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Caterpillars and Butterflies

Idol contemplates lowering the audition age to 14. We have a better idea.

It took three months, several surprise eliminations, a couple of folk-singer meltdowns, and even (in one of the producers' most shameless stunts ever) a flock of "hit penguins" sent to whack the final pesky obstacle.  But, the David vs. David Finale that almost everyone predicted back in March is upon us.  We'll avoid playing a pundit role, except to say that we think both have by and large performed well through the season, and we predict both will enjoy ample chart success next winter when their debut CDs are released.

In fact, we're more worried about this summer than next winter.  Interviewed on Extra a few weeks back, Simon Cowell stated that the entertainment industry's competition for very young talent has become so fierce that American Idol might soon lower its audition age to 14.  We're sure that this was a trial balloon strategically floated by the producers to gauge the public's reaction, which so far has been overwhelmingly and heartwarmingly negative.  American TV viewers will tolerate a lot, but we're relieved to see that nationally televised child abuse is still beyond the pale.

Count us in firmly among those who would far prefer to see the minimum age on Idol, if it intends to stay with the current format, raised to 18.  The past two seasons have convinced us that it's both impractical and purposeless to have high school kids competing with mature, seasoned vocalists.  Trying to evaluate singers at two enormously different stages of their development is, quite honestly, ludicrous.  This isn't even like comparing apples to oranges;  it's more like comparing caterpillars to butterflies.

The assignment is particularly futile with Randy and Paula on the panel  Those two have proven time and again that they are either too sensitive, too protective, or too craven to criticize the youngest contestants when they royally stink up the joint.  They generally leave the dirty work to Simon, which is both unfair to him and infuriating to viewers at home.  Case in point: David Archuleta is suffering one of the most enormous Idolsphere backlashes we've encountered in seven seasons of tracking this show, which is particularly unfortunate because he seems to us to be a sincerely sweet-natured young man.  For this, he can thank Randy Jackson's propensity for showering him with effusive praise after every performance, whether good, average, bad, or With You.  We're sure R&P mean well, but if Idol is going to continue to allow minors in the competition, then someone needs to make those two aware that the double standard is not doing these kids or their future careers any favors.

All this said, we do understand the producers' concern.  The show's TV ratings have fallen ominously this year, particularly among tweens and teens.  On top of that, it must absolutely gall the 19E brain trust to see Miley Cyrus raking in millions of dollars in CD sales and concert tickets when she's still not old enough to audition for Idol.  The big bosses want a piece of that action desperately.  They're furious that Disney and other outlets are able to snap up the Cyruses of the world long before AI can get its hands on them.  A spinoff isn't the answer; the producers are still licking their wounds over the American Juniors fiasco.  What to do?

The answer is not to do anything as unconscionable as throw 14-year-olds into the existing Idol meat grinder.  Better, we think, would be a more humane approach.  There's really no reason that AI has to open its doors to the same age range every season.  Why not alternate: say, 14 to 20-year-olds one year, 21 to 28 the next?

The "youth cycle" could feature a kindler, gentler competition format that doesn't drive the kids to madness, with the details to be worked out.  Perhaps Idol could bring in dedicated mentors to assist with song selection, arrangement and presentation (think a Dancing With The Stars approach where each young contestant is paired with a well-known recording artist.)  The judges would serve as graders rather than inquisitioners, and it goes without saying that the songs and themes would be much, much, much newer than what we've been subjected to in AI7.  All of this would take place on Tuesday nights as usual and carry the official American Idol banner.

The "adult cycle" would be more like the status quo: a typically brutal reality TV show, featuring more mature and challenging themes (but please, no more Median Year 1976 nonsense), instruments, and high expectations of brilliance and innovation, all with little to no backstage assistance to the contestants.  This is Grown-Up Idol, after all.

It's no secret that American Idol is growing a bit long in the tooth.  We think the alternate-year cycle would breathe new life into the show by ending the current monotonous formula.  It's time to allow experienced professionals to go head-to-head with their peers without having to deal with the "Aw, isn't he cute?" crowd, while still giving 19E the opportunity every two years to find someone to take Hannah Montana's lunch money.  Let's start comparing caterpillars to caterpillars and butterflies to butterflies for a change.

- The WNTS.com Team

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