Technically, there are still two weeks left in the season. However, whatever the outcome two Wednesdays from now turns out to be, some conclusions are pretty clear. This season is ready to stand beside the likes of Seasons Three and Six in the roster of infamous Idol seasons.
The list of crimes this season committed are long, and I can’t hope to list all of them. So, for now, let’s just focus on one thing: the music. Or, rather, the lack of it.
Up to this point, Season Eight has featured 120 performances on voting nights. We can expect six songs each week, bringing the total to 132. Sounds like a lot, right? Well, let’s put that in context. Last year had 156 songs – just like Seasons Four and Five, and only four more than Season Six. That’s a 15.4% decrease in the number of songs – and less, in fact, than any other season except Season One. (Marginally, to be fair – Seasons Two and Three had 136 each.)
It gets worse if you look at the numbers for the contestants who get to the end. The two Davids each left the season with a total of 20 performances. So did the finalists of two other seasons – Seasons Four and Five. Thanks to losing one week of double-song nights due to Idol Gives Back, Jordin Sparks and Blake Lewis only put under 19 performances. Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino, and Diana DeGarmo had one less performance – 18 for each. (Due to passing through the wildcard, Clay Aiken had 19.)
And this year? The finalists will leave with, in all likelihood, at most 16 performances. That’s less than any other season except… Season One. That’s a 20% decrease for, supposedly, the very best of the season to get a chance to show off their music.
Why is this relevant? Why, you may ask, have I fixated on this seemingly obscure statistic? It’s illustrative of perhaps the biggest problem this season has had.
Two things help American Idol do so well, both as a TV show and as a cultural phenomenon: music and public participation. It may have needed the added drama that reality TV loves to get it started, but it doesn’t. Not anymore. (Yes, I said drama was the other part. I was wrong then, in hindsight.)
Take away either leg, and like the Tower of Babel the Idol giant starts to fall. It’s that simple. However, this year, the Idol powers that be have done their best to undermine both. This is not a formula for success.
How has the music been undermined? After all, aren’t these supposedly The Most Talented Contestants Ever? (Never mind that they say that every year?)
First of all, as I detailed above, we’re seeing less performances than before. The reason is clear to anyone who’s watching the shows: the level of “filler” and talking has gone up, and the actual singing has gone down. Adding a fourth judge has turned out to be a remarkably dumb idea so far. Kara hasn’t been a disaster by herself, but has she really added anything new to the show? In our book, no. The downside, though, is clear: the three other judges never adjusted to her presence – the necessary adjustment being talking less. One might as well ask Randy and Paula to stop talking less at about the same time as you’d ask a politician to waste less money.
However, I can imagine the reaction to that already: it’s not quantity, it’s quality, you ignorant fool! And, to some degree, I agree with that. However, have the performances really been that good? Let’s see.
If one looks at the What Not to Sing numbers, you’d think this would be a good season. After all, the season average stands at 51.2 – highest of any season to date. However, as I said at the turn of the year when I looked at song age, averages isn’t everything.
What may well be more important than the average is how many performances are well-regarded by the Idolsphere. And in that, this season has done poorly. There have only been 14 performances that earned a five-star rating; four-star performances total only 32. In both categories, that’s a significant drop not just from last year, but from earlier seasons as well. The only area of improvement in in one-star ratings: there are less of those than any other season to date, and unless Danny Gokey decides to reprise The Scream from on, it’ll stay that way.
Just as problematic is the distribution of performances. There were some very good singers who went pretty far – Adam Lambert, Kris Allen, and Allison Iraheta have all been pretty strong singers. Beyond those three, however, the picture is much less rosy. Alexis Grace went home far earlier than she should have, and the rest ranges from the maddeningly inconsistent (Anoop Desai and Matt Giraud) to the downright terrible (Megan Joy, Scott Macintyre, Lil Rounds towards the end).
In short, what we had this year was a relatively small number of very good people holding up a mediocre top 12 overall. That’s not a recipe for a good season. Sitting through two or more miserable performances for each gem week after week gets old after some time, and that’s clearly where we’ve gotten to right now. It tends to be true to some degree every season, but it’s especially true this year.
It’s especially clear, then, that the music has suffered this year. What about the public participation? Well, that has gone downhill too.
Let’s begin with the top 12 that America voted into the finals… or, more correctly, the top 8. Four contestants were chosen by the judges themselves, in what can only be called a complete and utter sham.
It’s hard to underestimate the damage the “improved” semifinals did. Going back to the group format, by itself, was bad enough – but the matter how it was done was even worse. As I predicted, the groups were cleverly manipulated to get favored contestants through – or, conversely, the unpimped out. By far, it largely succeeded. The only two contestants who were largely unpimped but managed to squeak through to the finals were Kris Allen and Allison Iraheta.
However, if the group rounds by themselves were bad, the wildcard was even worse. Only one word can be used to describe it: a sham. Group 3, who had collectively refused to lay down for the Idol bus by singing well, sent only one representative – a representative who wasn’t anywhere near one of the better singers in the group. (Felicia Barton, anyone?) In addition, the “picks” to be sent ahead despite being turned down by America weren’t all that impressive either. Megan Joy and Jasmine Murray deserved to be sent through ahead of Ricky Braddy? Really?
If that wasn’t enough, the Judge’s Save also furthered this feeling of public disengagement. The votes of millions of Americans could be suddenly overruled by the fiat of a judging panel that included the likes of Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell. That was a far from comforting thought.
Manipulation by 19E has always been a part of Idol, but in the recent past there were limits. After picking the semi-finalists, direct meddling in contestant survival wasn’t there – it just wasn’t possible. This year, not only did they restore a tool for doing just that that had been consigned to Idol‘s past, they expanded the coverage of that tool from three contestants to four and reserved the right to ignore America when they found it convenient. This was a power grab of the worst possible magnitude, as applied to Idol.
If there was one deep, underlying flaw in this season, it was this. Idol‘s Powers That Be forgot what made the show successful. They forgot that good music and an engaged viewing audience is what makes for a good season. Instead, they thought they could “manufacture” what they thought would be a good season.
What else can explain the list of bizarre decisions that have been made this season – except that it has made the producers more powerful? The “save” (that no one was really calling for), the return to maligned group rounds, the ever-more-blatant manipulations – the only thing in common was the increased power it gave the producers.
Idol has been a smashing success for seven years – almost an eternity in the land of television. Sadly, however, success has a way of going to the heads of people. Idol‘s producers thought that they could do better than America; they thought that they were responsible.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The very best seasons – and winners – have not been creations from Idol producers. They were the direct result of brilliant singers being embraced by a public.
Yet that isn’t how this season has gone so far. The music has not been as good as it was in previous years; and while Adam and Danny both have their share of passionate fans, this year’s competition has just not captured viewers – and fans – the way previous seasons have.
Who can blame them, though? Too many of the contestants this season were not of their choosing. Instead of America being allowed to witness a contestant grow their craft, wow the audience with good songs, and be gradually embraced as a champion – the sort of stuff that happened to great winners like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, David Cook – the producers gave that status to their favorites, like Adam and Danny. Adam has earned the title of frontrunner, Danny hasn’t. His best performance was his group performance back in the semis. That’s shocking, to put it bluntly.
Remember, too, that the entire top 12 was made up of heavily pimped contestants… with the exception of Kris and Allison. The entire season to date has been so heavily manipulated, the votes of America barely matter. Pre-show promotion, not necessarily musical merit, has determined far too much of this season.
It’s not just the competition itself which has been battered by this newfound notion of the producers that they matter. The shows themselves are now as much about the judges as the talent – which it shouldn’t be. Yet that’s exactly what’s happened. Both this past week, and this coming Tuesday, we will be denied singing – the whole point of a singing competition – because the judges could not shut up. We, the Idol viewing audience, will be denied good music so that we can listen to the hormonally-driven ramblings of Paula and Kara, the dawg-iness of Randy, and Simon’s snark. That isn’t a fair trade in our book.
There is only one word in the English dictionary to describe this sort of nonsense. Hubris. The producers now think that they are indispensable to the success of Idol. Not the singers that leave their heart out on the stage. Not the voters who dedicate time, money, and effort to vote. They, and they alone, are what makes Idol successful – in their minds.
They are wrong. Horribly, terribly, wrong. This season is proving that. While the ratings have somewhat stabilized from the early season declines, rarely have I seen a fanbase angrier than the Idol fanbase is now. Can any show really piss off its fans and live? I doubt it.
There’s a saying that says pride goes before the fall. One has to wonder how close Idol – and its producers – are to that. It’s probably closer – far closer – than it should be. And, as a fan of the show, I will say: that is not, and cannot, be a good thing.