Our apologies for the delay, I’ve had some time issues. Here it is Part 3 a little later than I promised, but here it is.
Whatever people think of Season Eight, there’s no doubt that it will be an important season in the annals of Idol history. As my friends at What Not to Sing put it so bluntly several weeks ago, we’re at the beginning of a new Idol epoch.
It’s worth noting, though, that no new Idol era emerges completely new and unformed. We can tell what the characteristics of the new epoch will be by looking at what trends took place this past season – and the finale was particularly revealing in that aspect. There are two big trends that will influence the Third Epoch – and Adam and Kris each represent one.
Adam Lambert: The 40% Contestant
Love him or hate him, there’s no doubt that Adam Lambert did very well this year. No doubt, would-be Season Nine contestants will be paying attention and trying to figure out what made him so successful.
However, not all of his success had to do him or 19E. Just as recently as one or two years ago, Adam would not have gotten anywhere near the finale – whatever the quality of the opposition. He did so partially because the Idol voting fanbase was ready – and willing – to accept someone like him.
As Idol has changed over the years, so has its audience. At the start, the audience was most accepting of the traditional power singers. Later on, as the audience matured, so did the music – more willing to accept singers who went beyond just singing to being mature, well-rounded musicians.
However, there was still some… restraint involved. Second Epoch contestants did their best to show their musical identity, sure, but they always did so with an eye towards expanding their fanbase. They tried to appeal to their fanbases, but they did so with an eye towards winning others over. The all-important crossover potential was part and parcel of the game.
However… the Idol fanbase has changed. Whereas before, you had no choice but to try to broaden your appeal because no genre, by itself, was enough to win, now with a good mixture of talent it’s quite possible. If you sing well, period, you have a decent chance of attracting a fanbase.
Adam Lambert is the perfect example of a Third Epoch contestant. He largely “did his own thing” all season. By the time of Ring of Fire and Mad World, the majority of the voting Idol population had made up its mind. They were either voting like mad, or disinclined to waste their time doing so. Neither did he really change or improve much as the season went.
Why is this possible? I can only guess, but my speculation is that the increased producer manipulation (more on that later) has begun to drive off casual voters. These are the same voters that can be won over as the season goes on – and can promote an unknown at the start like Kris Allen to the top spot. Certainly, the rating numbers – flat or down – suggest something like this is happening.
How does this square with the increased vote totals, then? Our guess is that while the number of casual voters may be down, the number of power voters has gone up. Enough to offset the lost votes – and, perhaps, much more. Remember, the vote totals for the finale were high, but the ratings were not.
Overall, this is a trend that favors more genre-specific, somewhat niche-based singers like Adam. Power voters – particularly those of the online Idolsphere – revel in picking those kind of singers the broader American public may not cotton to as easily. In addition, a larger proportion of power voters – despite their (still) small numbers relative to the Idol voting population affords a greater margin of error than in other years.
It’s actually something of a logical conclusion from the Second Epoch, and is similarly mirrored by many artists. A popular album, chock-full of crossover-friendly music, is frequently followed by a less mainstream entry. Just to cite an example from Idol alumni, Kelly Clarkson followed Breakaway with My December. In any case, artistically, we could be in for some interesting few years – if we’re allowed to have it by 19E.
Kris Allen: The Rise of the Idolsphere
A subtext of the Second Idol Epoch has been the increasing amounts of producer manipulation. Sure, favorites got kindly judged in earlier seasons, and they did get increased amounts of airtime, but over the years it’s gotten worse and worse.
The seminal event in that taking place was Taylor Hicks’s victory in Season Five. He won despite being disliked by TPTB – and his perceived commercial failure didn’t help things either. (Of course, to be fair, any winner right after Carrie Underwood would have had a tough time.) They decided: no mas, no mas, we are in charge now.
However, what’s noteworthy is how poorly the manipulation has worked, historically. True, Jordin won in Season Six – but Blake Lewis got further than most people thought, and Sanjaya turned much of the season into a punchline. Neither could have been a desired outcome.
Memorably, last year America embraced David Cook to such a degree that the judges really had no choice but to acknowledge his abilities. Even then, they tried to throw him under the bus in the finale – turning a close fight into a 12-million vote blowout, but not in the direction 19E probably had in mind.
Eventually, the Idol audience was bound to react. Violently. The amount of manipulation was becoming too much – and react they did in 2009. The Idol audience really came into its own. The furor over Joanna Pacitti’s background led to her exclusion – a warning shot across the bow of the 19E ship, but they were too stupid to notice.
The resulting fiasco was already documented in Part 2 of my post-mortem. What’s more important, though, is what it means for the future.
Unlike the first trend – which we can predict with some certainty – the second is much less predictable. It depends on three groups – only two of which have tipped their hand, while the third remains to be a big wildcard.
One group is the contestants themselves. Their response to 19E manipulation has been relatively simple: get the word out before 19E shuts them up. In addition, fansites – supported by the families and friends of the contestants themselves – are assuming a greater role than ever before. They’re also showing up earlier – if anything, they’re already in place even before any singing “in anger” is in place. With, as I posited earlier, power voters becoming more prominent, this is as logical a respone to the blatant pimping we’ve all seen recently. (Aside, of course, from singing well.)
The second group is the broader Idolsphere. Their response, too, is obvious. As I said last week, they’re in open revolt. Aside from the consequences for the show’s survival itself – more on that later – the consequences for the competition itself will be clear. The Idolsphere is looking at everything the producers do right now with a skeptical eye – and if there is anything they don’t like, they make it known. Violently.
The wildcard is… the producers. There are two ways to react: one would be to continue the status quo – which would have terrible consequences. The cold war could become the TV equivalent of a “hot” war – something that could kill Idol as a franchise, permanently. (This was something that I talked about last week, in Part 2 of our Post-Mortem.)
Let me reiterate that: if the producers decide wrongly, Idol will be dead. Kaput. Audience participation is indispensable to the success of Idol – and if the producers decide to keep devaluing it, they will leave.
Lest that people think this is a straight reaction to producer manipulation, it isn’t. Indeed, with three parties involved it’s not easy to say what the specifics are – particularly when what the producers do is so uncertain. I said, for example, that the manipulation would increase but no one had any idea it would be as bad as this year.
However, here’s a possible scenario which is likely. Let’s say that producer manipulation increases – or, even, that it’s believed to be likely. If you’re a contestant who wants to win, what’s your response? You start going online, building a fanbase earlier, getting the power voters on your side. However, this might have the perverse side effect of alienating casual voters – or, more importantly, viewers.
As I said above, the tastes of power voters don’t always jive neatly with the Idol voting bloc at large. Right now, casual voters are still sufficiently numerous that power voters can’t overwhelm them at the finale. – but casual viewers might start to tune out. Something like that may well have happened already this year. The combination of niche singers, power-voter dominated results, and manipulation might well stick a fork in Idol.
There really is only one alternative that can work – and Kris Allen might well have been the slap in the face Idol producers needed. Months of pimping, couldn’t push Adam Lambert to victory – and it’s not as if he was a slouch vocally either. It was as clear a wake-up call about the failure of voter manipulation – and only complete and utter idiots will miss it.
That alternative is simple: run a fair competition. Cut down on the pimp pieces, stop the judges’s tendency for verbal diarrhea, keep the production values the same. No more groups of Cannon Fodder, no more wildcard rounds full of the Pimped and Rejected. (If you have to keep the groups, our suggestion: draw them randomly, lottery-style; post the video on Youtube.)
This is going to be what determines the second feature of the Third Epoch. If the producers ease up on the manipulation, then with exceptionally talented and diverse contestants with an active fanbase (plenty of power voters, but balanced with casual viewers) could combine to produce seasons that will be well remembered – and remembered well. That hasn’t happened in a while.
On the other hand – if the manipulation stays the same or gets worse – then the Third Epoch will be dominated by the kind of internal warfare that we all saw this past year. The primary factor will no longer be if you can sing well – the question becomes are you favored by TPTB – or, if you’re not, can you make being ignored work for you, like Kris did.
The Third Idol Epoch is going to be interesting… and it’s either going to work spectacularly well, or end up being the last. Choose wisely, 19E.