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A Tale of Epoch Proportions

The latest era of American Idol is drawing to a close. What will follow?

Final Five weekend is upon us, and speculation is rampant across the Internet as to whose long run on American Idol will soon be coming to its end.  Will it be the cute underdog who started off slowly but who might be peaking at the right time?  The likable, quirky girl who lacks eloquence and whose fashion sense is dreadful, but whose unusual performances have nonetheless built her a loyal fanbase?  Maybe even the overwhelming favorite, the guy who's always been a little bit different than the rest, but who seems to be getting a bit bored with the competition and so might end up as a shocking departure?  The only one who seems safe is the soulful, slightly chubby guy with the inoffensive personality, even if he does sound pretty much the same week in and week out.  Namely, "Dawg, that was hot!"

Hmm?  Well, yeah, of course we're talking about the judges.  Who did you think we meant?

For the first time in years, there's serious talk of a major shakeup looming at the front table.  By now you've read the rumors that Kara DioGuardi may or may not be feuding with her male colleagues, that Paula Abdul is probably on her way out the door, and that Simon Cowell seems set to move on to other projects when his contract expires after next season.  Only the Dawg Pound's kennel master, Randy Jackson, seems safe, though that's no surprise.  We honestly suspect that if we were to walk into the Idol studio at 5am on Christmas morning, we'd find Randy there, sitting happily in his usual chair and yelling, "We got a hot one in the house!" every five minutes.  He lives for that.

Anyway, we're not terribly concerned whether these particular rumors are true or not.  Either way, there's little doubt that major changes are on the horizon for American Idol.  In fact, we'd take it a step further: we think the second major phase of the show's evolution is reaching its natural conclusion.  What the next generation of AI will look like, however, is anybody's guess.

A Brief History Of Time

When Tamyra Gray launched into And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going in June of 2002, accompanied by a single piano player, the First Idol Epoch was underway.  For the next few years, AI was all about big personalities with big voices singing big songs on an increasingly bigger stage.  The producers mixed in plenty of Reality TV cliches along the way – the scrappy underdog, the scheming vixen, the cute kid next door, ad nauseum – and they even created a few innovative new cliches of their own.  Chief among them: a three-judge panel that included a British import whose job was to deliver brutally honest verdicts on live TV.  Contestants with star power were told they had what it takes; those who were in over their heads were thrown an anchor and advised not to hit anything on their way to the ocean floor.

Over the next few years, the contestants became a bit more polished and the music got a tad more sophisticated.  The piano player gave way to prerecorded karaoke tracks, then to live musicians, and ultimately, in Season Four, to a full house band led by Rickey Minor.  That year, several contestants with strong musical backgrounds took advantage of this new flexibility to try out different arrangements of familiar songs.  One of the first was rocker Nadia Turner, who put a ska-rock twist on the timeless torch ballad Time After Time.  The Idolsphere was not impressed.  Turner earned scathing reviews from the judges and her first sub-50 approval rating from web reviewers...but the genie was out of the bottle.

Your typical geologic era doesn't normally come with a firm start and end date.  Not so for Idol eras.  The First Epoch ended on May 17th, 2005, at about 8:40pm EDT.  That's when Bo Bice, who'd been gently pushing the musical envelope all season, boldly decided to turn out the lights, turn off the band, and sing Badlands's In A Dream a cappella.  In contrast to Turner, Bice's gamble was an unqualified success across the board, earning the second-highest approval rating in our database, a 96.  And the Second Idol Epoch had begun.

As fate would have it, "In A Dream" didn't really help Bice all that much in the competition.  The following week, he finished runner-up to Carrie Underwood just as everyone expected.  Furthermore, we expect that if we ran a comprehensive survey of the Idolsphere today for the purposes of compiling brand-new "historical" approval ratings, to supplement our current "overnight" ones (and yes, that project is in the works), "Dream"'s number would drop by several points.  We'd guess 91 or 92; no doubt it would still rate in the Top 25 performances of all time, but #2 is most unlikely.  Simply put, we've all seen so many dramatic song reinterpretations and rearrangements in the intervening years that some of its breathtakingness has worn off.

Nonetheless, "In A Dream" remains the most significant performance in Idol history thus far.  Much like the woman in Apple's legendary 1984 Super Bowl commercial, Bice metaphorically ran up the studio aisle and flung his hammer directly into Big Brother's TV screen.  From that point forward, viewers expected innovation and intelligence from every serious Idol contender, to go along with top-quality singing...and in a pinch, the latter could be spared.

(Fans of Fantasia Barrino are welcome to voice their objections here, but we'll have to disagree.  Her memorable presentation of Summertime may have been epic, but it wasn't epoch.  In other words, it was outstanding theater, one of the best of the first era, but it didn't result in a new wave of aspiring choreographer-singers rushing to audition for American Idol.  Besides, Season Three was such a hot, flaming mess from start to finish that we'd say nothing it produced could be called a game-changer.  However, if you want to argue that the seminal performance of Epoch Two was actually Chris Daughtry's I Walk the Line, we'd listen.)

In many ways, "In A Dream" seems practically quaint today.  After all, Bice merely stripped down a blues-rock song to its bare bones.  Here in the Second Epoch, that's nothing.  Inventive Idols have brought America just about every musical twist and turn imaginable, deconstructing popular songs and glueing them back together in ways hardly anyone would have considered.  We've heard R&B sung as rock, rock sung as folk, adult contemporary sung as grunge, pop sung as bluegrass-zydeco, and even classic country sung as Middle Eastern glam.  Why then was anyone surprised this past Tuesday when we witnessed what might be remembered as the ultimate Second Epoch episode: an entire night of disco sung as anything but.  Heck, the one contestant who sang her dance song exactly as it was written was blasted by the judges, skewered by web reviewers, and sent home by America the next night almost before the first commercial break.  Ponder that for a bit, because nothing more clearly illustrates how far we've come.

Our friend Leo The Idol Guy refers to the current era as "New Idol", and he's written a lot about how throwback contestants to "Old Idol" have struggled, like modern-day Lina Lamonts, to make the transition.  (Lil Rounds would seem to be a perfect example.  We likened her this week to an earnest kid at a junior-high science fair, sitting all alone at her table with a couple of potted plants and a neatly-drawn graph on poster board, while all around her the teachers and parents are flocking to the kids who brought the rocket ships and robots and 3D animated simulations.)  But, no epoch lasts forever.  Four years have passed since Bo Bice flung his hammer.  TV ratings are slipping, many viewers are grumbling, and analysts everywhere are wondering how long 19E can stick with the present formula.  Perhaps the show is overdue for its next evolution, though no one is precisely sure what that would and should entail.

Which brings us back to the nice folks at the judges' table.

Paging Charles Darwin

Evolution is not a proactive process.  A species doesn't collectively wake up one morning and say, "I think I'll grow legs and an opposable thumb today and see what that buys me."  Rather, organisms mutate spontaneously, and nature 'selects' which of those changes lead to survival and which lead to extinction.

Here in Idol's version of Jurassic Park, the producers are responsible for providing the environment, not the process.  That's something they constantly seem to forget.  The Second Epoch was triggered not by any silly Reality TV 'twist' that 19E and Fremantle dreamed up, but rather by the seemingly innocuous business decision to increase the band's budget and hire a professional music director.  (Early critics of the show noted mockingly that Idol was trying to identify first-rate singing talent by having them perform live to fourth-rate accompanyment.)  At the same time, the producers brought in a few hipper, more musically savvy contestants to try to extend the show's demographics.  We could be very wrong here, but we'd guess that Simon Fuller & Co. never envisioned what the new kids on the block might do when freed from the burden of all-karaoke arrangements.

Similarly, the Third Epoch will occur not by 19E fiat, but in response to some upheaval in the show's environment.  Perhaps a shakeup in the judging panel will be that meteor strike.  For example, it's clear that most serious Second Epoch contenders tailor their performances to please Simon Cowell.   Chikezie, David Cook, Anoop Desai: who can forget their priceless reactions after an unusual performance as they listened calmly to glowing reviews from Randy and Paula (and Kara) and thanked them politely, but then punched the air and rejoiced when Simon added his blessings.  That's not because Simon is a rainmaker, though his words obviously hold a lot of sway.  Rather, it's because his opinion most closely reflects America's, or at least serves to validate it.

Say all three of the judges in question depart after this season or next.  It won't be the end of the world...unless, that is, the producers foolishly try to bring in copycats as replacements.  As USA Today's Ken Barnes observes, it's very possible that if Simon leaves, 19E will seek out another cynical industry veteran with a severe attitude and a thick British accent, seat him at the right end of the table, and pretend that nothing happened.  To pun a phrase from the gaming community, that would truly be "epoch fail."

Better would be to bring in new judges with impeccable credentials, pitch-perfect judgment as to what America does and does not like, and the ability to deliver a helpful, no-nonsense, coherent review in under 15 seconds.  For a change of pace, we'd also welcome arbiters who understand that a great performance need not either be belted at full volume or rearranged dramatically.  Voice control and modulation, phrasing, lyrical interpretation, and nuanced delivery still ought to count for something.  (You do realize, of course, that if Billie Holiday were to return to earth and audition for AI, she'd never make it past the first table.)  Oh, and judges who lack the backbone to stand up to the producers' manipulative pressures need not apply.

Over time, the contestants will learn what traits will help them survive and thrive under the new sheriffs.  Perhaps it will be more modern arrangements, fewer repeated songs, less theatrics, and more musicianship, or (*shudder*) maybe it will be exactly the opposite.  Almost surely it will include a few skills we haven't even thought of.  Either way, change is unavoidable, and the Idols and viewers will adapt if the franchise is to survive.  Darwin said so.

None of this is to say that we're eager to throw the current judges under the bus.  For all the criticisms we send their way, we think three out of four have done at least a passable job this year.  (You figure out who's the fourth.)  If they stay, the producers will have to figure out other ways to overhaul their product; if they leave, we'll all adjust and move on.  Nor are we saying – and this is critically important – that a fresh set of judges will necessarily lead to the dawn of a new and glorious Golden Idol Epoch.  It could just as easily lead instead to mass extinction.  Fear of the unknown is why we all tend to cling to the tried and true.  But, everything has a shelf life, and we think the Second Epoch is nearing its own.  Neil Young may have had a point when he sang, "It's better to burn out than to fade away."

Over the next few weeks, along with publishing the results of our final two Idolmetrics studies of the year, we'll take a closer look at how the next generation of American Idol might be shaped.  The sins of Season Eight are too numerous to be absolved in one sitting, but at least there are glimmers of hope.  We're heartened, for example, by the fact that of the 13 finalists this year, 11 received extended "pimp piece" promos during the audition episodes...and the other two are still alive in the competition.  (That'd be Allison Iraheta, who was deemed worthy of an audition interview only, and Kris Allen, who got jack squat.)  If the producers truly understand the enormous significance of that little statistic, and thus what the sham semifinals of AI8 might have cost them in terms of talent, it would be a gargantuan step forward for Season Nine.  We might even be tempted to call it an epoch moment.

Addendum

Since this essay first appeared in Season Eight, both the WNTS team and The Idol Guy have re-pondered the boundaries of American Idol epochs.  (Epochography is a science that profits from hindsight, you see.)  By early in 2012, we'd come to a joint consensus that we are now in the Fourth Epoch of AI, and that what we'd previously termed the Second Epoch actually comprised two distinct periods.  Here's our take on it now, with the caveat that this too could someday change as history unfolds.

Epoch One:  Seasons 1, 2 and 3

  • Defining Traits:  Big-voiced singers, many who were veterans of regional theater or gospel choirs, singing well-known songs in primarily a straight-up style.  The bigger the voice, the better the contestant generally did.
  • Lead Characters:  Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken, LaToya London, Fantasia Barrino
  • Seminal Performances:  "Stuff Like That There", "A Natural Woman", "A House Is Not A Home", "Solitaire", "All By Myself", "Summertime"
  • Foreshadowing Moment of Next Epoch:  "Sin Wagon"
  • Meteor Of Flaming Extinction:  When 19E hired a full-time house band and musical director and began bringing in stronger contestants in genres like rock and country.

Epoch Two: Seasons 4, 5 and 6

  • Defining Traits:  Variety of musical genres; serious foray into rock, country and blues; dramatic arrangements and presentations.
  • Lead Characters:  Carrie Underwood, Bo Bice, Taylor Hicks, Chris Daughtry, Melinda Doolittle
  • "Toto, We're Not In Kansas Anymore" Moment: "In A Dream"
  • Seminal Performances: "Alone", "Over The Rainbow", "I Walk The Line", "My Funny Valentine", "I (Who Have Nothing)"
  • Foreshadowing Moment of Next Epoch: "You Give Love A Bad Name"
  • Meteor Of Flaming Extinction:  The rule change before AI7 that allowed contestants to use instruments.

Epoch Three: Seasons 7, 8 and 9

  • Defining Traits:  Musical imagination and musicianship at forefront.  Successful contestants played instruments and deconstructed/rearranged songs extensively.  Strong voices alone deemed woefully insufficient.
  • Lead Characters:  David Cook, Kris Allen, Adam Lambert, Crystal Bowersox, Lee DeWyze
  • "Toto, We're Not In Kansas Anymore" Moment: "Hello"
  • Seminal Performances: "Billie Jean", "You're So Vain", "Mad World", "Heartless", "Treat Her Like A Lady"
  • Foreshadowing Moment of Next Epoch:  Unclear.  Perhaps "Paint It Black" or "Jealous Guy"
  • Meteor Of Extinction:  Simon Cowell's departure, Nigel Lythgoe's return.

Epoch Four: Seasons 10 and 11

  • Defining Traits:  Massive change in judging lineup; weekly mentors; more positive critiques; producers' conscious decision not to force contestants far out of their comfort zone.
  • Lead Characters:  Scotty McCreery, Haley Reinhart, James Durbin, Elise Testone, Phil Phillips
  • "Toto, We're Not In Kansas Anymore" Moment: "You've Got Another Thing Coming"
  • Seminal Performances: "I'll Stand By You", "House Of The Rising Sun", "When A Man Loves A Woman", "Whole Lotta Love"
  • Foreshadowing Moment of Next Epoch:  Still waiting....
  • Meteor Of Extinction:  We'll guess competition from The Voice, an inferior show but with much more action and not-quite-as-contrived drama in its early stages.

Note that there is a certain comforting consistency in this breakdown.  Each epoch seems to last for three years.  The first year is a little bit unsteady as contestants, producers and judges alike become acclimated to their new surroundings, but the ending is usually satisfying.  The epoch reaches its creative peak in the second season.  By year three, the ecosystem begins to collapse under its own weight when the producers go to the same well once too often.  Stress fractures become evident, and by season's end there is a general consensus throughout Idol Nation that a change is gonna come...or else.

- The WNTS.com Team

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