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Halfway Home

Random thoughts as we approach the halfway point of Season Nine

Your typical American Idol season runs for fourteen weeks – three for the semifinals, and eleven for the finals.  With six weeks down in Season Nine, and eight more contestants to whack before we crown a champion, that means that at the end of this week's results show, we'll be halfway home.

As this was Easter weekend, and a brilliant and sunny one at that, our staff was out and about the past few days.  Thus, our editorial tonight will be brief.  Here's what's on our mind (and yours) as we await Tuesday's episode.

In what was otherwise a fairly good Soul Week on American Idol, two ill-advised (we hate to use the term "boneheaded" when young kids are involved) moments stood out.  One has been pilloried mercilessly throughout the Idolsphere this week, while the other has more or less escaped notice.

The former, of course, was Aaron Kelly's puzzling decision to sing Ain't No Sunshine, a song that had been memorably knocked out of the park last year by reigning champion Kris Allen...twice!  We'll be fair and point out that oftentimes when a singer's first few song choices aren't cleared, or are chosen by someone else, the producers have been known to assign a pre-cleared song to a contestant.  (The hapless Garrett Haley in AI7 is the poster child for this sort of abuse.)  We know it's well against the odds, but we'll hope that was the case here, because otherwise that was as indefensible a song choice on Idol in quite some time.

The other was a gaffe by the outgoing Didi Benami in her post-performance conversation with Ryan Seacrest.  Defending her song choice, Benami let slip that she's "not an R&B singer", and that she "did what she could with the theme this week."

That popping sound you heard immediately after was us, slapping our foreheads.

It's true that contestants often find themselves challenged with ill-fitting themes.  Had this been Salsa Week, or Disco Week, or, heaven help us, You Light Up My Life Week, we could, in our charitable moments, forgive a little kvetching.  But it was Soul/R&B Week, and here, no excuses are permitted.

There are essentially four major food groups to modern American pop music.  One is Rock & Roll and all its variations – from the original rockabilly and blues-rock, through the British Invasion, progressive, heavy metal, arena, new wave, grunge, and alternative.  Two is Country, whose roots go back over a century and a half in the pioneer cities of the Deep South and Old West.  Three is Folk, spanning the troubadours like Guthrie and Dylan and the Kingston Trio to the singer-songwriters of today.  And the fourth is the R&B spectrum: blues, Motown, Philly Soul, (*ahem*) disco, funk, rap, and hip-hop.

If you should ever find yourself a contestant on AI, then for heaven's sake, never complain about any of these four themes.  You might as well tell America that you don't understand baseball, hate hot dogs and apple pie, and don't care too much for your mom to boot.  Some of the most revered performances on the show have come when a contestant has gone way outside his or her comfort zone, found a great song, and launched it into low-earth orbit.  (Melinda Doolittle, anyone?)

Bottom line: If you cannot find at least one song in each of these genres that you can sing brilliantly, you probably shouldn't be on American Idol.  And you definitely don't want to advertise the fact.

Last week's "Long Train Wreckin'" editorial brought a few very interesting emails our way, as our readers found different ways to quantify the damage that the unfortunate Top 16 eliminations inflicted on Season Nine.  One of the best was from regular correspondent Kurt Taube, whose analysis we present in full: 

The following data are the sums (not means) of the ratings for each season’s top 16 contestants, organized thusly:

Sum of ratings for Top 16
Sum of ratings for Top 10
Sum of ratings for contestants 11-12
Sum of ratings for contestants 13-16
Sum of ratings for “ideal” Top 10
Sum of ratings for “ideal” contestants 11-12
Sum of ratings for “ideal” contestants 13-16

4 ----- 823 ----- 604 –  79 – 140 ----- 633 – 79 – 111
5 ----- 886 ----- 633 –  79 – 174 ----- 652 – 95 – 139
6 ----- 824 ----- 576 – 104 – 144 ----- 665 – 72 –  87
7 ----- 839 ----- 610 – 103 – 126 ----- 645 – 80 – 114
9 ----- 820 ----- 555 –  60 – 205 ----- 627 – 73 – 120


Obviously, the Top 16 aren’t identical to the best 16 in a given year, but let’s go with it.  A few observations…

The Season 9 Top 10 (both actual and ideal) is, overall, the lowest-rated Top Ten of the five seasons.  This would be true even if the ten strongest contestants had advanced each year, but the disparity would be much smaller.  Season 9’s crew would be 0.6 points lower than Season 4’s, and less than 4 points lower than the top-scoring group from Season 6.

Season 6?  The group that almost brought the franchise to its knees?  Well, yes.  The Season 6 ideal Top 10 averaged nearly 9 points higher than the actual Top 10.  That’s what happens when we trade Stephanie and Sabrina for Haley and Sanjaya.   The Season 9 ideal Top 10 is over 7 points better than the actual Top 10, and three contestants (Lilly, Katelyn, and Alex – sum 173 – for Aaron, Katie, and Tim – sum 101) made the difference.

The flip side of Season 9’s problem is that the last four eliminated semifinalists (no. 13-16) were the best of any of the five seasons both in absolute terms and in comparison to the ideal bottom four – and this group couldn’t afford to dilute an already thin talent pool.  Season 5’s 13-16 were also a strong group, but the Season 5 bench was strong enough to take the hit.

Finally, we've published a new American Idol-themed game over at Sporcle.  This time the theme is Cursed Songs:  Can you name all of the songs that have sent two or more contestants home on AI?  We give you the contestants and the artists, you name the song.  You'll find the game here:


Good luck, and here's hoping that AI9 breaks its good week/bad week pattern on Tuesday night. 

(PS - we are way behind on our email after this weekend, so if you've written us recently and haven't heard anything back, we appreciate your patience.)

- The WNTS.com Team

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