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Hee-Haw

Country music fans have the last laugh in Season Ten

OK, so another of our off-the-cuff predictions turned out wrong.  As if that's anything new.  A couple weeks ago, we wrote that there was little chance that both of AI10's country teens,Lauren Alaina and Scotty McCreery, would be the last two contestants standing.  After all, no American Idol Finale had ever pitted two contestants of the same genre.  Although it's always dangerous to predict how any given night's voting will turn out, we banked on the one fundamental force of AI nature over the years: the inviolability of vote-splitting among viewers.

So much for science.

The Idolsphere has been in a rather foul mood the past few days, ever since Haley Reinhart's remarkable, Calvin Borel-ian charge finally came to an end in the Final 3.  A Google search on "American Idol Worst Finale Ever" turns up at least twenty forum threads, blogs, and news sources actively discussing the topic, with a sizable number concluding in the affirmative.

We at WNTS are a little embarrassed to have been cited as witnesses for the prosecution in a few of those articles.  It's true that at 58.0, Alaina and McCreery are indeed the lowest-rated duo to reach the Finale in the first ten seasons.  And yes, it's also true that they have produced by far the fewest combined number of 5-star performances – one, Alaina's Flat On The Floor – though this total will increase by at least two when we do our post-season ratings normalization.  Still, barring a major ratings jump by either teen (which is virtually impossible in any Finale where coronation songs and reprises are in play), Alaina would be at best the seventh-highest rated Idol champion...and McCreery would be, ahem, dead last.

All true.

And, at least in our humble opinions, all irrelevant.

For our money, the takeaway from Season Ten isn't that the voters lost their minds.  Far from it.  Rather, it's that it exposed the disconnect – the big disconnect, we'd venture to say – between American Idol's Internet community of fans and its viewers at large.

Not to overstate the obvious, but the fact is, country music is enormously popular in the USA.  Far more so than one would gather if one's sole exposure to it was from the (often condescending, often derogatory) commentary it engenders on the Web.  Perhaps more so than many folks on either coast evidently care to think about.  For decades it's been the butt of jokes among the musical cognizanti.  Not too many of them are laughing today.

About 20 years ago, according to our friend, colleague, and resident music historian Ken Barnes of USA Today's popular Idol Meter feature, country music quietly underwent a significant transformation.  Once locked in a "peculiar stasis" of sorts, country got a major shake-up from a new generation of artists that weren't afraid to mix rock, R&B, folk, Christian, and good old-fashioned pop elements into a traditional C&W framework.  (Think Garth Brooks, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Diamond Rio, Dixie Chicks, Alan Jackson, etc.)

Meanwhile, many mainstream artists that one might not normally consider "country" returned the favor by borrowing liberally from the genre.  This is particularly true, we'd say, among the leading folk artists of the day; is there really a huge difference between, say, the Dixie Chicks and the Indigo Girls, or k.d. lang and Brandi Carlile?  How much different really are Brad Paisley or Taylor Swift from three generations of singer-songwriters with so-so voices but a remarkable knack for writing catchy, often funny, always evocative songs?  This cross-pollination extends well beyond folk, too:  listen carefully to many of Kanye West's riffs, for example, and before long you should find Kris Allen's thought processes strikingly clear on that fateful night two years ago.

A few weeks ago, we ran a study showing that among the major musical categories, country music performances on American Idol have averaged right around 50 over the years...but with two notable quirks.  One, it's had by far the highest standard deviation among web reviewers, suggesting that a good chunk of the Idolsphere, regardless of their Lady Macbeth-like protestations to the contrary, simply do not like country music very much.  Two, it's also by far the safest genre in terms of advancing from week to week.  As we concluded at the time, country might not be everyone's cup of tea, but those who do like it, vote.

And that, we'd say, is the best explanation for Tuesday's unexpected showdown between a pair of country music teens who stayed true to their roots from beginning to end.  If their detractors dismiss them as one-trick ponies, that's certainly their prerogative.  Looking back at their song lists, we'd have to say both McCreery and Alaina did a surprisingly good job at introducing a wide range of country-rock, country-pop and country-soul songs to American Idol, and for the most part they sang them well.  And if it turns out that either teen winds up with the lowest WNTS approval rating of any champion ever, we'd advise them to take heart.  After all, the current holder of that record knows a little bit about country music too...and speaking of people who've had the last laugh, she's done pretty darn well for herself in the years since we stopped tallying her approval ratings!

Enjoy the Finale, and we'll see you here on Tuesday night.

- The WNTS.com Team

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