Season Finale: An Ending

May 17th, 2013

Well, I was wrong. And I have never been more pleased to be wrong.

It took Candice three times to get to the voting rounds. When she did though… she dominated. Kree and Angie came close and at least made it a race, but there was never really any doubt who was the best singer. As dreadful a season as it was, Candice held up her part of the bargain. She sang brilliantly, navigated the themes as well as she could, and would have been a contender in any Idol season. It was as close to a textbook Idol campaign as you can imagine. She is, simply put, a champion.

Kree ran a pretty good campaign, too. Perhaps if she had a flaw, it was that while she was consistently good, she really didn’t have that blow-me-away moment that Candice delivered time and again. The same was true of Angie, if you think about it: they were both very, very, good. Maybe both of their talents translate better to the studio than the live stage. They both ran good campaigns, and frankly coming up behind Candice is nothing to be ashamed off. I wish them all the best post-Idol.

That said, though… the season was still an absolutely terrible one overall. Yes, the past two weeks have been tolerable, and Idol crowned a fantastic winner. But the whole process that got you, me, and every Idol winner to this stage was a complete and utter fiasco. It was, and still is, inexcusable. Don’t let the euphoria of a solid finale fool you. This season was still a trainwreck of truly epic proportions.

I autopsied this season a few weeks ago and looking at the big picture, it was entirely correct. The judges continued to embarrass themselves – climaxing in the most disgraceful two hours of Idol ever. The song choices and themes seemed to be designed to discover a cure for insomnia, not entertain audiences. Outside of the top three, the talent was almost non-existent. I’ve said many times that the mid-card is what makes or breaks an Idol season, not the top of the field. This year’s mid-card was flawed, to say the least. And you had five cannon fodder contestants. Five. No season could survive that kind of imbalance.

Rumor has it that Idol is going to have an entirely new panel next year. Randy Jackson already left (and will largely be unmourned), and all of the last offseason’s prize signings are probably going to get fired. Gone, too, will be long-time producer Nigel Lythgoe. Perhaps his feelings about this season are obvious by his relative absence from Twitter until his real TV love, So You Think You Can Dance, premiered. The last person standing from Season One will be Ryan Seacrest. In a way, it’s fitting: Idol made Seacrest into a national star, and his steady hosting skills have managed – mostly – to keep the hours of live TV on track. If it’s possible, one could call Ryan Seacrest still underrated. As a live show host, I think he’s that good.

The inevitable changing of the guard at Idol has to be about more than just faces and contracts. My friends at What Not to Sing already put forth some good ideas. Everything has to be considered up for grabs. Unlimited voting, the audition process, everything. Yes, Idol has had twelve pretty good years of television. Yes, it still brings in more than $800 million dollars a year. But it won’t be doing that for much longer unless you realize that the current formula is either dead or dying, depending on what you think. It has to be a new era for Idol.

I could go on for much, much longer, but I won’t. Because I have an announcement to make. One I really, really didn’t ever want to make.

I’ve been an Idol pundit for quite some time now. I first started commenting on a weekly basis in Season Six. It was… an interesting time to enter the field. It was the year we were introduced to Sanjaya Malakar, for starters. At the end of Season Seven, I moved to my own site here, where, for five years, I’ve tried to provide amusing and useful commentary on the mad, mad world that is American Idol. I do it for the sheer fun of it: as MJ loudly proclaims in her header, “I love this cheesy show.” Not only that, I thought it would be fun to write about it. And, for a long time, it was.

Not only that, there were some really interesting stories and music that I came to love. It shouldn’t be too hard to guess at least some of my favorites throughout the years.  For all its flaws – and it was legion – Idol was still a worthwhile way to spend a couple of hours a week. It was still fun.

This season, however, hasn’t been fun. Each of the many problems of the season, and the seasons before it, has been like the proverbial straw on the camel’s back. And after this year… it’s too much. If Idol is going to start a new era, it’ll be without my site.

For now, at least, this will be the last Idol Guy blog post. I’m not completely leaving Idol punditry – I’ll still be snarking on Twitter, but I’m retiring from writing recaps and analyses. I don’t even know if I’ll even watch next year, to be honest.

I dearly hope that you, my readers, have found some value and comedy out of my efforts. At some level, as a writer, that’s all I can ask for – that I haven’t wasted your valuable time.

In the finest tradition of Idol, I’m going to have a song to sing me out. I’ve chosen one of my all-time Idol favorites. Ladies and gentlemen, from Season 11, Vienna, by Elise Testone.

Top 2 Performance Night: Dead Heat

May 16th, 2013

In a season that’s been full of… odd decisions, to be rather charitable, we got another one for the finale. Up to now, as far as I can remember, we’ve had two-hour performance shows. So they decide that for the finale, we get a one-hour show. So we end up with six performances that were less songs and more song snippets. The judges also weighed in less, although that may well have been a blessing. Somehow, in this rushed show, they found room for a Coke ad.

Okay, round by round. Kree did an acceptable vocal of Angel, but wow – what a flat, lifeless, tepid arrangement. Especially on a finale night, that is simply not right. It wasn’t quite a mail-it-in performance from Kree, but it was close. It was not particularly impressive.

I liked what Candice did with Adele – a nice, jazzified version. It was nice, but really, that was it. It wasn’t bad, per se, but it was just there. It was okay, but completely forgettable. Even as I’m writing the recap, I’m having a hard time remembering it.

I’d have to give the round to Candice, but it was very much a typical finale round. Perhaps the idea of unemployment gave Randy Jackson the cojones to point out that yes, Simon Fuller did pick two sleepers.

Okay, the winner’s single. We get it – Kree’s had plenty of tragedy in her life. Could you please stop pounding into our head with a sledgehammer? The performance itself… I have some issues. The first half of the song was really shouty, and to be honest it was all a bit that way. It also seemed to take Kree a while to get into the spirit of the song and start selling it. The shoutiness aside, it was actually a pretty good vocal, and lined up against the travesties that have been No Boundaries and I Love You This Big, but it’s a stretch to call it a gem. Still, she did okay.

As a song, I prefer Kree’s single to Candice’s. I just don’t like these sort of self-empowerment themes that have a hint of  me, me, me about them. However, that’s a sin of that kind of song, not Candice, so I’ll try not to let it affect me too much. Vocally, Candice turned in a typical performance – powerful and always impressive. But again, there was a bit of “that’s it” for me. It’s not totally her fault – the short performance times affect how I view Candice more than I do Kree. By the time I warm up to her on a non-lights out song, Ryan’s on the way to center stage. That said, again, she did an okay job. I’d call it a tie – Kree had a song that fit her better, but the shoutiness was a problem; Candice had a worse song but another clean vocal.

And the reprises… both fantastic. Unusually, we got reprises that were as good as the original. We saw why both of these two ended up in the finale. Kree, given the right material, brings such emotion and soulfulness of of her songs that you’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel what she’s singing. Candice has the creativity and the vocals to take on anything. When she’s on – she can sing anything and make it sound brilliant. They are both absolutely fantastic.

Who won the night? Candice, no doubt… but it’s not like Kree was blown away. Honestly, it’s close enough that for a lot of people this will be determined by what genre they like, not necessarily by the quality of the singing. Let’s not forget, too, that most people – and Idol voters – have made up their mind by the finale. That’s particularly true in a close finale like we had this week. In short: it’s really a straight-up popularity contest at this stage.

Who should win… I am as unsure of this call as anything in my years of Idol analysis. Usually I have a pretty good idea going into the finale who wins (Season Nine notwithstanding). This year? I can talk myself into either contestant winning.

My instincts say Candice. She’s dominated this season in a way that a winner ought to. She has turned in the best performances. She has showed the most creativity in her arrangements. She’s been, simply put, a champion. If this were just a singing competition, she’d win. It wouldn’t be a blowout victory, but she’d win.

But this is a popularity contest, not a pure singing contest. And if there is one thing Idol watchers should know by now, it’s this: you ignore the country vote at your own peril. The country vote on Idol is huge, and if my suspicions about the geographical split of Idol’s viewing (and voting) audience are right, it’s even more powerful. You have to seriously consider it as a huge positive in Kree’s favor.

I’ve been flip-flopping on this call ever since the show aired. If this was a horse race, it would be too close to call. As it is, my pick is…

Kree Harrison to become the next American Idol.

Top 3 Results: Expect The Unexpected

May 10th, 2013

To say that it’s been a busy day in the world of Idol is a giant understatement. America voted and… turned in a somewhat surprising verdict. The Powers That Be voted and… sacked Randy Jackson. And may well be sacking everyone.

Let’s deal with the on camera drama first: Angie Miller’s boot. To say it was unexpected is an understatement. Angie was, on paper, the frontrunner. However, she’s not the first Idolsphere frontrunner to fall at this stage of the game. A certain Melinda Doolittle comes to mind. So, what happened here?

I suspect that her exit was entirely due to… numbers. Let me explain. We know, based on Idolmetrics, that Northeasterners are at a disadvantage on Idol. Right from the start, Angie was in a bit of a hole from there. Next, consider one number that we haven’t heard in a few weeks: the number of votes. The last time we heard a vote total was (I think) when Lazaro went home, at 34 million. The top 10 show had about 26 million.

The numbers may sound impressive, but let’s consider what we normally get around this time of year. Season 10 had 95 million votes in the top 3. Last year we had over 90 million. This year… I know it’s a genuine tinfoil hat moment, but isn’t it just a bit suspicious that we didn’t get a total last night? It suggests a number that’s significantly down. I’d guess a number in the 40-50 million range.

What I’m suspecting is that Idol‘s falling ratings – and fanbase – hit Angie disproportionately hard. Idol’s most loyal viewers – and voters – may well be in the parts of the country that Kree and Candice called home. We may all have thought that it was Kree who suffered from not having a really knockout performance, but maybe it was Angie. She needed more casual fans to throw voters her way; Kree’s hometown package and Candice’s Somewhere gave each of them the boost they needed.

In hindsight, maybe we gave too much credit to Angie’s titanic social media lead and not realized that the frontrunner had clay feet. We saw Idol’s falling ratings and didn’t really understand what it meant for the competition itself. I’ll be honest: I goofed on this one. It was a bad call. The dots were there to be connected, but they weren’t.

Still, any resulting top two was bound to be interesting. Whichever pair ended up in the finale, I thought it would be the closest finale in years. I generally have a pretty good idea going into the finale week who’ll win, but this year? I have no idea. I can lay out a plausible case for Candice winning (sublime talent, hasn’t really put a foot wrong). I can do the same for Kree (fear the country vote, good enough singer to keep the night close). You can’t even fall on regional differences, since they’re both from the South. It really is too close to call. Maybe for once, it will be decided on finale night.

Now, the off-camera drama. Oy. Randy Jackson leaving was… not expected. He had survived the cull at the start of this season – somehow – and had become an Idol fixture.

I have no love lost for Randy, but was he the biggest problem with Idol this year? No. At worst, he was complicit in some of them (casting such a weak top 10), a direct part of others (the dysfunctional judging panel), and a mere tool at other times. He wasn’t particularly helpful or valuable, but his departure will mean little in and of itself. It’s almost like he’s become a continuity gag of sorts, where an Idol show is not complete until Randy shouts “in it to win it!” I won’t particularly miss him, but there are others that should have been sacked ahead of him. 

Top 3 Performance Night: No Decision

May 9th, 2013

It’s hard to know who’s more tired at this point of the season: the contestants, the people watching at home, or the entire franchise. For the contestants, that was pretty clear from how they performed: while there were some good performances, there was an undercurrent of fatigue. It was like they could only do so much with a particular song and couldn’t go no more.

Okay, per round scores. For Jimmy’s choice, there was a clear winner: Angie. There was a decent amount of nonsense from the judges, but I sort of get where they were coming from, but I don’t blame her vocals. Here’s a thought: what if she’d done it a capella? I thought might have worked really, really, well. Overall, it was pretty good, but it wouldn’t have taken an awful lot to make it truly special.

 Next best would be Candice. She got an interesting pick, and… she didn’t fully deliver. Frankly, her performance seemed off in a way I didn’t understand until later, when I found out she’d never heard the song before. Candice tried very, very, hard. It’s to her credit that this turned out semi-decent. But honestly, it wasn’t all that good.

Last… Kree. When she mails in a song, it is really, really, obvious. It was verged between the mailed-in or the awkward – the “walking up to the audience and weakly touching hands” part was particularly cringeworthy. Either way, not only was she the worst for this round, it was her worst song of the night.

Overall, I was not really that impressed with the song choices. Jimmy Iovine likes his song choices to be tough. Fine. But can at least he pick songs that fit the contestants well? It was like giving a nice, retired church lady in Florida a rapper’s blinged out Escalade as her new car. They were not Happy Feet terrible, but Kree got a poor fit and Candice got one that might have worked on a single-song night, with more time to tweak it, but not on the rushed night that is top three week.

Next round, the judge’s picks. Winner of that round: Kree. Easily. This was the difference between a Kree who knows and feels what she’s singing versus somebody who’s mailing it in. I’m not sure that was her best or cleanest vocal. Maybe it was partially due to a rather blatant and obvious attempt to sit emotions, but you know what – we got a connected Kree who genuinely felt what she was singing. I don’t know if it was her best, but it was pretty good. Well done.

Second was Angie. She can do a good job of impersonating a rocker. We know that. This… was not her best effort there either. It did fit her well, and she was comfortable out there commanding the stage. But… it seemed like she was a little bit tired, and the arrangement overall was a bit too much. It was almost like Angie was “featuring” on somebody else’s track instead of singing her own song. Oh, and she does look like Miley Cyrus, but then again Miley isn’t looking like the Miley most people know lately!

Last, sadly, was Candice. It was a very respectable, entertaining effort. She can legitimately take on anything and do a good job. I don’t know if I was blown away by it, but it wasn’t a bad effort. Unfortunately, it was also rahter forgettable and far from her best work.

I thought this round has the best song choices, with material that at least tried to work with the contestants and not against them. But, and this is a huge but… doesn’t everyone think that all three songs could have been great under better circumstances? Angie and Kree both needed some vocal rest, and it showed. Candice would have figured out how to put her own stamp on this somehow. They did their best under the circumstances, but I honestly can’t help but wonder what might have been.

And the producer’s picks… oy. There was a theme to these picks: it was Confirm The Stereotype. The producers basically picked the laziest, not-always-based-in-fact stereotype each contestant had, and gave them a song that exacerbated that. Except for Candice, they didn’t really work.

Best of the round, by an enormous margin: Candice. It was a vocal masterpiece. The song suited her perfectly. She sang it lights out, and it was right in her zone. The result was simple, unmitigated, brilliance. Maybe it’s not particularly current or relevant. I don’t really care. This was the sort of performance that made you realize the kind of passion, the kind of talent, the kind of commitment that Candice has. Well done.

If only the rest of the round was nearly as good. Angie had a very poor start, and it never really 100% connected either. Completely forgettable. The vocal was, to be honest, a little shouty in bits too. Easily the worst of her night.

And Kree was just as bad, if not worse. They (or, rather, Nigel) chose poorly. Idol traditionally likes its female country singers to be more uptempo (think Skylar Laine) or crossing over to pop/diva status (think Carrie Underwood). Fine. But that’s not Kree. Frankly, the kind of country/blues mix that Kree is is very unusual at this level of Idol competition. Somebody probably thought “hey, it’s a country song! And it’s a current one! It’ll work!” No, it didn’t, because somebody did not understand what kind of singer Kree was. A conspiracy theorist would say this was malicious, but I will call upon Hanlon’s razor and cite stupidity as the more likely reason. The kindest thing I can say is: at least she tried.

Overall, it was one of the better nights of the season. Everybody had at least one song which was great, the clunkers were more because of poor fit than any truly bad singing. It just felt like the contestants were all running on fumes. It’s always like that as the Idol season ends, but it’s much more obvious this year than others. Maybe it’s because of this persistent rumor that the winner’s album will be out six weeks after the finale, so the contestants are having to devote an enormous chunk of time to that. What I can see is that everybody’s vocals seem so much more tired – and obviously so – than any other season I can remember.

Whose cause was helped by this night? Nobody. In boxing terms, I thought this was a no decision. Candice had a good night, Kree had a slightly off night, but not to the degree that I think makes a huge difference.

You can make a good case for any top two scenario, really. Angie’s fanbase is powerful (she’s never been in a bottom group). Candice is the best singer remaining. Kree can go up head-to-head against both of them and it’ll be a fair fight. There’s not a lot to separate them.

That said, if there was somebody who was sort of lagging coming into this week, it was Kree. She needed a true knockout blow – the type of song that can be argued to belong in the pantheon of all-time Idol greats. Marvelous as Here Comes Goodbye was, that wasn’t it. The fact that her two other songs were not that great won’t help her cause either. Just one turkey can send you home even if you otherwise above-average the rest of the night. (See: You Oughta Know.) And Kree had two.

Kree’s more basic problem is that she’s been consistent. She’s had that smooth, collected, poised vocal since the start of the season. That’s great. But she never really improved much – if at all – beyond that. We never got taken to the next level. Kree is very, very, very good. But up against the voting juggernaut that is Angie and the vocal powerhouse that is Candice…. even that isn’t good enough.

The pick: Kree Harrison to go home.