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2011 will go down in American Idol lore as the Year Of The Drive-By Semifinals

Goodbye, Rachel.  Farewell, Jovany.  Ta-Tynisa, we hardly knew ya'.  It took American Idol just five hours of TV time, minus commercials, to pare this year's field from 24 to 13.  Battle-weary AI fans who kept their remotes at the ready on Tuesday and Wednesday, expecting there to be plenty of time to keep up with NCIS, didn't dare change channels.  The two 90-minute performance episodes were crisp and well-paced.  Then, Thursday's live results/wild card show packed 33 critical decisions (24 voting results, six Wild Card candidates, three judges' choices), plus six fresh performances, into 120 minutes.  And, it even managed to finish on time.

"THIS...is American Idol ???!"

We're still not entirely sold on the wisdom of Semifinals at the Speed of Sound.  The old format, for all its numerous flaws, allowed America the time to evaluate a contestant's adaptability and growth potential.  Things can change fast around these parts.  Recall that just last season, Alex Lambert dropped a one-star stink bomb in the AI9 Top 24 (Guys) show, and there was considerable irritation throughout the Idolsphere that he somehow survived to sing again.  Two weeks later, after he'd bounced back with a pair of remarkable 4-star performances but failed to advance to the Finals, there was an uproar that he was being sent home.

But then, perhaps Lambert's stunning dismissal (and Lily Scott's, and Katelyn Epperly's) in AI9's fateful, painful Top 16 Week is the best argument in favor of the new format.  There will always be injustices when it comes to choosing the Final 12 or 13 – and oh yes, we'll be discussing Lauren Turner in just a moment – but at least under the new format, whatever happens, good or bad, happens quickly.  If the producers have done a smart job of showcasing each semifinalist during the preliminary rounds...and if we viewers vote sensibly and objectively...and, uh, if the judges use their wild card selections judiciously to mop up any egregious oversights...aw, never mind.  Forget that we even started that sentence.  Hoping for simultaneous miracles rarely makes for a good business plan.

The bottom line is that the semifinals are done, the Final 13 seems more than reasonable, and Idol managed to do it all in three days without driving too many people nutso.  Maybe...probably?...it was beginner's luck,  But as the old saying goes, it's always better to be lucky than good.  And in any case, despite our misgivings, the new format surely deserves a second trial in 2012.

Here are a few further musings in the wake of the first competition week of AI10.

As you may know, we WhatNotToSing.com staffers keep two dead horses lying around the office for frequent beating purposes.  The stench probably explains why we can't get reliable pizza delivery anymore.

The first concerns the average song age on American Idol, a show whose entire raison d'être is to unearth the next great contemporary pop star.  Historically this value hovers around 25 years old, which is absurd in and of itself.  Worse, it's been trending higher in recent seasons, having hit an all-time high of 31.0 during Season Seven and 27.6 last year.  In other words, on AI, the average song is considerably older than the average contestant.

Two episodes do not make a statistically significant sample.  Still, we're encouraged nonetheless that the Tenners, on an open-themed week, managed to bend the chrono curve quite a bit.  The guys' twelve songs were precisely 23 years of age on average, lower than every season except AI2 (and by only under one month at that.)  Then the girls followed with an avant-garde 20.1.  Take away Summertime and Seven Day Fool, two oldies-but-goodies, and the other ten ladies virtually robbed the cradle at 12.8.

Will this trend keep up when we move into themed Finals weeks?  Probably not, but we can hope.  (Incidentally, the Repeat Factor for the two shows, which reflects the percentage of songs that had been performed previously on AI, was 45.8%.  That's almost dead average for semifinal weeks, and we'll root for it to drop as we go forward.)

The news isn't quite so encouraging for our other expired equine: contestant exposure levels.  As we've shown in the past, and new readers can check our Idolmetrics section for details, there is a very strong correlation between contestants who receive a lot of pre-Hollywood TV exposure and their staying power on the show.  If the producers accurately predicted which singers would ultimately perform the strongest when the competition reached the big stage, this wouldn't be a serious problem.  But they don't.  So it is.

At any rate, here are the exposure levels and average ratings for the 13 AI10 finalists , plus the 11 eliminees.  As the season progresses, you can judge for yourself how this horse is faring.  Note in which row you will find two of the three Wild Card selections:

AI10 Contestants by Pre-Season Exposure
(Wild Card performances not included in avg. rating)
Level Semifinalists Finalists Survival Pct. Avg. Rating
Promo 6 
Casey Abrams, Lauren Alaina, Naima Adedapo, James Durbin, Stefano Langone, Brett Lowenstern
 5  83%  66.2
Audition 10
Javony Barreto, Jordan Dorsey, Clint Jun Gamboa, Tim Halperin, Scotty McCreery, Thia Megia, Karen Rodriguez, Robbie Rosen, Rachel Zoveta, Julie Zorrilla
3 30%  38.3
Hollywood /
Kendra Chantelle, Ashthon Jones, Jacob Lusk, Paul McDonald, Haley Reinhart, Pia Toscano, Lauren Turner, Ta-Tynisa Wilson
 5  63%  60.8

As noted earlier, the only truly head-scratching elimination this week was of Lauren Turner.  Her jazzy rendition of Seven Day Fool drew unanimous praise from the judges and a 77 preliminary approval rating from the Idolsphere.  That she didn't finish among the Girls' top five vote-getters wasn't a huge surprise, given the strength of the night and her relatively limited pre-exposure level.  However, what did rattle the Idolsphere's cage is that Turner wasn't even invited to sing for a wild card berth.

Several of our regular correspondents have hypothesized a reason, which we find plausible.  To synopsize: 2010 was the first year in which no African-American female – indeed, no female of color whatsoever – reached the Top 10 and the subsequent summer tour.  AI's viewer demographics skew higher among women than men, and marginally higher among blacks than non-blacks.  For this outcome to occur two seasons in a row, therefore, would be more than a mild embarrassment to 19E.

None of the five girls advanced by the voters on Thursday were black.  Which three from the remaining seven should receive an invitation to sing for a wild card spot?  Naima Adedapo was a no-brainer, considering her strong Hollywood resume and her 56 rating on Wednesday despite a highly questionable song choice.  In an earlier Idolmetrics study, we showed that African-American contestants are at significantly more danger of being sent home than their white counterparts given equalized performance ratings.  With this in mind, and with three voter eliminations still to come before the Top 10, it's understandable that the judges would give Ashthon Jones a second chance as well.

Let's assume therefore that the third and final invitation came down to Turner or Kendra Chantelle.  Selecting Turner could prove dicey.  Though nominally a "person of pallor", as it were, she too is cut out of the Soul/Jazz/R&B mold.  If she were to out-sing her genre-mates Adedapo and Jones a second time, denying her a Wild Card ticket to the Finals would enrage viewers of every hue.  The producers learned this lesson painfully two seasons ago, in what might forever be known as the Braddy-Langseth Effect.  Chantelle, on the other hand, was a far safer choice: she had sung reasonably well on Wednesday, and although she too was out of the R&B mold, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Louisianan had a very country look about her.

Based on their combined performances, we cannot complain too much about Jones or Adedapo going through.  Still, we empathize with Turner and perhaps Brett Loewenstern also.  Had the creepy AI8 and the snoozy AI9 never occurred, we suspect both would have been earned that critical second chance to sing for America.  As it is, we might consider them unfortunate innocent bystanders on Idol's 12-step plan to rehabilitate its reputation with its fans.

Last but not least: we find it amusing that, even though three judges left the panel last summer, the judge that the producers really "replaced" this season was Paula Abdul.  And, it took two superstars to do it: J-Lo for the niceness, and Steven Tyler for the, um, oftentimes curious behavior.  ("Kookiness" would be impolite, and it's far too early to make Coke cup jokes.)

It will clearly take both more time to find their voices at the judges' table and to learn how to cut to the heart of a performance in the span of a few sentences.  Still, we're very pleased that neither seem the slightest bit interested in making the show more about themselves than the kids up on the stage.  Meanwhile, it will take us some time to get used to writing the words "Randy Jackson" and "voice of reason" in the same sen--...er, the same senten--...aw, never mind again.

- The WNTS.com Team

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