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Eight Simple Rules...

...for making good song choices on American Idol

The CSI:WNTS staff has analyzed the festering remains of Tuesday's Top iTunes Downloads corpse, and the trail of clues has led us straight to the usual suspects.  Here we stand outside the American Idol studios in downtown L.A.  We're going to march up that walkway and bang on the door, and when the producers answer, we're going to wave the death certificate in their faces and shout...

Ken Warwick buddy, you da man!  Simon Fuller, move over, we're joining you on the Dark Side!  Ceci Frot-Coutaz, we've got your back, even if the letters on your jersey there look like they were sewn on at random!  Simon, Paula, Randy, Kara...well, okay, you guys are just as whacked-out and unhelpful as ever.  But please, give us time!  We're kind of new to this whole Dark Side stuff.

Yes, we're serious, and no, we haven't been drinking.  For once, the producers were the victims, not the culprits.  After much pleading and begging across the Idolsphere, they set up the best, most promising, most overdue theme for a Finals episode in the show's long and sordid history: namely, "Open".  With just a few loose restrictions (essentially, the song only had to be reasonably well-known and copyright-clearable), the nine remaining Idols could sing anything they darn well pleased.  Anything!

It should have been a night of serial showstoppers.  Instead, the contestants took this golden opportunity, one that dozens of finalists before them would've given their left vocal cord for, and promptly drop-kicked it across the studio and into the parking lot where it got run over by a Fox tour bus.

Our guess is that the producers, after watching the tape of the carnage, won't re-use this theme until Season 152, right between Year You Were Incubated and The Divas Of Mars.  And that's a pity.  We've advocated for eons that there should be at least one Open night in every Finals.  Despite the lousy outcome, we stand strongly by that.  The problem wasn't the theme.  It was what the contestants did with all that newfound freedom.

"Youth is Wasted on the Young" - G.B. Shaw

Most Idol contestants are musically immature.  We don't mean that as an insult...whoops, we're on the Dark Side now, so maybe we do.  But it's a fact that all of them are, by design, very young.  To some, things like driver's licenses and shaving razors are still novelties.  Many can't legally drink, most aren't old enough to rent a car.  The elder statesman among all past and present Idols is Constantine Maroulis, who is currently doddering along at the ripe old age of 33.

(Incidentally, to underscore how long American Idol has been on the air, AI2's sweet teenybopper Carmen Rasmusen is actually older than Scott Macintyre, Matt Giraud, and Kris Allen.  For real.)

Sometimes we're reminded of the extreme youth of the contestants by their speech patterns or stage demeanor.  More often, however, it's exposed in their song choices.  Few truly understand what separates a suitable song from an unsuitable one, preferring instead to think with their hearts rather than their heads.  Consider how often we viewers have heard a contestant, having just turned in a dismal, fanbase-destroying performance, explain to the judges that they chose that particular song "...because it's one of my favorites!"  (One of these years, we're going to stand outside an audition site while dressed as undertakers, with those six words etched onto a mock tombstone.  Maybe a few of the kids in line will get the hint.)

So short of raising the audition age range to 35-to-50, what can the producers do to prevent more accidents like Tuesday's?  It's time to lay down the law...or at least, a few good rules.

Eight Is Enough

In fact, the set of rules for making a good song choice on American Idol is short and sweet:

  1. Choose a likeable, accessible, crowd-pleasing song...
  2. ...Whose strength is in the songwriting, rather than the personality or exceptional talents of the artist...
  3. ...Which hasn't already been sung to death on the show, or so well by a prior contestant that you'd only be inviting negative comparisons...
  4. ...Which lies realistically within your performing capabilities...
  5. ...Which you can rearrange to showcase your personality and vocal strengths, without destroying the song's fundamental character or resorting to gimmicks...
  6. ...Which you fully understand the message of the lyrics and can convey their meaning confidently...
  7. ...Which can be compressed effectively into one of Idol's 90-second "drive-by" performance slots...
  8. ...And finally, for heaven's sake, don't forget to sing it well!

That's it.  Eight simple rules, which we can sum up in eight simple words: Likable—Musical—Fresh—Singable—Arrangeable—Presentable—Condensable—Go!

Stop and consider some of the most memorable disasters in the show's history.  We think you'll find that all violated at least one of these rules, often in spectacular fashion.  For example, last year's two most famous train wrecks were Eight Days A Week and Carry On Wayward Son.  We'd say Kristy Lee Cook checked off the first four boxes just fine before getting absolutely flattened by Rule Five.  Meanwhile, we have correspondents and colleagues who would argue vehemently about which of the first six hurdles Amanda Overmyer may or may not have stumbled over, but all agree that Rule Seven was a 16-ton weight that landed square on her noggin.  We'll leave the analysis of other celebrated train wrecks to the reader.

The problem with this week's episode wasn't the theme.  It was that the contestants put on a clinic on what not to sing and how not to sing it.  Megan Joy didn't even get past Rule One (though about four other rules nailed her too.)  Rule Two felled Anoop Desai.  A few of the early rules got in body punches to Lil Rounds before #6 delivered the knockout blow (though in fairness to Rounds, the judges' inconsistent, narrowminded critiques in recent weeks seem to have confused her to the point where we doubt she could present Mary Had A Little Lamb confidently.)

Incidentally, don't underestimate the all-important last rule.  Too often on Idol, the judges over-harp on song choice when the only real problem was the delivery.  For instance, Simon Cowell's opinion to the contrary, we'd count Giraud as a simple Rule Eight victim this week.  We don't think there was anything terribly wrong with his song choice or his presentation; his vocals just happened to be sub-par.  It happens.

Living By The Rules

Once you understand the eight simple rules, you'll begin to understand some of their implications.  Obscure, novelty, and passing-fad songs violate Rule One, for instance.  Highly stylized, complex artists like Stevie Wonder will crush you at #2.  If Whitney Houston doesn't get you at Rule Three, she probably will at Rule Four.  Skirting too close to Rule Five is how love-it-or-hate-it performances are born; consult Adam Lambert for details.  Smiling or vamping through a mood piece has brought the wrath of Rule Six down on countless Idols, from Ace Young to Kat McPhee to Jason Yeager to Brooke White.  Storytelling songs don't get along with Rule Seven very well; for example, when the music stopped a couple weeks ago on Danny Gokey's Jesus Take The Wheel, our heroine was left spinning on the ice.  And even if you make it this far safely, Rule Eight is always there, lurking in the darkness with a tire iron.

You might have noticed that no rule mentions characteristics like musical variety or song age.  Those factors are vital to winning, of course, but oftentimes that's not a contestant's true goal.  Take Scott Macintyre, for example.  If he were still in contention to win Season Eight, then choosing Just The Way You Are would have been a very poor choice indeed because it couldn't possibly win him any new fans.  But, Macintyre cannot finish first in this field, and he undoubtedly knows it.  His objective is simply to stay alive and enjoy another week of nationwide exposure.  Under the circumstances, sticking with old piano ballads that he can handle is the only sensible move.  In American Idol, as in life, sometimes one must abandon the best possible outcome in favor of the best outcome possible.

Which brings us to the one contestant who played by the rules this week – all eight of them.  Kris Allen chose a popular, well written song that hasn't been done in competition on AI for years.  It was well within his vocal capabilities, and the sparse, blue-eyed soul arrangement played to his strengths.  The string quartet on stage was a nice touch.  The performance had a clear beginning, middle, and end without coming across as rushed, and most importantly, he sung it well.  Check, check, check.  It all added up to one of the highest approval ratings of the season.  Not that hard now, is it?

Oddly enough, Allen's effort left us feeling wistful.  This was a theme for clever and imaginative vocalists, and when most of the Final Nine failed to deliver, we couldn't help but wonder about many of the semifinalists that had been left behind.  What would Ju'Not Joyner or Jesse Langseth or Felicia Barton have cooked up this week?  What about Ricky Braddy or Kristen Macnamara or Jackie Tohn or Mishavonna Henson?  What if Taylor Vaifuanu or Ann Marie Boskovich or Stephen Fowler or even Stevie Wright had been given one more chance?  Say, whatever happened to all those interesting contestants?

Oh, that's right.  Our new best buddies, the producers, kicked them to the curb when they pre-selected the finalists this year.

Whew!  We knew last Tuesday's mess had to be your fault all along!

- The WNTS.com Team

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