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The Persistence Of Memory

A reader's research leads us to muse about the past, present and future of American Idol

A correspondent makes a deep dive into the database and emerges with several interesting points about Season Seven thus far.  (Note: this letter was written prior to the Final 10 Episode, but we extrapolated the data to the present.)

To the WhatNotToSing.com Team:

American Idol has advertised that Season Seven boasts "the best talent ever."  After the Final 11 Episode, I read a great many posts expressing the opposite opinion: that this is actually one of the worst seasons.  I can understand where these sentiments are coming from, but at the same time it seems to me that this is truly one of the best groups that Idol has ever put together, and to my ears and eyes their performances have been at a rather high level.

So I went into the WNTS.com database and, for each season, averaged all of their episode ratings up to and including the Top 10 episode.  I was especially interested in the "vaunted Season Five" crew, because I was under the impression that they peaked in the semis.  I've cautioned people that this year's themed semifinals might have hampered the contestants in comparison to S5.

Well, I was wrong about that.  Season Five didn't peak in the semis, but I was surprised at what I did find.  Without putting too much importance on the numbers (smart move!—Ed.), Season Seven is actually the highest-rated to this point.  It's at 49.7, a ways above the next highest, which is Season Four.  I happen to think S7 most closely resembles S4 in other ways too: a clear front-runner, the cast is diverse so there's something for everyone, and it followed a season widely perceived to be weak.  The lowest in fact was S5.  I tend to forget about the girls when I think back to that season, but they were mostly terrible in the semifinals.

Even if the numbers are too close to call, clearly this season isn't even close to being the worst thus far in terms of quality of performance.  Any thoughts as to why the perception seems to be quite different?

Regards,

Danielle

Danielle's excellent letter touches on a number of important matters, which we'll try to address in something resembling a logical order.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

First, is this season really that poorly received around the Idolsphere?  We checked a few big websites after the unpopular Final 11 Episode, and here's a few of the representative comments we found:

"[The producers] hyped the talent this year as being the best ever, and I think we saw last night that isn't true."

...and...

"[Last night] might have been the WORST singing of any episode I have seen in any season.  Not one person was good. ... Overall this group is just horrible.  I can't see any sort of bright future for any of them."

...and...

"OK, I am a huge Idol fan but last night's show makes me wonder why.  What a horrible hour of TV.  I could honestly see any of them going home. ... [After last year] we are stuck with this lot of crap?  Spare me.  I could care less anymore."

We found dozens more posts along these lines, but this'll suffice.  Now, it's true that the Idolsphere's mood is much better this weekend after Tuesday's mostly enjoyable and occasionally outstanding Year You Were Born episode.  But it's also true that on almost any Idol forum on the Web, you'll find threads asking fans to cite their favorite AI seasons, and Season Five is consistently the winner.  Hordes of Idol fans only wish S7 was as good as S5.

Which is quite ironic.  You see, we lied.  All three of the blistering comments we quoted above, and the dozens of similar (and worse) ones that we didn't (or couldn't; many are just unrepeatable), aren't from Season Seven at all.  All were actually posted after the Final 10 Episode of Season Five!  Oh, we're such clever devils, aren't we?

It's true, and here are the external links if you don't trust us:  [1], [2], and [3].  Through the Final 10 show, Season Five was the least-liked season in American Idol history both in terms of WNTS.com approval ratings and the Idolsphere's collective venom.  Its semifinals were so-so at best, and three of the first four episodes in the Finals posted below-average approval ratings, with the Top 10 show coming in at a catastrophic 41.0.  (Incidentally, even if you do trust us, click through the first hyperlink anyway.  Pay close attention to the New York Post article that leads off the thread.  Doesn't the unnamed contestant to whom Simon was referring in 2006 sound just a wee bit familiar to you?)

The Journey To Vauntedville

So how did Season Five go from detested to revered over its final two months?  Better overall singing, stronger themes, a few showstopping performances, and most important of all: rapidly developing personalities.  If you claim to have fallen in love with Taylor Hicks, Katherine McPhee, Chris Daughtry, and Elliott Yamin right from the get-go, we'd respectfully request that you put down the rose-colored glasses and back away slowly.  It took quite a long time for the AI5 contestants to adjust to their newfound roles as pop celebrities.  As their performances grew more polished and consistent each week, so too did they grow on America.

Starting with Queen Week in the Final 8, the S5 Crew cranked out seven consecutive above-average episodes to close the season.  Thanks to a reasonably sensible order of elimination, AI5 entered its multi-song weeks with a very strong Final 5.  The strong finish, plus the post-Idol success many of them have enjoyed (toss Kellie Pickler and Bucky Covington in this group as well), is what put the "vaunted" into The Vaunted Season Five.

In short, we think the Idolsphere happens to remember the destination far more clearly than they do the journey.

None of this guarantees that S7 will be recalled this fondly two years from now, of course, but we're far from ready to give up on it.  As Danielle notes, its approval rating to date is exceptionally high, relatively speaking.  Ratings almost always rise as the season progresses and weaker contestants are eliminated.  Mentors are being brought in beginning this week, and they usually help more than they hurt.  (Upon hearing Kristy Lee Cook's proposed arrangement for Eight Days A Week, we're confident that Barry Manilow would've locked her in the ladies room until she agreed to change it.)  Two of the three Finals episodes so far have been pretty good, and if the Final 11 wasn't, the repeated theme surely had a lot to do with that.

The Bridge To Tomorrow

In answer to Danielle's final question: why does the perception of Season Seven seem much poorer than its overall performance ratings would warrant?  We're not sure, but we'll toss out a few possibilities.

First and most obviously, American Idol is coming off what a great many feel is its worst season.  For that reason alone, Idol Nation has been understandably hesitant to jump into AI7 with both feet.  Recognizing that the product needed some freshening up, the producers instituted a number of changes this year: some for the better (a more realistic Hollywood week, introduction of musical instruments), some not (themed Semifinal weeks, the annoying mosh pit), and some on which the jury is still out.

Unfortunately, the producers also made three major missteps that they're still paying for.  First, they overplayed their hand with all the "Most Talented Top 24 Ever" hype – even if they happen to have been correct, they set viewers' expectations too high.  Second, they spent an inordinate amount of time building up the backstories of several Hollywood contestants, only to dismiss them during the final cutdown.  (Yes, we expect the ever-conniving producers to bring many of them back for AI8 and beyond, but that doesn't help AI7 much, does it?)  Last but not least, they chose to whitewash the professional backgrounds of several contestants, and when that news inevitably leaked out through other channels, it triggered widespread resentment and outrage.  We hope the British health care system covers gunshot wounds to the foot.

Perhaps the most significant change of all is the nature of the Season Seven contestants themselves.  This crew is far from Idol's usual collection of cookie-cutter characters direct from Central Casting.  They're more quirky, eclectic, and artistically-minded.  Unlike the versatile "wedding singer" prototype of past seasons, most seem uninterested in catering to the least common denominator.  They specialize in a particular genre, play to their strengths (as all good professionals do), and don't give a fig about trying to please viewers who'll never buy an album from them or attend one of their concerts.

Most refreshingly, at least in our eyes, this year's Idols don't take the average viewer to be a musical idiot.  Rather than deliver yet more karaoke, they're unearthing innovative arrangements of familiar songs or concocting them on their own.  They own up to their mistakes (Danny Noriega, Jason Castro, David Archuleta and K. Cook all come to mind) with the unspoken promise to learn and improve.  One front-runner even did something that was unthinkable in years past: she stood onstage and cheerfully admitted to the judges that she wasn't as good of a singer as the artist she'd just covered; hence, major surgery on the song had been required.  When was the last time you heard a Whitney or Celine wannabe do that?

All of this is a sea change for American Idol.  It's no doubt ticking off a lot of old-school fans who tune in to the show to hear belters belt out hit songs exactly as they're sung on the radio.  America has typically voted with its heart at least as much as its head, and this year's crew (with the producers' tacit blessing) is aiming squarely for the latter.  We don't want to sound too snobby here, but the strategy is very risky given how many Idol fans, uh, really aren't musical Einsteins; they'd much prefer a typically smarmy Reality TV show set to music.  Still, if this transition succeeds, the long-term benefits are enormous:  a stronger, hipper franchise whose TV ratings might not be as gargantuan as they once were, but which attracts smarter, more diverse, and more innovative contestants, the sort who wouldn't have dreamed of auditioning for this cheesefest in the past.  If one person is most disadvantaged by this ground shift, it's Syesha Mercado.  We find her to be a very fine vocalist but definitely an "Old Idol" sort of contestant.  We suspect that in most previous seasons she'd have been considered a strong contender to win; this year she's being derided as "Screamesha" and seems destined for a trip home sooner rather than later.

(Incidentally, if Idol does succeed in reinventing itself in this manner, we hope Blake Lewis someday gets the pioneering credit he deserves.  No contestant better demonstrated how innovation and cleverness could more than make up for relatively weak vocal skills.  In our more charitable moments, we might even say the same about San--...Sanj--...um, yeah, him too.)

In short, we're cautiously optimistic.  Billie Jean is the moment we might look back on in 2010 as Season Seven's turning point.  But beware: the Idols next have to navigate the tricky terrain of Country Week, which is historically one of the lowest-rated episodes of every season.  By this time next weekend we could be back at square one again.  Let's let the next month play out and see what happens.  In the meantime, if your friends and online buddies openly wish that AI7 was more like AI5, tell them not to worry.  It might already be much closer than they realize.

- The WNTS.com Team

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