As Phillip Phillips celebrates his victory of Season Eleven, one can say he reflects his American Idol epoch perfectly. Let’s rewind a bit. What is an Idol epoch?
American Idol history runs in threes – specifically, three years. Each three year period has its own distinctive traits and model contestants that exemplify an era. Usually, there’s some of event in the Idol offseason that triggers the change from one era to another.
Sidenote: I’d first discussed the idea of Idol epochs back in Season Seven, holding up David Cook as the poster child of Idol‘s evolution. However, with hindsight, both WNTS and I both felt that what we’d described as the Second Epoch was too broad; Seasons 4-6 was split into its own epoch, putting DC into the Third Epoch. A full breakdown of all the epochs can be found at WNTS.
For the fourth era, it should be obvious what the event that triggered the Fourth Epoch was: Simon Cowell leaving. I’m not going to pretend that Idol would have been better if he had stayed around. It wouldn’t. By the time he left it was clear he had an alternate vision for what a show like Idol was supposed to be – and it was not one critics particularly welcomed.
His departure did leave a hole that had to be filled – and give Fox and 19E credit for it. The “easy” way out would have been to find another judge to replace Simon in the mean role. It might even have been another mean Brit- there’s a reason there’s a trope by that name. But it would have been a stupid decision to do so; Simon’s shoes are an impossible pair to fill, at least immediately.
What happened instead was Idol evolving and going in the completely opposite direction. The judges they brought in deliberately went easy on the contestants, and Randy Jackson basically turned into a parody of himself. (When you’re being mocked for your catchphrase on the Idol finale, that can be considered a sign it’s gotten stale.)
One other thing that changed in the fourth era was the improvement, in the quality of the singers who got through to the semis. Both this year and last year have had fairly good levels of talent that were at least better at avoiding trainwrecks; note how the season-by-season count of one or two-star WNTS performances puts Season 11 in such a good light.
In seeking to avoid Simon’s legacy, they went too far. When he wasn’t being a complete tool and/or jerk, he was the primary source of useful feedback from the contestants. Randy was inconsistent, Paula was loopy, and neither Kara nor Ellen both spent too much time fighting with the other judges. Consequently, when Simon praised someone, it meant something. So would-be Idols actually tried to get better, improve themselves, try new angles, etcetera.
This time, we’re seeing none of that. The judges are telling them right from the get go that they’re good, they’re brilliant, etcetera. In such a situation, wouldn’t you basically stick to what you were doing? So it is with the Idols – there’s no reason for them to experiment. So they end up largely doing the same sort of material week after week.
Consider the kinds of winners we got this year and last year. The real connection isn’t that they both were WGWGs; instead it’s that both Scotty and Phillip stayed largely the same all season long. Neither were they alone; this year Joshua was also a very strong example of this who got very far; another compelling case would be Colton.
That’s really what the Fourth Epoch is about. You can call it the Do What You Want Epoch. Musically, the chief requirement to succeed in this era seems to be just knowing what kind of singer you are and a willingness to stick to your niche for as long as possible. It’s a very different list of a requirements from the Third Epoch, which stressed flexibility, risk-taking, and boldness. For Idol frontrunners, the season may well be less of a weekly competition and more a months-long nationally televised promo tour under unusual circumstances, like oddball themes and cranky coaches/mentors. In such a situation, actual singing ability may matter less and less, as presumably all of the available contestants will meet some reasonable level of competence. The “intangibles” – out and out likability, the ability to appeal to he Idol power voting fanbase – this is where hey might be significant. That’s really why Jessica lost: yes, she was brilliant technically, but somebody like Phil has superior intangibles (and thus, more people would be lured to vote for him.)
The one thing that’s constant from both epochs, however, is that pre-show musical experience counts. All three Third Epoch winners had extensive pre-Idol careers; of this season’s finale Phillip had the superior professional experience. Jessica may have been singing since she was a little kid, but she had general done so in the context of a competition or a Youtube video. There’s still a world of difference from that to doing small gigs regionally. It’s not the kind of experience that helps you on Idol, apparently.
So now we have a decent idea of what the Fourth Epoch – and thus, probably next year – will entail. What will end the era? We don’t know. That’s too far from now to find out. Will it involve competition from either The Voice or X-Factor? Possible, but I wouldn’t rule out those shows to have the existential crisis of the sort that Idol had after Season Nine. The Voice is hampered by how many large egos. X-Factor has problems of its own, and is mismanaging its winner as well.
In any case, I hope to see you all next year (something that even the Idol mother ship can’t claim nowadays). I’ll be haunting Twitter, as well, follow me at @theidolguy. Until then, Idol Guy, out.