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There's Only You and Me and We Just Disagree

Reflections on perhaps the strangest night in American Idol history

We'll cheerfully admit it up front: none of us even remotely saw it coming.  Your loyal WNTS.com staff watched Shania Twain Night while chatting on IM.  It seemed a pretty sedate show.  All six contestants were at least passable, and most were fairly good.  No one was outstanding, though we all felt that Casey James came close.  We more or less agreed that Lee DeWyze's performance was overpraised (those first few bars sounded well out of tune, though he did a fine job on the chorus), that Michael Lynche had a strong if a bit forgettable vocal, that Crystal Bowersox's novelty song was her weakest performance to date but still quite good, and that Aaron Kelly had possibly his best showing.  The only performance we weren't entirely on the same page about was Siobhan Magnus's, though none of us thought it notably good or notably bad.

We then retired to our computers to begin tallying reviews from Idol Nation.  So much for sedate.  Right from the outset, the differences of opinion we encountered were staggering.  And, ferocious.  And also, to be honest, puzzling.  We expected there to be little consensus on the ranking order, given that there wasn't a whole lot to differentiate the six performances.  What we never expected was the wild variance in ratings from one reviewer to the next.

Each of the six performances (save perhaps for Bowersox's) had a cadre of supporters who felt that it was a 5-and-a-half-star masterpiece that deserved to be considered among the best of the season.  And, each performance (save for James's) had an angry mob of detractors who considered it a complete train wreck and wondered what the judges had in their ears...or between them, for that matter.

In the end, the final approval ratings weren't that far off from what we might have guessed at the outset.  James won the night, Kelly was a solid second, everyone else was bunched tightly together, and for only the third time in the series' history, no performance fell below 3-stars.  But the standard deviations were almost beyond belief.  Only four episodes previously had an average s.d. of 23 or more, the highest being AI5's Queen Night at 23.4.  Shania Twain night jumped the upper 23's, blew a hole right through the 24's, and wound up at an astounding 25.0.  Sports fans: think Bob Beamon in Mexico City, 1968, or Tiger Woods, in his pre-tabloid days, at the 2000 U.S. Open.

Still, the week saved its biggest surprise for last.  On the results show, Magnus became the first contestant in American Idol history to go home on a one-song/one-elimination week from the anchor slot, which had enjoyed a 53-for-53 safety streak up until that point.  Even more puzzling was the fact that Any Man of Mine posted a gargantuan standard deviation of 31, six points higher than any other eliminee in a "one-and-one" week.  The Idol voting system strongly favors love-it-or-hate-it performances, because those in the former group can power-dial their fingers to the bone while those in the latter can't cast negative votes against it.

What on earth happened?  Why did six reasonably comparable performances generate such drastic differences of opinion, and how did Magnus of all people get the boot?

We've read a lot of theories the past few days – some online, some from our regular correspondents.  Most are plausible, but none are entirely satisfying.  The best we can do is add three additional, unsatisfying hypotheses to the mix – one mathematical, one philosophical, and one borderline-conspiratorial.  See if any make sense to you.

  •  The mathematical explanation, which pertains solely to Magnus's departure,  is that virtually all of the performances had very high standard deviations, for whatever reasons.  That level of discord essentially canceled out the safety net that a 31 s.d. (plus the pimp spot) would normally accord a contestant.  All six fanbases were motivated to vote early and often, and evidently Magnus's was the smallest.  For evidence, note who was standing onstage next to her at the end:  James, who had the lowest s.d. of the night by far.  Fortunately for him, he also posted an approval rating approaching 5-stars, which evidently provided just enough impetus for the voters to save him.  Had he earned merely a 72 instead of a 77, we might be discussing a very different "shocking" elimination this weekend.
  • The philosophical explanation, which addresses the wild and unexpectedly divergent range of opinions, is also something of a paradox.  All six contestants have very different styles – roughly speaking: folk, mainstream rock, country-rock, alt-rock, R&B and pop – thus each probably has a well-defined (and, after three months, an emotionally invested) fanbase.  On a night in which everyone was more or less good, all six were in jeopardy of being sent home.  Their hard-core advocates, therefore, were motivated to point out and amplify any difference among the contestants so as perhaps to sway uncommitted voters.  In particular, it seemed that every technical mistake, no matter how small, came under a scorching spotlight, with critics wondering rhetorically how anybody with an ounce of musical sense could vote for such a talentless hack.
        The paradox: it seems the closer a community gets to consensus, the more passionately its remaining divisions are emphasized.  (We promise not to get all political on you, but this might also explain the state of the electorate here in the United States and elsewhere.  With two parties in rough agreement on at least 95% of all major issues, the remaining 5% gets elevated to All-Western-Civilization-is-Threatened-by-Those-Barbarians-on-the-Other-Side-of-the-Aisle! levels of hysteria.  Think about it.)
  • The conspiratorial explanation is a place we rarely go.  In fact, we much prefer to spend our time debunking the Idolsphere's more tinfoil-hat leanings.  Still, Magnus's elimination is a puzzle to us, with so many survival factors in her favor.  Note, by the way, that one factor we pointedly didn't cite was that Vote For The Worst had chosen her to replace Tim Urban as their poster child.  As we've said a trillion times before, while VFTW can be rather entertaining, we've yet to uncover even one shred of evidence that they have any effect on the voting outcome....
       ...or have we?  We've noticed a faint pattern the past few seasons: an early VFTW favorite might survive a few weeks before getting the boot, at which point the Worsters shrug and switch their allegiance.  From then on, their choices seem to get eliminated almost as fast as they can update their banner graphic.  We stress that we have no firm evidence for this at all...but...is it possible that 19E is exercising their well-known, fine-print discretion to throw out votes from power dialers?  As you may know, you have almost zero privacy when calling or texting to a toll-free number.  If its on their dime, the recipient has the right to know who's costing them money.  It would be a rather simple matter for Idol to keep track of what phone numbers and IP addresses were power-voting for Urban, and then see which ones switched this week to power-voting for Magnus.  They might reasonably conclude that at least some of those people were motivated by reasons other than adoration and throw out a percentage of their votes.

Then again, perhaps The Idol Guy has it right:  maybe everyone, including the Idol producers, simply overestimated the depth and breadth of Magnus's support.  We actually hope he's right, particularly since these silly tinfoil hats don't fit our heads very well.  We also hope that last week turns out to be the high-water mark for bizarreness in this increasingly strange season.

(One final note: earlier this year, we complimented the producers on, if nothing else, freshening the music selection with newer songs and fewer repeats.  We'd like to take half of those compliments back, please.  While the repeat factor is still blessedly far lower than last season (39% vs. 57%), the average song age has been creeping up dangerously.  At the moment, AI9 has featured the second-dustiest collection of songs ever, trailing only AI7 by 31.0 years to 27.7.  And, with Frank Sinatra week on tap, the gap is almost certainly going to close substantially.  We're sure 19E has a reason for the geriatric themes year after year – and in fairness, older music has historically been rated far higher than newer fare – but we still have to wonder how they intend to identify the next great American vocal superstar by evaluating how well they sing the music of their parents.)

- The WNTS.com Team

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