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Not So Much Cooler Online

All things considered, Season 18 was a success...just one we'd like never to repeat

Country superstar Brad Paisley – another name we can add to the overflowing list of excellent singer-songwriters still waiting for their first American Idol competition performance – has given the world many catchy songs.  One of his best is the delightful 2007 novelty ditty, "Online".  The song is told from the point of view of a young pizza delivery driver and tuba player, who laments that he's overweight, not terribly social, and still living in his parents' basement.  In real life, that is.  On the Internet, he lives a Walter Mitty existence featuring Maseratis, male modeling gigs, and a swinging Hollywood lifestyle, with which he impresses the ladies he meets in various chat rooms.  "I'm so much cooler online," sings the diminutive Paisley, who admits in interviews that he identifies more closely with the song's protagonist than with the cowboy hat-wearing, guitar-shredding icon his fans see on stage.  To bolster the point, "Online" ends with what is probably pop music's rockingest, um, tuba solo.

Fast forward to 2020: a year when Reality TV got knocked for a loop by, go figure, reality.  Just as Season 18 was about to begin the semifinals, the global COVID-19 pandemic effectively shut down the nation.  Parents, workers, schoolchildren, and politicians were forced to ad-lib.  Some decisions and tradeoffs were more painful than others, of course, and the dilemma that the coronavirus imposed on Idol's producers is surely near the very bottom of the significance list.  Still, there were 20 young singers' dreams on the line (one of whom really is a pizza delivery driver), along with the expectations millions of longtime fans and dozens of nervous ABC TV executives.  What to do?

Over the past four weeks, we found out.  American Idol staged the world's first distributed, nationally-televised, social media singing competition.  20 singers, 25 locations, 55 performances recorded on roughly 794 smartphones, 19 eliminations in 22 days, all culminating with the crowning of the 2020 winner:  Samantha Just Sam Diaz, a 21-year-old New York City subway singer who seemed in perpetual surprise at her string of successes.

Was AI so much cooler online?  The esteemed WhatNotToSing.com editorial staff has given this question a lot of thought this past week, and our dispassionate, carefully considered answer is...NO!!  For crying out loud, absolutely positively freaking notIdol is way cooler on a soundstage, with live performances, backed by a professional band and backup singers, accompanied by dramatic lighting and special effects, delivered in front of an enthusiastic studio audience including swaybots, and judged by a panel of industry experts.  "Experts" is relative.  Everything else is absolute.

So, yeah, before we get on with this year's season recap, let us be clear up front.  Although we plan on saying a lot of sincere and highly-complimentary things about the producers and judges (for once), we aren't interested in reliving this format every spring.  American Idol is all about finding America's best young unsigned pop singer.  This format isn't suitable for that objective.  AI18 was all about scrambling, adjusting, and making lemonade of out lemons with eight million thirsty people watching.  It was categorically not the best possible season.  It was, however, as we hoped four weeks ago, the best season possible.  And, that in itself is a success.

Then

Garbage man Doug Kiker wowed the judges (and us)

It certainly helped that the lemons were good.  The AI audition process seems to broaden every year.  Last summer, their traveling bus hit 23 cities for preliminary auditions, feeding advancers into five regional sites where the judges and full production staff could have a listen.  Idol spent its first ten hours of broadcast time showing us the highlights.  As usual, this was at least six hours too long, but we're as tired of writing that complaint as you probably are of reading it, so let's move on.

Many – most, really – of the auditions that made it to our TV screens were impressive.  The producers gave proper credit for the fine turnout to Catie Turner and Alejandro Aranda, the two contestants of the Sixth Epoch whose quirkiness and artistry inspired a great many talented singers to try out.  Neither Turner (46.8) nor Aranda (51.1) exactly lit the WNTS leaderboards on fire, but so what?  They're niche artists who had their ups and downs on the live Idol stage, and they need make no apologies for that.  What matters is this:  If the franchise is ever to produce another superstar like Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood, it has to start with getting the widest range of talented but unpolished musicians out to audition.  Sooner or later, one will bloom on stage during the competition shows, impressing all of America.  The more darts you throw at the dartboard, the more likely one will hit the bullseye.

Hollywood Week was next, and it underwent a serious overhaul this season.  Gone were the traditional group performances, an American Idol staple since Season One, featuring four comically mismatched strangers attempting to put on a passable ensemble performance, including harmonies and synchronized dance steps, on two hours' sleep.  Because that'll really separate the next Kelly Clarkson from the last William Hung.

Anyway, to roughly six viewers' dismay, the group numbers were axed in favor of duets.  Never in our Idol-watching lives have we been so happy to see a duets round.  Besides producing tighter and stronger performances across the board, the new format felt like a much more realistic way to grade each contestant in the all-important "plays well with others" category.  (All snarkiness aside, unless you are a concert solo pianist, or Trent Reznor, music is all about teamwork.)  Naturally, the producers couldn't resist the annual stupidity of a faux-controversial "Contestant Goes Missing During Rehearsals" segment, but meh, some viewers apparently eat that stuff up, and it gives the rest of us time for a bathroom break.

The other major innovation of Hollywood Week wasn't really anything groundbreaking.  Round One performances were now split into genres – Pop, R&B, Country, Singer-Songwriter, maybe one or two others.  All this really did was formalize what has been standard operating procedure for years.  The producers' goal has (usually) been to cast a musically diverse set of semifinalists for America's consideration, because America has very diverse musical tastes.  The new Theme Round just made it clearer from the outset what the swim lanes were, and who was competing against whom for a spot in the Top 20.

No está mal para alguien que no habla español.

Those who made it past Hollywood were rewarded with a trip to Hawaii and a working vacation at Disney's island resort.  Though it was only the second year for it, the Top 40 beach concert has quickly become the WNTS staff's favorite episode of the preliminary rounds.  The staging and scenery are top notch, and most of the quarterfinalists seem to up their games to match the moment.  Eventual semifinalists Jovin Webb and Aliana Jester in particular made us sit up and take notice, while Dillon James put a modern country twist on Bob Dylan.  (Editor Brian, who has precisely zero patience for Dylan covers that aren't up to snuff, gave the performance his full blessing.)  Even the eliminated contestants sounded pretty good, a true indicator of the depth of the AI18 field.

Perhaps the best, and most foreshadowing, Hawaii effort was by Just Sam herself.  Wearing a traditional Latin dress and about three feet of high heels, Diaz covered Selena in Spanish (phoenetically, in fact) while working the stage and the crowd far more strongly than we expected from a subway busker.  The house band laid down an infectuous Caribbean beat, resulting in what we felt was the performance of the season.  A pity it didn't come in a WNTS-rated round, but oh well.  (One side note to future contestants: if you even think about doing a half-English, half-Other Language performance after this, please hit yourself over the head hard with the nearest mike stand.  Send us the bill if you break it.  Pick the language that the song works best in, and stick with it.)

The judges had a tough job choosing a Top 20 (well, a Top 21 with a stupid "instant runoff" twist), but they were up to the task.  Indeed, the trio of Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan acquitted themselves well throughout all stages of the preliminary rounds.  Er, if we're being completely honest, that is...uh...they were excellent.  They whittled down a fine field one step at a time until 20 worthy competitors were left standing.  Granted that those three have always been better in the pre-competition rounds than on the live shows (insert here the obvious wisecrack about three bowls of tapioca pudding), but this time, we truly mean it.  It was one of the most professional casting jobs of Idol's eighteen seasons.

And, oh boy, it couldn't have come at a better time.

Welcome To The Future

When the COVID-19 shock wave hit, and the entire world suddenly got a crash course in "sheltering in place", the producers did the right thing: they sent the 20 semifinalists home to quarantine with their families.  (Diaz chose to remain in an L.A. hotel room, which seems prudent considering she lives with her elderly grandmother in Harlem.)  It soon became apparent that the lockdown was not going to be a quick 10-day affair.  The producers hastily spliced together two weeks of "Meet Your Top 20 Up Close And Personal" promo spots to cover the next two Sundays' broadcast slots.  Now what?

We advocated waiting out the quarantine and postponing the live shows until it was feasible to hold them.  Whether that was ever seriously considered, or even logistically possible, we don't know.  Would the venue, contestants, musicians, production experts, and of course the judges themselves even be available at some unforeseeable future date?   Plus, American Idol, from initial auditions to confetti, is pretty much a year-round operation.  A significant delay could easily jeopardize Season 19.

Live from America (and Canada, briefly)

The decision was made: AI18 was going virtual.  We saw clips of the Top 20 at home, unpacking boxes of expensive audio and video equipment, setting up their garages and back yards as makeshift stages, and working with mentor Bobby Bones via Zoom.  It would be a four-week flash competition straight out of YouTube, except the commercials were longer and you couldn't skip them after five seconds.

And so, on Sunday April 26th, 2020, history was made.  No, really.  We know Ryan Seacrest says that every year, in a tone of voice that suggests imminent revelations of high cosmic significance, but which usually turns out to be a new Katy Perry hairstyle.  This time, he was right.  The entire semifinals took place in one two-hour show, with performances that had been pre-recorded all across the United States.  And Canada too, courtesy of Lauren Spencer-Smith, whose British Columbia residency promptly broke our database. (Did anybody notice that only 19 semifinalists had contestant pages on the website for several days, until we finally found and fixed the bug?)

The pacing of the Top 20 show was abysmal, just as it was last year, but that was a given.  The performances themselves?  Surprisingly enough, they weren't half bad.  The sound quality was reasonable, the post-production effects were okay, and the clips, though brief, did a decent job showcasing the contestants' talents.  Yeah, we're being a little stingy with the adjectives, but we're not going to lie and say it was great.  It was acceptable.  But, "acceptable" in this case meant "exceeded our expectations", which has to count for something.

The only real problem was in differentiating the performances.  Between the rapid-fire clips and the general sameness of the household venues, not much stood out, good or bad.  Nineteen of the 20 WNTS approval ratings fell in a 36-point band between 29 and 65 before the post-season normalization.  (To put this in perspective:  Adam Lambert once posted a standard deviation of 35 on one performance.)  The ordinals seemed reasonable to us; it was just that the ratings were abnormally compressed.  As it turned out, that abnormality would become the norm for the entire season.

Spencer-Smith struck a blow for the Great White North by leading the field with a 65 (a 67 after normalization)...and, naturally, she wound up eliminated for her trouble.  As several correspondents observed, it's the first time the top-rated WNTS semifinalist in a season failed to advance to the finals.  Apparently, Canadians have better things to do with their Sunday nights than "10 votes per contestant per method".

On the other end of the scale, Florida's DeWayne Crocker, who'd been impressive until now, tried to sing the ultimate in-your-face soul song, I Got You (I Feel Good), in his living room and without a live band.  Don't try this at home, kids, even though Crocker already did.  Did we mention he sang it in front of a fully decorated Christmas tree, two weeks after Easter?  Um, yeah.  His vocals really weren't bad (nobody's were), but the incogruous performance quickly showed the world that, compressed ratings or not, a 1-star tactical error knows no boundaries.

Ten contestants were advanced by the voters, and the judges chose to use their one and only Save on another Floridian, Makayla Phillips.  In related news, we hear Ottawa has barred three famous American pop singers from visiting Canada for life.

Julia Gargano and Arthur Gunn, live from their living rooms

Approval ratings for the Top 11 show also fell into a narrow band, with one exception:  Julia Gargano, a 22-year-old Staten Islander, delivered a heartfelt rendition of Billy Joel's timeless New York State Of Mind.  The poignant song, sung from and about the city that had been most devastated by the coronavirus, registered a 79 before normalization, an 83 after.  It would become the highest-rated performance of the season.  The field's other Big Apple native, Just Sam, came in second by dedicating Bill Withers' Grandma's Hands to her grandmom 3000 miles away.  Both advanced to the Final 7 along with three Californians – piano teacher Jonny West, Filipino-American guitarist Francisco Martin, and singer/actor/guitarist Dillon James, all of whom were unfailingly polite and soft spoken.  Two immigrant Americans rounded out the field: Louis Knight, the aforementioned pizza guy from Philly via the UK, and Dibesh Pokharel, aka Arthur Gunn, from Wichita via, believe it or not, Nepal.

None of these seven were undeserving.  To be honest, neither were the four finalists who were eliminated: Phillips, Webb, Grace Leer, and Sophia James (née Wackerman).  The performances and the eliminations seemed, if not haphazard, not rooted on particularly sturdy ground either.  Now would probably be a good time to mention that, of the Top 7, at least four had received extended promo segments ("pimp pieces", in Idol fan parlance) during the audition episodes.  It appeared that early exposure more than anything was driving the eliminations.  This has been somewhat less of a problem in recent seasons, and to be fair the producers did give ample screen time to the entire top 20, such that the advantage of the promo pieces probably would have been more muted in a normal season.  Except, this season wasn't normal.

The Top 7 show featured two performances apiece.  Round One's theme was Disney Songs, which we suppose was inevitable.  The pixie dust that charmed American Idol in 2018 seems to have thoroughly worn off.  Just two of the first seven performances cracked 50, and the episode rating stood at 41 at the halfway point.  Gargano and Knight in particular were tripped up.  Both chose grandiose love songs – Beauty and the Beast, and Can You Feel The Love Tonight, respectively – and gave it their all, belting the notes earnestly accompanied by exaggerated hand gestures and facial expressions.  On a live stage, backed by an orchestra, the theatrics might have worked.  From their homes, sadly, the inescapable vibe was "Cute kids singing on YouTube".  They would be the two eliminees after the votes were counted.

Fortunately, the episode was salvaged in the second hour, where the theme was Mothers' Day.  The last seven performances averaged over 60, with Martin producing the season's second and last 5-star performance: an 82 on Leon Bridges' River.  The San Francisco teenager had been fighting a bad case of stage fright since his audition, evoking the painful struggles of an earlier Golden Gate teen, MK Nobilette.  Singing at home no doubt helped his nerves, but one has to wonder how Martin would have fared in front of a studio audience.  Would his comfort level and confidence increased with each week he survived?  That crucial growth arc, which provides drama in normal years, was among the casualities of the online format.

One contestant who did show notable growth during the sort-of-live shows was D. James.  A recovering addict who'd recently reintegrated with his family, the Bakersfield native put both of his Top 7 performances (and, three of his last four) in the 70s.  Not that we are recognizing WNTS 'perfect games' in this crazily abbreviated season, but James would have missed by one performance and 7 ratings points.  One good rock song with an electric guitar, assisted by the Idol band and a roaring audience, might have made a huge difference in where he finished.

For the Finale...um, hang on.  (Psst, did we accidentally skip a week or two?  No?  Okay.)  Ahem.  Many Idol seasons had semifinals that last longer than the entire AI18 season, but here we were already at the Finale.  Round One was a 'celebration' song reflecting their post-quarantine ambitions and their journey thus far.  Round Two was a reprise that would also become the winner's first released single.  Wisely, all five contestants chose a song they'd done before the semifinals.

Jonny West

The performances themselves were meritorious, but the night's approval ratings were indurated.  Look, there's only so many synonyms for "pretty good" and "compressed", okay?  Martin had the only performance that rated under 3-stars, the result we think of an uninspiring song choice rather than a poor delivery.  West fell three points short of 80 on Makin' Love, the only original song performed in competition all season.  Diaz and James also posted one rating in the 70s.  Thereupon followed some socially-distant performances from the judges and a few guest singers, plus a nice montage of former AI contestants doing "We Are The World" with Lionel Richie.

Things got a little weird at the end when, for about the first time all year, Idol switched to a live feed.  (The producers sent TV trucks to every finalists' home to avoid having the ended spoiled by an internet outage.)  Ryan Seacrest revealed that Arthur Gunn and Just Sam were the two highest vote-getters on the night.  It appeared for all the world that Gunn's family mistook the announcement to mean that he'd won, and their premature celebration seemed to fluster the show's long-time host.  Some viewers even believed that Seacrest had suffered a mild stroke on the air, which necessitated a few explanatory press releases and tweets the next day.  You can't make this stuff up.

Diaz, for her part, appeared completely gobsmacked that she'd made it to the Final Two, as though she fully expected that one of the four instrument-playing guys would take home the crown.  So did we, to be honest, and we're pretty sure we weren't alone.  Imagine then how everyone reacted a minute later when Ryan announced that Just Sam was the 18th American Idol champion, the first to win remotely, and the first not to be covered in confetti as the show faded to black.  (For the record, Diaz had been issued a confetti cannon, as had all the finalists, but she was too overwhelmed to fire it.)

You Do The Math

The phone rang.  "Turn on The Voice," commanded Brian, the evening after the Top 11 show.

"I can't," replied Nick.  "I'm out taking a walk."

"Well, as soon as you get home, turn it on, watch a couple performances, and call me back.  I want to hear what you think."

About half an hour later, Nick complied.  "Um, Mac, I dunno.  I see that they're singing remotely too, but this seems kind of dull.  The sound mix is really spotty and there's not much in production values.  The performances feel loose, more like dress rehearsals.  I thought you said they had a strong lineup of singers this season."

That, as it turns out, was precisely Brian's assessment.  To be fair, NBC cleaned up many of these issues the following week, but the first impression remained.  American Idol, which often takes a back seat to The Voice in terms of production quality (if for no other reason than The Voice goes lighter on the competition-night cheese), had clearly bested their longtime rivals despite going first.  Here, at least, Idol was so much cooler online.

This little anecdote introduces the part of the annual WNTS recap where we analyze the just-completed season and make a few suggestions for next year.  As we're sure you understand, it's going to be briefer than usual.  Season 18 was a unicorn, one that had to make up its own rules as it went along, and whose relevance to future seasons is probably minimal.  The two main takeaways are (a) Idol pulled off its crazy, unprecedented experiment reasonably well, and (b) let's not do this ever again, okay?

Words fail us

The heroes of Season 18 were the judges and the producers.  We know, right?  But fair is fair: Perry, Richie, and Bryan worked diligently to deliver a strong set of semifinalists to America.  From there, Trish Kinane and company formulated and executed a plan to nurse the hobbled season across the finish line.  American Idol has famously never won an Emmy award in its long existence, but we hope the Acadamies take notice this fall.

In case any future reader is wondering, let it be clearly noted that, while the online format worked to a large degree, the performances were clearly compromised.  The tremendous appeal of live music – the energy, the tension, the urgency, the emotion – which has entertained humans for at least four millennia and counting, can't be duplicated from home.  What you can get, however, is a singer's sense of artistry.  We evaluated all 55 performances (yes, sadly, that's all there were) not by the clips themselves, but on how we felt they'd translate to the stage.  Extended auditions, as it were.  It was as if we'd received a batch of tapes from singers hoping to appear at a summer music festival that we were putting together.

Perhaps for that reason, our own opinions differed more than usual this season from the Idolsphere's.  We would have booked Jovin Webb's band in a heartbeat, for example, even if his two competition performances were a bit sloppy.  He struck us as the kind of singer whom we would've very much enjoyed watching from the lawn seats with a couple of cheesesteaks and a six-pack.  Clearly, we weren't alone in feeling out of step, because AI18's standard deviation was a gargantuan 22.3.  That's over two full points higher than Season 10, the previous record holder.

It appeared as though the contestants were permitted several takes of their performance.  We assume one was designated as the "official" entry, while the others were used solely in post-production for cut shots.  Many of the contestants could use a good lesson on effective lip-synching, which is much harder than you'd think.  (Tip: never just mouth the words; always at least whisper.)  This, however, was ultimately quite forgiveable.

The new Hollywood Week format was a hit at the WNTS offices.  If Idol ever brings back group performances, may a swarm of murder hornets infest the producers' BMWs.

As promised above, we will forego our usual plea to rebalance the season with more competition-night episodes and fewer preliminaries.  Might we instead suggest a compromise?  The Hawaii concert shows have been engaging two straight years, despite the fact that the performances are interspliced with the Green Mile segments.  How about airing all 40 performances in full over (say) three episodes instead of two?  So far, only AI12 aired full quarterfinal performances, which our WNTS reviewers duly rated for posterity on the website.  We'll be happy to do this every year going forward, so long as the performances are uncut.  One fewer audition episode is all it would cost.

We mentioned this in our pre-semifinals article, published roughly 15 minutes ago, but we'll repeat it here: the producers should consider giving the nine eliminated semifinalists a free pass to Hawaii next winter.  To end their Idol journeys with a one-and-done, from home, on a night when America had to sift through 20 rapid-fire performances, seems quite unjust.  While we're at it, ditch the 20-performance Opening Night shows, please.  Either expand to 24 over two episodes, or cut the number of semifinalists to 16.  Even in normal years, the current silliness offers nothing other than sensory overload.

Correspondent Ben caught something that we missed at the time: Gargano suffered one of the biggest one-performance rating drops in eighteen seasons:  64 points down from "New York State Of Mind" to "Beauty And The Beast" after normalization.  She then turned around and regained 48 points on her next performance, one of the highest jumps ever.  Moral: please, no one use that jazzed-up rearrangement of "Beast" ever again, 'k?

The annual Disney theme is getting stale.  We are aware that The Disney Company is more likely to sell the rights to Mickey and Minnie to Playboy than they are of allowing American Idol to skip this annual exercise in corporate cross-marketing.  So, another suggested compromise: make it a duet round in 2021.  That will halve the number of performances, plus put some good, fresh songs into play.

Just Sam

On a show where we've demonstrated that race, sex, and region all play a nontrivial role in a contestant's longevity, what does it say that a young black/Latina woman from New York City, with neck tats no less, is the reigning champion?  Just Sam's positive disposition, and her obvious raw potential, made her a surpising but deserving winner in a year when there were no shortage of same.  Some of our correspondents pointed out with justification that voting window closed early to allow for the results to be certified and announced at the end of the show, and that this perhaps suppressed the West Coast vote.  We admit it was strange that the three Californians were the first three out in the Finale.  But, the entire season was strange, and then some.  What matters is that American Idol's goal is to find diamonds in the rough.  This season, despite all the challenges, they found one.

Some hard numbers:  AI18's 50.9 season rating is sixth-highest all time and tops since the reboot.  Song freshness, song age, and repeat factor were all a little on the wrong side of average, but nothing outrageous.  The 20 semifinalists averaged 21.9 years of age, continuing a longstanding trend of relatively young casts.  Unofficial or not, we have to give a shout-out to Makayla Phillips and Sophia James for pitching a pair of rain-shortened perfect games.  The 'Wack Pack' will celebrate heartily tonight, we're sure.

The judges were of minimal use during the four competition shows, again.  Still, there were positive signs.  Luke Bryan showed some improvement in delivering mixed assessments.  Lionel Richie kept the Old Master rhetoric to a minimum.  Katy Perry...er, well, the hand sanitizer costume was a riot for the first five minutes.  The subsequent 115, not so much.  Whatever.  As it transpired, they did their jobs early in the season when it really mattered.

British humor novelist Leonard Wibberly once observed that, while snatching victory from the jaws of defeat is satisfying, it is often much more difficult to snatch compromise from the jaws of disaster.  Season 18 was American Idol's version of Apollo 13: not a success in the broad sense, but quite an accomplishment nonetheless.  Except no one will ever make a really awesome movie out of this.

The show has been renewed for a 19th season, one we hope will unfold a bit less eventfully.  We have to admit, we really missed the live performances this year, and we'll have a new appreciation for them when they return next spring.  Until the first set of swaybot arms blocks the camera view, that is.  Then, YouTube Idol will start looking good again.  Thanks to all our reviewers and readers, as always.  Stay safe, enjoy Camp Should-A-Been next month, and we'll see you once more in 2021.

(Tuba solo)

(All photos in this editorial are courtesy of American Idol and ABC Television.)

- The WNTS.com Team

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