Boy, that was a fun finish. We can hardly wait until 2017! Hmm? Oh, yeah, right.... Well, it was still a fun finish.
The Fifth Epoch and First Era of American Idol concluded with an unforgettable Finale week. First, a magnificent competition episode that shattered pretty much every WhatNotToSing.com statistical record of note. Then, an exhilirating two-hour-and-six-minute celebration of the greatest Reality TV extended family in television history. Sorry, Kardashians, it's not you.
So as Idol heads into hiatus, one that's probably well overdue, it left its fans not only with memories, but also a sense of anticipation. We'll take a look back at Season Fifteen, which started poorly and finished strong, followed by a look ahead of sorts to AI's eventual reboot where all of the old bugaboos that have given its fans fits for a decade and a half will surely be back. Except we won't mind quite so much, at least for the first year. We plan to resume kvetching in Season Seventeen.
A shortened season deserves a shortened recap. And, that's good, because there's rather little to write about.
Fox slashed American Idol's broadcast hours for the second straight year. For the first time, the show would stage its Finale Week outside of the all-important May sweeps period. We wish the Fox exec who made that decision the best of luck in finding a new job, and if he or she needs any help preparing their resume, just give us a ring.
Okay, in all seriousness, we've read plenty of sensible reasons why that particular business decision was made, not the least of which was to bring a bit more urgency to the competition. Plus, with Idol not returning for the 2016-2017 season, whatever audience it attracted during Sweeps this year wasn't terribly relevant. Still, if hours had to be cut out of the schedule, we'd have preferred they had come from the Audition and Hollywood rounds, which after 15 years just aren't that entertaining anymore. We know, we know: Fox and 19E spend a fortune in logistics to stage those rounds, and they need to get a return on their investment. Clearly this state of affairs ought to be high on the Fix-It List for Idol 2.0.
The judges had a rocky opening month as well. Even Clay Aiken chimed in on social media that J-Lo, HCJ, and Keith Urban were "boring". An overly harsh assessment, perhaps, but clearly something was out of joint early on, and that's unacceptable from a tight, veteran judging team entering its third season together.
The Semifinals seemed clearly mis-cast for the first time since Season Twelve. Now, perhaps this was intentional – with just nine weeks to eliminate 23 singers and crown a winner, the producers may have felt it prudent to include some cannon fodder in the lineup. This was Standard Operating Procedure during the Cowell Period...except then, there was at least the entertainment factor of watching Simon's game-night critiques. The thin talent pool led to the lowest Semifinals approval rating since Season One: a dismal 41.9, two points below even the monthlong train wreck that was AI3's group rounds.
Here's a tip for Simon Fuller as he crafts the Idol reboot: please stop making up the conditions of contest as you go along. First, there was to be no fan voting in the Semifinals (understandable in hindsight, considering the weak field). Then, um, actually they meant that the judges would eliminate ten contestants and choose four finalists, and viewers would select the other six. Then, for the Finals, it was all up to the fans; there would be no Judges' Save this year. Except, there was – three of them, in fact. At least all three were justifiable, offering up an extra week to Avalon Young and two to Sonika Vaid.
The free-spirited Young seemed oddly underappreciated; she posted a 61 average, never fell below three stars, and was perfectly adept at singing contemporary songs. Vaid exuded Disney Princess rays from every pore, complete with the obligatory performance of Let It Go, but she did step out of character to deliver one of the top moments of the season with Bring Me To Life. Toss in pop-rocker Olivia Rox, a California teen whose singing was miles better than her cringeworthy stage name (she's used it since she was a small child, but seriously dear, we all outgrow things), and AI15 actually offered three solid, midcard-plus, female contestants.
Naturally, all three got savaged in the fan voting. Rox, who missed a WNTS "perfect game" by less than a tenth of a point, undeservedly joined the rogues' gallery of Idols who sang three times in competition without ever being advanced by the voters. Young went 1-for-3, surviving only the Wild Card balloting. Vaid also earned a Wild Card spot, and "Life" got her through to the Final Eight, after which it was Save, Save, Sayonara. That's 3-for-9 if you're scoring at home, for a trio of young ladies who averaged right around 4-stars.
So who exactly were the voters advancing in the early rounds? (*Sigh...*) Well, there were three 15-year-olds in the field. Any other questions? Just one of Tristan McIntosh's, Lee Jean's, and Gianna Isabella's 15 solo performances cracked 50, and only two others reached 3-stars. All three came by way of McIntosh, an unabashed favorite of mentor Scott Borchetta. The Nashville country crooner of color, as it were, was usually okay, and she did at least post one of the two positive growth trends of 2016. Jean's average WNTS approval rating of 23.0, sixth-lowest all-time among finalists, seems as harsh as any we've ever calculated – about 30 seems more apt. Still, when you kick off your AI prime-time career by doing Ed Sheeran, Ed Sheeran, and a song notably covered by Ed Sheeran, America can hardly be faulted if they dismiss you as a one-trick pony. As for Isabella, she pulled a "Del Toro" in the Wild Card round. Enough said.
Which brings us to the Final Four. Wait, already? Well, yeah – we did say it was an abbreviated season. Fourth-place finisher Mackenzie Bourg certainly had his moments, punctuated by a 5-star delivery of his original song, Roses. (Fair warning: "Roses" will normalize to 79 next weekend.) Unfortunately, the Louisiana singer-songwriter had his non-moments, too: he hit eight of the ten WNTS deciles, missing only single digits and 90+. (The record, should you care, is nine of ten, achieved by Jasmine Trias, David Archuleta, and Joshua Ledet.) In contrast, third-place Dalton Rapattoni never reached 70 and in fact spent most of the season plodding below 50. His approval ratings towards the end may have been depressed in comparison to the vocal abilities of the Final Two. Still, Rapattoni's performances were virtually always interesting, and we always appreciate that.
Let's see. Are we forgetting anyone?
If there's any real regret around Idol Nation this weekend, it's that one of Trent Harmon or La'Porsha Renae didn't audition in 2015. Both Mississippians were terrific in their own way, and they pretty much carried AI15 double-handedly through the season's final month. It was a pity that one had to lose.
Renae, a 22-year-old single mom, is of course an outstanding vocalist, but American Idol has seen plenty of those over the years. What set her apart, beyond having a head of hair roughly the size and shape of a Volkswagen Beetle, was a level of versatility in Doolittle/Glover territory. You want her to sing Pop? Diamonds, 87 (and reprised to 86). Rock? Come Together, 85. Hip-hop fusion? Glory, 80. Old-school soul? (*Yawn*), A House Is Not A Home, 75. You get the idea.
Renae not only completed the first full-season "perfect game" at WNTS, it wasn't particularly close – only her Original Winners Song™, Battles, even fell below 4-stars. Were it not for the tone-deafness of Scott Borchetta and Simon Fuller, who thought it perfectly peachy to assign a pair of pleading, stand-by-your-man torch songs to a domestic abuse survivor, Renae might have given Doolittle a run for her money as the highest-rated contestant to perform ten or more times. (Incidentally, while the Idolsphere rated her emotionally raw delivery of Mary J. Blige's No More Drama as her best, the WNTS staff narrowly gives the nod to "Glory"; the sparse, Hamilton-like arrangement was as inventive as anything we heard all season.)
Harmon, a strapping 25-year-old farmer, waiter (hmm, what were Carrie Underwood's and Kelly Clarkson's previous occupations again?), and cowboy hat aficionado, took a somewhat rockier road to the Finale. After starting out with five 4-star performances, he was given OneRepublic's perfectly decent pop smash Counting Stars to lead off America's Requests Night...and, alas, he proceeded to butcher it into an atonal, arrhythmic, 26-rated mess. Oh well, guess he wasn't as good as we first thought. Except 90 minutes later, he followed it up with an 83-rated take on Lynyrd Skynyrd's classic southern rock anthem Simple Man. From there he kicked it into another gear.
Harmon posted five 5-star ratings in the final four episodes, finishing at least for now with the highest average approval rating by a male contestant in WNTS history. (Bo Bice might yet keep his crown after normalization.) His masterpiece by the numbers was Chandelier (93 with a 90 reprise), a ridiculously difficult song for a woman to sing let alone a man, though once again we at WNTS will be contrarians: we'd give a v-e-r-y narrow nod to the 86-rated Sharp Dressed Man.
Anyone who hoped that the Finale might finally allow viewers to discern a clear winner came away disappointed...though, very likely, that was the only thing they found disappointing about the night. Harmon and Renae pitched a totally unenvisioned type of perfect game: none of their six performances fell below 50. Even with Rapattoni's 32-rated coronation song mixed in (we, um, actually kind of liked it), the episode average was a whopping 66. It will normalize to 65.8, we think, but that's still a full point higher than any of the 231 competition nights that preceded it. Its third round – a pair of reprises, no less – will go into the books as the highest-scoring ever. If this were a rock concert, the setlist couldn't have been drawn up any better: American Idol went out at its absolute pinnacle.
Harmon was a worthy winner. Renae would have been a worthy winner too. Either would have won AI14 in a landslide, but such is the ebb and flow of Idol seasons. Both have since penned record deals, and we wish them the absolute best of luck.
A few shout-outs before we wrap up 2016. Though she too astoundingly couldn't figure out a way to stage a decent elimination without ruining the flow of the show, new executive producer Trish Kinane, with help from old friend Nigel Lythgoe, did a decent job cleaning up the well-meaning mess left by outgoing head honcho Per Blankens. (Blankens: the Kara DioGuardi of Idol executive producers. Discuss.) Other than the harebrained idea of squeezing 12 semifinal performances into a one-hour episode, the "live" shows were much less absurd this season. Not a single eliminated semifinalist posted a 50 average or even came particularly close. Harry Connick, Jr. nicely dialed back his overuse of music vernacular; his occasional insights into harmonics and key-shifting thus came off as intelligent rather than insufferable. Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban were constants; take that as you will. The true performance of the season, and possibly the entire series, was "Piece By Piece" by Kelly Clarkson: Holy. Freaking. Crap. In terms of mentoring, songwriting, performing, and overall awesomeness as an Idol guest, Sia rocked. Whoever dreamed up the Final 8 theme needs to be drawn and quartered – no, really, we mean Guy Fawkes-style, with horses and pikes and everything. Despite that night of horrors, the average song age for AI15 was just 17.8 and the freshness factor was 46%; both not bad in context. Precisely one night of duets per season is just about right. Ryan Seacrest went from a punch line in Season One to arguably the best host on television by Season Fifteen – they say Idol is all about the journey, and few people connected with the show had a more remarkable one than him. After all these years, we learned only this weekend that lighting director Kieran "Dim The Lights" Healy is a man, not a woman. And, if there is anyone who deserves a bigger shoutout for 15 years of meritorious service than Idol's fabled stage manager Debbie Williams, please let us know.
Oh, yeah: the final night extravaganza was whatever is one notch better than fantastic. Watching fifteen years' worth of Idol kiddies all grown up, and their stage presence and maturity as veteran professionals, was a sight to behold. We're not even sure which of the five superb group numbers we most preferred. The only snarky comments we can offer are (a) the show wasn't nearly long enough, (b) Idol should have celebrated its amazing legacy long before this (and they need to do it annually upon rebooting), (c) that legacy should not, however, extend to Kara DioGuardi's singing or J-Lo's Vegas act, (d) it shouldn't have taken 15 friggin' years to hear a few David Bowie songs on AI, and (e) did we mention it wasn't long enough? Our heartfelt thanks to everyone who made that trip down memory lane possible.
American Idol is gone. For now. It'll return, of course; Nigel Lythgoe says 2019 at the latest, so pencil January of 2018 on your calendar. Let's assume that Simon Fuller and Friends do not look at the final months' Nielsen ratings and make the colossal blunder of bringing it back as early as next season. They've made a few questionable calls over the years, but we think this one is safe. Idol needs at least a year to rest, recuperate and rejuvenate. Then what?
We could start with our usual laundry list of suggestions: longer performances, fresher songs, less manipulation, and maybe find a mentor who comes off a little less creepy on camera than Scott Borchetta (though to be more constructive, some stage presence tutoring to lessen his awkwardness might be all that's needed.) And, as if this needed to be said, if the Idol keepers can't figure a reasonable way to eliminate a contestant during a performance night, then please stay on hiatus until you do.
Now let's think out of the box. What makes American Idol great? Answer: Discovering and developing young singers to perform successfully on a national stage. Nothing is a close second. Simon Cowell's rude and insulting comments towards bad singers may have been more entertaining in the moment, but that shtick got old pretty fast. His rude but constructive comments, to contestants both good enough and smart enough to act on them, were what gave the show its staying power.
What separates a good season from a poor one? The answer here may vary a bit from person to person. After 15 years of chronicling this show, we'd observe that all seasons eventually become "good". Even the "bad" ones. No, really. When all of the expositional nonsense is finally finished, and this year's semifinalists are announced, and they're pared down to a Top N that are nearly all legitimately entertaining, then the season becomes "good". N merely varies from year to year. No season, not even AI12, failed to reach goodness. Hell, Season Twelve was really good after it got done sucking.
Some years got to "good" faster than others, because the overall talent level was higher. Seasons Ten and Eleven are the gold standard here. Ten might have been a bit deeper, but Eleven produced a Top Seven for the ages. We could've listened to them sing every week for three months straight.
Others got there less aggravatingly than others. Season Thirteen, for all its flaws, had a sensible elimination order that allowed its four best-by-far contestants to deliver over half of that years' performances. Note that AI15's midcard of Rox, Young, Vaid and Bourg rated out only about four points lower on average than AI13's fine Final Four.
Some failed miserably at both speed and sense, yet are still held in high regard by Idol lovers. How many of you consider Season Eight to be your favorite? Honestly, in real time it felt like a drawn-out disaster movie. You've heard us long joke – except we're not entirely joking – that the 2009 Summer Tour should have comprised Adam Lambert, Kris Allen, Allison Iraheta, and seven semifinalists. Yet AI8 is generally deemed a success because the top three were simply that good, combining for 14 5-star performances plus a boatload of additional gems. No trio from a single season will appear more often on Top 100 Idol Performance lists than "Kradison". So now we have a third way to achieve a good season: exceptional talent at the top of the card.
Let's recap, shall we? One: unearth lots of entertaining singers who can stand up to a national spotlight. Two: let the good singers sing and the not-so-good ones go home, stat. Three: when you get to the final Boss Battle, make it a big, epic, you've-got-to-see-this Boss.
Like, seriously: Is this really so hard?
As for what makes a season "bad" before it gets to "good", well, that's not hard either. "Bad" is forcing America to listen to a bunch of sincere but overmatched singers whose days are obviously numbered, whose performances add zero enjoyment to anyone outside their extended circle of family / friends / classmates / swooning-fankids, and whom viewers have to put up with for weeks because, after all, Federal law dictates that one and only one contestant per week can be eliminated in a Reality TV series.
Forget about merely thinking outside this box. It needs to be blown to smithereens.
American Idol needs to figure out a way to reach "good" faster and more cost-effectively. Why spend millions of dollars on auditions, for example, when pretty much everyone you'll eventually choose for Hollywood already has a YouTube portfolio? Don't let the silly rules of reality TV dictate how long America has to put up with "bad". Give voters a say in who stays and who goes, of course, but don't be anal-retentive about it, particularly not after the Idol voting process has exhibited 15 years of extreme demographic bias. What matters most in the "bad" stage of a season is viability: when it becomes clear that a contestant isn't ready for prime time, cannot possibly win, and adds little to the flavor of the season, cut them loose, en masse if necessary.
Then, when the season reaches "good", hit the slowdown button on the eliminations. Let viewers sit back and enjoy the remaining singers – be they ten, or seven, or even just five – for a few weeks as they navigate various themes and mentors. It's far more difficult to separate the "great" from the "good" than it is the "good" from the "bad". Social media, much as our senior editors detest it, is surely a much better gauge than fan voting of who has star power and who is merely a gifted vocalist. This is also the time when the judges have to start earning those eight-figure salaries.
Lastly, when you've pared down to the "great", give them their well-deserved hometown visits. Then, bring them back to L.A. for the final few weeks and make them earn the title. Challenge them. Extend them. "I'll see your No More Drama and raise you a Waiting Game." Stage an unforgettable Finale, invite the whole Idol "family" back for the results show, and crown a champion in a shower of confetti. Rinse. Repeat.
This...is American Idol 2.0. We hope.
As we said in last week editorial, it's been a privilege to serve as volunteer curators to the AI community for the past decade. The show, for all its flaws, has been hugely entertaining, and it has changed the American music and entertainment landscape much for the better. It's the twenty-first century equivalent to the star-making variety shows of the 1950s and 1960s. But, it needs some time off. So do we viewers.
There is no guarantee, of course, that AI 2.0 will be superior than AI 1.0. All Idol fans should be prepared for the very real possibility of a New Coke debacle. Fortunately, while Simon Fuller can be unreasonable at times, he's rarely irrational. Plus, he enjoys making money by the dumpsterful. We have guarded optimism that, indeed, 2 > 1.
We also mentioned that we had a geeky screen name at IdolForums.com that we used for years to enter the "Spoiler Section" every competition night. We created it so we could pull reviews and rankings for our overnight numbers. We challenged our IDF readers to catch us this week and out us. No one was successful. We plan on creating a new account for the 2.0 era, so now we can finally reveal what the old one was: "eipiphi".
WTF, you say? How on earth was anyone supposed to figure that out? It's just a random jumble of letters. That's totally irrational!
To which we reply: No. It's only three-quarters irrational, and one-quarter imaginary.
Which, as it turns out, is also a pretty good description of the first 15 years of American Idol. So, we'll leave it there. Farewell, everyone. For now.
- The WNTS.com Team