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Take Me Down to the Paradox City

Where the songs are old and the competition is...pretty relevant, actually.

Approval ratings are up.  Television ratings are down.  One much-hyped competing series has been put in its place, at least for the time being, while another is nipping at its heels.  Such is the mixed bag that Season Eleven has delivered so far to the producers of American Idol.

Running in the same Wednesday-Thursday time slots as The X-Factor did last fall, Idol is pulling in about 70% more viewers for its live competition episodes.  Needless to say, that gap has almost nothing to do with AI and almost everything to do with X's many missteps and miscalculations.  Even so, if the folks at 19E enjoyed some schadenfreude over Simon Cowell's discomfiture, we doubt that many people would blame them.

Undoubtedly more of a concern for American Idol is NBC's upstart, The Voice.  Though its audience has predictably plummeted from the from the nearly 38 million who tuned in to its post-Super Bowl debut. it's still drawing an impressive 16M viewers a week.  It's been the third-most watched show on TV this winter, running roughly two to three million pairs of eyeballs behind Idol's performance and results shows.  Though AI's deep cast of talented finalists has garnered much praise from fans and analysts, The Voice has the lion's share of buzz at the moment.  The show is purported to be hipper, more engaging, and more relevant to today's music scene...well, at least as far as a televised singing competition can fit that description without anyone snickering.

We'll leave the final judgment on Hipness and Engagedness to the TV historians, provided that they too can control their chuckles.  However, we'd like to throw in our two cents about Relevance.  Though our staff unanimously prefers AI to any of its competitors, and although we find The Voice specifically annoying due to its shameless use of ringers (Tony LuccaCharlotte Sometimes?  C'mon now...) we have to side with Team Rotating Chairs on this one.  The statistics, sadly, are on its side.

Welcome to the Jungle

Regular editorial readers know about WhatNotToSing.com's longstanding, quixotic, borderline maniacal crusade for newer music on American Idol.  We mean "new" in both senses of the word, too:  younger and fresher.  Nothing drives us up a wall like hearing a 40-year-old chestnut performed for the fifth or sixth time on AI, a show whose mission is to find the best unsigned pop singer in America in, evidently, 1972.  Seriously, we've begged, we've pleaded, we've done everything but offer to tongue-wax 19E's fleet of Bentleys (and, uh, Mr. Lythgoe, if you think that might help, email us....)  Maybe now, with The Voice having become an existential threat to Idol, we can finally make our case and have the producers listen.

First, a concession: we're aware (and have reluctantly shown) that a case can be made for the counterproposition.  Oldies go over substantially better with AI viewers than do contemporary songs, at least in terms of average approval ratings.  On the other hand, our colleague The Idol Guy has shown that contestants who perform newer material sell significantly more music in the long run.  It's definitely a tradeoff, and it's why we advocate that a happy medium be found with regard to Average Song Age (ASA).

However, we're in no conciliatory mood whatsoever when it comes to Freshness Factor (FF) and Repeat Factor (RF), which represent the number of times a song has been previously performed on the show.  We've shown that as the RF goes up, approval ratings trend down.  There is simply...no...conceivable...reason...for the producers to permit a song to be sung to death on the show, given the almost infinite supply of great music out there.  Once a song has been performed three times in competition, it should be retired from the playlist.

Here are some overall numbers.  As usual, we'll ignore reprise performances by a contestant and anything to do with a Finale episode.  To provide a reasonable baseline for Repeat Factor analysis, we'll also start our study in Season Three.

  • From AI3 on, the average American Idol song is 27.2 years old, as measured from its earliest primary recording.  (To explain "primary", look at two songs from this past week's episode: Hard To Handle and The Power Of Love.  The former was originally a smash hit by Otis Redding in 1968; hence, Black Crowes or no Black Crowes, we consider it to be a 44-year-old song for the simple reason that it is.  The latter was first recorded in 1984 by Jennifer Rush and was a major hit overseas...but not in the U.S., where it petered out at #57 on the Billboard Hot 100.  Laura Branigan's 1987 cover reached the Top 30, but it wasn't until Celine Dion took it to #1 in 1994 that it penetrated the consciousness of most American listeners.  Hence, because viewer perception is key to our analyses, we treat "Power" as an 18-year-old tune – a veritable babe-in-arms by AI standards.)
  • In that timespan, the typical Idol episode has featured roughly a 3-to-2 ratio between debut songs (those never before performed in competition) and reruns – a Freshness Factor of 60.4%.
  • Finally, the mean Repeat Factor of a performance since S3 is 0.68.  An episode with an RF of 1.0 means that every song you hear that night will have been performed, on average, exactly once before.

Lose Your Illusion

Now, like most readers, we've been quite pleased with the quality of the performances so far in Season 11.  These kids can, in a word, sing.  However, we fear that 52.4 seasonal approval rating might be illusional, because lurking behind it lies some disturbing trends.

  • The Average Song Age is 23.7 years.  That's (relatively) fantastic for Idol, you say?  Um, hold on.  The producers get zero credit for this.  In the Semifinals and the Wild Card round, when the contestants got to pick their material freely, the average was 18 years – the lowest in AI history to date.  That tells us that this year's gang, given their druthers, would like to go low, age-wise.  Alas, in the two Finals episodes thus far, the average song age has been, ahem, 30.  Only Season Nine's Finals, at 32, have been more elderly.  It's still early in the season, of course, but this is not an encouraging start.
  • Pre-Finals, our 25 AI11 heroes posted a Freshness Factor of 58.1%, just a wee bit below the historical average.  In the past two weeks...steady, now...the FF has plummeted to 20.8%.  We don't think we're being too harsh on Simon Fuller & Friends if we call this "appalling".  But, we won't.  We're saving that adjective for the next paragraph.
  • The 25 semifinalists sang songs that had been performed, on average, 0.87 times before.  That's not good – it's a jump of nearly two-tenths from the historical average of 0.68, suggesting that Idol is getting insufficient new music cleared for the airwaves.  However, it's a sparkling number compared to what's happened since.  The RF of the two Finals episode is 2.29!  Indeed, we have just finished watching two of the three American Idol episodes with the highest Repeat Factors ever.  So far these Finals, if we hear a song that's been sung merely twice before, we should consider ourselves lucky.  See, aren't you glad we saved "appalling" for now?  Not to mention "unacceptable", "inconceivable", and "what the #$%^& did 19E's song licensing team do all #$%^& summer, go fishing?"

We're sorry, but if Relevance is even slightly on American Idol's radar, then this state of affairs is crazy.  It didn't help, of course, that the producers looked the other way last week as our otherwise admirable Final 11 went on a theme-skirting rampage.  For the Year You Were Born show, six of the 11 singers chose classic songs that had merely been remade in their birth years.  We'll give Hollie Cavanagh a pass for "The Power Of Love", as discussed above, but not the other five.  If you believe there's no harm in this practice...well, okay, but then you'd better skip the next two bullet items because they might make your head explode.  In fact, even if you don't believe it, you might want to wrap some duct tape around your skull just in case.  Ready?

  • The MAXIMUM age for an American Idol contestant is 28 years.
  • The AVERAGE age of the eleven songs sung in last week's Year You Were Born episode was...29.8 years!

This paradox is mind-bending, on a par with going back in time and killing your great-grandfather.  If your rules allow such absurdities to become reality, then it's probably a good indication that you need to change the rules.  No more non-primary remakes on YYWB nights, please.  We hate it when our heads explode – getting all that gunk out of the office carpet costs a fortune.

Appetite For Destruction

So where does The Voice fit into all of this?  All hype, all ringers, all corny gimmicks aside, their producers have been much better when it comes to musical relevancy...and we think we can prove it.

We did some back-of-the-envelope calculations for the songs featured on Idol's rival, both last season and so far this season.  First a disclaimer: we had absolutely zero desire to go through Wikipedia and look up the primary year of origin of 150+ songs, so we estimated.  If you'd like to do a more finely-grained study, be our guest.  We'll be happy to publish it in an addendum to this editorial; however, unless we are grossly off in one of the following figures, we don't feel that the extra degree of accuracy is all that germane to the discussion.

  • The average song age on The Voice looks to be about 13 years.  That's it.  This alone ought to make Nigel Lythgoe cough up his breakfast.
  • The average Freshness Factor, based on the songs that have been previously performed on American Idol, is about 70%.  In other words, seven out of ten songs you hear on tV have never been sung on AI.
  • The average Repeat Factor, again in comparison to AI's repertoire of songs...and this ought to make Mr. Lythgoe cough up every meal he's eaten since the Super Bowl...is about 0.40.

Consider those last two numbers as a tandem.  The Freshness Factor of The Voice is greater than that of American Idol, but ten percentage points isn't an insurmountable gap.  But the Repeat Factor...well, that's astounding.  Remember, given its estimated FF of 70%, The Voice's RF can't have been any lower than 0.30!  And, it would only be that small if every non-debut song on The Voice had been sung once and only once on American Idol

Again, these numbers are just broad estimates on our part, but even so:  from where we sit, this just can't be a coincidence.  We suspect that The Voice has made a conscious and concerted effort to avoid duplicating the overbaked AI catalog.  The result is a franchise that, for all its flaws, certainly feels hipper and more relevant than American Idol, and the latest Nielsen ratings seem to be bearing that out.

Having heard from semifinalist Haley Johnsen this week, we've begun to wonder:  Is it possible that The Voice's producers also used the WhatNotToSing.com database to meticulously prune their own music library of, uh, what not to sing?  If so, the irony would be heartbreaking for us.  We started and maintain WNTS for the sole reason of improving the American Idol franchise, not to help a rival series destroy it.  As it is, we'll have to leave it to 19E to decide how the rest of this story plays out.  Sweet child o' ours, we hope they wise up pronto.

 

- The WNTS.com Team

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