorer; Van Dyke knew pop music history because he’d aided and abetted much of it—even if the public at large hadn’t a clue who he was. But, before a captive audience of music insiders, he showed little interest in addressing the past, rather delivering a message he felt had been too long ignored by those present. “Your job,” he advised, peering intently over the frames of his wire rims, “is to preserve the diversity of the species.”

Parks instinctively grasped the irony: While it was the very diversity of Top 40 radio, network variety shows, and eclectic bills at venues like the Fillmores that once brought equally diverse audiences together when he was a young performer, the music world was rapidly embracing a very different business model, one based more on mass-marketing and short-term profit. Now coupled with television’s overarching public clout, it’s arguably the most homogenized content that now gets the widest exposure.

Which begs a few age-old questions: Is what’s best for business necessarily what’s best for music? And what happens to the diversity of pop and rock when the American Idol mindset focuses solely on the most familiar, crowd-pleasing artists? Time will tell, but Chris Daughtry—who struggled so diligently to hone his skills and pay his dues on a local scene—will have an interesting perspective on that conundrum, and sooner than he might think.