How Old Is This Song? 2.0

If you were with us during Season Seven, you may recall that we took a hard look at Idol song ages. At the time, I called the numbers “preliminary”. Since then, I’ve wanted to take a closer, more detailed look at the numbers. Unfortunately, that little thing called real life decided to interfere and delayed it, but eventually I found the time.

For people who didn’t read the early version, here’s the short summary. Song age turns out to be a pretty influential factor in the success of Idol contesants – both on and off the show. The younger an Idol contestant’s song, the more likely he/she is to succeed – either on the show, after, or both. This shows itself in a few ways, but we’ll get to the exact details later.

The Rules

Of course, before we get to analyzing song ages, we need to discuss the ground rules. Analyzing each and every contestant in the seven seasons of American Idol would result in a classic case of information overload. Besides, for semi-finalists there isn’t really enough data to draw any sort of useful conclusions. So, we’ll limit ourselves to everyone who’s made it to the finals stage – top 10 for Season One, top 12 for the other seasons. That’s 82 contestants in all.

The other thorny question is, just how do you measure song age? Cover songs cause the most problems in this area; do you measure from the original or the cover version? We’ve decided to stick with what’s called the primary song age – i.e., when the song was first made famous in the US. Occasionally, this results in some oddities. For example, David Hernandez sang It’s All Coming Back to Me Now when the theme was the 80s. However, because the song was made famous by Celine Dion in 1996, we date it to that year – not 1989, when it was first released in Britain.

But the song age is just the raw data – to get any meaning, you need to use some statistics. Everyone knows what the average is, but sometimes it’s not too useful. One song with a disproportionately high or low age can distort the data. So, we use something else called the median. The short version is: for our purposes, the median will be an age where half of the songs being considered are younger, while the other half is older. Check the link to Wikipedia for the details.

Let’s give credit where the credit is due as well. Our first effort – and this one – would not have been possible without the data provided by Nick over at What Not to Sing. They have our undying thanks, and any serious Idol viewer should check them out.

And now, let’s take a look at each season of Idol, and see what the numbers tell us.

Season One: The First Shocker

Let’s our look back at Season One with the basic numbers. The first table has the average and median of the song ages from the start to finish of each contestant’s Idol stay. The second table has the average and median of the finalists, top 5, and top four collectively.

Contestant Average Median
Kelly Clarkson 22.15 30
Justin Guarini 24.08 28
Nikki McKibbin 22 19.5
Tamyra Grey 34 30
RJ Helton 32 32
Christina Christian 37.2 36
Ryan Starr 37.5 34.5
AJ Gil 23.67 33
Ejay Day 20.5 20.5
Jim Verraros 35 35
Average Median
All finalists 27.39 30
Top 5 25.82 29
Top 4 24.84 25.5

As far as song ages go, the first Idol season already showed some of the trends that would show up in later seasons. For example, Nikki McKibbin’s ability to survive multiple bottom groups was helped by the fact that more often than not, she was picking the younger songs than the rest of the field. Particularly near the end of the season, Kelly Clarkson was doing much of the same thing.

However, the producers had a hand in that drop too. TPTB gave the top four the music of the 80s and 90s. McKibbin picked two songs with ages in the single digits, pushing that week’s song ages to an average of 13.25 years and a median of 14.5. Four “original” songs in the finale also drove down the numbers (average of 7.67, median of 0). Beyond that, though, the season was downright geriatric: save for Top 4 week (songs of the 80s and 90s), every other finals episode hit the 30s (both average and median).

The big revelation of the season, however, is Tamyra Gray’s exit. She holds the dubious distinction of being the first big “shock” boot in the franchise’s history. However, looking at the numbers, maybe it shouldn’t have been. Here’s the numbers for the top four up to Tamyra’s exit:

Contestant Average Median
Kelly Clarkson 26.875 34.5
Justin Guarini 30.5 33
Nikki McKibbin 23.375 21
Tamyra Grey 34 30

Hmmm… a “favorite” contestant picking older songs, booted “before their time” – but that favorite just happening to be consistently picking older songs than everyone else? It’s something we’ll see over and over again. Tamyra was the first, but she won’t be the last.

If this proves one thing, it’s that most “shocks”… aren’t. Conventional wisdom is frequently wrong, and it’s as true in the Idolsphere as it is Out There.

Nikki McKibbin’s surprising survival is something of a corollary. It’s worth remembering that the early Idol seasons weren’t exactly known for depth of talent – particularly in Season One. Thus, any small factor in the votes could help. McKibbin’s apparent preference for younger songs was just that. Whatever its size, it was enough to keep her in for longer than vocals alone probably merited.

Season Two: Age Doesn’t Matter – This Time

Contestant Average Median
Ruben Studdard 27.39 29
Clay Aiken 25.84 29
Kimberley Locke 28.8 27
Josh Gracin 20.5 25.5
Trenyce 18.91 17
Carmen Rasmusen 18.63 18.5
Kim Caldwell 20.5 18
Rickey Smith 23 22
Corey Clarke 26 24.5
Julia deMato 24.25 27
Charles Grigsby 26.67 25
Vanessa Olivarez 30 30
Average Median
All finalists 24.2 25
Top 5 24.93 28
Top 4 25.97 28

All told, the Season 2 finalists did have a knack for picking younger songs, as the numbers indicate. It didn’t hurt that three themes with newer songs occurred relatively early in the finals: movie hits (top 11), country rock (top 11), and Billboard #1 hits (top 8). All had averages and medians below 20.

Incredibly, those weren’t even the youngest episodes of the season: Diane Warren night came in with an average of 6.5 and a median of 4 – making it one of the youngest episodes ever in Idol history. From then on, though, it was all downhill as far as song ages go.

To be honest, though, song age didn’t matter much this season at all. There wasn’t really anyone who stood out for singing old or new. True, you did have a trio of singers who all ended their Idol stays with medians below 20, but in context it doesn’t mean much. Everyone was singing, by Idol standards at least, pretty young.

Carmen Rasmusen’s extended survival might be a marginal case of younger songs helping someone survive, but it’s marginal at best. There were other factors in play then; song age wasn’t a deciding factor. (Rasmusen’s actual age may well have had more to do with it.)

Season 3: Opposites Year

Contestant Average Median
Fantasia Barrino 27.78 25.5
Diana DeGarmo 27.11 25
Jasmine Trias 29.47 29
LaToya London 29.92 28.5
George Huff 31.18 32
John Stevens 32.13 31
Jennifer Hudson 22.5 20
Jon Peter Lewis 34.57 33
Camile Velasco 28.8 31
Amy Adams 21.25 20
Matt Rogers 22 26
Leah LaBelle 27 32
Average Median
All finalists 28.46 29
Top 5 28.81 28
Top 4 28.4 28

It really was a different kind of age that determined the “storyline”, as it were. Six of the finalists were under 20 – something that will probably never happen again in Idol history. As for the songs themselves, though… they weren’t that young. (One of Idol‘s eternal mysteries is why some young singers keep insisting on singing songs way older than they are. See: Jordin Sparks and David Archuleta.)

By almost all measures, Season 3 produced songs older than the two that had gone before it. Four seasons later, Season 3 is still pretty solidly in the bottom half of all seasons by age. Only Seasons 5 and 7 consistently score lower – attributable to Taylor Hicks in the first case, and weeks of silly themes in the latter.

As for individual contestants, however, well… the rules weren’t just ignored; they were turned around more often than not. Take Amy Adams. Her average at the time of 21.25 was second only to Jasmine Trias; her median of 20 was tied for first with Trias. Despite that, though, America sent her home. Oops.

A few weeks later Jennifer Hudson was sent home in similar circumstances. If anything, it was worse: she had the lowest average and median age of everyone else up to that point. Ouch. Most rules have an exception, and Season 3 was the exception to end all exceptions.

Season 4: The Rule Returneth

Contestant Average Median
Carrie Underwood 20.5 13
Bo Bice 22.9 31.5
Vonzell Solomon 26.06 27
Anthony Fedorov 20.93 19
Scott Savol 25 26.5
Constantine Maroulis 27.3 30
Anwar Robinson 29.56 27
Nadia Turner 27.25 31
Nikko Smith 28.14 32
Jessica Sierra 21.17 21.5
Mikalah Gordon 38.8 36
Lindsey Cardinale 15.5 14
Average Median
All finalists 24.55 26
Top 5 22.94 24
Top 4 22.59 22

If there was ever a season that demonstrated the power of song age, this is it. Perhaps Carrie Underwood’s enormous post-Idol success was hinted at by her song age numbers. They’re impressive enough in their own right, but beside Bo Bice’s, they were even more amazing.

Let’s consider. Out of everyone who made it to the top four, Underwood tied the record then for having lowest average song age shared with Josh Gracin) and the lowest median song age. Neither would be broken until Season Six by Blake Lewis. With young songs, good looks, abundant talent, and an excellent idea of her musical identity Underwood was nothing short of an Idol juggernaut. She simply could not be beat – and rightly so, in our opinion.

Bo Bice fans, however, may protest a bit at this. His average, of course, wasn’t that far off from Underwood’s, and on the face of it should have brought him success too. Cases like this, however, are why we look at the median as well. Bice got his low average by singing a relatively low number of very young songs – and frequently, these were already on nights when everyone was singing young due to the theme! Consider: Bice sang exactly six songs below ten years old all season long. Here are those six songs:

Song Theme/Episode Bice’s Song Age Age Median for Theme
I’ll Be Open (Top 16) 7 31
I Don’t Want To Be 2000s (Top 6) 1 4
Heaven Current week Billboard chart (Top 5) 1 1
It’s A Great Day To Be Alive Country (Top 4) 1 5.5
Long Long Road Finale 0 7.5
Inside Your Heaven Finale 0 7.5

By contrast, Underwood was good at selecting younger songs all season long not just when the theme called for it. Remember: her median of 13 means that fully half of her songs were 13 years old or newer.

Note, too, that with one exception all of these came pretty late during the competition. Perceptions – and fanbases – are formed pretty early. Bice essentially put himself in a giant hole by always picking the older songs that he might personally like, but may not have resonated with the Idol voting audience.

It’s not just the Underwood-Bice duel that proves the power of song age, either. Let’s look at the Top 8, and how they did up to that point, meaning songs from the Top 7 onward aren’t included:

Contestant Average Median
Carrie Underwood 24.75 20
Bo Bice 27.5 32
Vonzell Solomon 28 33
Anthony Fedorov 21.875 19
Scott Savol 28.125 26.5
Constantine Maroulis 29.875 32.5
Anwar Robinson 29.875 30
Nadia Turner 27.25 31

Long-time fans may recall that this was the week when Nadia Turner was sent home and Bo Bice shocked everyone by ending up in the Bottom Two. On the other hand, looking at the data, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Both Bice and Turner left themselves vulnerable by picking older songs. The two other performers with higher medians (Constantine Maroulis and Vonzell Solomon) helped their causes by turning in well-received performances. (Bohemian Rhapsody, anyone?)

The same could not be said for our bottom two. Turner was, by her standards, terrible, and Bice was middling at best. It’s the kind of situation perfect for yet another “shocking boot” – one that, as it turns out, was completely predictable.

Season 5: Confused? So Are We

Contestant Average Median
Taylor Hicks 31.4 33
Katharine McPhee 31.45 33
Elliott Yamin 34.35 35
Chris Daughtry 20.79 17.5
Paris Bennett 23 18.5
Kellie Pickler 26.7 23
Ace Young 21.78 18
Bucky Covington 21.75 22
Mandisa 23.71 21
Lisa Tucker 25.33 30.5
Kevin Covais 31.2 35
Melissa McGhee 15.5 16.5
Average Median
All finalists 27.13 28
Top 5 29.01 30
Top 4 30.03 33

Taylor Hicks will probably be the most unique winner in Idol history for all eternity. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, well… everyone has their own take on that. What is indisputable, however, is that he left his mark on the Idol age chart.

There’s not much about Season Five we didn’t say back then. If there’s any lesson from Season Five, it’s that song age may be more important – and predictive – of post-Idol success. After all, Hicks and Katharine McPhee both made it to the finale despite posting high song ages – and were largely overshadowed by the much more contemporary Chris Daughtry.

There is a lesson to be found, though, in the success of Hicks despite his geriatric song choices. Hicks was picking older songs, true, but he was doing it very deliberately – as part of his style, as it were. The lesson is: if you pick older songs, you have to do it in the context of a greater Idol strategy – as Hicks did, and as Brooke White just did in the last season. What you cannot do is use older songs willy-nilly, and not have the strategy or image to boot.

Season Six: How Low Can You Go?

Contestant Average Median
Jordin Sparks 22.53 20
Blake Lewis 17.79 12
Melinda Doolittle 33.81 35
Lakisha Jones 28.69 29
Chris Richardson 17 8
Phil Stacey 23.36 17
Sanjaya Malakar 37.33 40
Haley Scarnato 28.5 22
Gina Glocksen 28.43 32
Chris Sligh 18 17.5
Stephanie Edwards 26.4 31
Brandon Rogers 31.75 32
Average Median
All finalists 25.42 24
Top 5 23.94 21
Top 4 25.07 26

As far as song ages go, Season Six really had both ends of the spectrum. Blake Lewis and Chris Richardson both did very well in picking young songs, but the ultimate throwback, Melinda Doolittle, was also in the mix.

Richardson perhaps serves as a good example of how picking young songs can only go so far. No one else had a greater tendency to pick young songs: in all seven seaons, no one else had a median in the single digits. Unfortunately, though, his song-picking ability was not matched by his voice. His WNTS profile gave him only three above average songs – and two of those came on nights that could be kindly described as geriatric.

Melinda Doolittle really represents just how far raw talent can go, even if you pick songs that a sizable chunk of the Idol voting audience has no chance of relating to. Doolittle is one of the best singers, with a rare mix of talent and polish. However, that experience may well have worked against her here. Once set in her “style”, she simply wasn’t able to adapt.

While Blake Lewis wasn’t quite as youth-biased as Richardson, he did have the advantage of being a better musician. Lewis took what could be described as insane risks in his song choice, and his penchant for young songs was just a part of it. Either way, the result was the same: for his fans, Lewis produced a sound that was more appealing and “relevant” to the times. On pure vocals alone, Lewis is probably the worst person who will ever reach the finale. We mean that as a complement, however, as it shows how much song choice played in his path to the finale.

Jordin Sparks is something of an enigma. While her average and median are both second only to Carrie Underwood, what that doesn’t reveal is the fact that she could be medicore or bomb with new songs in a very big way. Going to her WNTS profile, a surprising number of her younger songs were just “okay” – and that doesn’t even factor in the stinkbomb that was Livin’ on a Prayer. Sparks is similar to Bo Bice, in that her number has to be considered as something of a statistical anomaly. It wasn’t picking young songs that helped her – she was probably the most balanced contestant of the top 12 in terms of talent, charisma, and overall appeal. However, given the Season Six mix… that’s not saying much.

Season Seven: How Old Can You Go?

Contestant Average Median
David Cook 22.25 23
David Archuleta 27.35 28.5
Syesha Mercado 30.06 36
Jason Castro 28.71 29
Brooke White 31.67 36
Carly Smithson 32.1 34.5
Kristy Lee Cook 29.11 33
Michael Johns 33.38 31.5
Ramiele Malubay 32.43 31
Chikezie 36.5 41
Amanda Overmyer 39.6 40
David Hernandez 33.75 39.5
Average Median
All finalists 29.7 31.5
Top 5 27.6 29
Top 4 26.92 27

Season Seven was as complete a demonstration of the power of song age as Season Four had been. Make no mistake about it: the last time Idol viewers saw a winner pull off such a convincing victory, partially thanks to picking young songs, was Carrie Underwood. That’s good company to be in.

One thing before we break down the season’s final numbers, though. To the Idol producers who decided the themes: what were you thinking? Free themes for the semifinals have usually been pretty interesting, because they offer a “truer” picture of the contestants than the theme-locked nights did. Of course, we already discussed a great deal of the season in our article then, but this additional tidbit is worth adding. Season Seven had four episodes with song ages averaging over 40, the most of any season.

So enough about the season. How did our contestants fare? David Cook’s win is highlighted by the fact that in a year when song ages trended up, his numbers stack up quite well against anyone who made it to the finale. While no Blake Lewis or Carrie Underwood, he was able to dominate the field decisively. Consider the numbers from the final five onwards only, when Cook’s only real rival was David Archuleta:

Average Median
David Cook 18.9 19
David Archuleta 28.6 32

In a word: ouch. That wasn’t a pretty picture. For Archuleta, sticking with the formula he took on the show would have been career suicide. Fortunately, the Idol powers-that-be have since given him better material to work with – safe, maybe a bit generic, but not so dated. He needed that to do well in his post-Idol career.

As for the rest of the field, the most interesting numbers belong to Michael Johns and Carly Smithson. Whatever their talent, they both tended to pick older songs. As Taylor Hicks taught us in Season Five, if you’re going to do noticeably older material, you have to work harder than everyone else and make it “fit”. They both could have taken lessons from Brooke White, who was no young one when it came to song choice either, and made it work for her.

Neither Michael nor Carly did that. More often than not, they really had a business-as-usual approach when it came to the old songs, as if singing songs around their ages was normal. In the Idol world, it isn’t. Good singers they might well be, but they were just never going to catch on with viewers that way. In hindsight, maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised that Carly made a bottom-three appearance relatively early.

In summary…

Long-time Idol viewers should find our conclusions have a familiar ring to them. We’ve talked about them frequently enough, even if maybe we didn’t document them as thoroughly as we did. The revelation isn’t so much that younger singers do better. Lower song age helps primarily in close situations, where pure singing ability is close enough not to matter. This is why perhaps it was most decisive – and powerful – in the two recent seasons where you had a very tight final two that had been battling it out all season long. Carrie Underwood and David Cook were faced with the toughest finales in recent memory, and song age undoubtedly had a hand in both of them winning.

Instead, the lesson is primarily about who goes home earlier than they should. Every year, we have favorites who sing reasonably well, have their dedicated fans, but falter well before their “time” – usually to the outrage of the Idol punditocracy. Now, though, looking back, we can see that more often than not they share one thing in common: their songs were old. Look at this partial list of “surprise boots”, and note what the common factor is:

Contestant Song age median at elimination Placed
Tamyra Grey 30 Fourth
Nadia Turner 31 Eighth
Stephanie Edwards 31 Eleventh
Melinda Doolittle 35 Third
Michael Johns 31.5 Eighth
Carly Smithson 34.5 Sixth

All six of them were, at one time or another, labelled as front-runners. Oops. That didn’t quite work out well. Doolittle finished just one place short of the finale, but keep in mind that everyone had basically proclaimed her as a mortal lock for the finale. It was not exactly the Idolsphere’s shining moment.

Note that, if anything, this is a trend that’s getting stronger, not weaker. The last season had two real surprises, as opposed to the usual one. It’s something the Idolsphere should consider this coming season.

We’re not saying that song age alone is what resulted in the above contestants going the boot. That would be a huge simplification that wouldn’t be accurate, either. There’s no strict cause-and-effect relationship that says, instantly, if you sing an old song, you’re dead.

More significant than the immediate conclusions, however, is the overall idea that we can use hard numbers to analyze American Idol. It’s never going to be completely objective; this is music we’re talking about. However, like any other competition, it generates statistics – and, like all statistics, they tell a story.

The noted baseball writer Bill James described sabermetrics as “the search for objective knowledge about baseball”. In that vein, this little “study” of ours can perhaps be described as the first step towards Idolmetrics – the search for objective knowledge about American Idol.

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3 Responses to “How Old Is This Song? 2.0”

  1. Connie D. says:

    Thanks for the very interesting report.

    Since Simon wants to get younger mentors on the show this season, I’m hoping the songs will be more current. No more Andrew Lloyd Webber! That whole scheme was inappropriate for the show. grrrr.

  2. kaydeecee says:

    Not only was that super cool, but I think there is an additional factor that supports your premise.

    This year’s winner, Cook, was stuck in a season that was just crippled by the ungodly narrow and old-skewing music themes. But like a salmon trying to swim upstream through sludge, he kept finding ways to “de-age” the songs by re-versioning.

    So, Billie Jean, released 1983: arrangement chosen, Chris Cornell circa 2006. Daytripper, released 1965: arrangement chosen, based on Whitesnake from 1978 (available on YouTube and a whole lot of fun).

    Also, when paired with an older songwriter, in the case of Neil Diamond and Dolly Parton, artists’ whose work goes back to the 1960s, he chose cuts the were among the newer available, from the 1980s for Diamond and from 2001 for Parton, while his fellow contestants chose better-known hits from the work of those same artists from the 1960s and 70s. So his choices those specific weeks, while not “young”, were relatively younger then the other singers.

    And for two songs drawn from the 1990s, from Mariah Carey and Collective Soul, he wrote new arrangements that (a little less quantifiabley) made them “feel” more contemporary.

    So his marginal advantage on “song recentness” was I think even stronger then it appears from the release date of the original song. His inner rule appeared to be: if limited by the age of artist-theme, choose from the more recent songs available; if limited by a date-driven theme, choose or create a more recent arrangement.

    That leads to a side observation: Cook seems to have a quirky fascination with unexpected song arrangements, even off the show. Recently, booked for a “XL’LENT ACOUSTIC XMAS” concert at the Orlando House of Blues, he chose that memorable Bing Crosby classic. . .”Man in the Box” by Alice in Chains. He and talented lead guitar guru Neal Tiemann even found a way to work in the grungey guitar solo, acoustically. Yes, but why? I don’t know, but it’s very entertaining. (You can find vid by Googling David Cook Man in Box)

    I’m not sure whether this “my hobby is making up WTF song covers” factor is reproducible by future contestants, or was one of those curious one time things that happened to help this one dude win this particular season.

    But the general principle of “select younger songs–and if that’s not possible, select the younger among available options” seems to be something others can apply.

    Or, you know, the show could just give the contestants more freedom!

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