LOS ANGELES – When "American Idol" contestant Taylor Hicks belted out Stevie Wonder's golden oldie "Living for the City" there was scant age difference between the singer and the 32-year-old song.
Hicks, 29, and other "Idol" finalists edging near 30 are testing the limits of just how old an aspiring pop star can be and still gain acceptance from the music industry and the public -- while the TV contest reaps the rewards of showcasing older performers.
The top-rated Fox show is attracting a bigger audience than ever in its fifth edition as it offers a wider range of talent, which producers say is why they raised the audition age limit from 24 to 28 last year.
This season, the change opened the door for half of the dozen finalists: Besides Hicks, who turned 29 after making the cut, there's Mandisa, also 29; Bucky Covington, 28; Chris Daughtry, 26; Elliott Yamin, 27, and Ace Young, 25.
"There's a lot of really good singers we were turning down because of the age limit, and we realized it was silly," said executive producer Ken Warwick. "You're certainly not over the hill by 28."
Not yet, but there are uncomfortable hints the crest may be in sight, said Mandisa, a veteran performer who dedicated her powerful voice to Christian music pre-"American Idol."
"A lot of people say it's kind of the end of the road for me, so to be able to have this competition and be right at the brink where I can still make it, it's a dream come true," she told The Associated Press after being voted a finalist. "There's really no turning back."
That's right -- and it's wrong, according to music business insiders and observers. It's certainly true that young consumers and the artists they favor dominate the music marketplace, to an extent that makes TV look relatively age-inclusive.
"When you talk to guys in the record industry you do hear a lot of, 'Wow, she's 30, she's 35,' as if that completely ends any discussion," said Sean Ross, editor of Edison Media Research, which conducts research for radio stations and others.
"And, in fact, you see a lot of artists who aren't that old who have lost their own deals and go to work writing for Avril Lavigne and Kelly Clarkson," Ross said, naming the 21-year-old pop star and the inaugural 23-year-old winner of "American Idol."
Rocker Sheryl Crow, 44, has had to "fight for her place" in radio for the last five years, Ross said. It's the same in R&B: While a star like Mary J. Blige has endured, others are exiled to adult contemporary radio.
After Janet Jackson bared her breast at the 2004 Super Bowl, "it was discussed as a pathetic attempt to stay relevant" by the now 39-year-old singer, Ross said.
But there is hope for comparatively older artists, according to Ross and others. Talent can trump age for a stellar artist or one who aims for a career other than teenagers' darling.
"It's certainly more difficult as you become older," said TVT Records founder Steve Gottlieb. "But every success is an exception to the rule. No one gets a free pass, and unique talent trumps everything else."
There are examples of singers who are beyond the Clearasil years making a splash.
At age 28, James Blunt of Britain became music's latest hot property with the hit ballad "You're Beautiful," which was a mainstay on American adult contemporary formats before crossing over to top 40 radio.
Mariah Carey, 36, had her biggest hit yet with her comeback album, "The Emancipation of Mimi." Madonna is a dance music chart-topper at age 47, and country fans are more than open to hits from the likes of 44-year-old Toby Keith.
"If you're a guy who's 35 years old trying to be 16, of course that doesn't work," said Steve Stoute, whose company, Translations Marketing, links music stars with commercial products. "But if you're talented and representing who you are, there's absolutely an audience for you."
That's true even for baby-boom artists, and beyond. The latest album from Barry Manilow, 59, was holding its own on the charts this month, hovering right above the Black Eyed Peas, while Tony Bennett, 79, has put out best-selling records in recent years.
In an appearance on "American Idol," Manilow threw his weight behind the veterans, calling Hicks "one of the best male vocalists you have on the show" and suggesting he might hire Mandisa if the contest didn't pan out for her.
Youth, however, may not be denied. Although "Idol" judge Simon Cowell has expressed doubt about whether the youngest contestants can handle the pressures of competition, Paris Bennett, 17, and Lisa Tucker and Kevin Covais, both 16, made it to the finals. (Covais was voted off Wednesday.)
The average age of the four "American Idol" winners is just over 22.
"Age really doesn't have anything to do with it," said Paris Bennett. Her comment drew a nod of agreement from Tucker, who added: "It's knowing you can do it."
Older or younger, music stardom is a chancy dream for anyone to pursue, said record executive Gottlieb.
"Certainly, the odds are against (older singers)," he said. "But when the odds are 1 million to one, the fact they then become 10 million to one is not a big deal."