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Paula: You Can Do It. We Can Help.

Random thoughts and observations as we reach the halfway pole of the AI8 finals.

While most of the attention at WhatNotToSing.com this week was on Mad World's monster approval rating, a more significant drama might have been playing out on the next database column over.  For the first time ever, Adam Lambert's standard deviation came in below 20, having dropped a point when we did our final polling this weekend.  A 19 is still an unusually strong level of disagreement for a performance with an approval rating of 92 or better – only Bo Bice's landmark Whipping Post tops it, and that one is easily explained by the sea change it represented on American Idol.  Bice quite literally rocked the world of the show's predominately adult contemporary and kiddie-pop viewership at the time.

No one has ever won Idol with an average standard deviation of 19 or higher.  Lambert's currently stands at 26.0.  Although that figure has been slowly receding the past few weeks, it's still staggering – nearly four points higher than any other finalist's in the show's eight-year history.  If "Mad World" indicates that Lambert is learning how to be innovative without being outrageous and polarizing too, then he's the overwhelming favorite to win Season Eight.  But, if he has another Ring Of Fire or two teed up for the next few weeks, we'd expect him to be a not-so-shocking eliminee sometime around the Final Three.

Which winner had the highest standard deviation thus far?  We'd wager most readers would immediately guess Fantasia Barrino...but they'd be mistaken.  Believe it or not, Barrino ranks in the middle of the pack at a modest 17.9.  While her brash personality and nasally vocals were certainly matters of intense dispute, there was at least some grudging agreement among her fans and detractors as to which of her performances were good and which ones weren't.  In fact, David Cook has the highest s.d. thus far among AI champs, at 18.9.

Thanks to Tuesday's generally well-received show, the average approval rating for Season Eight now stands at 50.2.  That puts it at #3 with a bullet among the first eight seasons.  Barring a few catastrophic episodes on the way home (anyone for Air Supply Night?), or multiple late-season meltdowns a la Jason Castro and Brooke White, AI8 is on pace to become the highest-rated season ever.  By a lot.

We'd assign credit for this unexpected development primarily to the voters.  Since the surprising dismissal of Alexis Grace in the Final 11, the Idol electorate has been relentless about sending home the contestant with the lowest overall rating each week.  Thus, of the seven remaining Idols, just one has an average rating under 50Lil Rounds, at a very respectable 49.5.  Next lowest are Anoop Desai and Matt Giraud, both in the mid-50s.  The other four are all above 60, though Danny Gokey's rating has been on a pronounced slide lately.  In fact, as correspondent Karl pointed out this week, currently seven of the top 14 rated contestants e-v-e-r are from Season Eight.  (That's a sore subject for us considering three of them were semifinalists who took an early plane ride home thanks to the producers' myopia.)

Approval ratings are a measure of performance quality, not viewer satisfaction.  The latter seems still to be extremely low this year, though the buzz from "Mad World" has brought at least a temporary pause to the Idolsphere's kvetching.  No doubt a big reason the producers chose to turn the AI8 semifinals into a kangaroo court was to ensure high-quality performances throughout the finals.  This may turn out to be a classic example of "The operation was a success, but the patient died."

One feature that has long been on the WNTS drawing board is a "Bad Song Choice Hall Of Shame."  If and when we get around to this, rest assured that Scott Macintyre's resurrection of The Search Is Over will be an original inductee.  The mostly-forgotten Survivor power ballad failed him on multiple levels, not the least of which is that it's a terrible song filled with terrible lyrics reminiscent of an AI Original Winners Song.™  In that light, his dismissal this week was well-deserved.

That said, we believe some of the criticism leveled at Macintyre's singing abilities is misguided.  While it's fair to assert that he's too weak of a vocalist to win American Idol, in some ways that reflects more on the show than it does on him.  Fact is, there have been legions of successful singer-songwriters over the years who are no better than Macintyre vocally, including quite a few who are demonstrably worse.  (The first name always tossed out in discussions like this is Bob Dylan, but he's an extreme case and at any rate he's only the tip of the iceberg.)

Great singer-songwriters thrive on crafting songs that fit their vocal abilities, no matter how gifted or how limited that might be.  Those not blessed with Elton John-caliber pipes make hay on other aspects of their music, such as catchy melodies, eloquent lyrics, superior musicianship, and emotional, evocative performances.  On Idol, however, vocals are king, and all other factors are given short shrift (save, perhaps, for the "evocative performances" bit, and that's often a coin flip.  Sometimes the judges recognize the subtle brilliance of a Hallelujah; other times they dimiss nuanced performances with a disdainful sniff, in favor of the Diva Du Jour belting the latest rendition of I Have Nothing.)

None of this is to say that Macintyre belongs in the pantheon of outstanding folkies.  We haven't listened to his pre-Idol music and videos (we avoid such distractions until the season is complete), so we honestly have no clue.  It merely says that if a Dylanesque talent ever does decide to audition for the show, he or she probably won't get very far, not to mention they'll likely face the usual blistering criticism over their "ordinary" vocals.  If AI is merely a "singing competition", as Randy Jackson sometimes asserts, then this is how it should be.  But if it's designed to find the best unsigned pop music talent in America, then one surely has to wonder how many worthwhile candidates are falling through its cracks.

We're still a few weeks away from our annual Suggestions For Next Season article.  Given how bored and irritated we have been with AI8, you might expect it to run as long as A Tale Of Two Cities.  ("It was the worst of times, it was the worster of times...")  But in fact, it'll probably be a fairly short list, since some of the producers changes this season have, in fairness, worked out reasonably well.  Unfortunately, the stuff they engineered badly has turned out not unlike this.

Anyway, we'll get back to this topic sometime in May.  Still, there is one change that needs to be made pronto.  Even though, we embarrassedly admit, we ourselves proposed the change last year, it's now obvious that four judges at the table are too many.  All would've been fine if Randy, Paula, and Simon could've simply cut their speaking time by 25% each.  But, let's be frank, there are some very big egos at play here, so that's never going to happen.  Despite making one rookie mistake after another, we think Kara DioGuardi is already superior to at least one veteran judge, and nearly even with a second.  So, we're not ready to cut her loose.  What to do?

We suggest that the producers take a lesson from Fox Sports.  When that team hired retired Colts lineman Tony Siragusa as a color commentator a few years ago, they were savvy enough to realize the folly of cooping up that big personality (in more ways than one) in a cramped announcers' booth.  Thus, they handed him a wireless headset and allowed him to wander the sidelines, chatting with personnel from both teams and offering field-level insights in real time.

Could not something similar be done with Paula?  Her at-the-table commentary is as insipid as it's ever been.  It's been worsened lately by her hilarious attempts at reciting some way-too-large words that her ghostwriters have added to her scripted comments, presumably in an effort to make her sound less ditzy.  Plus, her gleeful swaying and dancing through her favorite contestants' performances is just as shameful this season as it was the previous seven.  Those antics make a mockery out of the title of "judge".

But sweet Paula's shortcomings might come off as strengths if they originated from, say, the mosh pit.  She can dance there all she wants, and she can gush over her favorites just like any other fangirl.  Reporting from the audience, there'd be no need for her to try to pronounce five-dollar words like "authenticity" correctly.  Her job would be to absorb and convey the raw emotion of the performance (briefly!) rather than expound upon its technical aspects.  That's something we think would be perfectly suited for her personality, plus it would add a welcome new dimension to the commentary.  If the producers disagree, then we'll just have to put forth our alternate suggestion in a few weeks.  (Hint: it involves surgery, Paula's gluteus maximus, and a tie-down strap from Home Depot.)

To the producers: We were just kidding about Air Supply Night.  Okay?  Kidding.  Don't even think about it.

- The WNTS.com Team

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