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Substandard Deviation

An American Idol fairy tale in one long silly act

Once upon a time in the quaint medieval kingdom of Idolville, there lived two great princesses.  Princess Paulina The Beautiful But Incoherent ruled the happy province of Superbia.  She would break down in tears of joy every time one of her subjects sang a song beautifully, so beautifully that all the peasants agreed that if there were a show going on, that singing would stop it.  Actually, Princess Paulina would cry a lot of other times too, like when a cute guy was near or her little red Coke cup was empty, but that's quite another story.

The other great royal was Princess Simonetta The Crotchety, who ruled the province of Trainwreckia.  (You say trains hadn't been invented yet?  Aw, go write your own fairy tale.)  She would react with indignation and insults whenever one of her subjects sang a song so wretchedly that all within earshot either fled in horror or attempted to puncture their eardrums with screwdrivers, which fortunately for them also hadn't been invented yet.  Secretly, however, Princess Simonetta loved these terrible performances because it gave her a chance to preen and pose and act regally rude in front of an audience, plus she liked it when the peasants booed her.  She was sort of a jerk, you see.

For many years, both Paulina and Simonetta had ample opportunities to enjoy their favorite moments, because Idolville was stocked with singers both great and not-so-great.  But soon, the kingdom's bloggers (we know, we know, go away), while burning the midnight oil in their chambers, noticed the emergence of an interesting trend.  The frequency of these noteworthy performances seemed to be on the decline.  First they wrote it off to coincidence, then as a by-product of the welcome expansion of musical diversity within the kingdom, a trend first noted in an early editorial at the fabled Idolville website of WhatNottethToSingeth.com.

Only a few scientists were mad enough to claim that the decline of extreme performances was more than just a curiosity, but in fact the result of a conspiracy.  They pointed to an ancient runestone, one that had been marked with the Greek letter σ, and which contained a series of numbers that very few understood.  Those numbers were growing at an ominous rate, said the doomsayers, and the larger they grew, the less often Princess Paulina or Princess Simonetta would be satisfied.  Pipe down, said the other scientists in reply, or else we'll banish you to the distant province of Princess Randella The Monosyllabic or maybe even Princess Kariana The Superfluous, who hadn't even been crowned yet.

But the seers wouldn't be silenced.  In a forbidden midnight ritual that involved virgins, defrocked priests, a few musicians, and an obsequious host who was so annoying he wound up being sacrificed to the local volcano (and verily, there were joyous celebrations throughout the land), a terrible prophecy was handed down:  The land of Idolville would go one full year without witnessing a performance to rate above the mountain of 90 or below the valley of 10.

The two great princesses laughed – after all, hadn't those two nobles from the House Of Cook accomplished both feats last March during the kingdom's seventh annual music festival?  Come to think of it, that had been quite a long time ago.  Billie Jean took place during the Final 10 round, which means the one-year anniversary would be...(*gulp!*)...this week.  As the ten remaining troubadours of Festival Eight took the stage, all wondered whether or not the prophecy was about to be fulfilled.

That night, a fair damsel of Joy laid pillage to For Once In My Life.  The peasants sighed in relief, for they thought that there was no way she could possibly get out of the single digits even if she were awarded one bonus point for every different name she'd used during the festival thus far.  And later, a boisterous young lad from the Village Of Lambert doth prettied himself up and sang The Tracks Of My Tears quite sparklingly indeed.  Many thought he might have a shot at that long-elusive 90, if only out of massive relief among the peasants that he didn't glam-rock out the second half of the much-loved ballad, as all feared he might.

Alas, when the scientists returned from their chambers, they brought news of great sorrow.  It was clear from early on in their polling, they said, that neither performance would reach its goal.  In fact, Miss Joy was hovering near 20 until a few late-publishing bloggers and journalist dragged her rating firmly into the teens.  As for Master Lambert, he simply remains too polarizing among the peasants; his 85 rating, although the festival's highest to date, is likely about the best he can possibly achieve.

The year of drought was complete, and the dreaded prophecy had been fulfilled.  ("What about Jeanine Vailes?" shouted some wise guy from the back row of the theater.  The scientists immediately set upon him and threw him into the volcano, for they weren't going to allow one semifinal performance that everyone has already forgotten about to ruin a perfectly good fantasy storyline.)  Indeed, the mythical Vailes aside, no performance from the Eighth Festival thus far had reached Superbia's all-time Top 40 Hall of Fame, nor Trainwreckia's Bottom 40 Hall Of Shame, a mind-boggling feat.

A peasant shouted that it was all the scientists' fault; surely they had changed the arcane formulas by which they calculated ratings.  No, they replied, nothing of substance has changed since the runes were first devised in Festival Four.  It was all due to the mysterious sigma, the standard deviation, which had grown in epic stature the past few years and which was now at an all-time high.  The higher the variance of opinions, the harder it was for the townspeople to reach consensus at a very high or very low level.  By way of illustration, they pointed out that just one performance in all the festival's history had ever posted both a higher approval rating and a higher sigma than "The Tracks Of My Tears'" 85/21, and all that one proved is that choirs can be polarizing too.

No, cried the scientists while pointing at the castle on the hill, it was the rulers of Idolville who were to blame!  It all started with King Fuller of the House Of 19E, and his dark henchmen Count Warwick and Countess Simonetta (who was moonlighting from her day job as princess because she needed some extra money to pay off a few hefty domestic expenses.)  They had been aiming for drama and conflict during this festival season, and they succeeded.  This year had brought Idolville five of the ten biggest love-it-or-hate-it performances ever (three by Lambert, one each by Nick Mitchell and Jesse Langseth), plus the two finalists with the highest average standard deviations in history (Lambert and Joy, naturally.)

Some of the burst in discord surely reflects the people's backlash to many of the royals' foul deeds, claimed the scientists.  Those would include the rise in plants among the contestants, the princesses' irritating habit of overpraising the king's favorites, and the festival's general affinity for shameless manipulation.

The scientists then pointed out (in a much softer voice, for some reason) that the Idolville rulers cannot be blamed entirely for the drought.  In fairness to 19E, today's music scene is so fragmented that there may no longer be a compelling reason to try to please a wide swath of peasants.  It might not even be possible, in fact.  The best they can do is find a few troubadours to please each faction, even if some might infuriate members of other camps.  This makes a 90 rating much more difficult to attain today than during the festival's early days.  Plus, the king's plants have unquestionably raised the overall talent level in recent years, making a single-digit rating less likely to arise.

Nonetheless, the peasants were outraged.  Armed with torches and pitchforks, they stormed the Idolville castle and seized the royal family and their henchmen.  (Actually, about one-fifth of them quietly changed the channel to another fairy tale, which kept the size of the mob down.)  As they were carried up the slope of the volcano, all were heard to cry in terror and anguish.  All except Princess Simonetta, of course, who was secretly enjoying all the suffering going on around her.  Like we said, deep down she was really a bit of a jerk.

Last week, our crack editorial staff wrote that only 15% of the performances in Season Eight had rated out at either 1-star or 5-stars, by far the lowest of any year.  As if on cue, this week three of ten performances reached those strata, and a fourth barely missed, leaving us with egg on our faces.

While we're on the subject, we also recently pointed out that just four contestants, and none since Season Four, had been sent home the week immediately following their first trip to the Bottom Three.  Naturally, that's just what Michael Sarver did on Thursday.  And if we want to go back even further, we might mention that ever since last April's feature article on the Leadoff Jinx appeared in USA Today (along with our accompanying editorial) no contestant who has sung first in any Finals episode has gone home.

Contemplating all this, we came to the long overdue conclusion that the only true jinxes around here are ourselves.  Thus, we cooked up the above silly fable in the hopes that, if our luck holds, we'll actually get to see some true showstoppers (and maybe an entertaining train wreck or two) this coming Tuesday, breaking this drought once and for all.  Then, perhaps, all of we Idol fans will live happily ever after.

- The WNTS.com Team

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