Idol seasons are always a marathon, not a sprint. Even by those standards, though, Season Nine has been a test. Was it all worth it? Well… for a significant portion of the Idolsphere, the answer will not have been yes.
On Wednesday night, Idol sailed into uncharted waters. Never hast there been this much uncertainty going from one season to next. There are enough… problems that Let’s first discuss the winner. Every year, there are a lot of complaints about who won, how they were undeserving, etcetera. This year, however… well, I’ll let the Idol writer from the Big Media I most deeply respect, Ken Barnes, do the talking:
Kelly, Ruben Studdard, Fantasia, Carrie Underwood and Jordin Sparks were better singers; David Cook and Kris Allen were more clever, and Taylor had more charm. So Lee would automatically become the least-qualified — and potentially most credibility-damaging — winner.
One word: ouch. The thing is.. he’s right on every point. As a singer, Crystal – and every other winner – blows him out of the water. For cleverness and creativity – there wasn’t a real heir to the David Cook/Kris Allen throne of successful rearrangement. We were never on the receiving end of a Heartless-like surprise that left us all stunned, bewildered, and then amazed. As for charm, well, to be honest, the judges combined showed more personality than the contestants did all season long.
Without closely examining the Idol voting records, it’s hard to say how, exactly, Lee was able to win. Here’s our guess, though: in the world of Idol, with a long-standing obsession with large numbers, not saying numbers means those numbers stink. What was missing from the results show? Vote totals. We know that power voters tend to be most influential when vote totals are (relatively) low; and this season was probably the lowest total in years. There’s also a good chance that more “casual” voters are the same ones who’ve tuned out literally and are responsible for the lower ratings of Season Nine. (Here’s another sign: early ratings finale ratings say it was the least-watched finale since season one. Now, if someone has voted on Tuesday night, wouldn’t they be likely to tune in on Wednesday?)
In a normal year, Lee’s victory, by itself, would provide plenty of fodder for analysts like me. However, the tone among established analysts is more… ominous. The universal conclusion is simple: it was a lackluster season at best, and Idol needs to shape up – and there is a lot of skepticism that they actually can.
Me and a lot of people have been saying the solution is simple: Shut Up And Sing, as my friends at What Not to Sing said. That’s one thing that was lacking in the entire season – singing. Honestly, by my watch the performances on Tuesday night were about two minutes each. Over six performances, that’s twelve minutes. Twelve minutes of singing in the 40-odd minutes that an hour-long show has, sans commercials? I feel like doing my best Judge Judy impersonation and shouting, loudly, “Ridiculous!”
Ultimately, the basic problem with Idol of late is that what should be the focus – good music – has received short shrift. Would anyone really believe that Tim Urban was the 13th best male singer in the audition crop? Of course he wasn’t; he was put in because he was good for TV. If Idol is to succeed in the post-Simon era, that kind of thinking has to stop. The top 24 has to be the absolute best talent that Idol can muster. Just in case we lose good talent – as we did in the last semifinal cut this year – the rest of the field has to be able to take up the slack.
Of course, there is one rub with a shut-up-and-sing approach. Image has always been a key part of building a pop star, but of late it seems to be the only thing. Let’s take a look at some of the “fresh” stars that guested on Idol this year – Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Kesha, and whoever was Perez Hilton’s friend. All of them were uniquely awful. All of them are known for something other than their ability to sing well. Even outside of Idol-land, some singers sound reasonably well recorded, but not so good live (hello, Taylor Swift.)
That means that there is a lot of potential conflict between what could be considered successful commercially (i.e., what could create a good pop star), and good music to watch over the span of a few months. Lee was consistently praised as having a “commercial” voice. What exactly does that mean? As it turns out, that means “can be cleaned up in the studio”. Lee’s iTunes tracks are generally noted to be better than his live performances. What happens if a “commercial” artist, who might be able to sell millions – think Carrie Underwood/Kelly Clarkson levels – turns out to be mediocre live? So which is more important, 19E – producing a good TV show, or producing a marketable contestant?
Whatever changes have to be done at Idol, it’ll be done without a lot of people. Simon, of course, is leaving for X-Factor. Some of the more important musical people are leaving – both Rickey Minor and vocal coach Dorian Holley are headed for The Tonight Show.
The competence of rest of the crew left, frankly, is in doubt. The song featuring the Idol rejects was a disaster – as anyone with a functioning brain cell would have known. You do not, under any circumstances, hand a microphone for a live TV event to the types of people that are featured in bad Idol auditions. You might as well give the keys to a monster truck to a drunk. Even the rest of the send-off videos for Simon were full of the juvenile comedy we’ve come to expect from a finale. I’m not Simon Cowell’s biggest fan, but even I say he deserved better.
There may well be a silver lining to the departure of Simon, however. We can all agree that things need to change. With a relatively new crew in charge, one can hope that they open themselves to new ideas. Let’s face it: the Idol formula, which was sound for many, many, years, has been… problematic for the past few years. For a while, the fact that we got good talent out of what was a flawed process hid the problems. In Season Nine, however, the flawed process – combined with the worst crop of finalists in many years – served as the straw that broke the back of a million-dollar franchise.
Make no mistake. I like the Idol franchise. I want it to succeed. However, that means that I know exactly how difficult the fixes will be. Everything that has infuriated the Idolsphere – especially analysts like me – over the past few years – the manipulation, the lack of talent, the “but this is good for TV!” decisions – came home to roost. What happens from now on? I don’t know, but it’s clear that it will be a new era for Idol. I can only hope it is for the better.
Oh, and one suggestion from me about the new era. Replacing Simon Cowell? Don’t. If the focus is really going to be on the music going forward, why exactly do we need four talking heads when three used to suit us just fine? Our “radical” suggestion would be to let the remaining three judges develop some sort of rapport, have Randy and Kara actually use their so-called expertise, and not let them ramble on. Maybe a shock collar if Randy says “dawg” would be in order. Frankly, Simon’s shoes are impossible to fill. It would be a good message if Idol really is in a new era to leave that seat at the table unfilled.