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Put Your (Broken) Records On

The new season of American Idol gets off to a slow start for the same old reasons

"Reflections" ... "The Tide Is High" ... "D'yer Mak'er" ... "Here Without You" ... "Let's Get It Started" ... "Don't Stop Believing" ... "What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted" ... "Two Princes" ...

What's up with the song titles, you ask?  Did we unearth a list of spoilers for next week's episode?  Are we recommending material for the contestants to sing, in strict violation (ahem...again) of WNTS.com policy?  Are we simply babbling incoherently, because last Tuesday's awful Opening Night show turned our brains to mush to the point where even Hulu's Alec Baldwin won't go near them?

The answer is none of the above.  We think.  To be frank, we're not entirely certain about the "mush" part.  There's no question that we, like most American Idol fans, were left muttering to ourselves after Season Eight's brutal and bitterly disappointing kickoff.  We had high hopes for Group One, believing it offered as many as eight Finals-worthy vocalists, but it seems we overestimated by at least a factor of two.  And, just to add insult to injury, the one guy nobody had ever heard before, whom the producers completely ignored in the month-long lead-up, and who we even suggested in last week's editorial would make a splendid choice for VFTW, turned in arguably the best pure vocal of the night.  Alec, the melon baller, please!

Well, spongy cerebrums or not, we have a sacred duty to perform: to analyze this week's episode objectively and in our usual voice of reason.  Even if we'd prefer to throw reason, along with the judges and producers, off the top of the Hollywood sign right about now.  If they land smack on Alec Baldwin's head so that we don't have to watch that stupid commercial anymore, so much the better.  (Yes, yes, we'll explain what the parade of songs is about too...eventually.)

... "Only The Good Die Young" ... "Feels Like Tonight" ... "The Logical Song" ... "Glycerine" ... "I Second That Emotion" ... "Best Of My Love (The Emotions')" ... "Ironic" ... "Forever Young (Rod Stewart's)" ... "Irreplaceable" ...

We'd best start out by reiterating one key fact:  The Opening Night approval ratings weren't all that wretched, historically speaking.  It's easy to forget that first-round shows tend to be pretty rough, and this one was no exception.  Its 46.5 average rating was about normal for "maiden" episodes.  Don't believe us?  Take a quick look at our editorial from this time last year, particularly the table about five paragraphs in.  (Note that we've since added the data from Season One, which only served to drive the overall average down even further.)

So why do we, along with most everyone else, consider Tuesday's show to have been an extended train wreck?  Because expectations were sky high for this group, many of whom had excellent auditions, plus good performances during Hollywood Week, plus an impressive portfolio of YouTube videos that confirmed, on the small stage at least, that these boys and girls could sing.  Given all that, a "statistically normal" mediocre doesn't cut it.  It's like being served a hamburger when we'd ordered filet mignon.

Plus, this isn't exactly American Idol's debut season.  The producers have had eight long years to perfect their process.  Shouldn't slow starts be a thing of the past by now?  How many of you have jobs in which, if you fail eight times in a row, your boss will say, "No biggie; maybe the ninth time will be the charm"?  (And if you do have a job like that, can we send you our résumés?)

That said, it was only one episode.  Expectations are far lower for Group Two, which would seem on paper to be a substantially weaker twelvesome.  Given that AI's track record is to fall short when expectations are high and to exceed them spectacularly when they're low (see Bon Jovi Night, Dolly Parton Night, and virtually every Big Band/Standards Night to date), there's a decent chance that next Tuesday's show will bounce back strongly.  At least we hope so, or else TV history might be set – two networks broadcasting two different shows at the same time with what might as well be the same title: "Lost".

... "Jimmy Mack" ... "Wake Me Up When September Ends" ... "Who Knew" ... "Hey, Hey, My, My (Out Of The Blue)" ... "Margaritaville" ... "Driver's Seat" ... "Ghetto Supastar" ... "The Middle" ... "Baker Street" ...

We received an unusually high number of emails this week inquiring about Tuesday's approval ratings.  A few were from newcomers to the site, but most were from our regular correspondents.  A very common sentiment was that, taken individually, each of the twelve ratings was reasonable, but collectively their average seemed too high.  The show as a whole just "felt" much worse than the sum of its parts.

As noted above, we happen to agree.  The goal of Project WNTS is to boil off the emotion, bias, and subjectivity from American Idol, leaving just hard numbers that can be studied objectively.  But that doesn't mean we believe that emotion is worthless.  We stand by the latest ratings because we calculated them using the same methodology we've employed for years.  But the show still seemed unsatisfying and tiresome and predictable, almost as though we were watching a rerun...

And then it struck us:  We were watching a rerun, in at least one aspect.  Of the twelve songs featured on Tuesday, nine had already been performed on American Idol.  That's 75%.  Moreover, most of them had been sung multiple times before.  The full breakdown is in the table at right.

Not only were nine of this week's songs repeats, but seven of them were exactly the same arrangement as previous contestants had used.  If Tuesday's show felt like a broken record, it's because we'd heard it all before.  We tip our hats to Jackie Tohn and Casey Carlson for at least trying to mix things up a bit, although the former triggered a serious gender gap among the extended WNTS staff (our male senior editors both liked it, their wives plus our female junior editor hated it), and the latter...uh, no.  Just no.

... "When You Were Young" ... "Iris" ... "Lean On Me" ... "Who Says You Can't Go Home" ... "Waterfalls" ... "Here I Go Again" ... "Hanging By A Moment" ... "Better Be Good To Me" ... "My Happy Ending" ... "Luka" ...

Our colleague The Idol Guy, the father of Idolmetrics, has been studying the effects of song age on a contestant's success, both on Idol and post-Idol.  This week's snoozefest made us wonder what role repetition plays, too.

We know from our studies that, on average, a reprise performance (same contestant, same song, different episode; e.g. Imagine from last year's Finale) loses a whopping 21 points off its original approval rating.  That's one full star strata.  No reprise in the show's history has scored higher than its debut, though Taylor Hicks came close.  When you're a nervous semifinalist trying to leave a good first impression on America, perhaps that impression shouldn't be "been there, done that."

This would seem to call for one of our patented Idolmetrics experiments in which we isolated song repetition from other factors, then check to see if it plays a role in the elimination rate.  Alas, we didn't think of it in time for this weekend's writeup.  It takes quite a while to pull all the data together, so that research will have to wait until another day.

Instead, we decided to run a more informal analysis.  While schlepping his sons to swim practice, getting a haircut, shopping for groceries, etc., one of our senior editors kept track of every song he heard played in public this weekend, either on the radio or over a store intercom.  The parade of song titles you've been reading is a partial list.  We tallied about 75 songs in all.  Precisely four have been performed on AI: the three displayed with database hyperlinks, plus a certain Phil Collins song, initials A.A.O., that has been sung so poorly so many times on the show that we refuse to spell out its title.

... "American Girl" ... "Once In A Lifetime" ... "So Emotional" ... "Manic Monday" ... "Black Is Black" ... "The Man Who Sold The World" ... "U Remind Me" ... "Ride Wit Me" ... "Strange Magic" ...

Now, we are not suggesting for a moment that all of these songs would make great choices for a future contestant.  Some are too difficult to sing, some are too easy, and a few great ones, like "Once In A Lifetime" and "The Logical Song", are much too quirky to reproduce on the Idol stage (though that hasn't stopped three Idols thus far from crashing and burning on "Every Little Thing...")  Nor are we asserting that our results are scientifically conclusive by any means.

But the fact remains that roughly 94% of the popular, much loved, middle-of-the-road songs we heard this weekend have never been tried on Idol.  Instead, contestants are routinely singing the same old tunes the same old ways.  The faces and the voices and the backstories change from year to year, but the music is Recycled City.  How is this good for the franchise?

And that mess, as usual, is something we'll dump squarely in the producers' lap.  As they've told us numerous times, it's not always easy to get songs cleared for use on the show.  It's triply difficult to get songs cleared for broadcast and for recording and selling on iTunes, because they require separate (and expensive) usage rights from different copyright holders.  The path of least resistance is to encourage contestants to re-sing songs that the show has already cleared.

This can't go on.  At some point – sooner rather than later – something has to give.  The producers have to start making copyright holders offers that they can't refuse.  Unlike most of us these days, they can still afford it.  If they can get broadcast clearance for a song but not recording clearance, that'll have to do.  Just have the contestant record some other song that week for iTunes and explain why to the viewers.  We'll understand.

And for heaven's sake, put a hard limit to the number of times a song can be sung in competition already!  Three is acceptable, two is even better.  Nielsen ratings for Idol are down another 10% already this year, and if the show continues to air new episodes that amount to glorified reruns, that number is going to drop even more precipitously in the coming months.  Hey Alec, look out below!

- The WNTS.com Team

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